Thursday, January 31, 2008

Goldberg's Most Unforgiveable Offense

Really, I should read Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, before making this final criticism. However, the table of contents indicates that this 400+ page book devotes 28 pages to Mussolini and 25 to Hitler. After page 78 the book focuses entirely on the United States. It seems most likely, then, that Goldberg's discussion of Hitler is mostly devoted to finding superficial "gotcha" points and does not contain any serious discussion of contemporary German politics.

Goldberg's response to David Neiwert's review of his book reinforces this impression. He dismisses fascist anti-liberalism as given in "a European context where liberalism generally means limited government: classical or “Manchester” liberalism. They were most emphatically not talking about progressivism or socialism, which are the correct label for American liberalism." Goldberg is similarly dismissive of "socialist, communist and other left-wing political prisoners" (Neiwert's words) who were victims of the Nazis. "[T]he Nazis were determined to destroy their competition. That is why they hated the Communists. The propaganda that says the Nazis were the opposites of the Communists because they hated each other is idiotic." But this, too, ignores the reality of German politics at the time.

To take a quick (Enlightened Layperson's) review of political parties in Weimar Germany, German political parties were not like parties in the United States. The United States has two loosely organized parties that each represent a wide range of views and interests and do not (traditionally) impose a strict "party line." Weimar Germany had numerous narrow, ideologically based, tightly disciplined parties, none of which ever controlled a majority in Parliament. Until the rise of the Nazi Party, the Social Democrats were the largest party, and typically held 20-30% of the seats in Parliament. Government was necessarily by coalition of two or more parties. The following were the major parties under the Weimar Republic (from left to right):

Communist (KDP): Needs little explanation. The Communists took their orders from Moscow and opposed the Weimar Republic, wanting instead to establish a Soviet-style dictatorship with a government-controlled command economy.

Social Democrats (SDP or Socialists): The Social Democrats were the real founders of the Weimar Republic and its most loyal supporters. They strongly opposed the Communists and, in the early days of the Republic, resorted to military force to put down Communist rebellions. Although nominal socialists, they were actually more inclined to support a modified version of capitalism -- support for unions, union reprepresentation in boards of directors, unemployment insurance, and the 8-hour day. This was, nonetheless, one of the most advanced welfare systems of its day.

German Democratic Party (DDP): A middle class liberal party, loyal to democracy and the Weimar Republic and opposed to nationalism and bigotry, thought it never developed a coherent economic policy. The DDP came in third with 18.6% of the vote in the initial 1919 elections, but rapidly declined afterward into insignificance.

Center (Zentrum): This was a Catholic party and truly a party of the center. It sometimes leaned left for a coalition with the Social Democrats and sometimes right for coalition with the DVP, but always remained loyal to the Weimar Republic and the Catholic Church.

German People's Party (DVP):* The DVP was a conservative party, wavering between classical liberal and monarchist. Its platform promoted Christian family values, secular education, lower tariffs, opposition to welfare spending and agrarian subsides, and hostility to "Marxism" (that is, the Communists, and also the Social Democrats). Its attitude toward the Weimar Republic was ambivilent -- it intially leaned toward monarchism, but later became more friendly toward democracy.

German National People's Party (DNVP, National Party): This was a reactionary party, hostile to the Weimar Republic. Originally Kaiserist, the DNVP later leaned more toward military dictatorship. It was nationalistic in matters of foreign policy, opposed the Treaty of Versailles, and had considerable support from the large landowners and industrialists.

Minor parties: These were a mixed bag, consisting mostly of conservative and farmers parties.

And then, of course, there were the Nazis. The Nazis were not a signficant power in the 1920's. Their rise began with the onset of the Great Depression. Heinrich Bruning, Chancellor at the outset of the Depression, belonged to the right wing of the Center and pursued fiscally tight polices, cutting welfare payments and seeking to shore up declining revenues, hoping this would turn around the economy. Whatever the merits of this approach in the long run, it caused great hardship in the short run, paving the way for the spectacular rise of the Nazis. In the 1928 elections, the Nazis received an insignificant 2.6% of the vote. By 1930 their share had gone up to 18.3%, second only to the Social Democrats. And in July, 1932, the Nazis polled 37.3% of the vote to make them the largest political party.

To grow so rapidly, the Nazis had to be winning adherents away from other parties. Who these new followers were can be measured by which parties were shrinking as the Nazis grew. The answer is embarrassing to Goldberg. This conservative historian explains:
It is true that the Nazis and the Communists attracted a good deal of the same sort of bully-boys. But the increase in the Nazi vote in the late 1920s correlates closely with the collapse of the vote for the DNP and DNVP—rightist parties—and the political space they fought to control was on the right. Furthermore, the Socialist vote, and the SPD, remained remarkably cohesive through to 1933 . . . The collapse of the rightist parties of Germany under the pressure of Nazism, and the resilience of the Social Democrats, minimizes or contradicts Goldberg’s thesis.
A picture is worth a thousand words. Consider this graph, showing the number of seats each party had in the 1928, 1930 and 1932 elections:
The Nazis (light blue bar) go from practically non-existent to dwarfing all others, but the Social Democrats (yellow) experience only a modest decline. Still, this chart understates the Social Democrats' decline because it shows the number of seats held by each party, when the total number of seats was expanding. It may not clearly show what happened to the other parties. These pie charts show the distribution of seats over those same years:

Once again, the Nazis (very light blue) are shown making a spectacular increase. The Social Democrats (yellow) do, indeed, show a decline. However, this decline is within the normal range of variation, comparable to the SDP's share of the vote in the May 1924 elections. The Communists (medium blue, just above the Social Democrats), increase slightly. The Catholic Center Party (purple) is almost unchanged.** This means that the Nazis were not winning adherents away from the Communist or Catholic parties. They were probably winning some adherents from the SDP (as were the Communists), but most members of the SDP remained.

But look at the other parties. In 1930 one can see the growth of the Nazis is matched by a shrinking of the hard right National Party (deep blue) and the moderate right DVP (pink). And in 1932 the Nazi party practically devours the small conservative and farmers parties' share of the vote (black) while the DVP and DDP are nearly squeezed out.

Hitler came to power, of course, when the Nationals (DNVP), who trusted neither democracy nor the Nazis, grudgingly agreed to a coalition with Hitler as Chancellor. New elections followed, but, despite all the Nazi's violence and suppression against their opponents, they failed to win a majority. Hitler needed a 2/3 vote to pass the Enabling Act, the act that effectively ended the Weimar Republic and made him dictator. The combined Communist, Social Democratic and Center parties were large enough to block such an act.

Hitler recognized it would be futile to attempt to persuade the Communists or Social Democrats, so he simply had all the Communist deputies and some of the Social Democrats arrested to prevent them from voting. He entered into negotiations with the Center, offering concessions to the Catholic Church in return for support. Though not trusting Hitler, the party leadership believed (no doubt realistically) that Hitler would assume total power even if they opposed the Act, so it was safer to go along. Many members, espcially Bruning strongly opposed the Act, but all yielded to party discipline and voted for it. (Bruning later went into exile).

On the day of the vote, the Parliament assembled under intimidating circumstances. Many of the bill's opponents had already been arrested, and SA (stormtroopers) surrounded the building. Otto Wels, head of the Social Democratic Party, spoke out against the bill, but no one else dared. The Center kept its devil's bargain, and any members of minor parties who might have opposed the Act were intimidated into silence by the SA present. All 94 Social Democrats present voted against the Enabling Act. All other deputies voted in favor.

So, if Goldberg gave any serious thought to German politics of Hitler's day, what would he make of all this? What does it say about his thesis that the Nazis were really socialist and left-wing, that their opposition to Communism was an intramural rivalry, and that the (only) true ideological opposite to fascism is pure free market classical liberalism?

In one sense, I suppose Goldberg could claim this as vindication. Of all parties in Germany, only the right wing of the Center could qualify as true classical liberal. The DVP were pro free-market and capitalist, only half-hearted supporters of democracy. The Social Democrats and left wing of the Center were whole-hearted supporters of democracy, but not of free enterprise. And the DDP, besides being too small to count, did not know where it stood economically. Perhaps Goldberg could attribute the rise of the Nazis to the absence of any true classical liberal alternative. But then again, if there were so few true classical liberals in Germany, why would Hitler consider even consider them worth hating?

Perhaps because Hitler defined liberalism more broadly than Goldberg does.
"Classical liberalism" indeed involved limited government and, more importantly, laissez-faire economics, the things that most make it an important antecedent of modern conservatism. But it also involved, just as significantly, the primacy of the rule of law and democratic institutions, the advancement of civil liberties and civil rights, and freedom from restraint -- things all very much part of the basic strains of modern liberalism.
They were also very much part of the basic strain of the Center Party (left wing included), and of the Social Democrats. But the Social Democrats favored interventionist economic policy, greater social welfare (especially during the Depression) and the like. By Goldberg's standards, that makes them just "friendly fascists," their unyielding (and lonely) defense of democracy notwithstanding.

Note also that when Neiwert mentions the Nazi's persecution of "socialist, communist and other left-wing political prisoners," Goldberg's response mentions only Communists. He is, in effect, airbrushing out the Social Democrats. But they, too, suffered repression. Communists and Socialists alike were sent to prison and to concentration camps. Social Democratic officials were forced to resign, public employees were fired, and many rank-and-file Social Democrats were evicted from their homes or subject to police harrassment and frequent searches. Public employees who belonged to (classical) liberal, conservative, or Catholic parties were coerced into joining the Nazis by the threat of losing their jobs, but were not suspect in the same way that Social Democrats and Communists were.

In fact, if Goldberg's definition of fascism is broad enough to encompass the modern-day Democrats, there can be little doubt that the SDP would also be (inadvertently) caught in his net. In equating social democracy with fascism, Goldberg is (again, presumably inadvertently) repeating Stalin's monstruous lie that Social Democrats were merely "social fascists," and that the two were "not antipodes, but twins." Of course, Stalin and Goldberg make the argument for opposite reasons. To Goldberg, anyone who favors interventionist economic policies is a fascist for opposing the free market. To Stalin, Social Democrats were mere apologists for capitalism. And doubtless it can be established that Social Democrats and fascists (as well as New Dealers) would agree on some (but not all) economic policies. But Nazis and Social Democrats were truly antipodes on the issue that mattered most of all -- respect for democratic norms and individual rights.

If Goldberg wants to dismiss that aspect of fascism (and Nazism) as insignificant in order to score a few cheap points in the context of US politics, well, American liberals and Democrats can afford a thick hide. We are not being menaced by jackbooted Storm Troopers, after all. But to every brave German Social Democrat who stood up for democracy when the conservatives went along with Hitler, to every Social Democratic martyr who paid the price with loss of home and job, harassment, persecution, exile, prison, torture or murder for defending the democracy no one else was willing, Goldberg owes an apology.
*Although post-WWII the Communists gave "people's" a left-wing feel, implying class struggle against the ruling class, in Weimar Germany "Volk" was a nationalistic term, and "people's parties" were therefore of the right.
**For the sake of simplicity, I lump the Center's Bavarian branch, the Bavarian Peoples Party (BVP) in with the Center, although the BVP was much less faithfully democratic than the Center. However, the BVP was a Catholic Party, and its share of the vote remained extremely stable, around 3%, throughout the rise of the Nazis.


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

So What Do Right and Left Mean, Really?

In seeking to define fascism as left-wing, Jonah Goldberg acknowledges that right and left are slippery concepts, difficult to pin down. One of the reasons for that is that the left-to-right spectrum is a gross oversimplification, an attempt to measure a multi-dimensional reality with a one-dimensional yardstick. I will attempt to oversimplify a little less by measuring right and left along several different axes.

A good place to begin is Dr. Science's definition of conservatism as "maintaining the status quo of power." This refers primarily to the economic dimension, since money talks. People who wish to maintain the status quo are conservatives (the moderate Right). People who wish to turn back to clock to an earlier status quo of power are reactionaries (the Far Right). People who want to keep the basic social structure, but modify it with controlled changes are liberals and reformers (the moderate Left). People who want to overthrow it altogether are radicals and revolutionaries (the Hard Left).

It logically follows from this that what is conservative depends on who has power and what the status quo is. Ideas that were once radical become conservative when the "status quo of power" changes. In the old aristocratic order (which, Goldberg correctly points out still had vestiges in Europe between the wars), conservatism meant upholding the hereditary privileges of nobility. Equality before the law and commerce free of government interference were radical notions. Under mature capitalism, conservatism means upholding the interests of capitalists, i.e., deregulation, favoring employers over workers and developers over neighborhood associates, and "tort reform." Radical Communists and Socialists favored the nationalization of industry. Under Communism, conservatism came to mean upholding the privileges of an ever-ossifying bureaucracy. Regardless of what the "status quo of power" is, people who have power will want to hold onto it and so (with notable individual exceptions) be economically "conservative."

Moving from the economic to the social axis, conservatism (the moderate Right) might be defined as upholding "traditional values" and mores, while the liberal Left challenges them and the Radical Left openly attacks them. What is "traditional" once again varies with time and culture. "Traditional" values and mores have often included racial, ethnic, or religious prejudice, hence the tendancy (which Goldberg deeply resents) to associate racism with the Right. The dominant elite, though economically conservative almost by definition, are often not very socially conservative. In fact, one of the privileges of power is not to be bound by the usual rules and conventions, and the common people often resent the elite for their "decadence."

The third axis, that of foreign policy, is more complex and difficult to understand. I confess to not having a general theory here. But it is clear that since Bismark's time, extreme nationalism in the sense of exalting one's own nation-state over others and regarding other nations with hostility has been a characteristic of the Right. Liberals have been more inclined to seek international cooperation, while Communists and Socialists claimed (dubiuosly) to have an international brotherhood of labor transcending borders.

Goldberg, as I understand it, largely ignores the foreign policy dimension and attempts to collapse the economic and social dimensions along a single axis -- interventionism versus non-interventionism. By his definition, any government intervention in any economic or social matter is left-wing and oppressive, while non-intervention is right-wing and freedom-loving. Superficially, this actually seems to make sense. The status quo of power and traditional values, after all, are well-established and so should not need the coercive power of the state to support them. But the real world is not this static.

The powerful see their dominance threatened -- in the case of capitalists by unions, strikes, product liability suits, NIMBY, and even business rivals -- and are never loath to call on the power of the state to uphold their position. Traditional values are challenged, and traditionalists call on the state to uphold them. In a pluralistic, multi-cultural society like the United States (or old Hapsburg Austria), different sub-cultures may have different ideas of what is "traditional" and each see the other as a threat to its values and mores. Anti-sodomy laws and the War on Drugs are examples of state intervention on behalf of traditional values.

Goldberg is notably reluctant to acknowledge, let along condemn, such things. And his hostility to interventionist government famously stops at the border. It was Goldberg, after all who endorsed the Ledeen doctrine: "Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business." Approvingly, he said, "The United States needs to go to war with Iraq because it needs to go to war with someone in the region and Iraq makes the most sense. " So apparently opposition to government intervention does not go so far as seeing anything wrong with starting senseless wars just to show how tough we are.

And in "asserting, in effect, that any government that does more than prevent abortions and provide for the common defense is inherently fascist," Goldberg deliberately downplays the most important axis of all: respect for democratic norms and individual rights. To the extent that he acknowledges it, he argues that respect for democratic norms and individual rights is "right-wing" and trampling on them is "left-wing." That is nonsense. Respect for democratic norms and individual rights has nothing to do with right or left at all; people can be just as nasty upholding a "status quo of power" or "traditional values" that they see as threatened as overturning them.

What determines whether fascism was right-wing or left-wing is not whether government was economically and socially activist, but the policies it adopted. And what most of all deserves to be condemned in fascism is not that fascist governments pursued activist policies, or even (necessarily) some of the policies they adopted, but the utter lack of respect for democratic norms and individual rights.


Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Klan and Fascism (Again)

Having given an Enlightened Layperson's opinion on the defining characteristics of fascism, let me turn to David Neiwert of Orcinus, who has a compilation of what serious scholars have seen as its defining characteristics. Neiwert also gave space to a historian, identified only as Woodrowfan to see how well these traits fit Woodrow Wilson. (Conclusion: Not very). Reading the account inspired me to measure the Ku Klux Klan against these traits to see how well it fit a serious scholarly definition of fascism. (Somewhat inconsistently, in this post I emphasize mostly the first, Reconstruction Klan that predates classical fascism, rather than the 1920's Klan that was their contemporary. In my defense, one of these historians, Robert Paxton, regards the Reconstruction Klan as the first organization "functionally related" to fascism).

Stanley Payne, in Fascism: Comparison and Definition (1980) offered three main clusters of traits. Let us see how well they apply.

A. The Fascist Negations:

-- Antiliberalism. I am frankly not clear what "liberal" meant during the Reconstruction. To the extent it meant believing that black people had any sort of rights, the first Klan was clearly anti-liberal. (Likewise, the 1920's Klan was anti-liberal insofar as liberalism meant being pro-immigrant or religiously tolerant).

-- Anticommunism. For the Reconstruction Klan this is an obvious anachronism. One would have to substitute "Radical Republican" for "Communist." The 1920's Klan was anti-Communist.
-- Anticonservatism, (though with the understanding that fascist groups were willing to undertake temporary alliances with groups from any other sector, most commonly with the right). The Reconstruction Klan is best described as reactionary. It wanted to recreate as near as possible the antebellum social order. Hitler was no Kaiserist; his goal was not restoration of the antebellum order, but creation of something new.

B. Ideology and Goals:

-- Creation of a new nationalist authoritarian state based not merely on traditional principles or models. Once again, the Reconstruction Klan was reactionary, i.e., it wanted to perpetuate "traditional principles or models," which included a social order that was extremely authoritarian for black people, but democratic for whites.

-- Organization of some new kind of regulated, multiclass, integrated national economic structure, whether called national corporatist, national socialist, or national syndicalist. The Klan was never this ambitious; they were merely reactionaries trying to restore the old order.

-- The goal of empire or a radical change in the nation’s relationship with other powers. The Reconstruction Klan had given up all hope of secession and limited itself to seeking maximum autonomy within the Union. (Nor do I know of any such goals for the 1920's Klan).

-- Specific espousal of an idealist, voluntarist creed, normally involving the attempt to realize a new form of modern, self-determined, secular culture. I have no idea what this means, other than that, yet again, it is not reactionary, but the attempt to create something new.

C. Style and Organization:

-- Emphasis on esthetic structure of meetings, symbols, and political choreography, stressing romantic and mystical aspects. White robes, secret and mysterious rituals, titles like Imperial Wizard and Grand Dragon and (in the second but not first Klan) burning crosses do sound as though they meet this definition.

-- Attempted mass mobilization with militarization of political relationships and style and with the goal of a mass party militia. Yes and no. The Reconstruction Klan was certainly a mass mobilization. It was "militarized" and created a "mass party militia" in the sense of practicing violence and thinking in terms of war. But was not military in the sense of having a hierarchical command structure. The 1920's Klan was more organized, but less violent.

-- Positive evaluation and use of, or willingness to use, violence. The Reconstruction Klan was all about violence. Large portions of the 1920's Klan thought of themselves more as a fraternal organization than as vigilantes, but there is no question that the second Klan also used violence.

-- Extreme stress on the masculine principle and male dominance, while espousing the organic view of society. Not so clear. Certainly the Reconstruction Klan talked a great deal about protecting Southern womanhood. But they lived in a society that took patronizing attitudes toward women for granted. I suppose the Klan's concept of racial hierarchy could be considered an organic view of society.

-- Exaltation of youth above other phases of life, emphasizing the conflict of generations, at least in effecting the initial political transformation. No.

-- Specific tendency toward an authoritarian, charismatic, personal style of command, whether or not the command is to some degree initially elective. No. The Reconstruction Klan officially chose Nathan Bedford Forrest as its Imperial Wizard, but his authority was purely nominal. The Reconstruction Klan was essentially leaderless and highly localized. (The 1920's Klan was somewhat more structured, but did not have any strong charismatic leader).

Conclusion: The Reconstruction Klan (and probably the 1920's version as well) was reactionary rather than fascist. It wanted to restore the old order, rather than create a new, more closely knit, one. Its methods, i.e., violence and intimidation, were fascistic, but it had no charismatic leader or authoritarian power structure.

In addition, Robert O. Paxton in The Anatomy of Fascism offers nine "mobilizing passions" of fascism. Again, applying them to the Klan;

-- a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions; Definitely, at least for the Reconstruction Klan.

-- the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether universal or individual, and the subordination of the individual to it; So far as I know, the Klan (in either version) had no quarrel with the concept of individualism or individual rights per se; they just did not want to extend such rights to certain groups.

-- the belief that one's group is a victim, a sentiment which justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against the group's enemies, both internal and external; Yes, definitely. The Reconstruction Klan had little doubt there was a race war at hand, and that any white southerns who supported the Republicans (Scalawags) were race traitors. "Scalawags," as internal enemies, were also victims of Klan violence.

-- dread of the group's decline under the corrosive effect of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences; Well, the Reconstruction Klan feared no so much their group's decline as its subordination under "alien influences." (Individualistic liberalism and class struggle were not big issues). The 1920's Klan may have feared class struggle as well. But, again, so far as I know neither version had the basic totalitarian hostility to individualism.

-- the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary; I'm not sure what this means. The Reconstruction Klan's goal was always to subjugate black people and keep them "in their place." But racial violence did not escalate into ethnic cleansing. The Klan wanted black people to be physically present in the South (someone had to pick the cotton, after all), but subordinate in all things. (This did extend to a belief that any interaction among the races as equals was contaminating. And the 1920's Klan probably wished that immigrants, Jews and Catholics would all go away. So this one is hard to answer).

-- the need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group's destiny; No, the Klan was essentially a leaderless movement with no authoritarian command structure.

-- the superiority of the leader's instincts over abstract and universal reason; Irrelevant, since there was no Leader.

-- the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group's success; Certainly the Klan believed in the beauty of violence. (I am not as clear what "the efficacy of will" means).

-- the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group's prowess in a Darwinian struggle. Yes and no. The Reconstruction Klan clearly believed that the white race should dominate the black, but nothing more grandiose than that. The reference to Darwin for the first Klan is an anachronism, while the second Klan tended to be fundamentalists who rejected Darwin. But in any case, it seems safe to assume that both Klans would see their group's right of domination as a matter of divine law and not simply of raw power.

My conclusion, once again, is that by these standards the Klan was not truly fascist. It had a fascist-like fear that its group was being threatened and willingness to resort to extreme measures in "self defense," but no charismatic leader and no totalitarian vision that saw individualism at the enemy. The Ku Klux Klan resembled fascism in some ways, but it was not the real thing.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Conservative Communism? Absurd! Communist Conservatism, Now . . .

Many people, offended by Jonah Goldberg's book, Liberal Fascism have proposed to retaliate with a counter-volume, Conservative Communism. This book will set out to prove that Communism was actually an ideology of the Right. They are being ridiculous, of course. To call American Conservatives today Communists is even more absurd that to call liberals fascists (if only because Communism, unlike fascism, has a clear definition). Indeed, many such proposals mock Goldberg by intentionally choosing the most specious paralells possible between Communism and modern American Republicans.

But if one leaves Republicans aside and simply argues the basic conservative nature of entrenched Communism, the argument begins to look more persuasive. Consider, for instance, this proposed blurb (adapted from Goldberg's real blurb):
Joseph Stalin, upon taking power after the death of Lenin, was the first of the "Conunists" when he disregarded the original Communist concept of the dissolution of the state, and instead strengthened and greatly expanded executive power over that of the Politburo and reorganised the government and the military under the same model as was in place during the reign of the former conservative monarchy under the Czar. Furthermore, Stalin re-instituted conservative divorce and abortion laws, replaced liberal and experimental education with rigid instruction in "the basics", incorporated the Orthodox church into the state, re-invigorated nationalism and rejected Western liberal democracy.

As Ms Silverstein correctly asserts, authoritarianism is a product of the right and all such governments are inherently conservative. Monarchy, dictatorship, plutocracy, theocracy and totalitarian regimes such as fascism and communism are all conservative forms of government. . . .

In the Soviet Union, liberalism was replaced with a plutocratic police state, where the communist leadership became the new privileged conservative elite in place of the aristocracy and became in sole control of it's economy based primarily on a entrenched military industrial complex fueled by intense nationalism and fear of outside threats. The communist government of the Soviet Union was undeniably conservative, not liberal. Communists in Russia today are considered conservative not liberal.
There are some clearly specious arguments here that conservatives have every right to take offense at. Particularly offensive is the one that "[A]uthoritarianism is a product of the right and all such governments are inherently conservative." This perfectly embodies the Goldberg principle that you can prove any thesis to be true if you make up your own definitions of words. (Rather like Robert Altemeyer defining a loyal Communist as a "right wing authoritarian" for supporting the established authorities, instead of a more neutral term like "status quo authoritarian" or "authoritarian follower.")

But the basic argument about the conservatism of entrenched Communism is sound. It is not too far-fetched to define conservatism as "maintaining the status quo of power." Under that definition, the people in power are conservative more or less by definition. So really the title should not be Conservative Communism, but Communist Conservatism.

I believe one could write a fairly serious book with that title. It would have to drop any foolish attempt to show that American conservatives are really Communists and focus instead on Communist governments and their basic conservatism. A good place to begin would be with the definition of conservatism as "maintaining the status quo of power." Demonstrate how many ideas that began as revolutionary challenges to the status quo (such as laissez faire liberalism) became conservative when in power.

Describe the bloody history of the rise of industrial (or pre-industial) capitalism; show how justifed Marx was in saying "capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt." Demonstrate without flinching the bloodthirsty industrialization under Stalin and Mao, with the question of whether this was any more than the bloodthirsty rise of capitalism, all packed into a single generation. Detail how Communists reduced unions to mere "transmission belts" for Party orders, how they abolished the right to strike, and how Communists subjugated labor to capital with a thoroughness any capitalist would envy. (And how many capitalists liked doing business with the Soviet Union for that very reason). Set forth how a purportedly international ideology embraced the most xenophobic forms of nationalism. And (as the above blurb particularly emphasizes) show the basic social conservatism that Communism ultimately embraced. (Did you realize that no woman has ever been leader of a Communist country?)

Of course, Communist Conservatism will not demonstrate that American conservatives today are really Communists. They are not. But it may show that apologists for the status quo, any status quo, have more in common with each other than they may care to admit.


Friday, January 18, 2008

Was the Ku Klux Klan Fascist?

At last we arrive at more promising territory: the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920's. Was it fascist? Goldberg is ambivalent on the subject. On one occasion he calls it "ironic" that the Klan would be called fascist since the main American admirers of Mussolini were Italian immigrants, who the nativist Klan despised. But on another he says, "For decades the Klan has stood as the most obvious candidate for an American brand of fascism. That makes quite a bit of sense. The right-wing label, on the other hand, isn't nearly as clean a fit." So apparently Goldberg is not sure whether the Klan of the 1920's was fascist or not.

Strictly applying my own yardstick, it would seem to agree with Goldberg's initial assessment. The Klan of the 1920's was a contemporary of Mussolini and Hitler, but it did not self-identify as fascist, so it must not have been. But the answer is not so simple. First, the second Klan was founded in 1915, before Mussolini coined the term Fascism, so it could not self-identify as fascist in its earliest years. Second, its influence peaked and declined during the generally prosperous 1920's, before the crisis of the Great Depression made fascism widely popular. Third and most important, the Klan of the 1930's, though a shadow of its former self, did associate with groups that self-identified as fascist.

So, once again, how well to my defining characteristics of fascism apply?

Extreme (even rabid) nationalism. This one is not as easy to answer as it might appear. It depends on how one defines nationalism (a subject generally taken for granted in most discussions of fascism), and particularly what it meant to be an American nationalist in the 1920's. Nationalism in the sense of national identity has been with the United States since the Revolutionary War. Nationalism in the sense of American exceptionalism and a sense of "We're number one!" has been with us nearly as long. But the nationalism of European fascism was something more than that. From the beginning, we have also had the debate whether American national identity was a matter of blood and soil, or a political creed, with the definition of what is means to be an American gradually becoming more inclusive. The Klan, in its nativism, clearly took the blood and soil view. But it takes more than blood and soil to move nationalism into fascism.

Classical European fascism was nationalistic in the sense of worship of the nation state, of expressing national identity through conflict with other nation states, of seeing war as the ultimate expression of a nation's health. Separated by an ocean from Europe and taking to heart Washington's warning against "entangling alliances," the United States was a relative newcomer to this kind of nationalism. Prior to the Cold War, Americans were more likely to express their superiority to other nation states through lofty disdain than by seeking war, conquest and hegemony.* The 1920's Klan continued in this tradition, seeking to purify the United States from the contamination of immigrants, but not to conquer or dominate rival nations. So the question is whether the extreme nationalism inherent in fascism can take the form of nativism as well as the form of rivalry with other nation states.

This question is a matter of more than just historical interest. The roles of the United States and Europe have reversed since the 1920's. At that time, many Europeans still thought in terms of war against national rivals, but they had little immigration, and so little nativism. Today, nationalistic Americans, especially neoconservatives, seek to conquer Mideastern nation states and impose global American hegemony, while even the most nationalistic Europeans have lost their taste for foreign military adventure. But nativist parties are arising on Europe's extreme Right.

Aggrieved populism. Yes. Like talk radio conservatives today, Klansmen of the 1920's saw themselves as oppressed by a cosmopolitan liberal elite. As one Klansman put it, "We are a movement of the plain people. . . . We are demanding . . . a return of power into the hand of the everyday . . . average citizen of the old stock." He defiantly said that some might consider them "'hicks' and 'rubes' and 'drivers of second hand Fords.'" But the reference to "old stock" makes clear that it was not just the class above them that the Klan resented. They wanted to reserve power to the "old stock" and exclude immigrants, who tended to be at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. So the Klan practiced all three kinds of populism, pulling down the class above, trampling on the class below, and scapegoating a despised ethnic and religious minority.

Open contempt for democracy as degenerate. The Klan did not despise democracy as degenerate. To do so would have been un-American. No matter how blood and soil a view one takes of what it means to be American, democracy is also basic to our sense of national identity. To be an American nationalist and openly anti-democratic is extremely difficult. To be an American populist and anti-democratic is well-nigh impossible. Of course, the Klan wanted to restrict democracy to people like themselves, but this is a narrowing of democracy, rather than an outright rejection.

Glorification of violence as regenerative. Clearly, the Klan was seeking to "purify" and regenerate American society by violence. I confess to not knowing the extent to which the Klan glorified violence as inherently regenerative.

Actual use of violence to intimidate and coerce opponents. The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920's was its least violent and most mainstream incarnation, but it was a vigilante organization that used violence to coerce and intimidate people who opposed it, as well as others it considered socially undesirable.

So, was the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920's fascist? The similarities are striking. The 1920's Klan was only secondarily anti-black; its main targets were immigrants, Catholics, Jews, labor unions and real or imagined "Bolsheviks." Does this list seem familiar? And the popular stereotype of the Klan as the very bottom of white, native-born society is false. It was more likely to draw its strength from the lower middle class of white collar workers and small businessmen, with some skilled craftsmen -- the same groups that were the backbone of European fascism. So, at a minimum, the Klan should be seen, not as an isolated phenomenon, but in the context of contemporary European fascism.

But it had its differences as well. The Klan's "nationalism" came in the form of nativism rather than belligerence toward other nations. And, belonging to a society that equates democracy with national identity, it did not despise democracy as degenerate. Klansmen wanted to "purify" democracy by excluding people who were not like themselves, but I know of no evidence that the Ku Klux Klan ever, in its wildest dreams, aspired to overthrow democracy and establish the sort of one-party dictatorship that existed in Germany or Italy. Can an organization be fascist if it seeks to make democracy less inclusive and less tolerant, rather than to overthrow it altogether? This question is just as current as the question of whether fascist nationalism can take the form of nativism as well as militarism. After all, the far-right nativist parties in Europe today are unlikely to want to overthrow European democracy -- just to narrow it and to leave people out.

My own take is that the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920's was not true fascism, just a kissing cousin.

*Granted, the United States has a long history of expansionism that was not much challenged. But this was expansionism against non-state actors (Indian tribes). But the Mexican-American war, an unmistakable act of aggression against a rival nation state, was extremely controversial and much opposed.


Monday, January 14, 2008

Are Conservatives Fascist?

I strongly suspect that Jonah Goldberg's real motive in writing Liberal Fascism was not so much a serious belief that liberals are fascists as anger and frustration over liberals calling conservatives fascists. He hoped, by turning the tables, to give liberals a taste of their own medicine and perhaps win an apology. The opening words of the book's much-quoted jacket are a dead givaway, "'Fascists,' 'Brownshirts, 'jackbooted stormtroopers'—such are the insults typically hurled at conservatives by their liberal opponents. Calling someone a fascist is the fastest way to shut them up, defining their views as beyond the political pale. But who are the real fascists in our midst?"

Goldberg's blog about the book also shows this agenda. Consider this quote from a response to David Neiwert. "[H]is review . . . is really just a recitation of the same usual talking-points about how if you scratch an American conservative you find a Nazi underneath. And since one of the primary goals of my book is put that slander to rest, it’s no wonder he wants to protect his gravy train by attacking it so shabbily." (Emphasis added). Or this response to an academic critic:
Also, you are again condoning the slander of conservatives in this formulation because you have no condemnation for liberals who use the f-word against conservatives and, like so many other liberals, you only now suddenly think it’s unfair – and trivial!!! — when the arrow is more turned in your own (and more accurate) direction. . . . You assert that Fascism is synonymous with bigotry, murder and genocide and yet you don’t offer even the slightest concession that American conservatives aren’t fascists.
Alas, if Goldberg's real goal was to get an apology, he has not been successful. In order to see who is slandering who, this liberal will now apply what I consider the defining characteristics of fascism to American conservatives as well to see how they fit.

Extreme (even rabid) nationalism. Conservatives are clearly more nationalistic than liberals. Does it reach the extreme-to-rabid level? American conservatism is by no means monolithic. Many conservatives are merely patriotic, but some talk show hosts, xenophobes, and foreign policy super-hawks are moving into the extreme-to-rabid range.

Aggrieved populism. Many conservatives have been cultivating a populist tone, railing against the "liberal elite" for a long time. This is the pull-down-the-class-above-you form of populism traditionally seen on the Left. With the uproar over illegal immigration in recent years, there has been plenty of stomp-on-the-class-below-you populism, as well as the populism scapegoating an unpopular ethnic group. This aggrieved populism is most typical Rush Limbaugh and his talk radio imitators. This should raise and awkward question for Goldberg. If he considers populism inherently of the Left (and he even calls Sen. Joe McCarthy left-wing because of his populism), does that make Limbaugh and talk radio left-wing?

Open contempt for democracy as degenerate. Conservatism, like liberalism, has its elite wing that believes the people are too ignorant to understand their own interests. In the case of conservatives, these are mostly business and libertarian conservatives who believe the people, left to themselves, will enact populist, anti-market economic measures and kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. But, as with liberals, these conservatives who distrust democracy are not populists. And, once again, this viewpoint is not fascism so much as old-fashioned aristocratic conservatism.

At the time of the Clinton impeachment, there was another, potentially anti-democratic tendency by some social conservatives -- the belief that the American people had been corrupted, bribed by general prosperity to ignore their President's basic immorality. And social conservatives, unlike business conservatives, do have a strong populist strain. But, here too, the fear that a democratic public can be corrupted is not the same thing as the belief that democracy is inherently degenerate. Fear that the republic would be in danger if the people were corrupted is an old American tradition, going back to the founding of this country. The difference is that people who regard democracy as inherently degenerate believe that the public in a democratic country is always corrupt, that it is democracy itself that is corrupting, and that a dictatorial government can save the people from themselves. Any mainstream conservative would reject such views as un-American.

There are certain elements of the American Right who have expressed contempt for degenerate European democracies who, they claim, are about to be overrun by Muslim fanatics. But invariably they manage to blame irreligion, falling birthrates, welfare states, promiscuity, hedonism, anything but democracy for Europe's degeneracy. And, they are quick to add, it couldn't possibly happen in the United States.

Glorification of violence as regenerative. Talk radio conservatives do use a good deal of violent talk. David Neiwert keeps tabs on some of the most egregious examples. (Rush Limbaugh: "I tell people don’t kill all the liberals. Leave enough so we can have two on every campus -- living fossils -- so we will never forget what these people stood for." Anne Coulter: "Where are the skinheads when you need them? What does a girl have to do to get an angry, club- and torch-wielding mob on its feet?" And even worse). But there is a critical difference between talk radio and true fascist pronouncements. Talk radio is just talk. There is an unspoken agreement between the speaker and the audience that this is all just hot air, not to be taken literally. When fascists talked violence, they meant business.

Actual use of violence to intimidate and coerce opponents. No. All mainstream American political groups, liberal and conservative alike, reject violence (in the context of domestic politics) as illegitimate.

So are conservatives fascists? No. Talk radio conservatives can sound a bit fascist, with their nationalistic, populist rants, seeming to glorify violence. But ultimately it is just talk that only a handful of nutcases would ever take literally. Perhaps it could be called fascist theater. But it is not the real thing.


So, Are Liberals Fascist?

I know it's a dumb question, but Goldberg accuses liberals of being fascist, so we might as well address how well the defining characterists of fascism apply.

Extreme (even rabid) nationalism. Nope. Liberals these days are not notably nationalistic. That's why conservatives so often denounce liberals as unpatriotic.

Aggrieved populism. Sometimes. Certainly populism, aggrieved and otherwise, has a longstanding history on the American Left, at least as far back as Andrew Jackson. William Jennings Bryan was a populist (as well as a Populist), as were Franklin Delano Roosevelt and (to some extent) John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Tom Harkin was a recent populist, and John Edwards is the most notable example at present. (I would also add that some of these figures, most notably FDR, were populists of a more positive sort, offering hope as well as anger and constructive actions as well as scapegoats. It makes a difference). Kicking the guy below you is not altogether absent from the populism of what is generally considered the Left. Andrew Jackson was a notorious Indian hater and white supremacist. Many 19th century labor unions were notably racist, nativist, and anti-immigration. But that trait is generally absent from present-day liberalism. And many liberals these days are not populist (see next category).

Open contempt for democracy as inherently degenerate. This is a common complaint among people who complain about liberal "elitism." Goldberg himself complains that liberals respect democracy only when it serves their interest, and seek to transfer power from elective bodies to non-elective judges and bureaucrats. There is some justification to this charge, although the liberals who are skeptical of democracy are generally not the populist ones. Nor does such skepticism prove that liberals are fascists. Many people are undemocratic but not fascist. After all, undemocratic government long antedates fascism. Fascists are not merely undemocratic, but contemptuous of democracy as degenerate.

Why do some liberals wish to limits democracy in favor of judges and bureaucrats? For two main reasons. Once is the belief that the people have been brainwashed by talk radio and other right-wing propoganda into acting against their own interests. A patronizing belief that the people are too ignorant to understand their true interests is not the same as a belieft that democracy is inherently degenerate. It resembles fascism less than old-fashioned aristocratic conservatism.

The other reason liberals often want to limit popular democracy is fear that the majority will trample on the rights of the minority. The question of how to balance the will of the majority with the rights of the minority has been one of the central conundrums of democracy from the very start. Aristocratic critics have long complained about democracy's lack of respect for minority rights (meaning the rights of the aristocratic minority). Advocates of democracy struggle with where to draw the balance. Alexis de Tocqueville famously saw "the tryranny of the majority" as the greatest fault with democracy. A wish to restrict majority rule in order to protect the rights of the minority is not at all the same as a belief that democracy is degenerate. When fascists denounced democracy, it should go without saying that they were not criticizing it for lacking respect minority rights.

Glorification of violence as regenerative. No. Goldberg himself concedes that "liberalism today is, strictly speaking, pretty pacifistic," but he argues that oppression can also take the form of unwanted "hugs and kisses and taking care of boo-boos." But no matter how oppressive an unwanted hug may be, it has nothing in common with the fascist glorification of violence.

Actual use of violence to intimidate and coerce opponents. No. This, of course, is not unique to liberals. The success of American democracy rests of the repudiation of violence by all parties across the political spectrum.

In short, the (unsurprising) answer is that, although moderal American liberalism has its populist and elitist wings, it has none of the nationalism, violence, or true contempt for democracy characteristic of fascism.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Jonah Goldberg and the Defining Traits of Fascism

Time to confess two guilty secrets. First, I have become morbidly obsessed with Jonah Goldberg's book, Liberal Fascism, and, second, that obsession has not extended so far as actually reading the book. Goldberg's thesis is that fascism was actually a left-wing, rather than a right-wing phenomenon, and that American liberals today are fascists, or at least close kin. To judge from second-hand sources, the book is essentially a Road to Serfdom redux, defining fascism (or, more generally, totalitarianism) as any deviation from strict free market capitalism, or any meddling of government in what (in Goldberg's opinion) is not its business.

The trouble with this approach is that governments have always meddled with strict free market economics. The idea that they shouldn't only originated in 1776 with The Wealth of Nations and has never been rigidly observed. Government also has a longstanding history of meddling in all sorts of things people today would consider private, ranging from laws on sexual morality to sumptuary laws restricting what kinds of clothing people could wear. If all interventionist government is fascist, the true challenge is to identify which governments, if any, are not fascist.

A more reasonable approach to fascism is to begin with movements that self-identified as fascist and see what were their defining characteristics. Mussolini coined the term Fascism* in 1919, so it is impossible for any group before that date to call itself fascist because the term did not yet exist. Since WWII, fascism has been identified with genocide, so very few people are willing to accept the label. But in the 1920's and '30's fascism was seen as a reasonable alternative to Communism and liberal democracy, and many movements openly self-identified with it. Thus it seems reasonable to take people's labels in the 1920's and '30's at face value -- groups that openly identified with fascism were fascist; contemporaries who repudiated the label were not. Fascist organizations of the time begin with Mussolini's Fascist Party (he invented the name, after all). Hitler's Nazis came later and were modeled on Mussolini's Fascists. Numerous other organizations also arose modeled after the ones Mussolini and Hitler founded, most of which never came close to seizing power. These are the groups that may be considered self-identified fascists.

Three things follow from this approach. The first is that defining characteristics of fascism will the the ones that various fascist movements had in common, rather than features unique to one movement or another. Thus Goldberg is right that gas chambers, genocide and even anti-Semitism are not defining traits of Fascism. These were characteristic of Hitler, but not of Mussolini. And if Hitler had died sometime after consolidating power but before the outbreak of WWII, it is not too difficult to imagine a Nazi regime led by Goebbels or Goering which would have persecuted and abused Jews, but stopped well short of genocide.

Second, traits self-proclaimed fascists shared with contemporaries who did not identify themselves as fascists are not defining characteristics of Fascism. Hence, for instance, dictatorships of a political party, or coerced membership in youth organizations are not uniquely fascist, because these are ideas borrowed from contemporary Communists. Likewise, many contemporary democratic and social democratic governments that did not regard themselves as fascist engaged in moderately interventionist economic policies similar to the ones adopted by fascists, so (Goldberg notwithstanding), these policies were not defining traits of fascism.

Third and finally, as David Neiwart points out, most self-identified fascist parties did not ever come to power. Thus, totalitarianism is not truly a defining trait of fascism because it is only possible under "mature" fascism that has seized and consolidated power. Fascism may be inherently totalitarian in aspiration, but most fascists never acquire to power to become so in practice. Even the Italian Fascists and Nazis began as opposition parties in a democratic order. So the defining traits of fasism must be traits common to fascist parties whether in or out of power.

Looking at traits shared by Mussolini, Hitler and their immitators, whether in or out of power, and not shared by contemporaries that did not self-identify as fascist, I see at least the following five common characteristics:

Extreme (some would say rabid) nationalism. It is the extreme nationalism that usually leads to Fascism being defined as a movement of the Right, since nationalism has been a right-wing phenomenon since Bismark's day.

An aggrieved sense of populism. It is this sense of aggrieved populism that is most commonly used to define fascism as left-wing because populism has customarily been considered a trait of the Left. Aggrieved populism is typically expressed in terms of class struggle, a left-wing concept. But class struggle can take different forms. Left-wing populism may be defined as class struggle in the form of pulling down the class above. Right-wing populist class struggle also exists. It takes the form kicking the class below to keep them down. And aggrieved populism can also take the form of hostility to a despised ethnic or religious group treated as a scapegoat for all society's ills. Fascist populism generally followed both forms of class struggle. It appealed to a middle class feeling trapped between a rebellious working class below and an overbearing elite above. As such, it could be considered right-wing and left-wing populism at once. The Nazis, of course, also scapegoated Jews, blaming them (illogically) for both capitalism and Communism.

Open contempt for democracy as inherently degenerate. This may seem to contradict the populist nature of fascism, but apparently they managed to pull it off. The best way to be populist and attack democracy is to argue that democracy gives too much power to some other group of people. This is compatible with both right-wing populism (democracy emplowers a socialist working class) or left-wing populism (democracy allows a complacent middle class to block measures on behalf of the poor; see Hugo Chavez).

Glorification of violence as regenerative. This tendancy was widespread in 19th century European nationalism and reached a deadly fever pitch in the early 20th century that did much to promote WWI to a population that had experienced a generation or more of peace and did not comprehend the full horrors of war. But fascists of the 1920's and '30's glorified war to a generation that knew its horrors all to well. Unlike 19th century nationalists, fascists also glorified violence as regenerative in the context of domestic politics was well as war.

Actual use of violence to intimidate and coerce opponents. This is a trait both of "mature" fascism that uses the totalitarian police state, and of fascist parties in democratic societies, which used street thugs (the Black Shirts, Brown Shirts/Stormtroopers and so forth) against their rivals.

These are defining traits of fascism, rather than a true definition. Perhaps it is possible to be fascist without possessing all these traits. Perhaps it is possible to possess all these traits without being fascist. But they strike me as the most important characteristics to look at in order to determine whether a movement is fascist.

*NOTE: I use Fascism and Fascist with a capital "F" to refer to Mussolini's movement in Italy and fascism and fascist with a small "f" to refer to the wide variety of kindred movements, including Nazism.


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Paganini Factor

Niccolo Paginini was a virtuoso violinist of such skill that conventional violin music seemed boringly easy for him. Searching for a challenge, he tried clever tricks, "like tuning one of his strings a semitone high, or playing the majority of a piece on one string after breaking the other three." He also wrote his own compositions that would offer him an adequate opportunity to make use of his talents. Playing his own compositions, he was able to show off "techniques that included harmonics, double stops, pizzicato with the left as well as the right hand, and near-impossible fingering and bowings."

There is just one problem with Paganini's compositions. They are not very good music. Doubtless some people enjoy watching a virtuoso violinist playing Paganini to show off his stuff, but Paganini compositions are not something anyone would listen to for the sheer beauty of the music itself. Paganini music.

This tendancy is by no means limited either to Paganini, or to music. It is present in a wide variety of arts ("art," including practical as well as "fine" arts, so long as some aesthetic component is present). Artists become bored simply trying to please their audience (or consumsers) and focus instead on what poses the greatest challenge to the artist, whether anyone else would want it or not. Call it the Pagnini factor.

Hence we have Paganini gourmet cooking that no one would want to eat, Paganini fashions that no one would want to wear or even look at, and Paganinin hairstyles that are threatened with the slightest activity. Paganini architecture is ornate to the point of ugliness. Paganini martial arts feature fantastically elaborate maneuvers that are worse than useless in actual fighting. Paganini movies blow the bank on special effects with no coherent plot. But saddest of all are the Paganini dogs, bred for difficult-to-achieve trait that ruins their health.

Paganini hairstyle:

Paganini martial arts:

Paganini architecture:


Saturday, January 05, 2008

And Now for Something Completely Different (Or, Dresses and Robes)

NOTE: The primary purpose of this post is to figure out how to illustrate (because what fun is a blog without pictures these days?). Also to show that I can post on non-political topics.

Last spring I went to a sale of folk costumes which included, besides women's dresses and men's pants and tunics, a North African men's robe. What I found most interesting was that, although dresses and robes are both undivided below the waist and open at the bottom, one could tell them apart at a glance. This difference was not just that dresses are for women and robes are for men, so the dresses had a more feminine style. This was mostly true, but secondary. (And besides, women do sometimes wear robes as well). The real difference between a dress and a robe was something else -- the waist. Dresses have them, robes don't. (And, not by coincidence, the waist is more clearly marked in women than in men).

Can there be any doubt which of these is a dress and which is a robe?

Left, women's robe. Even on women, a robe has no waist built into the garment.

The "waist" of a dress need not be a woman's natural waistline. Some dresses have waists just under the breasts. Others have waists somewhere around the hips. I have even seen a dress that only flared out into the skirt a few inches above the knees, a very low "waist" indeed!

Above, Empire waist, just below the breasts.

Right, flapper, with her waist about hip level.

My dictionary defines a robe as "a long, loose, flowing outer garment." To this definition, I would add that a robe is a long, loose garment in which a single piece of fabric hangs straight from collar to hem without any waist build into the garment. (Of course, it can be belted). A dress has one or more pieces of fabric from collar to hem, and always accentuates some sort of "waist," whether by gathering a skirt into a top, by the use of elastic, or by narrowing down with darts.

Another conclusion follows from this distinction between dresses and robes. A dress is a much more elaborate cut of garment than a robe. Making an ornate dress means not only adding ornaments to it, but making an elaborate cut to the dress itself. A robe is an inherently simple cut, with only one piece of fabric between collar and hem. If a robe can be ornate (and who would doubt it can), then the ornateness must be from decorations added to the simple cut.
Above, bustles. Freed from the restriction of a single piece of fabric from collar to hem, there is almost no limit on how elaborate the cut and style of a dress can be.

Right: This ceremonial robe is ornate in its embroidery and decorations, but the basic cut remains simple.