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.



Blogger Roger Moore said...

I think you missed one more important feature of fascism: anti-communism. The fascist movements were, if anything, even more opposed to communism than they were to democracy. That seems hard to square with them being movements of the left.

9:49 PM  
Blogger Enlightened Layperson said...

Hm. Goldberg's supporters usually respond by saying that the Trotskytes opposed the Communists too, and they were left-wing. But I find this argument unconvincing. The Communists first crushed all elements of the Right before turning against each other. Likewise, the fascists began by crushing the left and only much later turned against the conservatives (ie, after the conservatives tried to kill Hitler!)

9:11 PM  

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