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.



Blogger David Neiwert said...

Nice work, EP. (Thanks for being a regular at my comments, too.)

You may be interested in this piece, which discusses the Klan of the '20s to see how well it fits Paxton's description of the nine "mobilizing passions" of fascism. (Pretty well, is the conclusion.)

12:35 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home