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.

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