Impulse reading is not something I usually do. My reading is usually planned out books in advance and dependent on what I need to review and books which have an associated interest for me. Little attention is paid to the release date of a work.
This book is an exception – though I’ve long meant to do more reading on fascism. Paul Gottfried is a political scientist whose writing I’ve liked when coming across it. Austere, clear, pointed, and willing to question assumptions others often didn’t know they were making, he can be found these days, after being kicked out of the National Review club, at Unz.com, a site full of writers of various political persuasions willing to question common wisdom.
So, after reading his criticism of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, a book I favorably reviewed (a review which seems to have vanished from Amazon and I have no copy) I wanted to read his take on the subject.
If you have to choose between the two books, go with Gottfried.
Review: Fascism: The Career of a Concept, Paul Gottfried, 2016.
The current career of the word “fascism” is to stand in
for a host of iniquities that progressives, multiculturalists, and libertarians all oppose, even if they offer no single, coherent account of what they’re condemning.
Gottfried wants to correct that and, in a greater sense, remind us that the terms Right and Left have “essentialist” meanings.
The literature on fascism is vast, and Gottfried mentions a lot of scholars on the subject. (My Kindle edition tells me that 58% of the book is notes and an index.) The predominant ones he uses are German Ernst Nolte and American A. James Gregor. They represent two views, respectively, that fascism was “a counterrevolutionary imitation of the revolutionary Left” and a “variant on Marxism” that used nationalism.
Nazis as Marxists?
The Nazi relationship to fascism is not simple or clear cut.
Nolte, the scholar Gottfried most closely agrees with, argues that generic fascism was an “escape from the transcendence” that Marxism offered in its proclamation that humans could be morally transformed and become “more fully human” via a new economic order. Fascism, to Nolte, valued the “primordially collectivist” and “biologically rooted”.
Nazism proclaimed itself a modernizing movement, a revolution based on scientific organization. Not only were those famous autobahns built in Nazi Germany, but, as German historian Rainer Zitelmann has shown, the Nazis increased the wages of the working class, employment was opened to more women, equality of opportunity was emphasized, full employment and paid vacations were instituted. Modern sociology was largely, though this fact was obscured by mostly American propaganda efforts post-World War II, invented in Nazi Germany. (And, as Robert N. Proctor’s The Nazi War on Cancer, shows, they advanced modern epidemiology too.)
As to Hitler’s eugenics theories, Pomeranian aristocrat Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin, executed by the Nazi regime two weeks before World War Two ended, sneered that Hitler was a “born democrat” and that his racial theories substituted racial equality for Marxism’s class equality. Hitler was, to him, a despised modernizer who wanted to do away with a hierarchical and agrarian past.
Noted scholar of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt, also did not regard Nazis as fascists and saw them and Stalin’s Russia as totalitarian regimes, something apart from fascism. Indeed, Stalin and Hitler seemed engaged in a sort of horrible feedback loop of imitation. Stalin, in the Ukraine, engineered mass murder and had labor camps. Hitler came up with a more efficient system of genocide and labor camps. Stalin, post-war, copied Hitler’s anti-Semitism.
American and ex-Trotskyite James Burnham saw fascism, communism, and social democracy as three manifestations of the managerial state which the post-capitalist world was moving to. In a world atomized by ethnic dilution, mobility, and capitalism, populations would grant their allegiance to a managerial state governed by a new elite. (It seems, to me, a perceptive description of current trends though laid out in 1940.)
Generic fascism, argues Gottfried, was primarily a Franco-Italian creation, and he seems to agree with the scholar of Spanish fascism, Stanley Payne, that it had a fairly consistent list from country to country on what it opposed:
… parliamentarianism, left-wing socialism, internationalism (except in a form acceptable to the fascists), free market capitalism, Freemasons, and pacifists.
Note that anti-Semitism and genocide are not in the list. Indeed, several early Italian fascists were Jews, and it was only after Mussolini’s pact with Hitler that restrictions were placed on Jews in Italy, and their deportation to concentration camps occurred only after German troops undertook it in Italy.
However, caution must be exercised in precisely defining fascism. It was a popular movement that had to appeal to different concerns in different countries.
Gottfried convincingly argues that fascism, whatever its antecedents in German and French thought prior to the Great War, only existed beween the wars and only in Europe. After WWII, fascism’s cult of violence tied to nationalism simply was unworkable under the US-Soviet hegemony. Third World regimes sometimes described as fascism after World War Two were not. Fascism’s welfare state proposals were successfully enacted by its enemies on the Left, so there was no real public support for the movement anymore.
Gottfried comes down firmly on the side of fascism as a counterrevolutionary movement of the Right. Those, like Jonah Goldberg in his book Liberal Fascism and American enemies of America’s New Deal (which was inspired by elements of Mussolini’s Italy), who claimed fascists were leftists ignore the Right’s history.
Most major political parties of the Western world, whether Right or Left, have accepted the assumptions of the Enlightenment, an Enlightenment not only manifested in the founding of America but the French Revolution, the model of Leftist revolution. The old Right, Gottfried reminds us, was a reaction against what rightists regarded as a materialist world view, and it was driven by opposition to
“universal rights” and the desire to preserve historic identities. The Right always viewed with suspicion or contempt the operation of parliamentary systems that allowed vested economic interests and professional politicians free play.
There are other points of interest in this book.
There a clear explication of the Frankfurt School’s influence on helping to make “fascism” a term of abuse for anyone who opposed their mutant offspring of Freudianism and Marxism and its agenda of human transcendence via no-holds-barred erotic freedom – which was to be brought about by the abolition of sexual norms, capitalism, and the family. (Freud himself argued repression was necessary to civilization.)
Gottfried also delves into the strange offshoot of “international fascism” as explicated in the “most compelling fascist novel ever written”, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s Gilles. British fascist Oswald Mosley shows up here with his efforts at international fascism before and after World War Two. His efforts after the war to “rebuild Europe as ‘one nation’” lend an ironic absurdity to recent Brexit proponents being labeled as “fascists”. (While Mosley doesn’t seem to have been an anti-Semite, his Minister of Propaganda, William Joyce, definitely was. He shows up as a character in David Hambling’s “The Monsters in the Park“.)
Gottfried looks at the notion of whether fascists ever, like leftists, had an idea of a utopia. Western thought has famously embraced the idea of linear progress since St. Augustine’s The City of God, a book that influenced Karl Marx. Fascism did not, it seems, envision an end point of history, but constant struggle. Today’s reformers would violently seize power. Their descendants would become corrupt and have to be overthrown again. The fascist future was one of cycles. Fascism looked to a past, not a transcendent future. This is another reason why Nazism was not fascism.
A highly recommended primer on a complex subject.
Philosopher Jack Kerwick mostly admiring review argues with Gottfried on one point. Like “utilitarianism” being illustrated by John Stuart Mill, “fascism” may be illustrated by Mussolini, but those who espouse a concept at different points in time don’t need to share congruent beliefs in what that concept means.
An interview with Gottfried about the book can be found at Episode 39 of the Grace & Steel podcasts.