Fascism and the Future, Part Two: The Totalitarian Center

As the first part of this series pointed out last week, there’s an odd mismatch between the modern use of “fascism” as an all-purpose political snarl word, on the one hand, and the mediocrity of the regime that put the term into general use, on the other. All things considered, as tyrants go, Benito Mussolini simply wasn’t that impressive, and while the regime he cobbled together out of a bucket of spare ideological parts had many objectionable features, it cuts a pretty poor figure in the rogue’s gallery of authoritarian states. Let’s face it, as an archetype of tyranny, Italian Fascismo just doesn’t cut it.  
For that matter, it’s far from obvious that there’s enough common ground among the various European totalitarian movements between the wars to justify the use of a single label for them—much less to make that label apply to tyrants and tyrannies around the world and throughout time. Historians in Europe and elsewhere thus spent a good deal of time in recent decades arguing about whether there’s any such thing as fascism in general, and some very thoughtful writers ended up insisting that there isn’t—that more general words such as “dictatorship” cover the ground quite adequately, and the word “fascism” properly belongs to Mussolini’s regime and that alone.

On the other side of the equation were those who argued that a certain kind of authoritarian movement in Europe between the wars was sufficiently distinct from other kinds of tyranny that it deserves its own label. One of those was Ernst Nolte, whose 1968 book Die Krise des liberalen Systems und die faschistischen Bewegungen (The Crisis of the Liberal System and the Fascist Movements) played a central role in launching the debate just mentioned. Nolte was careful enough not to propose a hard and fast definition of fascism, and offered instead a list of six features that any movement had to have to count as fascist. The first three of them are organizational features: a cult of charismatic leadership, a uniformed Party militia, and the goal of totalitarianism.

That last word has been bandied around so freely over the years since then that it’s probably necessary to stop here and discuss what it means. A totalitarian political system is one in which the party in power claims the right to rule every sphere of life: political, religious, artistic, scientific, sexual, and so on through all the normally distinct dimensions of human existence. There are plenty of dictatorships that aren’t totalitarian—in fact, it’s fairly common for dictators to spare themselves a lot of extra work by focusing purely on the political sphere, and letting people do what they want in other spheres of life so long as their activities don’t stray into politics—and there are also totalitarian systems that aren’t dictatorships: there are plenty of religious communities, some of them more or less democratic in terms of governance, that claim totalitarian authority over every aspect of the life of the faithful.

The totalitarian dimension, though, is central to those movements and regimes that count as fascist by Nolte’s criteria, and it’s a crucial distinction. The charismatic leaders and party militias of between-the-wars European fascist parties presented themselves, and in at least some cases honestly saw themselves, as trying to overturn not merely a political system but an entire civilization they believed was rotten to the core. Crusades against “degenerate” art and literature thus weren’t simply the product of the individual vagaries of fascist leaders; they were part and parcel of an attempt to reshape an entire society from the ground up, and the cult of leadership and the party militia very often served mostly as vehicles for the broader totalitarian agenda.

A good deal of the discussion that followed the publication of Nolte’s book focused on whether the three organizational features just discussed were sufficiently unique to fascist movements to serve as touchstones, whether there were more features that might usefully be added to the list, and so on.  The other three features in Nolte’s description, by contrast, were broadly accepted by scholars. This is all the more interesting in that one of them is almost always rejected out of hand on the rare occasions it slips outside the charmed circle where professional historians practice their craft. These three features are the things that fascist movements and regimes consistently rejected. The first is Marxism, the second liberalism, and the third—the hot-button one—is conservatism.

Mention this to anyone in the contemporary American left, and you can expect blank incomprehension. Try to push past that, and if you get anywhere at all you can normally count on seeing the blank look replaced by flat rejection or incandescent rage. It’s one of the standard credos of current political folklore that fascism belongs to the conservative side of the political spectrum.  More specifically, it’s supposed to be the far end of that side of the spectrum, the thing that’s more conservative than the conservatives, just as—to the contemporary American right—Communism is the far end of the left side of the spectrum, the thing that’s more liberal than the liberals.

I mentioned in last week’s post the way that the riotous complexity of political thought in the early 20th century got flattened out into a Hobson’s choice between representative-democracy-plus-capitalism (the ideology of the American empire) and bureaucratic state socialism (the ideology of the Soviet empire) in the course of the Cold War. The same flattening process also affected domestic politics in the United States, though in a somewhat different way. Communism and fascism have long been the most overheated labels in our political culture’s demonology, and Republicans and Democrats eagerly applied these labels to each other.  Since Republicans and Democrats are themselves simply very minor variations on a common theme, it worked well thereafter to apply those labels to anyone who strayed too far from the midpoint between the two.  This allowed the parties to squabble about peripheral issues while maintaining perfect unanimity on core values such as maintaining America’s empire, say, or supporting the systemic imbalances in financial and resource flows that keep that empire in business.

One of the consequences of that strategy was the elimination of conservatism, in anything like the old meaning of that word, from the vocabulary of American politics. The Anglo-American tradition of conservatism—continental Europe has its own somewhat different form—has its roots in the writings of Edmund Burke, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France became a lightning rod for generations of thinkers who found the hubris of the radical Enlightenment too much to swallow. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex tradition, conservatism was based on the recognition that human beings aren’t as smart as they like to think. As a result, when intellectuals convince themselves that they know how to make a perfect human society, they’re wrong, and the consequences of trying to enact their fantasies in the real world normally range from the humiliating to the horrific.

To the conservative mind, the existing order of society has one great advantage that the arbitrary inventions of would-be world-reformers can’t match: it has actually been shown to work in practice. Conservatives thus used to insist that changes to the existing order of society ought to be made only when there was very good reason to think the changes will turn out to be improvements. The besetting vice of old-fashioned conservatism, as generations of radicals loved to point out, was thus that it tended to defend and excuse traditional injustices; among its great virtues was that it defended traditional liberties against the not always covert authoritarianism of would-be reformers.

In America before the Cold War, conservatives thus called for limitations on federal power, denounced the nation’s moves toward global empire, demanded balanced budgets and fiscal prudence, and upheld local and regional cultures and governments against the centralizing reach of Washington DC.  In the South, that reasoning was inevitably used to defend segregation, but it’s a distortion of history to claim that American conservatism was never anything more than a polite label for Jim Crow.  Like every political movement in the real world, it was a complex thing, and combined high ideals and base motives in roughly the same proportions as its rivals.

Whatever its faults or its virtues, though, it died a miserable death during the 20th century, as both parties and most of the competing power centers that form America’s governing classes joined eagerly in the rush to empire, and vied to see who could come up with more excuses for centralizing power in the executive branch of the federal government. As part of that process, the old conservatism was gutted, stuffed, and left to rot in cold storage, except for very occasional moments of pro forma display for the benefit of the dwindling few who hadn’t gotten the memo.

In Europe between 1919 and 1945, though, the European version of old-fashioned conservatism was still a major power, and Nolte was quite correct to say that one of the core themes of fascism was the rejection of conservative ideas. Where conservatives saw themselves as the defenders of the old order of Europe—Christian, aristocratic, agrarian, and committed to local custom and local autonomy—fascists wanted to impose a New Order (one of Hitler’s favorite phrases) in which traditional social hierarchies would dissolve in the orgiastic abandon of “one leader, one party, one people.” Fascists by and large hated and despised the conservatives, and the conservatives returned the compliment; it’s a matter of historical fact that the most diehard resistance Hitler’s regime faced, and the conspiracies that came closest to blowing Hitler himself to smithereens, all came straight out of the hardline aristocratic right wing of German society.

The bitter divide between fascists and conservatives, in fact, goes straight back to the origins of both movements. In a teasingly titled book, Hitler as Philosophe, Lawrence Birken showed in detail that the entire vocabulary of political ideas used by Hitler and the other ideologues of German national socialism came straight out of the same radical side of the Enlightenment that Edmund Burke critiqued so trenchantly.  When Hitler ranted about the will of das Volk, for example, he was simply borrowing Rousseau’s notion of the general will of the people, which both men believed ought to be free from the pettifogging hindrance of mere laws and institutions. Examples could be multiplied almost endlessly, and matched nearly word for word out of Mussolini’s speeches.  Despite the trope that fascism was a reversion to the Middle Ages, Hitler, Mussolini, and their fellow fascists were thoroughly modern figures pursuing some of the most avant-garde, cutting-edge ideas of their time.

Point this out to most people nowadays, though, and you’re likely to get pushback along two lines. The first is the claim that fascism equals racial bigotry, and racial bigotry is a right-wing habit, thus fascism must be a right-wing movement. That argument gets what force it has from the astonishing levels of historical ignorance found in the United States these days, but it’s common, and needs to be addressed.

Old-fashioned conservatism in the United States, as noted above, unquestionably had its racist side. South of the Mason-Dixon line, in particular, talk about local autonomy and resistance to edicts from Washington DC normally included a subtext favoring segregation and other policies meant to disadvantage Americans of African descent.  That’s one consequence of the tangled and bitter history of race in America. It’s conveniently forgotten, however, that well into the twentieth century, the labor movement in the US was as heavily committed to racial exclusion as any collection of Southern good ol’ boys—keeping African-Americans out of the skilled trades, for example, was seen by many labor activists as essential to boosting the wages of white laborers.  With embarrassingly few exceptions, racial prejudice was widely accepted straight across the American political scene until the convulsions of the 1960s finally pushed it into its present state of slow disintegration.

Elsewhere in the world, the notion that racial bigotry is purely a right-wing habit has even less support. Even to the extent that labels such as “left” and “right” apply to the n-dimensional continuum of competing political and economic viewpoints in the pre-Cold War era, racial prejudice, racial tolerance, and relative apathy on the subject were more or less evenly distributed among them. Fascist parties are a good sample of the whole. Some fascist regimes, such as Hitler’s, were violently racist. Others were not—Mussolini’s regime in Italy, for example, was no more racist or antisemitic than the democratic government it replaced, until Germany imposed its race laws on its ally at gunpoint. The easy equation of fascism with racism, and racism with contemporary American (pseudo)conservatism, is yet another example of the way that the complexities of politics and history get flattened out into a caricature in what passes for modern political discourse.

That’s the first standard argument for fascism as a right-wing movement.  The second is the claim that German national socialism was bought and paid for by big business, and therefore all fascism everywhere has to have been a right-wing movement. That’s an extremely common claim; you’ll find it splashed all over the internet, and in plenty of less evanescent media as well, as though it was a matter of proven fact. The only problem with this easy consensus is that it doesn’t happen to be true.

There have been two excellent scholarly studies of the issue, Pool and Pool’s Who Financed Hitler? (1978) and Turner’s German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler (1985). Both studies showed conclusively that the National Socialist German Workers Party got the vast majority of its financing from its own middle-class membership until the last year or two before it took power, and only then came in for handouts from business because most German businesses decided that given a choice between the two rising powers in the final crisis of the Weimar regime—the Nazis and the Communists—they would settle for the Nazis. In point of fact—and this can be found detailed in any social history of Germany between the wars—German big business by and large distrusted Hitler’s party, and bitterly resented the new regime’s policy of gleichschaltung, “coordination,” which subjected even the largest firms to oversight and regulation by Party officials.

So where did the claim that fascism is always a puppet of big business come from? Like the use of “fascism” as a generic label for regimes liberals don’t like, it’s a third-hand borrowing from the Soviet propaganda of an earlier day. In the political theology of Marxism, remember, everything boils down to the struggle between capitalists and the proletariat, the two contending forces of the Marxist cosmos. Everything and everyone that doesn’t support the interests of the proletariat as defined by Marxist theory is therefore by definition a tool of the capitalist ruling class, and any political movement that opposes Marxism thus has to be composed of capitalist lackeys and running dogs.  QED! 

More broadly, communist parties have generally pitched themselves to the public by insisting that all other political movements work out in practice to a vote for the existing order of society. A useful bit of marketing in any context, it became a necessity once Stalin’s regime demonstrated just how unpleasant a communist regime could be in practice.  Insisting that fascism is simply another name for what we’ve already got, though, had an enduring downside—it convinced a great many people, in the teeth of the evidence, that fascism by definition defends the status quo. The fact that Italian Fascism and German national socialism both rose to power promising radical change in their respective societies and delivered on that promise has been completely erased from the modern political imagination.

For that matter, the flattening out of American political thought into a linear spectrum from “the left” (the Democratic party, and the Communists who are presumed to be lurking in its leftward fringe) to “the right” (the Republican party, and the fascists who are presumed to have a similar hideout in the GOP’s rightward fringe) helps feed the same belief. Once all political thought has been forced onto that Procrustean bed of ideology, after all, if the fascists aren’t hiding out somewhere on the far end of the Republican half of the spectrum, where else could they be?

It’s at this point that we approach the most explosive dimension of the history of fascism, because the unthinking acceptance of the linear model of politics presupposed by that question isn’t merely a problem in some abstract sense. It also obscures some of the most important dimensions of contemporary political life, in the United States and elsewhere.  According to that model, the point in the middle of the spectrum—where “left” and “right” fade into one another—is the common ground of politics, the middle of the road, where most people either are or ought to be.  The further you get from that midpoint, the closer you are to “extremism.”  (Think about that last word for a moment.) What happens, though, if the common ground where the two major parties meet and shake hands is far removed from the actual beliefs and opinions of the majority?

That’s the situation we’re in today in America, of course. Americans may not agree about much, but a remarkably large number of them agree that neither political party is listening to them, or offering policies that Americans in general find appealing or even acceptable. Where the two major parties can reach a consensus—for example, in giving bankers a de facto amnesty for even the most egregious and damaging acts of financial fraud—there’s normally a substantial gap between that consensus and the policies that most Americans support. Where the parties remain at loggerheads, there are normally three positions: the Democratic position, the Republican position, and the position most Americans favor, which never gets brought up in the political arena at all.

That’s one of the pervasive occupational hazards of democratic systems under strain. In Italy before and during the First World War, and in Germany after it, democratic institutions froze up around a series of problems that the political systems in question were unwilling to confront and therefore were unable to address.  Every mainstream political party was committed to maintaining the status quo in the face of a rising spiral of crisis that made it brutally clear that the status quo no longer worked.  One government after another took office, promising to make things better by continuing the same policies that were making things worse, while the opposition breathed fire and brimstone, promising fierce resistance to the party in power on every issue except those that mattered—and so, in both countries, a figure from outside the political mainstream who was willing to break with the failed consensus won the support of enough of the voters to shoulder his way into power.

When fascism succeeds in seizing power, in other words, it’s not a right-wing movement, or for that matter a left-wing one. It seizes the abandoned middle ground of politics, takes up the popular causes that all other parties refuse to touch, and imposes a totalitarianism of the center. That’s the secret of fascism’s popularity—and it’s the reason why an outbreak of full-blown fascism is a real and frightening possibility as America stumbles blindly into an unwelcome future. We’ll talk about that next week.