People frequently discuss fascism in America today, in no small part because we now have a significant fascist movement in this country. But many different groups use the term in many different ways. Most basically, some call it “right wing” and some call it “left wing.” The least intellectually competent, such as Jonah Goldberg, until recently long the editor of National Review even calls it “liberal.” How is this possible?
I will explain, briefly.
The original fascist movement in Italy was both right wing and anti-capitalist. Mussolini started his life in politics as a left wing socialist, and his experience during WWI taught him nationalism was stronger than class identity. Consequently, a radical movement against capitalism should be nationalist. In making his decision, Mussolini shifted from traditional left-wing values to right-wing ones (see below),
There was also a strong anti-capitalist wing in the early Nazi Party. Nazism was in many ways similar to fascism, but replaced nationalism with racism. However, Nazism was long regarded as a movement of the right. Now some call it left-wing. How can we make sense of this?
Today the words “left” and “right” have two broadly different meanings, as they did back when fascism arose. On the one hand, “left” referred to values of universal equality, democracy, and a suspicion of hierarchy. “Right” referred to values of hierarchy, elitism, authority, and stability. Both of these meanings can be traced back to the French Revolution, a time before capitalism arose to prominence.
But “left” also meant anti-capitalism, and while capitalism has many conflicting meanings, “left” broadly means opposing an economy dominated by corporations and their values. Often, but not always, central state planning was to replace it, particularly after the Russian Revolution. (Left anarchists obviously opposed central planning.)
“Right” in this context meant support for capitalism. Not so much because they liked markets as because they liked the authority relations of hierarchical businesses. That fit their hierarchical and elitist worldview. (This distinction differentiates them from ‘market liberals’ who like markets, but are at least theoretically open to other kinds of industrial organization.)
Early fascism and an initially strong wing of the Nazi Party were anti-capitalist, and supported expanding welfare for the population as a whole. Many also wanted workers to participate in some way in running the economy along with big business. They were also rabidly nationalist or racist as the case may be. (Think a “welfare state for Italians or the Volk.)
Early fascism combined anti-capitalism with a hatred for left wing values and preference for elitism, a strong leader, and a mass-based party providing political support. For the right, Fascism’s innovation was to import the left’s emphasis on mass action into a right-wing framework where “the masses” empowered authoritarian leaders and right wing values. Consequently, in Italy and Germany alike, these parties attacked and killed people on the left, not the right.
This violence against the left encouraged capitalist and oligarchic interests in both nations to see them as allies against the left, with its anti-capitalist orientation. The support they offered to these movements strengthened their nationalist and racist elements at the expense of the more anti-capitalist elements.
In Fascism: Doctrine and Institutions (1935) Mussolini argued “The corporate State considers that private enterprise in the sphere of production is the most effective and useful instrument in the interest of the nation.” Italian fascists destroyed independent trade unions, often killing their leaders. In addition, Fascist Italy supported traditional social values and a rapprochement with the Roman Catholic Church.
The most anti-capitalist wing of the Nazi Party ended up being slaughtered by Hitler’s orders in Germany. The Nazis outlawed all trade unions. Italy was less violent, but over time became just as allied with big business.
So- is fascism right or left?
· Fascists attacked and often killed leftists, and very rarely acted similarly towards people identified with the right until they were in power and needed to eliminate competitors.
· They endorsed right wing values over left-wing values.
· Over time they allied themselves more and more closely with business. The rights of working men and women became increasingly constricted. Independent unions were destroyed.
Those who call fascism left wing do not understand either the logic of these movements nor their history. American fascism as typified today by many in the alt right, as well as Trump and his supporters, fits the Italian case after it allied with big business very closely.
Is America fascist?
Some disaffected people suggest the country as a whole can be considered fascist. This is a mistake, and a serious one.
While the Republican Party strongly leans towards fascism, the system it seeks to destroy is not. Rather it is a militaristic oligarchy still somewhat subordinated to democratic processes. The distinction is important. Our domestic fascism is racially based, seeks an activist mass base, endorses the American version of the Führer prinzip, and has its roots in the antidemocratic South and Evangelical Christianity, which shares a remarkable amount in common with the Evangelical “German Christianity” that supported the Nazis.
Our oligarchy is enabled by certain constitutional and legal characteristics of American democracy. Because elections are based on plurality (who gets the most votes wins) viable third parties are impossible to sustain. Consequently, most voters end up voting for the ‘lesser evil’ much of the time. Having only two viable parties makes the financial capture of both relatively easy. Ranked choice voting (fairvote.org) would transform that and it is beginning to happen- in many cities and in Maine. It might yet save our nation if it spreads.
Second, organizations tend to transform the reasons they were created into serving the organization. True for all that last very long- especially big ones. From the Catholic Church to the Red Cross to the Boy Scouts to political parties. This tendency of organizations to redefine their purposes and control their environment is why we need access to reasonable chances of winning by more than two parties if the oligarchy is to be challenged. Even so, competitive elections even on an uneven playing field are incompatible with fascism.
Third, not all issues are economic. Many are cultural, and the oligarchic elite prefers to see us fight over those ones. Both parties depend on corporate funds, and so, in the absence of a third party and ranked choice voting no one brings up the economic side. Consequently, most Democratic politicians are good or at least decent on cultural issues, and sometimes try and better humanize serving corporations than do Republicans, but so long as they and Republicans fight mainly over cultural issues, the corporations (and military) get served. But these issues are still very important for people’s freedom.
It is not accidental that the two Democrats who have brought up the economic side of politics the most did not rise in the Party’s ranks. Sanders came in from the outside and so did Warren. Pelosi, by comparison, is and always has been a servant of corporations. In addition, primaries provide another means by which candidates disliked by the oligarchic elite can enter office. Even when the lose a challenge against an entrenched servant of the oligarchy, they get these issues “on the table.” Today’s democratic Party, while scarcely left, is significantly to the left of the Clinton dominated party.
Consequently, there is a big difference between Democrats and fascists. Democrats don’t mind a skewed playing field favoring the oligarchy, but they are far more committed to playing by democratic rules than are Republicans because they know that on both cultural and humanizing corporate domination issues, they will have the advantage. Plus some even believe in democratic values. Democrats still favor the old left universalist values rather than narrowly racist or nationalist ones.
Importantly, they do not have a “Führer prinzip” of leadership, as the Republicans now do. They are not actively hostile to the democratic process at its most abstract, but seem to seek a middle ground between pure oligarchic domination and a genuinely competitive political system. Importantly, they do not threaten violence nor seek to suppress the vote. In the current American context, the Democrats as a whole are the genuine conservatives.