Although I have already voted, tomorrow’s election day has me thinking deep political thoughts. After you cast your vote, what can you do in your daily life to help reject Fascism? I offer some suggestions, followed by a more detailed discussion. If you define the terms differently, see the detailed discussion and then perhaps I can translate my thoughts to your definitions. I have an earlier post on the fall of the Weimar Republic if people want to go to those details.
How to Reject Fascism
1- Resist Thinking in Groups, Part 1, Ethnicity. Individuals assert and enjoy their own rights within the polity, and those rights must be evaluated individually, or for associations freely entered into. Focusing on culturally constructed concepts of race is a foundation of Fascism. Not all race-conscious philosophies are Fascist, perhaps most are not – but all Fascists are race-conscious. Keep your group-based analysis in your sociology class, not your civics class.
2 – Resist thinking in groups, Part 2: Rights. Whether you are a fan of the English Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution, or the French Revolution, Liberals framed rights in individual terms. Each individual has the right to direct one’s own life. Each individual has rights to say unpopular things, worship unpopular gods, and publish unpopular opinions. Individual rights extend to voting for the party of one’s choice and to enjoying one’s own property. The limits of these rights are predicated upon extending the same rights to others, not some greater good. The Fascist rejects these Liberal concepts and subjects the individual to the greater good of the nation-state. Keep your group-based analysis in your sociology class, not your civil liberties class.
3 – Resist thinking in groups, Part 3: Justice. Individuals are responsible for their own words and deeds, and only their own. Resist the temptation to hold individuals responsible for the actions of others. Resist the temptation for show trials or public smear campaigns, in which you believe the societal repercussions of the treatment of accused or of a verdict outweigh the individual’s right to presumption of innocence or due process. Each individual has a right to presumption of innocence and due process, evaluated for one’s own circumstances, not based on whatever category you want to group someone in. Keep your group-based analysis in your sociology class, not your law class.
4 – Tolerate Dissent. The right to dissent is mutual. If you want the right to hold and express an unpopular opinion, tolerate the same in others. This is more than a legal suggestion. It is not limited to government suppression of dissent. Don’t attempt to drive dissent from the public square using non-governmental means. You have no obligation to listen to anyone or to provide anyone a microphone, but you don’t have a right to prevent one person from listening to another.
5 – Don’t Invoke De Minimus Harm in an Effort to Restrict Others. This is related to tolerating dissent. If each person has maximum freedom subject to not harming others, then one way to restrict others is to exaggerate harm. Is it truly harmful that you can see the shape of your neighbor’s children’s eyeglasses while they wait for the school bus? Shall we grant you the right to ban circular eyeglasses because of this supposed harm? The community can effectively eliminate individual freedom by exaggerating every de minimus harm.
6 – Accept some Inefficiency. Sometimes, you are going to think the system got it wrong. Perhaps the majority chose the wrong option despite the advice of subject matter experts. Perhaps you think the majority got it right, but another branch of government exercised its authority to thwart the choice. People will attempt to game any set of rules adopted. Resist the temptation to undermine confidence in the system as a whole just because you think the system is inefficient in particular cases. Resist the temptation to transfer all the political decisions to people whose role is explaining available options and their consequences. If inefficiency becomes too burdensome, the system has tools for change such as elections and Constitutional Amendments. Use them.
7 – Resolve Political Issues by Ballot, not in the Streets. The streets are a great place to raise awareness. People have the right to peaceably assemble, to speak, and to petition their government for grievances. The streets are not a great place to actually resolve political issues. The Fascists took to the streets to intimidate rivals, not to persuade. If you gather a crowd on the porch of a public official’s house before dawn, don’t try to claim you did it to raise awareness or petition for grievances. At least I am not buying it. Not saying you don’t have a right to, I’m saying you are straying more toward Fascism and less toward Liberalism.
8 – Resolve Political Issues on the Merits, not with Evasions. Even if you think someone else’s opinion is due to a cognitive bias, pretend it isn’t. Address the substance of their concerns anyway. It should be easy. Maybe you are the person suffering cognitive bias. An accusation of cognitive bias is an evasion because two things can be true. First, due to a cognitive bias, Detective Columbo jumps to the conclusion that the jilted lover committed the murder. Second, the jilted lover did commit the murder. Columbo’s cognitive bias neither confirms nor rejects the accusation. Focus on the evidence.
In political discourse, confusion reigns. The terms are so messed up that we can’t communicate. This morning I googled illiberal liberalism. I got over 2 million hits. I repeated in quotes and still got over 8 thousand hits. The fun continued with searches for fascist libertarians and liberal communists. Turns out there are elite Davos-attending uber-capitalists who describe themselves as ‘liberal communists.’ Who knew? Google returns New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman paired with each of fascist, communist, and liberal. While it is OK for language to evolve and terms to change meaning, it is important to understand what concepts were embraced by the 20th century bad guys like Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Want to avoid another Hitler or Mussolini? Learn what they stood for, and what they didn’t.
Fascists were the Bad Guys
First, people my age are all about rejecting Fascism. We grew up on comic books, movies, and TV shows dominated by WWII images. Need a bad guy? Stick a swastika on him. But the lessons ran much deeper than one-dimensional comic book villains. We grew up on Burt Lancaster as a German judge in Judgment at Nuremberg coming to grips with his complicity in administering oppressive laws and in ignoring individual defendants in favor of emergency ‘societal needs’ for show trials. We grew up on Jimmy Stewart in Mortal Storm, trying to cope with childhood buddies trained to be Nazis and who oppressed his friends, teachers, and family. We grew up on TV mini-series like The Holocaust which could spend more time on anti-semitic atrocities, from the extreme of the death factories to smaller everyday slights. We grew up on Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator with its hilarious lampoons of Hitler and Mussolini and its inspirational anti-fascist final speech. We grew up on best-selling books like The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and The Winds of War. To us, the term Fascist has political content; it is not just a label to put on people we disagree with.
Fascism, like any political philosophy, is a way of thinking that leads to policies – not the policies themselves. For example, spending a lot on the military, funding public broadcasting, or having national cultural councils do not by themselves equal Fascism. The Soviet Union spent a lot on the military and nationalized cultural councils. Communists were not Fascists. The Western Democracies spent a lot on the military during the Cold War, and many broadcast public media and created national cultural councils (BBC? NEA?). Post WWII Europe was not Fascist.
Fascism emerged from the ashes of World War I. Supplied by America’s ‘arsenal of democracy,’ the alliance led by France, Britain, and Russia fought Germany and the Central Powers to a standstill during 1914-1917. Despite complaints of German militarism, this was not an ideological war – the French Republic and Tsarist Russia had little in common philosophically. In 1917, the American republic replaced Tsarist Russia after the Communist Revolution. Maybe it was less of a stretch to portray the Allied Powers as representing Liberal Democracy after 1917.
The late war change in Germany was more important. The German Kaiser abdicated when Germany was effectively defeated but before Germany was occupied, or had signed a final peace treaty. The Germans who formed their post-war government and signed the Treaty of Versailles were blamed by many Germans for “stabbing the country in the back.” The Fascists capitalized on this resentment by attributing Germany’s difficulties under the Weimar Republic with inherent failings of Liberal Democracy.
Before giving the details of Fascist aspirations, here is the context of two philosophies that Fascists rejected: Liberal Democracy and Marxist Communism. There were many other competing philosophies, but competition between Liberalism, Fascism, and Communism dominated the 20th Century.
In the 20th Century, the term Liberal when used to contrast with Fascist or Communist refers to the Constitutional legacies of the American and French Revolutions. The revolutionaries explicitly referenced Enlightenment thinkers. It cannot be emphasized enough that this Liberalism had an individual view of rights, including property rights. Both the American and French Revolutions generated written Constitutions and Bills of Rights that became models for democratic movements in many parts of the world. Liberal governments were characterized by elected legislatures of limited authority, with guarantees of individual rights. At a minimum, these rights included freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and due process of law. The following excerpt from France’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man attempts to summarize the scope of individual freedom in a Liberal state.
“…These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression… …Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights…”
Liberalism could fracture traditional relationships. Catholic and Protestant churches coexisting in countries formerly ravaged by religious wars? Feudal obligations replaced by contractual exchanges? Migration of agricultural peasants to urban manufacturing centers? Migration of oppressed populations to more tolerant societies. Formation of associations to promote anything from a political idea to a traditional folk dance? Liberal ideals permitted, but did not guarantee, the possibility of cultural change and multi-cultural societies.
Liberal ideals could also permit economic inequality. Freedom to act differently from one’s neighbor necessarily leads to the possibility of different results compared to one’s neighbor. Free enterprise can flow easily from protection of private property, freedom of association, and freedom of contract. Freely arrived at inequality of property was just unless proven otherwise; rather than a person with more than average being considered unjust unless proven otherwise.
Liberal ideals could lead to inefficiency. There is no guarantee that a popularly elected legislature that makes decisions based on majority vote will make the same choice as a subject matter expert. In some cases, the Constitution may prohibit the legislature to act even if the legislature wishes to follow the advice of experts. The democratic process is also vulnerable to demagogues and corruption.
Shifting from ideal to practice, 20th Century Liberal Democracy had even more flaws. In some Democracies there were property and other restrictions on the right to vote. Women struggled for the right to vote, and still struggle for equal rights. The United States denied African-Americans equal rights, and European democracies denied rights to colonial subjects. Even with these flaws, the Liberal impulse was for self-determination and dissent in the political realm and tolerance in the individual realm.
Communists derived their political philosophy from the economic writings of Karl Marx and the social writings of Friedrich Engels. Communists viewed society through the lens of class struggle, not the individual. To communists, the physical mode of production determined other social relations. Oversimplifying, agriculture yielded feudal relationships, while manufacturing yielded capitalist relationships. For the world economy of the early twentieth century, Communists believed the struggle was between the capitalist bourgeoisie (owners of means of production and hirers of wage labor) and the proletariat (people owning no means of production who must sell their labor to live).
Many communists believed in a historic progression of social relationships – from the feudal exploitation of agrarian peasants to the bourgeoisie exploitation of paid labor. Ultimately, Communists believed that capitalism was necessary to destroy feudal and religious systems, but that the Capitalist economic system was unsustainable. Capitalism’s self-destruction would eventually lead to a worker’s revolution.
Communists believed that the profit motive would disappear once society was run in the interests of the proletariat. Without a profit motive, people would naturally contribute according to their ability and distribute according to need without the need of force. Of course, force might be needed until then.
Communists interpreted the supposedly voluntary contractual relations exalted by Liberals as horrific desecrations of humanity. Consider this excerpt from the Communist Manifesto.
“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”
Communism typically opposed Liberal democracies. A Communist society was to be run by the party in the interests of the proletariat, not necessarily by the proletariat. Denying the value of individual ends, Communists saw no particular right to self-determination or political participation. A Communist government could be totalitarian, meaning the authority of the party to use the levers of the state to act in the interest of the workers could be without limit. Perhaps when Communism achieved its goals and the profit motive disappeared, the state would wither away, but that was a long way off.
Communism typically opposed nationalism. To Communists, workers in Russia, Germany, England, America, China, etc., were all united in their exploitation by the world bourgeoisie. In their view, nationalist governments pitted worker against worker in WWI to delay the inevitable collapse of the capitalist system. A Canadian capitalist was the class enemy of a Canadian worker, not a fellow countryman. Communist antagonism to nationalism collided with Fascism. Benito Mussolini had been a member of the Directorate of the National Socialist Party until he was kicked out for advocating Italian participation in WWI.
Fascists like Benito Mussolini were extreme state nationalists. It is important here to discuss the term ‘nation’ in this context – by itself ‘nation’ did not mean ‘country.’ The term nation was used to describe an ethnic group, often people sharing the same language, religion, history, or similar cultural traditions. France was a nation-state, meaning that the extent of the French government’s sovereignty roughly coincided with the people identifying themselves as sharing the French language, history, and culture (with all due respect to French-speaking Belgians and Swiss). In contrast, the Austro-Hungarian empire was made up of members of many different nations speaking different languages, observing different religions, and practicing different cultural traditions. Examples include German speaking Austrians, Slavic-speaking Czechs, and Moslem Serbs.
Fascists had an organic view of the nation-state; the unit of action was the community. Fascists sought to create or sustain a nation-state, and promote the interests of the nation through the levers of the state. Once state sovereignty coincided with the nation, organizations independent of the state were suspect. Fascists emphasized personal duty over self-fulfillment, often cast in terms of discipline. The interests of the individual were subordinate to the community. Fascists rejected what they saw as the petty selfishness and inefficiency of Liberalism. Consider these quotes by Mussolini.
“The Fascist conception of life accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with the State. . . . Fascism reasserts the rights of the state. If classical liberalism spells individualism, Fascism spells government.”
“The foundation of Fascism is the conception of the State, its character, its duty, and its aim. Fascism conceives of the State as an absolute, in comparison with which all individuals or groups are relative, only to be conceived of in their relation to the State. The conception of the Liberal State is not that of a directing force, guiding the play and development, both material and spiritual, of a collective body, but merely a force limited to the function of recording results: on the other hand, the Fascist State is itself conscious and has itself a will and a personality.”
Fascists viewed Communists as traitors, although both had a totalitarian view of state power. Communists sought to divide the nation (remember: folk) along class lines. Communists might even favor the interests of foreign workers over domestic interests under some circumstances. After the success of the Russian Revolution, some Communist parties did receive financial assistance from Moscow and attempt to coordinate internationally. Since both Fascists and Communists rejected democratic institutions in favor of struggle, the groups would disrupt each other’s rallies and fight in the streets as elections approached.
Benito Mussolini led the Fascists to power in Italy shortly after WWI. Italy’s elected parliament had been controlled by alternating Liberal and Socialist parties. Mussolini waited in Milan while armed Fascist followers, called blackshirts, disrupted opposition and intimidated the government in Rome. Prime Minister Facta, although having resigned, drew up an order declaring Rome under siege. If signed by the King, the order called upon the military to put down the Fascist attempted coup. Instead of signing the order, King Victor Emmanual asked Mussolini to form a cabinet on October 29, 1922. Mussolini’s tactics of intimidation are as responsible for the phrase ‘March on Rome’ as his train trip from Milan.
Once in power, Mussolini described the Fascist economic approach as syndicalist. The Fascist government organized and supervised both capital and labor. Italian corporatism typically involved formation of cartels, promotion of mergers, or nationalization of industries. Planning boards set product lines, production levels, prices, and the size of firms. For labor, union membership was mandatory for all Italian workers, but the planning boards set wages and working conditions. Strikes were forbidden.
Versailles, Weimar, and Hitler
In evaluating the rise of Hitler, recall the Fascist stress on the nation-state. The idealistic Woodrow Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles seemed to promote self-determination and a nation-state for everyone but ethnic Germans. Even though this view was false (other nations were shafted at Versailles), many resentful Germans saw it that way. Remember, in this context the German nation refers to the cultural group, not the country.
The terms of Versailles left Germany a wreck. Its government, known as the Weimar Republic, had to deal with a hyper-inflation, reparations payments, and the loss of territories, including regions that had provided significant tax revenues. Its elections were marred by streetfights. Election-related violence provided local authorities justification for restricting public speeches, and the leanings of local officials often determined who would be restricted. Despite these problems, Germany was a viable Democracy for a decade.
Communists were active from the beginning. German Communists led their own coup attempt in 1919. Called the Spartacus Revolt, German Communists took over buildings in Berlin causing the government to flee the city. In putting down the Spartacus Revolt, Germany not only relied on the formal army, but also used the Freikorps, a militia made up of ex army personnel. The leaders of the revolt, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, were not the only ones executed. German Democracy would be marred by assassinations, political violence, militia streetfighting, and even the occasional right wing coup attempt or Communist revolt.
Germany’s fascist movement was known as the Nazis, or National Socialists. Adolph Hitler had participated in an attempted coup against the Weimar government in 1923. Following this treason, known as the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler was briefly imprisoned. He used his prison time to write Mein Kampf. He blamed Germany’s loss in WWI on a mythical stab in the back, condemned weak and corrupt Liberals, asserted the superiority of the Aryan race, complained of the victimization of the Germans by foreign powers and Jews, and promised a future German Reich presiding over inferior Slavs in Eastern Europe. Hitler and the Nazis bullied and fought opponents in the streets to undermine the Republic. They recruited a militia of stormtroopers to aid their street tactics.
Matching the Ethnic Nation to the Totalitarian State
Unlike Communists who often sought the brotherhood of workers across borders, Fascists often sought to match the nation and the state geographically. Alternatively, Fascists sought control of at least one state to protect their nation when minorities in other states.
While Communists seemed narrowly focused on the effects of industrialization, Hitler and the Nazis also referred to feeding a growing population. To understand Nazi hostility to Liberalism and Communism, and Nazi military aggression, see this 1927 Hitler Speech. Notice the emphasis on matching the nation to the territory, or the territory to the nation – another reminder of Fascism as matching state sovereignty to ethnicity. Notice immigration isn’t just about allowing people to move to Germany but also emigration of Germans to more spacious territory. He complains that other states would likely use restrictive immigration policies to bar migration of a growing German population, especially states that considered themselves pro-worker.
“…it is critical for a nation that its territory correspond to its population…. “The nation needs space.””
“…Feeding a nation of 62 million means not only maintaining our agricultural productivity, but enlarging it to meet the needs of a growing population. This is true in many areas. We National Socialists maintain that industrial production is not the most important in terms of the future of the European peoples.”
“…Power is also a part of economic struggles. Power is the prerequisite to earth and soil… Even the sorrowful effort to adjust the population to the available territory by encouraging the emigration of new generations requires power, even more today as states hermetically seal themselves from the immigration of uncomfortable elements. The more economic difficulties increase, the more immigration will be seen as a burden. The so-called workers’ states seal themselves off more than others as a way of building a protective wall against cheap labor. The newcomer after all must be either cheaper or better. Here, too, one comes to the conclusion that maintaining this way of supporting the population requires power.”
“…a nation that thinks internationally, follows the path of democracy, rejects struggle, and preaches pacifism. A people that has accepted these three human burdens, that has given up its racial values, preaches internationalism, that limits its great minds, and has replaced them with the majority, that is inability in all areas, rejecting the individual mind and praising human brotherhood, such a people has lost its intrinsic values. Such a people is incapable of policies that could bring a rising population in line with its territory, or better said: adjust the territory to the population.”
With contempt for Liberal weakness and hostility to Marxist internationalism, the Nazis sought the overthrow of the Weimar Republic. They blamed Germany’s problems on Communists, Jews, and the weakness of Weimar’s republican institutions. As the Depression deepened, desparate Germans took the bait. Nazi seats in the Reichstag rose from 12 in 1928 to 232 in July 1932. With the most seats (a plurality, not a majority), Hitler was asked to form a government in 1933. Despite open hostility to republican institutions and blatant election intimidation, the Nazis were voted to power.
German Communists (KPD) had fought the Nazis in the streets of Germany. For a time, the KPD was the third largest party in Germany. The KPD leader, Ernst Thalman, coordinated with Stalin’s USSR. By the late Weimar Republic, Stalin and the KPD considered the German Social Democratic Party (SDP) as the real enemy, even though the SDP’s socialism was closer to the KPD on many issues. The KPD sought to undermine governments incorporating the SDP, even equating the SDP with Fascists in party propaganda. The KPD just wanted chaos. They felt that even if the Nazis temporarily took power during unrest, that the Communists would come to power after the Nazis. Streetfighting was designed not only to oppose the fascists directly, but to undermine the rule of law more generally. Thalman was wrong. Once the Nazis took power, he was arrested and his fate was doomed, along with the other German Communists.
The Nazi approach to the economy was similar to Mussolini’s syndicalism. Major industries were “rationalized.” That generally meant government sponsored cartels, mergers, or nationalizations with prices and output supervised by production boards. Similarly, German laborers had to join national labor organizations, but wages and working conditions were set by planning boards and there was no right to strike.
Free market thinkers fled the Fascists. What in the United States has become known as the Austrian School of economics was in part the result of Hayek, Mises and others escaping to the west. They left central Europe because of the hostility of Fascists to their individualism and their opposition to syndicalism. There are a lot of legitimate issues to criticize the Austrian school of economics, but calling them Fascists is like calling a Jew a Nazi.
Conclusion: How to Oppose Fascism
Fascism rejects the individual and thinks in terms of the nation-state. To the Fascist, the nation is the cultural group, often united in language, custom, and common history. Advocates of Fascism seek to match the nation to the state and use the levers of the state to promote the nation.
Fundamental American institutions rely on the individual as the unit of analysis. The Bill of Rights speaks of rights in individual terms. The system of justice is administered individual case by individual case. When discussing these issues, reject Fascism by insisting that justice and rights be defined with the individual as the unit of analysis.
The individual as the unit of analysis for political economy does not invalidate sociology. Sociologists define terms and construct methodologies for their discipline. If using the group as the unit of analysis improves theory, evidence, and analysis in sociology – terrific.
The individual as the unit of analysis does not necessarily mean rugged individualism or selfishness. Individuals are free to associate in any combination they choose. Together, they can pursue selfless charity for the poor, selfish hedonism, personal duty to the wider community, or comradery with their own ethnic group.
So go out there and speak, or be silent. Criticize each other, or praise each other. Sit on your porch, or convert it to a front room. Join a bowling league, or join a political party. But don’t cast aside America’s individualistic Liberal traditions in favor of thinking in groups.
End of the Cold War Chronology (Wilson Center) – https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/publication/EotCW_Chronology.pdf
World War I casulaties – https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/war_losses_france#_E2_80_9CDead_for_France_E2_80_9D__the_right_to_compensation
Maurin, Jules: Histoire militaire de la France, tome 3, sous la direction de Guy Pedroncini, 1997, p. 28
Darmon, Pierre: “Une tragédie dans la tragédie. la grippe espagnole en France (avril 1918-avril 1919), in: Annales de démographie historique (2000-2), pp. 153-173.
EU unemployment rates in modern era https://www.ecb.europa.eu/pub/pdf/other/art1_mb201410_pp49-68.en.pdf
Unemployment Rates in Great Depression, Economic History Association https://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~gwallace/Papers/2120839.pdf
Paul Robeson – To You Beloved Comrade – https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/biographies/1953/04/x01.htm
Adolf Hitler’s Speech at the 1927 Nuremberg Rally
Click to access 2120839.pdf