The Mises Institute monthly, free with membership
Voume 26, No. 5
The Problem of Fascism
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.
Our times are much like the 1930s, when it was widely assumed that there were only two viable ideological positions: communism or fascism. Liberalism of the old school was considered to be a failure, and not even worth considering. In the name of anticommunism, and lacking a full faith in the workings of freedom, many weak-willed old liberals turned to fascism as a viable alternative.
This was not a choice outside the mainstream: Professor Mussolini’s writings appeared in scholarly venues in English and were the subject of glowing articles in the New York Times and other publications. In US politics, many intellectuals and journalists had already bought into the view that society needed to be planned by a strong man, and FDR took up the role.
In the early 1930s, it was not obvious to everyone that Hitler was an intolerable evil rather than a belligerent presence that needed to be restrained and perhaps even flattered for his interest in national planning. Thus it was John Maynard Keynes himself who wrote the introduction to the 1935 German edition of his treatise, and suggested that the total state that the National Socialists were then building was perfectly suited for the implementation of his investment schemes.
It seemed that in the US, at the height of the depression, very few intellectuals and public figures resisted the temptation of both communism and fascism. There was Henry Hazlitt, who resigned from The Nation in opposition to that publication’s support of the New Deal. There was Albert Jay Nock who loathed statism in every respect. There was John T. Flynn, who came to write a large treatise against the politics of fascism, which he rightly saw as a species of socialist planning. H.L. Mencken held true to his libertarian commitments. With the immigration of Ludwig von Mises in 1940, all these people had a new champion, and his influence after World War II helped create a new classical-liberal movement in the United States.
Today as then, intellectuals and writers are buffeted between two forms of statist styles: right and left. It is as important for libertarians to be antisocialist as it is for them to be antifascist. But first we need to recognize that fascism is a reality, not just a smear term. We see it in the economic and political program of the current administration, which seems to be advancing a distinctly right-wing style of central planning: planning in the name of family, faith, and freedom (as versus the left-wing style of planning in the name of equality, liberty, and fraternity).
As regards foreign policy, what began as expedience has turned, over time, into a full-blown program. Militarism, of course, is an old standby, useful for example during the Cold War to keep the masses distracted from noticing what was happening to their liberty. What makes it different today is how it is united to an overarching ideology, a distinctly right-wing form of central planning, which takes careful thought to understand.
The ideology of the regime is nationalist and culturally conservative. It is consistently antileftist in the sense that it rejects egalitarianism, cultural toleration, free speech, and overt appeals to socialist envy. It is religious and Christian in rhetoric. It makes an appeal for family, country, patriotism, and traditional American values. It is ostensibly pro-business. It is anti-intellectual. It backs middle-class welfare to the hilt.
Behind the rhetoric you find the iron fist of the state, forcing conformism and regimentation. We have a kind of cult of personality too, in which the public is led to believe through hints and nudges that the leader has a direct line to God.
What all this has taught us is that there is a difference between being anti-leftist and being pro-liberty. The threats to liberty emanate not only from leftist thought but also rightist thought in which the state is used to impose a particular view of the good at home and abroad. I don’t think the US has ever had a left-wing president as convinced as the present administration of the ability of government to work miracles.
The confluence of these ideological factors and their success in appealing to the middle class can only prompt us to look at history to find its predecessors. Where do we find central planning, warmongering, and justifications for cracking skulls on a global scale? The 20th century offers many examples of dictatorial antileft regimes. It is not a stretch to call these fascist.
Just as socialism is different in every country, so too is fascism. We don’t see the appeal to racial solidarity of the Nazis at work here. The Italian and Spanish cases of interwar right-wing dictatorship come to mind, but there are differences there too. In the case of Chile or pre-Castro Cuba, you had business working with government to monopolize the economy.
So while our case borrows from all of these, it is its own unique variety of fascism: evangelical Christianity and a global crusade, with anti-leftist but pro-statist policies that show complete contempt for individual liberty at home and abroad.
How did conservative intellectuals and activists go from hating big government in the 1990s to loving it and celebrating it today? There is a bad seed in the ideology of American conservatism that spawns power worship. If you can get a group of people to sing the murderous Battle Hymn of the Republic in their churches, and to take a position on foreign affairs that is Mark Twain’s "War Prayer" come to life, the rest is just a mop-up operation.
There is also an American precedent. Reagan played the war card to great effect, and Nixon manipulated the cultural issues to his advantage. FDR, Wilson, and Lincoln demonstrated that presidents can ignore the Bill of Rights in wartime, and historians have faithfully celebrated their legacies. Bush invokes this American tradition and thereby taps into the form of patriotism inherent in conservative ideology. It is as cynical as it is effective.
American fascism doesn’t need these two additives to exist and thrive, but the inclusion of them helped round out the ideology, and helped it become particularly dangerous for the world. More and more, I fear that the administration is doing terrible ideological damage, demolishing what remained of the old liberal impulse in the middle class and shoring up support for imperialist practices in the post-Cold War world.
Is there a way out? The libertarian tradition stretches from the ancient world through the Middle Ages to our own day. But I do think we are living through a high point in intellectual development and recruitment. The body of theoretical work is vast and the intellectuals are hardened and ready for battle. The web and blogosphere give us the means to compete in the world of ideas as never before.
There is no sure blueprint for success other than for libertarians to do what each individually does best, whether that means teaching students, organizing antiwar or antitax rallies, writing large books on technical economic topics, or tirelessly managing a compelling blog. Resistance is not futile but the most constructive and noble stance of all.
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute (Rockwell@mises.org).