John Holbo at Crooked Timber reprises a debate which raged 7 years ago when a book called Liberal Fascism was published. His take focuses on Germany but mine puts more weight on Italy. I think the issue is kind of obvious, but it’s always good to have an excuse to pontificate on matters historical.
[Edit 5/5/15: This blogpost is NOT a comment on or a critique of Jonah Goldberg’s book, which I have not read, but he has responded to me. Edit: 6 May 2015: My follow-up and response to Goldberg, “Nazi Political Economy“.]
Holbo does a good job debunking the idea that the Nazis were left-wingers, but he primarily focuses on Weimar party politics and the ideological antecedents of the Nazis. I prefer a more “revealed preference” approach, i.e., I judge by what fascist states actually did in power, and who supported them, and whom they supported.
In his long post, Holbo states :
We really do live in a world in which (largely thanks to Goldberg, I think) most US conservatives now take it for granted that the Nazis were a left-wing Marxist party of some sort.
The idea that fascism is some variant of socialism is probably held more widely than that. For many people who equate capitalism with an idealised laissez-faire, any diminution of property rights, any regulation of economic activity, places fascism, socialism, and communism at least within the same genus.
I would summarise the “fascism is left-wing” idea in the following way:
- The original political programme advocated by Hitler and Mussolini was socialist, and their ramblings out of power provide a good guide to their “true” ideological leanings.
- What ever their attitude to business was in practise, it was a matter of pragmatic evolution and opportunism, rather than ideological conviction.
- Progressives admired Mussolini and even Hitler at the beginning.
- Business activity under fascism was fundamentally state-directed, so property rights did not exist in any meaningful sense.
Since fascism was always a kind of pseudo-ideology made on the fly, without a long history of thought and debate like socialism, it’s wrong-headed to infer “what they really were” from the Italian fascists’ platform in 1919, or the fact that Hitler called his party “(National) Socialist German Workers Party”, or even from their electoral strategy.
To say that fascism is an extremism of the political right, as defined in historical terms, is reasonable for the following reasons :
- All actually-existed fascist states practised business-friendly economic policies, even if they were not ideologically laissez-faire. They could have easily done otherwise — this was after all the 1930s, the heyday and apogee of socialism as an ideology. But no fascist in power even contemplated taking the Soviet route of destroying the capital- and land-owning classes.
- All actually-existed fascist states repressed labour unions, socialists, and communists. Despite the worker-friendly rhetoric of fascists, they in actual power regimented labour in such a way as to please any strike-breaking capitalist of the 19th century. The Nazis, for example, forced workers into a single state-controlled trades union (DAF), which controlled wage growth and prevented striking and wage arbitration. Businesses (some, not even most), by contrast, were given incentives to consolidate into Morgan-style industrial trusts as shareholers and engage in contractual relations as monopolists or near-monopolists with other trusts and with the state.
- Communists have a demonstrated record of erasing traditional society root and branch — exterminating aristocrats, industrialists, landowners, priests, kulaks, etc. Fascists in actual power, despite their modernist reputation, seem almost traditional in comparison. In Mussolini’s Italy, the king, the titled nobility, the church, the industrialists, the landholders, and the mafia slept soundly at night. The chief innovation of fascism was not really in political economy, but in political community.
- Self-proclaimed fascist parties in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s pinched their votes from the middle-class and conservative parties, not primarily from the socialists and the communists to whom their traditional constituencies (urban workers) mostly remained loyal. In Germany’s election of 1932, the Social Democrats and the Communists maintained their usual proportion of the combined vote (~35%), but the other traditional parties were substantially weakened, even hollowed out, with only the Catholic Zentrum maintaining double-digit strength (~12%).
- Big business interests either were strong supporters of the fascists once in power, or (in some countries) had backed them well before their seizure of power.
- Fascists fetishised law & order, and made a cult out of the armed forces.
- Amongst observers in non-fascist countries, it was conservatives and businessmen, not progressives, who were the most numerous to express admiration for the fascists. There were a few prominent socialists like H G Wells who applauded some aspects of Mussolini’s regime, but these were mostly amongst intellectual kooks, and their significance pales in comparison to the conservative reaction which varied from enthusiastic approval of a bulwark against communism to benign indifference.
- Other self-proclaimed fascists — those who took their inspiration from Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s — were unambiguously conservative in the unambiguously traditional sense, without the “modernist” touches which set Hitler and Mussolini apart. If I had to use three words to describe Franco, the best ones would be “God, Country, Property”.
- The Nazis were sui generis and idiosyncratic, an outlier amongst fascists, and perhaps they really shouldn’t be pegged into the left-right spectrum. But if they had to be, their political economy was clearly capitalist and therefore clearly distant from revolutionary or egalitarian socialism.
Actual fascists who came to power behaved in a similarly labour-repressive, business-friendly, violently antisocialist way, albeit with national variations. Why were they so unanimous in their hysterical hatred of communists and socialists ? Could it have been that there was some “ideological space” for property and capitalism amongst fascists, albeit not well articulated theoretically ?
In the 1920s British conservatives generally approved of Mussolini, and liberals and socialists generally criticised him. I don’t mean that conservatives wanted fascism in Britain, but they thought it was an effective antidote to communism, admired fascist law & order, and found in it a healthy example of national pride. Of course Churchill was an early admirer of Mussolini and remained one until the early 1930s, and he took the nationalist side in the Spanish civil war.
There were ambivalences and exceptions on both left and right, but the general trend is of disapproval on the left and approval on the right. Moreover, appeasement of the Nazis in the 1930s was, at root, motivated by conservative fears of Bolshevism and the feeling that the Nazis were the lesser of two evils.
You can find some positive things uttered about Mussolini by the left-wing British press until 1924 or so, because the nature of Italian fascism was not yet clear and some people still believed fascism was a working-class phenomenon. But 1924 is a clear dividing line, because in that year a famous Italian socialist by the name of Matteotti was murdered by Mussolini’s regime and the destruction of the Italian left was in full swing.
At least in peace time, the Nazi regime largely respected property rights (at least of those deemed Aryan enough). It did not, with one major exception, nationalise industries; nor did Nazi economic policies use brute compulsion and peremptory diktats against businesses. Rather the Nazis relied on incentives and manipulation to get what they wanted out of the private sector. From “The Role of Private Property in the Nazi Economy: The Case of Industry” :
Socialists have often argued Big Business was intimately complicit in the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, and that both men were their creatures. But that is definitely not what I am arguing. In the 1980s, there was a minor (academic) scandal precisely over this question when a young left-wing historian wrote a book arguing capitalist guilt in Hitler’s rise to power. In reply an older historian replied with a thudding book, German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler, which disputed that analysis of the relationship between business and Hitler.
I follow Turner. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, German business hedged their bets by giving money to many nonsocialist parties. German industrialists had been disenchanted with the Weimar Republic, which taxed them more than they liked and which also forced them into syndicalist practises — labour-capital management boards and the like which persist in German business culture today. In 1930, 1931, and 1932, when the Nazis were at their electoral apogee, many businesmen who found the Nazis’ anticommunism appealing, began to think they could coopt the Nazis and influence them away from some of their thuggish ways. But at no time did German business find Hitler an ideal choice or even wanted him in power. In fact, when Hitler was appointed chancellor, the condition of his appointment was that Franz von Papen — a traditional conservative politician who was reassuring to businessmen — would be his vice chancellor, and it was expected that Papen would be the real power behind Hitler. This was not to be.
Now, once in power, Hitler worked furiously to court the business community, and — I think this part is incontestable — German industrialists became reconciled to Hitler and found the relationship he offered a highly attractive one. At no time was Hitler a “creature of Big Business”, and business activity was conducted in the interests of the state ; but conversely at no time was German business an innocent coerced willy-nilly to do Hitler’s bidding. They profited handsomely from their relationship with the Nazi state and there is little evidence they didn’t like it.
Italian industrialists were rather more wary of the fascists precisely because of all those socialists in their ranks. But, with the exception of the highly industrialised Lombardy, Italy in 1919 was still basically an agricultural country. So unlike in Germany, the rise of Italian fascism had a big agrarian dimension, and, again unlike in Germany, there was a committed conservative backer of fascism in the Italian countryside before Mussolini’s seizure of power — landowners and agricultural employers. Their support was instrumental in the rise of Italian fascism.
Mussolini did want to be seen as a progressive, and the way to do that in the 1930s was to market himself, to European intellectuals and to domestic workers, as a socialist. To an American audience he seems to have emphasised what American knees tend to get weak for — the practical, undogmatic, untheoretical, uncogitative man of action.
So Mussolini in power talked socialist but practised something else, and had the loyalty of the industrialists — including such big names as Agnelli (Fiat), Olivetti (typewriter), Pirelli (tyre), etc. If Mussolini was in the very depths of his soul an anticapitalist anticonservative anarchosyndicalist til his very dying days, he certainly did not show it after he gained mastery of Italy by the mid 1920s. He could have done much more than he did to reorganise the state and the economy. But he did not.
Also, the emphasis on the socialist origins of the earliest Italian fascists obscures what actually happened once they came to power. The distinctive features of what we consider Italian fascism were built not by those henchmen of the old revolutionary socialist days, but by newcomers into the state after Mussolini’s ascent.
Most revolutionary movements have internal conflicts between left and right elements. The German army’s price for supporting Hitler in 1934 was the destruction of the SA (the Brown Shirts), whose leader Ernst Röhm represented the genuinely revolutionary faction within the Nazi ranks. The SA were considered a threat both to the army and to the social order.
There is no Italian version of the Night of the Long Knives, but the Fascist state was gradually coopted by the Italian Nationalist Association (ANI : Associazione Nazionalista Italiana), which was an unambiguously conservative group. Mussolini’s was a one-party state, but it was a one-party state in which the party did not control the government. Rather, the conservatives who joined the Fascist Party managed to keep the state supreme over the party. (See the first post in the comments section where I quote at length from Alexandre de Grand on this point.)
So it’s quite irrelevant what Mussolini believed in 1918 or even what he believed in his deepest heart in 1930. What we now know as Italian fascism was created not in some 1919 platform, but in large part by conservatives who infiltrated the state and steered it away from any revolutionary tendencies it might have had (if it had really had any).
And I reiterate what I’ve said before : since there is not 150 years’ worth of fascist doctrinal literature as there is for Marxist writings, we can judge what is fascism primarily from practise. And, in practise, we have : nationalism, militarism, law-and-orderism, Church patronage, and business mercantilism. These are not practises historically associated with the left, but with the right.
[Edit: The argument in this post is about the political alignments and polarisations that actually occurred in history — who supported the fascists, whom the fascists supported, and what fascists’ attitudes were toward traditional elements in society. Therefore, ahistorical analytic concepts like the Nolan Chart, or the horeshoe theory, or the individualism-collectivism distinction, are irrelevant. It absolutely does not matter that fascists and socialists might equally be deemed ‘anti-individualistic’. The labels “left” and “right” are only used as convenient shorthands, which could be removed completely without changing the substance of the post.]