Why We Should Talk About Fascism

Last week I wrote an article that, I’m pretty sure, received the highest circulation I’ve ever had on a single piece of writing. It was an an interesting experience. The first version appeared on Liberty.me. Probably four days later, I revised it, re-stylized it, and it appeared on FEE.org. Then Newsweek picked it up, then ZeroHedge, and it went viral from there. My social was slammed. I can’t keep up with the interview requests.

It’s a bizarre thing because I write every day. Why this one? Why now? I have no idea, no theory. I try to put valuable stuff in everything I write, so I don’t regard this article’s popularity as a commentary on its quality. It just somehow hit in the right way at the right time. You can’t game this system. (It amuses me when people accuse me of having written something “to go viral”; if it were that easy, I would do it more often.)

But I did learn something from this experience. I learned that we desperately need a theory of right-wing statism. We know what socialism is. We think of it as left wing. But the culturally right-wing version has no real name. We talk about specific variants of right-wing theory such as theocrats, jingoists, racialists, and so on, but it is all rather haphazard. These describe odd biases and impulses, but not a political theory.

So when someone like Donald Trump comes along, we have no real term to describe his views. We listen to him scream about making the nation into a business, about the evil of foreigners, about the danger of bad trade deals, about the need for a new order of things that bypasses the sluggishness and cowardice of the status quo. We listen but it all sounds like the random yammerings of a crank.

When I heard his speech, it gradually dawned on me that I had heard all of these views before. They are rather new in modern history — or, rather, they had never cohered in this way before the interwar period. But they did indeed come to cohere, pushed mostly as an alternative to socialism. This alternative to socialism was not freedom as such. It was another version of the planned society but without the completely idiotic theories pushed by socialist lunatics for the last 500 years.

In a brief period in the 1930s, it developed the right name. It came out of syndicalist theory and eventually led to Nazism and then was blown away in wartime. But between 1930 and 1938, it had a name and it was briefly respectable and gained a gigantic following. In fact, it was far more popular all over the developed world than socialism ever was. Its name was fascism.

What were its tenets? Like socialism, it sought a planned society ruled by smart people with power and resources. But unlike socialism, it had no interest in strange and far-flung theories about overthrowing human nature, creating a “new man,” abolishing religion, or getting rid of the family or private property. Indeed, it praised all these institutions. It only clarified that these institutions needed to serve the national interest and the collective heart of the people.

It draws on revolutionary idealism to some extent. It says that the current system is deeply corrupt. It serves special interests only. It is riddled with graft, bribes, and payoffs. It calls for a new plan that sweeps away the existing order and replaces it with a plan that serves a higher ideal. That ideal can be anything: race, history, people, industry, whatever. Doesn’t matter. What matters is the power that is necessary to make the system smarter, more productive, more mighty and glorious.

Fascism, then, would not propose the abolition of private property, or even the over nationalization of industry. It would not propose to suppress religion or family. It proposes regulatory controls on all of these sectors of life in order to channel them into a single national interest. This requires a massive and totalitarian state, one that effectively obliterates any room for individual decision making, institutional autonomy, freedom of action, entrepreneurship, and so on.

It is conventionally believed that fascism does not have a fully worked-out plan for managing national life, and that’s true enough. But actually, its plans are more worked out in practice than socialism ever was. The socialists were famed for their blistering criticisms of capitalism, but rather short when it came to actually showing how their hare-brained system of collective ownership of scarce goods would work out in practice. In contrast, the fascists were much more overt about their plans for economic life. Business would be cartelized, labor would be syndicalized, trade would be mercantilized, and production and consumption subjected to massively regulatory oversight — in the name of the national interest.

No, I do not believe that Trump has done a private study of the works of the Italian syndicalists in order to arrive at his views. Fascism took hold in history not because it is a systematized theory of politics. It took hold because it cobbles together a series of cultural biases together with a belief that the state is the best-possible tool for organizing economic and social life. Anyone who can combine those two can find himself stumbling, however haphazardly, into embracing fascist theory.

But just as with socialism, fascism is also a method for propagandizing people into considering a new way of ordering society. The fascist must get elected. He must convince people to acquiesce to his dictatorial aspirations. Here is where the failures of the current system serve him well. The entire establishment is deeply corrupt, incredibly stupid, not serving the nation, failing to boost the national spirit — and so on. The orator seeks to tap into raw emotion in hopes of inspiring a suspension of incredulity.

Fascism is also deeply personal, more so than socialism. It is all about the great leader’s capacity to wrest control of an entire economy and nation and steer it in the right direction. Thus does business or military success become central to the campaign. You have to have a proven record of doing implausibly amazing things, things no mere mortal could accomplish without some special gift.

Two names come to mind within the Republican ranks: John McCain and Donald Trump. So it’s not surprising that they are fighting like scorpions in a jar. It is actually delightful to watch. Trump said that McCain is no war hero, and the Republican establishment went nuts with denunciations. According to all reports on the ground in Iowa, most of the actual Republicans at the grassroots didn’t really care that Trump had insulted McCain. Most all GOP activists are sick and tired of this McCain guy in any case.

Where Trump really messed up was in using the words “hell” and “damn” in his speech. This upset many religious people in Iowa. One person quoted in the New York Times worried that perhaps Trump is not really born again. If that rumor continues to spread, he will have no future.

It will be one of the greatest ironies of American politics if, in the end, it is pietism that stops the advance of fascism in our time.

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Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker is Founder and President of the Brownstone Institute. He is also Senior Economics Columnist for Epoch Times, author of 10 books, including Liberty or Lockdown, and thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.

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  • I am sure that the main reason of all those interview requests is that Trump is hot right now and the media hate him. They finally saw a historically and philosophically correct analysis that is also short, intelligible and enjoyable by most people, so they want to use it.

    But I think another reason, much more important for us libertarians, is that through your article many people for once “met the enemy, and it is us”. The US had many Trumps in its history, and some that reached the pinnacles of power and are still revered, like FDR. Many feel that there was something wrong with them, but they tend to ignore the causes of those feelings as strange peculiarities of the politics of those times, they do not understand that those “peculiarities” were actually part of a coherent whole. Your analysis for once showed the whole.

    There is another point that I would suggest you to make in the interviews. Just like socialism comes in many intensities, from European social democracies to the North Korean aberration, so fascism has its specter of intensities, from FDR relatively benign version up to Nazism, and the more they go to the extremes, the more they tend to be the same thing (for extreme fascism, I suggest to anyone interested to read the Vampire Economy of Gunter Reimann). Until a point, at the very extremes, where they converge completely. How would you describe the totalitarian state of Orwell’s 1984, communist or fascist?

    • All we need to do is watch the news to see that our nation is rapidly slipping into some sort of mix of socialism/fascism. Look at the the armored vehicles in Ferguson, watch the police officers who are trained to protect themselves first, count the number of times that a policeman shoots a citizen and only wounds them. There are hundreds of examples everyday but it seems that the land of the free has been turned into the land of the sheep. the herd does as it is told. Look at the growth of government handouts whether it be food stamps or Obamacare it is your money and my money that is being given away. Why do we do nothing? When will we have an American Spring. The things that our government is doing to us are far and away worse than what caused our original revolution.

  • I have been kicking an idea for an article series around in my head for a while, and this article has inspired me to finally get to work on it.
    Part I: How fascist is America? Compare current conditions and trends to the 14 defining characteristics of fascism. http://www.rense.com/general37/char.htm
    Part II: How communist is America? Compare current conditions and trends to the 10 points of the Communist Manifesto. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch02.htm
    Part III: Observe that both scores are very high, explain how and why this is the case, and (possibly Part IV) explore what might be done about it.

  • Once again, an excellent article. Richard Maybury suggests Fascism is a system that advocates whatever it takes, no morals, no exceptions. From 24, Jack Bauer is the perfect example.

  • Fascists become the ‘strong man’ that Hayek warned about in Road to Serfdom, the one who takes advantage of a broken system with promises to restore order. The socialists and the fascists then create a stepwise complex, where the socialists destroy society, then out of reaction to that destruction the fascists obtain power with promises to restore a former glory, resulting in utter concentration of power and inevitable downfall from there directly.

  • It would be a beautiful piece of irony if pietism blocked Trump. But, it certainly won’t last long, if Trump comes to believe he’d benefit from another dunking – he can get re-born-again any time. Nor is it going to block fascism, though I wish it would. Sinclair Lewis supposedly said fascism would come to America wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross. There are good citations for believing that he said it would be “wrapped up in the American flag and heralded as a plea for liberty and preservation of the constitution.” Quite a lot of those espousing economic policies consistent with fascism seem to have the “America can do no wrong” attitude. Gung ho, they seem to forget, is a phrase from Chinese industrial cooperatives meaning “work together in harmony.”

    Given what the policies of fascism and the policies of communism do to the peaceful enjoyment of private property by individuals, given how horrific both sets of ideologies have been in terms of mass murders in the 20th Century alone, I’m not sure how much of all this irony I can stomach. The swastika may be set approximately equal to the hammer and sickle, in terms of economic chaos, war, and horror. Failed ideologies that slaughtered tens of millions…aren’t much fun.

  • Except that Mussolini was a left winger. He was high in the socialist movement in Italy. Then he broke with the Internationale and made his socialism nationalist instead of internationalist. But it was largely the same ideology. In the US, that ideology formed the Progressive Movement. In fact, the first fascist regime in the west was not Mussolini’s in Italy, but Wilson’s in the US. Only Americans would only put up with that in wartime and barely then. Which is why the progressives came up with the term “moral equivalent of war”. They wanted the ability to mobilize the people (like what they saw in Bismark’s germany), but without all of the actual militarization (most of them, some, like Teddy Roosevelt, liked the militarization).

    The problem isn’t that we need a new theory of right wing totalitarianism. It’s that we need to rationalize the right-left continuum so that it actually makes sense rather than following the progression as put out there by such stalwarts as Stalin and pumped up by the progressives after WW2 who did not want to be associated with the horrors of the holocaust that their ideological brethren had introduced in Europe.

    We should stop using the nonsensical right-left wing spectrum handed to us by those who would have enslaved us as they got the chance. If conservatives are right due to their desire for smaller government, then libertarians are further right. There is no progression of ideas that goes further than libertarianism to the right yet leads to totalitarianism. At least none that makes sense.

  • Fascism is Socialism without internationalism (i.e. National Socialism). Like to have the Coke without the fizz.
    But socialism is a very ambigous term. Many classical socialists were for the extinction of the state (first of all Marx and Engels). Marx never celebrated the state; for him it was “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” In his view concentration and centralization of everything in the hands of the state was something related to the dynamics of capitalism, and certainly not the aim of socialism. And, by the way, George Orwell and many anarchists were/are also socialists.
    I always suggest the use of statism instead of socialism. In this way we understand why some individuals moved from one side (left) to the other (right). No contradiction. They were all the time passionate for the state. In other words they were statists (not socialists).

  • There are different views on socialism, but when looking at relationships, consider a “North” (more freedom) and a ‘South” (more state control), the differences in right wing and left wing is that each are versions of “South”. Each merely are at the bottom of a Freedom/Control concept, where Fascism and communism are spread apart, but both are control. A person might conclude that democracy is a mean between Fascism and communism.

    • One might conclude that. If you ignore the historical facts that fascism and communism were not at opposite ends of a left-right continuum until Stalin put them there. And if you ignore the fact that philosophically, they are not opposites. The left scale should go US progressives (eg FDR, Obama) then fascists then communists as you go to the left. Although one could make an argument that FDR was every bit as much a fascist as Mussolini. They admired each other greatly and stole ideas from each other’s regimes as well. It was not until Italy invaded Ethiopia that their relationship was broken.

      You’ve just accepted a right-left definition developed by feuding left wingers and used by progressives to cover their own tracks after WW2.

  • Hi Jeffrey,

    There is a psychological trait – maybe this is what tribalism means – that has served our species for millennia, easily summed up as xenophobia. I suspect that this trait is responsible for the “going viral” (specifically, publication in Newsweek). If you want your article to go viral, a great way to do that is to attack something specific that is very well known. Trump fits the bill.

    No one with honor enjoys tearing someone apart. We all have empathy for the victim. However, you went ahead with your article on Trump’s speech, and I think the payoff is well worth it. Besides, the childish, disingenuous, and inflammatory comments that usually attend such an article are missing. That is because you are, at your core, a person who has great respect for individual human beings (even “the Trump”).

    So I recommend aiming for that “virility” (“virality?”) by continuing to identify populists who have significant sway with the public and tearing apart their rhetoric in the same way. It does, sadly, mean paying a lot of attention to people who are difficult for our freedom-loving sensibilities to tolerate, and Liberty.me readers might get tired of the repetition, but Newsweek readers will benefit from the anarchist leanings you sneak into what the establishment will call “Tucker’s Diatribes” or something like that, probably.

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