Lawrence Dennis on Fascism & Force


For readers who don’t know, Lawrence Dennis was an odd cat and one of the country’s foremost advocates for American fascism. I didn’t spend a lot of time on him in the book, though I spent too long reading his stuff. Still I think I could have profitably included him in a whole chapter on American advocates of fascism. Most advocates of American fascism had a heavy dose of crankery to them. But it’s still interesting stuff. If you google around you can find quite a bit of his writing. Anyway, this reader has been probing his book fruitfully, this time in response to this post. From my Old Whig reader:

Lawrence Dennis, a leader of Progressive opposition to the New Deal and himself a proponent of fascism in America, apparently deemed differences in the use of force and coercion between our traditional American constitutional liberalism and fascism to be de minimis, that is, akin perhaps to rush hour overcrowding in a subway or elevator with the benefits far surpassing the inconveniences, once the people habituated themselves to the new régime:


“The right formula, or the ideal balance between repression and tolerance, can best be sought if the mind is freed of liberal norms, or impossible and nearly meaningless verbalisms, such as free speech, free press, freedom of conscience, and so forth, and if an attempt is made quite simply to determine the minimum of governmental repression compatible with safety for a given plan in a given situation. This formula will have to rely mainly on executive judgment and responsibility rather than on juridical norms and judicial interpretation and enforcement.

“For public safety has highly elastic requirements varying enormously according to the place, moment, total situation, and scheme of values, to be realized. Any charter of liberties becomes necessarily an absurdity after a few years, for no plan of public order and means to its realization can long, be appropriate to changing conditions. If the theory of verbal norms and judicial interpretation and application be followed, the fundamental law, or the highest social ideals or objectives, will soon be lost sight of in the development of a juridical science or static scheme of ideas and practices which will quickly try to free itself of the nuisances of reality and try to operate entirely within a closed realm of logic—a logic that assumes the realities it requires for its purposes and disregards any refractory realities of experience.

“Only an executive can insure the widest measure of tolerance, and he can do this only if he has the widest power to adjust formulas to changing conditions. And, after all, what is safe for the maintenance of public order can only be determined from day to day by a central authority charged with the responsibility of maintaining order. If the lovers of tolerance would only see that tolerance is not an absolute which the state can give or withhold in any quantity it sees fit, quite independently of imperatives of the ruling scheme of values, but that tolerance has always to be fitted into a workable and unique plan of social order, they would concern themselves more with the problems of choosing the plan and making it effective, and less with categorical demands for more tolerance.

“The explicitness of government uses of force, and the noticeability of sudden change in the application of force for the achievement of new or different objectives, make state exercises of power, call them what you will, the subject of considerable misrepresentation and misconception where a new social system like communism or fascism is involved. The more governed by political government a community is, the more recognizable will be the force factors, but not necessarily the more coercive. The reason, let it be emphasized, is not that human conduct is more subject to coercion or less free, in the aggregate or on the average, where there is more government or a new social scheme. The reason is that, to whatever extent government purposively coerces to realize given social objectives, the coercion has to be explicit and vested with the personality which attaches to government (e.g. The State versus John Doe). Such coercion is more explicit than that of the pressures of impersonal and anonymous forces over which the individual can have little or no control, and of the operation of which he ordinarily has little understanding.

“It may be said that the coercion most keenly felt is the most important or oppressive. To this it need only be answered that where the coercions of government, social custom, or economic necessity, are of long standing and efficient application, the people subject to them are no more conscious of them than habitual motorists are conscious of frustration by traffic lights, or than habitual travelers in the subways and elevators are conscious of frustration in these unnatural and, often, extremely uncomfortable modes of transportation. Those who accept without conscious resentment the discomfort of crowded subways or elevators feel amply compensated by the superior speed and facility of transportation thus afforded them. They do not discuss subways or elevators in terms of claustrophobia, as many liberals discuss government in terms of liberty and constraint, or in terms wholly irrelevant to the points of paramount public interest in the thing discussed.” [Lawrence Dennis, The Coming American Fascism (Harper & Bros., 1936), Ch. X, Planning: The Force Factor]


“Fascist planning does not involve the introduction of force as a new principle, and quantitative measurements of coercion and freedom are impossible. Any new scheme of planning has to be pursued with the power of the state. It is essential to have these general principles clearly understood, both by way of answering the liberal or conservative attack on fascism as a phenomenon of coercion, in contradistinction from liberal capitalism, a system of freedom, and by way of meeting the counter proposals of innumerable schools of socialists and liberal reformers who would solve our social problems without involving themselves with the problems of government and coercion.

“When planning enters the realm of reality, it enters the realm of force and coercion. And this is seen in the cases of millions who are forced to suffer privation and humiliation under liberal capitalism, as well as in the cases of millions under the authoritarian systems who are forced to accept various impositions of the state plan. The idea that one social plan gives freedom while another imposes coercion is like the idea that the difference between a horse and a cow is that the one has a head while the other has a tail.” [Ibid.]


Dennis made fascism sound like both Progressivism and libertarian paternalism, didn’t he? J

Best wishes,

An Old Whig


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