The Corner

Politics & Policy

Fascism Follies, Again

(Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

David Neiwert has been an occasional pest in my side for more than a decade now. He hates my book Liberal Fascism, in part because he considers this his turf and any arguments that get in his business model’s way amount to unacceptable heresy.

He’s pestering me again on Twitter, and rather than engage in another Twitter spat with him and his lesser doppelgängers, I’ll just make my points here. David tweets:

The HNN symposium he refers to appears to remain the high water mark of his career, given how often he brags about it. He tried valiantly to exclude me from it at the time, but more fair-minded folks prevailed, and I was asked to respond to thousands of words in a very short period of time. I think it holds up fine. You can find it here.

But I’ll just focus on these tweets, since he seems to think these are the key points of disagreement.

Fascism, David “explained,” is “about ‘blood and soil’ and contempt for weakness, about the celebration of violence as the means to the end, about racial purity and nationalism. Economics is always an afterthought.”

Obviously, there’s truth here, though the notion I dealt with none of this is deceitful nonsense. First, this description is more true about Nazism than it is Italian Fascism. This is important for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that it was Italy, not Germany, where both the idea and the label Fascism were born. Racial purity was not a major component of the first decade of Italian Fascism. Mussolini denounced Nazism as 100 percent racism (and Nazi ideologues mocked Italian Fascism as “Kosher Fascism.” Mussolini did refer to race a lot — as was common almost everywhere — but he rejected biological notions of race. “Race! It is a feeling, not a reality: ninety-five percent, at least, is a feeling. Nothing will ever make me believe that biologically pure races can be shown to exist today . . .  National pride has no need of the delirium of race.”

Later, when Italy increasingly, and finally officially, became a vassal of Nazi Germany, he said many terrible things about race (though Italy didn’t turn on its Jews until after the Nazis occupied Italy). But it’s worth noting that until then, and for most of the party’s existence, Jews were over-represented in the Italian Fascist party (Jews were also over-represented in anti-Fascist parties, lest some Corbyn types want to have too much fun with this data point).

If all Neiwert wanted to do was argue that Fascism in Europe was about blood and soil, violence, nationalism, and racial purity, I would still argue he’s being too simplistic. But simplistic isn’t necessarily synonymous with untrue or indefensible. But part of my argument was that the ideas that led to Italian Fascism and, to a lesser extent Nazi Fascism, were in the air across the west. American progressives and many British socialists cared far, far, far more about biological and racial purity than the pre-1938 Italian fascists ever did. Notions of the glory of military struggle can be found in the rhetoric of the war-minded Teddy Roosevelt and the pacifist author of the Moral Equivalent of War William James (whom Mussolini claimed as a major influence). The nationalization and militarization of politics and society was a dream of countless progressives and found its apotheosis in the goon squads of the American Protective League and, later, in the industrial armies of Hugh Johnson’s Blue Eagle.

Neiwert cannot countenance, never mind rebut, any of these facts – including the widespread admiration of Mussolini by American and British intellectuals in the 1920s and early 1930s (the title of my book comes from a speech by H.G. Wells calling for Western “liberals” to become Liberal fascists or “Enlightened Nazis”).  This is because his definition of Fascism must indict American conservatives — and only American conservatives. (Note: I am not a fan of Dinesh D’Souza’s effort to take my argument and twist it into the kind of indictment of liberals Neiwert levels at conservatives or that I was accused of doing.)

As for “economics” always being an “afterthought” in Fascism, this would have been a shock to the fascists and to their admirers around the world. Read the Nazi Party platform of 1920; about half of the planks are about economics. Without the economic turmoil in Weimar, the Nazi party — with its incessant calls to destroy capitalism — would not have found any purchase.

In a sense, though not the one he intends, Neiwert is right. Power was more important than economics to fascist leaders. You know who else it was more important to? Communist leaders.

Neiwert can wave away the importance of economics all he likes, but as a conservative in the Anglo-American tradition, I think economics matters a lot and not just as a means of production. Saying the state should be in charge of economics in every regard means saying the state should be in charge of how people actually live. Liberty without a healthy amount of economic liberty isn’t liberty; it’s license to behave as the state dictates.

The statism of communists and fascists had different flavors, but what united them was totalitarian illiberalism in every regard (and once in power Communists always end up being just as nationalist as fascists: See Mao, Stalin, Castro, et al). The cult of the expert or the supreme leader and the belief that the state was required and able to guide the whole of the society stands athwart everything that American conservatism stood for – at least until recently.

This brings me to the current moment. As I just wrote this weekend for the umpteenth time, I am not a fan of unconstrained nationalism in general, and I loathe white nationalism in particular. The rise of the alt-right dismayed me precisely because I saw it as a rejection of what I believe in. I understand why Neiwert has been so giddy about the alt-right in recent years. He spent much of his career looking under obscure rocks and finding William F. Buckley and George Will slithering underneath. He sees the rise of the alt-right as a vindication of what he was saying about mainstream conservatism all along. I see it as a rejection of that conservatism. But that he could never tell the difference between them points to his blinders, not mine.

Donald Trump’s nationalism is not the alt-right’s even if he has a dismaying gift for feeding them from time to time. But the rise of Donald Trump, combined with some lessons I learned writing my most recent book, has me rethinking some of the things I wrote in Liberal Fascism. I’ve been meaning to write an essay exploring all of that, but it will have to wait. But one point I have come to accept that’s worth mentioning here is that the ideas I once believed to be dogmatically accepted by most conservatives — and a great many liberals, too — are more lightly held and more fragile than I thought when I wrote my first book. Still, whatever the final results of my intellectual re-assessment might be, I don’t anticipate a meaningful change in my opinion of David Neiwert.

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