The Nature of Fascism (2017), by Sean Gabb

Fascism: The Career of a Concept
Paul E. Gottfried
Northern Illinois Press, 2016
9780875804934 (cloth)
9781609091835 (e-book)

[Published in The Salisbury Review, June 2017]

I feel obliged to begin this review with an admission. I first met Paul Gottfried in May 2006, at the inaugural meeting in Bodrum of the Property and Freedom Society. We became immediate friends, and have remained friends ever since. I admire him as a conservative thinker. I find his writings and speeches of unending interest. This being so, I may reasonably be suspected of partiality in reviewing his latest book. On the other hand, friendship would require me not to review a book that I thought was below his usual standard. If I will now give a favourable review to his book, you can be sure that I believe it really is a good one.

One of the difficulties with political taxonomy is that words are often coined in an attempt to name something that may be real. Over time, they acquire a cloud of meanings somewhat removed from their original. They can then be saved by attaching adjectives – for example, state-socialism, anarcho-socialism, utopian-socialism, and so forth. Or they become attached to so many divergent things that they cease to have any agreed meaning, and end merely as vague terms of approval or disapproval.

Fascism is a word of this latter kind. Mussolini was called a fascist – obviously! So was Hitler. So was Franco. So was Pinochet, and the Shah of Iran and the Ayatollah Khomeini, and Enoch Powell, and F.A. Hayek, and Ayn Rand, and Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan. So is Donald Trump. So is Theresa May. So is Nigel Farage. So is Vladimir Putin. So are social workers, and police officers, and school teachers. I once called a bus conductor a fascist. I have been called one. I once heard someone call a cat a fascist. We may all be, or have been, bad people by certain lights. But a word applied so freely, to so many different people, of such radically divergent personalities and points of view, has surely lost any useful function.

Or, if it retains any function, it is as a tool of persecution. If enough people call you a fascist, however defined or undefined, it can be bad for your career. You may have trouble finding work in a university or the state sector. You may be harassed by the police. You may be followed about by self-proclaimed “anti-fascists.” Perhaps they will have trouble explaining what you have in common with Adolf Eichmann or Julius Evola – or what these had in common with each other. But they are a noisy, and occasionally a violent, irritation.

The purpose of this book is to rescue the word, by trying to give it an objective meaning. Paul’s general view is that fascism did exist. It existed as a response, between 1917 and 1945, to the chaos created in Europe by the Great War, and as a counterweight to the challenge of Soviet Communism. It gained much power from grudges over territorial losses, actual or prospective. It was, for men of a certain age and experience, a continuation of the close and meritocratic bonds they had found in the trenches. It involved a rejection of bourgeois liberalism, and it involved the promise of a social and economic system that would benefit all groups, so long as they were legitimately within the nation. There was a taste for political violence and for authoritarian government. When war eventually came, they generally found themselves on the same side against Britain and its allies. Apart from this, however, the various fascisms of the age had little in common.

The Italian Fascists often called themselves modernists, but they worked within a traditionalist society, and they compromised with Monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church. The German National Socialists were modernists. Hitler was a revolutionary, in love with modern science, and his Germany was a place connected by new motorways and television transmission towers, and dominated by a military-industrial complex only slightly behind Britain and America in developing the jet engine and the atom bomb. Because it lasted so long, Franco’s Spain went through traditionalist and technocratic phases that had little real connection to each other. Some fascists were Christians – take Franco. Some were pagans – take Himmler. Some were mysticists – take Hitler and perhaps Julius Evola. Some were anti-semites. Some were not. Some were biological racists. Some were not. Some wanted war. Most did not, except perhaps against Soviet Russia – when they often hoped others would do much of the fighting.

This is to be expected. Whatever its antecedents – and these are hotly-disputed – the fascist period lasted just over twenty years. Unlike Soviet Communism, it had no canonic texts. Mussolini wrote much, but was essentially a journalist, and his time in office was a work in continual progress. Mein Kampf was respected, but not seen as a universal blue-print. Fascism had neither the intellectual nor the temporal space – nor mostly the murderous urge to conformity – to solidify into the Orthodox Marxist-Leninism that existed by the time of Stalin’s death.

And it is over. It is over because most of the fascist regimes went down in 1945. It is also over because the American managerial capitalism impoed on Western Europe after 1945 took away the electoral base of fascism. This provided high and continuous economic growth that reconciled people to a kind of bourgeois liberalism. It provided a military shield against the Soviet Union. Fascism arose. It flourished. It was eradicated. The word remains, not the thing.

Paul’s book works as an academic study of its subject matter. Being a Paul Gottfried enterprise, it also has a polemical function. Paul is one of the fathers of what is called the Alternative Right. This is a break with what he and his allies see as the failed conservatism of the past three generations. It rejects the leftist obsession with equality, and the neo-liberal project of globalisation – and the fusion of both into a neo-conservatism that fights endless wars of aggression to no purpose that can be honestly explained. This Alternative Right is a diverse movement, and I know that Paul has little time for some of its more esoteric strands. But it is a rising force in the English-speaking world. Its two most significant achievements, after barely a decade of existence, have been the British vote to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump. The leftists have set up their usual mantra of “The Fascist Danger,” and are confidently waiting for the black shirts to be put on and the first administrations of castor oil. Some are waiting of Auschwitz to be reopened.

I will end this review with Paul’s response to this mantra:

Treating any Right or any nationalism as identical to the one that enraged the ideological battle of interwar Europe opens the door to methodological abuses. Among these abuses, and indeed the most conspicuous one, has been the supposed discovery of a ubiquitous fascist danger. Emotional predispositions are imagined to furnish a sufficient cause of why fascist movements arise and flourish. Once having reached this point the interpreter does not merely exaggerate the applicability of his criteria of investigation. He may also succumb, more importantly, to the temptation of extravagant political rhetoric. [p.41]