The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There is nothing liberal about fascism

Fascists saw liberalism as the enemy.

Adolf Hitler, surrounded by his bodyguards, arrives at Saarbrucken on May 3, 1932. On the right in the foreground is Heinrich Himmler, Reich leader of the Black Guards. (AP)

Back in 2007, conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg introduced his “Liberal Fascism” by writing, in essence: I know you are but what am I? He was tired, he wrote, of having the right called “fascist” and promised to turn the tables, to show that fascism “is not a phenomenon of the right at all. It is, and always has been, a phenomenon of the left.” More recently, Dinesh D’Souza made the same argument in his 2017 book “The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left” and again in his forthcoming film “Death of a Nation.”

These very, very bad histories would hardly be worthy of dignifying with comment if our times weren’t so dangerous, with murderous white supremacists holding fasces-decorated shields in the streets of Charlottesville and neo-Nazi parties winning parliamentary seats in Europe.

Their mangled history goes something like this: Franklin Roosevelt expanded the size of the central state, Adolf Hitler admired American models of segregation in the Democratic-dominated South, and striking unionists could be violent. Fascism featured these same elements of statism, racism and violence; therefore, fascism was born of the political left.

The shopping list of evidence goes on. The full name of the German fascist party has the word “socialist” right in it, they point out: the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, the National-Socialist German Workers Party. Early 1930s German capitalists, they add, didn’t throw their support substantially to Hitler. And Mussolini was a member of the Italian Socialist Party before being kicked out and starting the Fascist Revolutionary Party. Those peddling this distorted concept of liberal fascism also recall that fascists often expressed opposition to traditional conservative blocs like the church or monarchists.

But while it’s quite a list, all the cherry-picked evidence in the world won’t help you if you’re committing a category error, a fallacy in which one compares or conflates things that actually belong in different categories. Arguing for “liberal fascism” is like arguing about “atheist believers in God.” Fascism and leftism belong in fundamentally different categories, because the essence of fascism was, and is, anti-leftism.

While historians certainly debate the details, they all agree with this basic precept about the core of fascism. An eminent scholar of fascism, Robert Paxton, has even characterized that nature in a single phrase. Fascism, he wrote, is “dictatorship against the Left amidst popular enthusiasm.”

In the case of Nazi fascism, Hitler based it in opposition to the perceived threat of Bolshevism, which he conflated with Jewishness, and on which he placed blame for Germany’s loss in World War I. To gain power, both Hitler and Mussolini relied on anti-leftist militias, the Brownshirts and Blackshirts, to fight “pinkos” in the streets or attack union or labor party meetings.

Fascism was also violently social Darwinist — that is, it was based on the belief that the strongest, fittest, most hypercompetitive nation would out-struggle all its rivals and inherit the earth. Put another way, fascists valued fighting, testing themselves against their internal and external enemies in constant, bloody trials to see whether their nation was worthy of dominating. Communism, with its anti-competitive ideals of international redistribution and the eventual dissolving of nations, was the polar opposite of fascism and thus had to be eradicated.

And fascists fused the idea of the nation with the concept of a single “true” race. That’s why the nation had to be “purified” of Jews, Roma and other “undesirables.”  At the same time, fascists wanted to violently strike at pluralism, gay rights and women’s rights — all ideas that animate the modern left. These were imagined as a threat to the strength and unity of the German Volk, or the Italian Uomo Nuovo (“New Man”). The laxness of pacifism, permissiveness in art, music and lifestyle, cultural diversity, anti-traditionalism — even democracy itself, fascists held, sapped the strength of the people and nation.

Might made right, and came before the rule of law and democracy.

As a candidate, Hitler talked a good game when it came to supporting German workers, even putting “socialist” in his party’s name for the purpose of sounding like he was for the “common man.” But the historical evidence is clear that from 1933 onward he arrested and murdered union leaders and outlawed all unions, replacing them with a single Nazi party “union,” the German Labor Front (one guess as to how it dealt with labor complaints). Mussolini, meanwhile, did much the same, taking fascist state control of all unions and eliminating their ability to strike. To Hitler and Mussolini, organized labor, a bedrock of the left, constituted a threat to their personal authority and surging war production.

While it’s true that German industrialists and capitalists supported candidate Hitler only modestly before his ascension, those like Bosch and the I.G. Farben group took to him quite well when they realized only Jewish property was in any peril from the Nazis. In fact, they stood to make quite a lot of money, thanks to military spending.

And it’s true the fascists were determined to rise above other particular forms of conservatism — namely, the conservatisms embodied by the old European aristocracy and the church. Fascists were determined to defeat or co-opt those institutions, yet were themselves reactionary, looking back to an older, supposedly purer form of their cultures where, for example, they thought women were women and men were men and the permissive, nontraditional trappings of modernity were nowhere to be seen.

“Professor Broich,” one might respond, “you’re just defining ‘fascism’ too narrowly out of your liberal self-interest.” No, I’m just explaining the definition of fascism on which generations of historians have agreed.

You can empty out or dumb down the definition of fascism until anything you dislike fits the bill, but don’t expect to hear from actual historians, even if we usually don’t care to dignify such terrible history. Identifying the roots of things matters profoundly to historians, and obscuring them for the sake of a sellable “take” or to score points against the left ruins our ability, and the public’s ability, to understand history’s hows and whys. This is a particularly insidious case of bad history, because it clouds people’s views of the rise of new fascisms as well as the roots of historical horrors.