Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Fascism: Two hoary myths

A couple of recently recurring bits of misinformation about the nature of fascism have come floating across my radar recently. Their falsity is fairly clear, but nonetheless, they are enjoying some currency at present, and need debunking.

The first is a supposed quote that I keep seeing pop up in e-mails sent to me:
"Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power." -- Benito Mussolini

The fact is that, as far as anyone can ascertain, Mussolini never said or wrote this. Indeed, it contradicts much of what he did say about corporatism.

As Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates explained awhile back:
It is unlikely that Mussolini ever made this statement because it contradicts most of the other writing he did on the subject of corporatism and corporations. When Mussolini wrote about corporatism, he was not writing about modern commercial corporations. He was writing about a form of vertical syndicalist corporatism based on early guilds. The article on Wikipedia on Corporatism explains this rather well.

Here are some typical Mussolini quotes from original documents:

The Fascist conception of the State is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. Thus understood, Fascism is totalitarian, and the Fascist State--a synthesis and a unit inclusive of all values--interprets, develops, and potentiates the whole life of a people. (p. 14)

Fascism recognises the real needs which gave rise to socialism and trade-unionism, giving them due weight in the guild or corporative system in which diverent interests are coordinated and harmonised in the unity of the State. (p.15)

Yet if anyone cares to read over the now crumbling minutes giving an account of the meetings at which the Italian Fasci di Combattimento were founded, he will find not a doctrine but a series of pointers… (p. 23)

"It may be objected that this program implies a return to the guilds (corporazioni). No matter!... I therefore hope this assembly will accept the economic claims advanced by national syndicalism." (p. 24)

Fascism is definitely and absolutely opposed to the doctrines of liberalism, both in the political and economic sphere. (p. 32)

The Fascist State lays claim to rule in the economic field no less than in others; it makes its action felt throughout the length and breadth of the country by means of its corporate, social, and educational institutions, and all the political, economic, and spiritual forces of the nation, organised in their respective associations, circulate within the State. (p. 41).

Benito Mussolini, 1935, The Doctrine of Fascism, Firenze: Vallecchi Editore.

The Labour Charter (Promulgated by the Grand Council ofr Fascism on April 21, 1927)—(published in the Gazzetta Ufficiale, April 3, 1927) [sic] (p. 133)

The Corporate State and its Organization (p. 133)

The corporate State considers that private enterprise in the sphere of production is the most effective and usefu [sic] [typo-should be: useful] instrument in the interest of the nation. In view of the fact that private organisation of production is a function of national concern, the organiser of the enterprise is responsible to the State for the direction given to production.

State intervention in economic production arises only when private initiative is lacking or insufficient, or when the political interests of the State are involved. This intervention may take the form of control, assistance or direct management. (pp. 135-136)

Benito Mussolini, 1935, Fascism: Doctrine and Institutions, Rome: 'Ardita' Publishers.

The other recurring myth is actually a great deal more popular -- namely, that because Mussolini was at one time an ardent socialist, and because Hitler's party called itself the National Socialists, then fascism itself was a form of socialism, and thus a left-wing phenomenon.

The reasons for its popularity are obvious: It's a convenient way of smearing the left for conservatives, as well as shedding their own well-established baggage from the far right. Rush Limbaugh repeats this claim regularly, as do a number of other right-wing commentators. You can find it expressed throughout a number of right-wing Web sites, notably Free Republic. It even popped up in my comments here recently.

So, let's do a reality check: Both Hitler and Mussolini pretended to have socialist aspirations as part of their propaganda efforts during their rise to power, largely as a way of encouraging working-class support. But they were unquestionably right wing politically by the time they obtained power, and in fact were viciously anti-left-wing as well.

Those who repeat the "Nazis were socialists" claim are, in fact, falling for (and repeating) Nazi propaganda from the 1920s.

Mussolini was indeed an active socialist at the beginning of his political career. But he was remarkable for shifting his alliances and adjusting his ideology accordingly as he climbed the ladder of power; and by the time he had completed his climb, he was an outspoken and lethal anti-socialist.

Hitler's fascists, somewhat in contrast, only adopted a limited socialist rhetoric as a sop to its efforts to recruit from the working class. Hitler quickly jettisoned these aspects of the party as he obtained power, particularly in forming a ruling coalition with conservative corporatists. There was little doubt that Hitler and the Nazis were devoutly anti-leftist: their Brownshirts made a career of physically attacking socialists and communists wherever they gathered, and the first people sent to the concentration camp at Dachau in 1933-34 were socialist and communist political leaders.

This site does a reasonably good job of laying it all out:
Prior to the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, worker protests had spread all across Germany in response to the Great Depression. During his drive to power, Hitler exploited this social unrest by promising workers to strengthen their labor unions and increase their standard of living. But these were empty promises; privately, he was reassuring wealthy German businessmen that he would crack down on labor once he achieved power. Historian William Shirer describes the Nazi's dual strategy:

"The party had to play both sides of the tracks. It had to allow [Nazi officials] Strasser, Goebbels and the crank Feder to beguile the masses with the cry that the National Socialists were truly 'socialists' and against the money barons. On the other hand, money to keep the party going had to be wheedled out of those who had an ample supply of it."

Once in power, Hitler showed his true colors by promptly breaking all his promises to workers. The Nazis abolished trade unions, collective bargaining and the right to strike. An organization called the "Labor Front" replaced the old trade unions, but it was an instrument of the Nazi party and did not represent workers. According to the law that created it, "Its task is to see that every individual should be able ... to perform the maximum of work." Workers would indeed greatly boost their productivity under Nazi rule. But they also became exploited. Between 1932 and 1936, workers wages fell, from 20.4 to 19.5 cents an hour for skilled labor, and from 16.1 to 13 cents an hour for unskilled labor. Yet workers did not protest. This was partly because the Nazis had restored order to the economy, but an even bigger reason was that the Nazis would have cracked down on any protest.

In other words, the Nazis did a classic bait-and-switch: They convinced working-class people to vote against their own self-interest by clever use of propaganda techniques and pretending to embody their values, but then screwed them over from one end to the other once they had obtained power.

Sound familiar?

At any rate, it's also useful to refer to Robert O. Paxton's defintive text, The Anatomy of Fascism, which describes the overt antileftism of the early fascists as well, p. 84:
Fascist violence was neither random nor indiscriminate. It carried a well-calculated set of coded messages: that communist violence was rising, that the democratic state was responding to it ineptly, and that only the fascists were tough enough to save the nation from antinational terrorists. An essential step in the fascist march to acceptance and power was to persuade law-and-order conservatives and members of the middle class to tolerate fascist violence as a harsh necessity in the face of Left provocation. It helped, of course, that many ordinary citizens never feared fascist violence against themselves, because they were reassured that it was reserved for national enemies and "terrorists" who deserved it.

Paxton also describes the fascist appropriation of left-wing ideas for its own purposes, pp. 56-59:
It turned out in practice that fascists' anticapitalism was highly selective. Even at their most radical, the socialism that the fascists wanted was a "national socialism": one that denied only foriegn or enemy property rights (including that of internal enemies). They cherished national producers. Above all, it was by offering an effective remedy against socialist revolution that fascism turned out in practice to find a space. If Mussolini retained some lingering hopes in 1919 of founding an alternative socialism rather than an antisocialism, he was soon disabused of those notions by observing what worked and what didn't work in Italian politics. His dismal electoral results with a Left-nationalist program in Milan in November 1919 surely hammered that lesson home.

The pragmatic choices of Mussolini and Hitler were driven by their urge for success and power. Not all fascist leaders had such ambitions. Some of them preferred to keep their movements "pure," even at the cost of remaining marginal.

Paxton goes on to describe how the failed Spanish and French fascist movements are exemplary in this regard. Then he says:
Hitler and Mussolini, however, not only felt destined to rule but shared none of the purists' qualms about competing bourgeois elections. Both set out -- with impressive tactical skill and by rather different routes, which they discovered by trial and error -- to make themselves indispensable participants in the competition for political power within their nations. ...

Long after his regime had settled into routine, Mussolini still liked to refer to the "Fascist revolution." But he meant a revolution against socialism and flabby liberalism, a new way of uniting and motivating Italians, and a new kind of governmental authority capable of subordinating private liberties to the needs of the national community and of organizing mass assent while leaving property intact. The major point is that the Fascist movement was reshaped in the process of growing into the available political space. The antisocialism already present in the initial movement became central, and many antibourgeois idealists left or were pushed out. The radical anticapitalism of early Fascism was watered down, and we must not let its conspicuous presence in early texts confuse us about what Fascism later became in action.

Paxton later puts in simple terms the political space occupied by the fascists:
... In sum, fascists offered a new recipe for governing with popular support but without any sharing of power with the Left, and without any threat to conservative social and economic privileges and political dominance. The conservatives, for their part, held the keys to the doors of power.

The more we hear mainstream conservatives today act as though liberals, their longtime partners, are no longer fit to share power, the more I fear for a repeat of history.

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