Fascism and the Liberal Imagination

Watch ThinkProgress try to link socialism to fascism, using casual dot-connecting and glib historical analysis.

ThinkProgress’s Ned Resnikoff has indulged in one of the favorite pastimes of the Center for American Progress — trying to link socialism to fascism. There’s a lot to unpack here, but for now I just want to look at two points:

1. Trump received support from William Johnson, chair of the American Freedom Party, “through his American National Super PAC.”

2. The American Freedom Party advances “a particular strain of white supremacism known as Third Position ideology.” Its “most important antecedent is Strasserism. . . . Third Position [ideologue] . . . Benito Mussolini  —  the fascist leader par excellence  —  began his career in politics as a scribbler for various socialist publications; he would go on to smuggle elements of socialist thought into a right-wing, nationalist framework.”

Two responses:

1. This all sounds awfully sinister until we notice that the American National Super PAC raised a grand total for Trump of $14,966. That’s less than three people maxing out on their contributions. That’s just about $2,000 more than alt-centrists raised for Trump in a single week. To give you a sense of scale, here’s the record-breaking attendance for the American Freedom Party’s most recent conference:

So the argument here is that, among the usual cesspool of ethno-nationalists who always vote for Republicans, this “Third Position” faction (which supposedly draws on socialist ideas) has become unusually powerful and influential? That may very well be the case — but Resnikoff hasn’t put in the work to show it. This genre of casual dot-connecting, with zero attention to basic questions of scale and operational relationships, is usually the province of the Lyndon LaRouche pamphleteer who wants to trace Dick Cheney’s political philosophy back to Aristotle — not of mainstream political thought.

2. This touches on the deeper problem with Resnikoff’s argument, which is that he reads into the opportunistic and transient rhetoric and posturing of (some) historical fascists an underlying ideological affinity — thus “On the white left, it remains subtext.” Note the implication of “remains”: fascism snuck into leftist thought long ago, and we are supposed to suspect that it’s still there, albeit hidden as secret “subtext.”

But consider just two of Resnikoff’s historical touchstones: the Strasserites and Mussolini. After crediting the Strasserites with putting “the Socialism in National Socialism” Resnikoff notes in passing that,

Hitler had Gregor and other prominent Strasserists murdered in the 1934 purge known as the Night of the Long Knives. Otto fled Germany, and lived in exile until 1974.

One might say that this was a way of taking the socialism out of National Socialism, and for good reason: it had become an obstacle to success. By November of 1933, the Nazis were running out of money and bleeding support — in part, because German businessmen were alarmed by their occasional criticism of capitalism. It was only by undercutting Strasser through an alliance with the aristocrat Franz von Papen that Hitler ascended to chancellor. From there, the ascendance of fascism was a story of destroying the welfare state — and murdering its radical partisans.

Similarly, Resnikoff notes that Mussollini was a “scribbler for various socialist publications” — but neglects to mention that one of the very first political actions that we can call “fascist” was the 1919 attack on Avanti, the socialist daily where Mussolini had worked as an editor. That incident exemplified Mussolini’s rise to power, and its exercise: his base was gangs of blackshirts who attacked leftists and workers on behalf of the rich, and far from “smuggl[ing] elements of socialist thought” into power, he built an oligarchy that brutally suppressed the influence of labor and radicals.

None of this is particularly controversial among historians. As David Neiwart writes,

the path to power for both Italian Fascists and German Nazis was essentially the same: They presented themselves as “revolutionary socialists” in their initial appeals but, finding the political space for such a movement already well occupied on the left by socialists and communists, shifted their appeals and their alliances to the right and center, particularly with business capitalists who financed them, sponsored their activities, and essentially contracted with them to engage in systematic violence against the Left.

It should give even the centrists among us pause to consider that this passage comes not from some conveniently radical publication, but from David Neiwart’s introduction to the History News Network’s symposium on Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism. There, an endless series of preeminent scholars on fascism — Robert Paxton, Roger Griffin, Matthew Feldman, and others — dismantle Goldberg’s infamous argument that “liberalism” (which in the parlance of the Right is used interchangeably with socialism to mean “state interventions we dislike”) is ideologically and historically wedded to fascism.

Resnikoff’s attempt to implicate socialism in fascism through the idiosyncratic politics of marginal early funders is not particularly distinct from Goldberg’s own efforts — for example, his tortured attempts to connect Hitler to the “radical chic” of German piano manufacturer Edwin Bechstein. Neither are his attempts to rewrite a history where fascism was “smuggled into” and now “remains” a significant “subtext” of leftist thought. Paxton criticizes this “latent (but misleading) Darwinian convention that if we study the origins of something we grasp its inner blueprint,” and adds that,

Looking mainly at early fascism starts us down several false trails. . . . Concentrating on origins puts misleading emphasis on early fascism’s antibourgeois rhetoric and its critique of capitalism.

If we are seriously interested in how fascism can be prevented and resisted, this is a point we should take to heart — but it’s not the point Paxton made to Goldberg, and it’s not what I would say to Resnikoff. Here’s what Paxton had to say about Goldberg:

Goldberg’s scholarship is not an even-handed search for understanding, following the best evidence fully and open-mindedly wherever it might lead. He chooses his scholarly data selectively and sometimes misleadingly in the service of his demonstration.

That, I think, is where we are with Resnikoff and the Center for American Progress. There are interesting and important questions to ask about the relationship between socialism, centrism, and fascism, but the answers will not be found in that essay.