You Don’t, in Fact, Have to Hand it to Mussolini
The new fascist apologia is based on bad history
The paleoconservative scholar Paul Gottfried has a new book, Antifascism: The Course of a Crusade, out on the dangers of anti-fascism. According to a laudatory review by John M. Vella, the book argues that “the fear of fascism is used as a political weapon by the post-Marxist left to bully their politically disadvantaged critics. It is a form of indoctrination that serves to reinforce official orthodoxy.”
The idea that anti-fascists are bullies is one that has personal resonance for Paul Gottfried. He resents the fact that his name is publicly associated with Richard Spencer and the other neo-Nazis of the alt-right. As Gottfried wrote in the National Post in 2018:
I do know Richard Spencer and worked with him in 2010 when he edited the Taki’s Magazine website. We did develop the term “Alternative Right” together — it was a headline he put on one of my articles. But my subsequent strategic differences with him are a matter of public record, which should have been noted.
Gottfried avoids mentioning other connections to Spencer, such as the fact that they collaborated on co-editing a book, The Great Purge, published in 2015 by Washington Summit Publishers (which specializes in White Nationalist titles). But it’s fair to say that Gottfried, who is Jewish, has not consorted with Spencer since then, which is just short of the period where Spencer shifted from being merely on the far right to becoming an open neo-Nazi.
Just as Gottfried wants to maintain a distinction between himself and Spencer, he insists that various fascist regimes led by leaders like Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco are not to be lumped in with Nazism. As Vella summarizes:
The antifascist left smears their “fascist” opponents with the Nazi and anti-Semitic label. However, fascism and Nazism are not identical. Latin fascism, writes Gottfried, was not defined by extreme racism against Jews and Slavs or by a totalitarian state apparatus that was characteristic of the Third Reich. “It is difficult for me to see how the Nazi orgy of killing was simply a variation of Latin fascism or similar in character to something as anodyne as Austrian clerical fascism.” Mussolini’s embrace of German-style anti-Semitism in 1938 was a dramatic departure from longstanding fascist practice. Despite his authoritarianism, Il Duce was considered a leftwing reformer until his alliance with Nazi Germany. Members of his cabinet were vocal critics of Hitler. Only a couple years earlier, Jewish refugees from Germany were given asylum in Italy. Even some Eastern European Zionists “venerated” Mussolini for providing a nationalist blueprint for a future Jewish state. Early supporters of the fascist movement included Jewish members of the Italian bourgeoisie. Mussolini’s mistress was a Sephardic Jew.
This argument is misapplied relativism. It’s true that Mussolini, Franco, Antonio Salazar, Engelbert Dollfuss and other fascist or proto-fascist leader and the rest were not as bad as Hitler. But that’s a ridiculous standard to set. Very few leaders are as bad as Hitler! Being “better” than Hitler is perfectly compatible with the idea that there was a shared fascist political tendency (one that combined ethnonationalism and militarism) of which Hitler was the most extreme version. The fact that Hitler supported Franco in the Spanish Civil War or that Mussolini allied with Hitler and participated in the rounding up Jews to feed Nazism genocide, were hardly accidents. They came from a shared ideology. Mussolini, for instance, was not really a “leftwing reformer,” and indeed much of his political support came from conservatives and rightists who saw him as a bulwark against socialism and working class militancy.
And, it must be said, having a Jewish mistress hardly mitigates or lessens the anti-Semitic political policies Mussolini pursued after 1938. That’s as absurd as saying that Thomas Jefferson and many other slave owners couldn’t have been racist because they had Black children.
Nor is it true that these fascist leaders were “not defined by extreme racism against Jews and Slavs.” Mussolini was actively anti-Slav. As Mussolini said in 1920, “When dealing with such a race as Slavic—inferior and barbarian—we must not pursue the carrot, but the stick policy.” Again, this was not as openly genocidal as Hitler, but that’s not the only criteria to use.
Vella also writes, “Gottfried debunks the ludicrous claim that conservatives are proto-fascists. When fascism was a real thing, classical liberals like Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) were critical of Mussolini even though they saw in Hitler a far graver threat.”
As it happens, von Mises was a member of Fatherland Front, a party that can be fairly described as proto-fascist (or to use Gottfried’s term, “something as anodyne as Austrian clerical fascism”).
In his 1927 book Liberalism, von Mises wrote,
It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aiming at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has, for the moment, saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history. But though its policy has brought salvation for the moment, it is not of the kind which could promise continued success. Fascism was an emergency makeshift.
To judge by that statement, von Mises was only a critic of fascism in the most muted terms. He saw fascism as necessary movement to thwart working class militancy, but as “makeshift,” rather than a permanent answer to the threat of working class revolt.
Von Mises wasn’t alone in thinking fascism a makeshift necessity. As I’ve discussed before, similar expressions of partial sympathy for fascism can be found in other conservative writers such as James Burnham and L. Brent Bozell, particularly in the period from the 1920s to the 1960s. For example, in his 1986 book From This Moment On, Jeffrey Hart, then an editor at National Review, paid tribute to Mussolini in terms that prefigure the arguments of Gottfried and Vella:
His 1922 blackshirt march on Rome brought to an end a period of political deadlock and leftist riot,” Hart argues. “His domestic achievements were substantial…. There was repression, the administrating of doses of castor oil, but no Gulags and Belsens or Cambodian-style slaughter….Mussolini was probably better read than any other national leader of his time…. Mussolini’s leadership made even proletarians take some pride in being Italian, and his addresses, broadcast across the Atlantic, were listened to with respect in American-Italian households…. Mussolini stood 5 feet 6 inches and had a massive, handsome head…. Mussolini liked to interrupt his working day several times with sexual intercourse, often standing up and in his uniform, a very rapid performance.
Gottfried and Vella can best be understood as trying to revive that earlier tradition of apologia for and minimization of fascism. But their argument is rife with contradictions: fascism, we’re told, was not so bad, it was also really leftism (which is bad). It’s hard to know what to make of a strange ideological concoction like Vella’s review, except that bad faith arguments often spring from a bad conscience.
(Edited by Emily M. Keeler)
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But, but, but... didn't Jonah Goldberg "prove" that Fascism is actually from the Left not the Right? So these new apologists for Fascism are actually promoting the Left? Modern Conservatism is so confusing.
Gottfried called Fascism a right wing movement several dozen times in his book. Cite any examples of him claiming Fascism is on the left.
Or are you reviewing a book based on a book review?