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Orwell: Progressives Aren’t Fascists

Thanks to the website Open Culture, I came across George Orwell’s 1940 review [1] of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Not only does Orwell suss precisely the nature of Hitler’s menace and the source of his popularity, he provides a neat thumbnail description of European liberals and social democrats that could easily attach to today’s American Democrats:

Also [Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life.

Dig that prescient reference to birth control!

There’s a variety of reasons—see Santayana [2], Garry Wills [3], and our own Dan McCarthy [4]—why liberalism leads to force and coercion, but it’s simply not the case that progressivism or modern liberalism or whatever you want to call it is akin to European fascism and Nazism, a virulent outgrowth of German romanticism [5] that should not be confused with the rationalist-materialist hubris of Marx, Engels, and scientific socialism. Since I began blogging semi-regularly four years ago, the conceit that, well, Nancy Pelosi should check her sleeve for a swastika [6], has been a constant irritant [7].

I’m glad to learn that the great Orwell would have been similarly irritated.

Follow @RealScottGalupo [8]

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#1 Comment By Sands On August 26, 2014 @ 2:37 pm

Thank you for this. The lazy nature of this comparison can’t be emphasized enough.

The Left and Right can both arrive at authoritarianism from different directions, but fascism isn’t a stop on the Left’s path.

#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 26, 2014 @ 3:23 pm

Always amazing the cunning Stalin was so blindsided by Hitler’s turn on the Soviet Union after Ribbentrop-Molotov, even if that had been predicated by allied unseriousness in seeking a treaty with the Soviet against Germany, despite Stalin’s urgent overtures to them.

#3 Comment By Mark On August 26, 2014 @ 3:27 pm

Fascism is a movement of the hard right. Its entire project is against the goals and populations of the left. The base of the Nazi party during its 1920s parliamentary stage were militarists, some established businessmen, and rural voters. The first ones arrested were the socialists, then the unionists, then the Jews.

#4 Comment By David Naas On August 26, 2014 @ 3:36 pm

Waiting for all the Jonah Goldberg fans (“Liberal Fascism”) to critique this.
Oh, wait, TAC doesn’t march in lockstep with the neocon game parade. Never mind.

As in many things, Orwell knew first hand how deadly and ludicrous politics is.

#5 Comment By the unworthy craftsman On August 26, 2014 @ 6:11 pm

That meme springs from Jonah Goldberg’s book, which was mainly an exercise in nose-thumbing at the tendency on the left, more pronounced in the Vietnam era than now, to call conservatives Fascists.

#6 Comment By Shaun On August 26, 2014 @ 6:21 pm

I don’t get it. It’s seem like the whole nature of the argument Scott is making rests on a flimsy caricature of the modern democratic party.

#7 Comment By John Moser On August 26, 2014 @ 6:32 pm

“Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain.”

But the heyday of progressivism was before and during the war. Certainly one searches in vain through the speeches of Theodore Roosevelt for any notions that “human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain.”

#8 Comment By John Blade Wiederspan On August 26, 2014 @ 6:34 pm

I don’t see liberals/progressives proudly supporting “open carry” or supporting a militarized police force or supporting flag waving patriotism or setting up armed militias or proudly, blindly believing in “church, kitchen, children” or supporting efforts to outlaw birth control or condemning communists, homosexuals,Jews,labor unions,”mud people” as enemies of the people.

#9 Comment By William Dalton On August 26, 2014 @ 6:34 pm

On the other hand, accepting Orwell’s analysis, that which he says separates fascists from communists, their desire for “struggle and self sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades”, would seem to line up the Nazis pretty solidly with the sentiments of many (most?) American Christians.

I think it is more helpful to note what fascists, Nazis and Communists, Leninist and Maoist, have in common – their subjection of the rights of the individual to the interests of the collective, and the totalitarian demands made on the citizenry, which makes allegiance to any authority higher than the State a punishable offense. This is what Christians should, and do, stand against, and why they opposed both poles of the 20th Century’s most lethal forms of “socialism”. Judge Nancy Pelosi and other politicians in America today on this scale, and if they have grounds to complain I will join you. If not, I think it’s as legitimate to call one a Nazi as a Communist. Whatever energizes your base (or floats your boat).

#10 Comment By Matt On August 26, 2014 @ 6:39 pm

Let’s keep in mind that Orwell was a democratic socialist — presumably of the sort that the author lumps into “European liberals.”

#11 Comment By Mark On August 26, 2014 @ 7:20 pm

If you read Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s “Leftism” or “Leftism Revisited”, you will discover that Fascism and Nazism are the pinnacle of leftism.

That said, modern liberalism is a far cry from that.

#12 Comment By Noah Millman On August 26, 2014 @ 8:55 pm

Orwell was always bothered by birth control, and even more so by abortion. This attitude likely was related to his own sterility. I suspect he felt very keenly his own incapacity, and hence had a visceral loathing for any personal or public ambition to sterilize sex.

This is also pretty overt in the plot of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, by the way.

#13 Comment By Eric F On August 27, 2014 @ 9:53 am

My whole life I have heard every supposed conservative from Giuliani to Bush called a fascist. You might want to address that phenomena.

#14 Comment By RandomGermanDude On August 27, 2014 @ 10:40 am

To qualify the NSDAP of the 1920s as solely opposed to left goals is IMHO unsupportable given their program from 1920 (“25-point program”) and their ideological inner-party-conflict of that era.

#15 Comment By Essayist-Lawyer On August 27, 2014 @ 1:21 pm

Yes, in theory Orwell is right. On the other hand, what actually brought Hitler to power was the Great Depression and endless calls for sacrifice. Comfort and hedonism may not be altogether psychologically satisfying, but fascist movements do not flourish in the midst of them.

#16 Comment By Reinhold On August 27, 2014 @ 1:48 pm

This is symptomatic of an ideological pathology to which neither side is immune: the attempt to distance one’s own side from its most terrible historical realizations. Example from the left: ‘Stalinism was a right-wing deviation from socialism, not an inherent left-wing danger’––this comforts the leftist because now he doesn’t have to worry about the Stalinist trap. It’s the same for the rightist who pretends that Nazism was a left-wing phenomenon of ‘socialism,’ even if its first enemy, as articulated by Goebbels, was in fact “the working class.”

#17 Comment By Liam On August 27, 2014 @ 2:11 pm

Though Orwell groups birth control with “common sense”…

#18 Comment By Matt On August 27, 2014 @ 4:16 pm

“all “progressive” thought has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain”

This is so superficial and narrow. I didn’t know Orwell was quite that simple-minded.

#19 Comment By icarusr On August 27, 2014 @ 4:23 pm

Millman:

“Orwell was always bothered by birth control”

I’m not an Orwell specialist, but the context here is important:

human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense

I would hesitate to say that Orwell was bothered by “common sense”, “hygiene” or “comfort”. Rather, he is identifying – correctly, in my view – precisely the things that not just a “progressive” but generally a humanist project would seek; add “beauty”, and the list could describe a Medici project.

As it happens, while I think Orwell had a lot of insight into a lot of things, this one he got wrong. People want all of those things, and if it were offered to them without the blood and gore and the struggle and the fight, they would settle quite happily. Look at Germany now.

Indeed, purely based on my own experience of living through a violent revolution, war and civil war, I would say that once the initial adrenalin of struggle is spent, people will happily settle for comfort over struggle; in this same vein, I have always argued that Israel’s greatest error has been it’s inability to hook young Palestinians on minipods and Nike Air.

A history of the Third Reich bears this out. The average German liked victory, to be sure, but they did not as a whole like the struggle; if the war in the East in the end drove patriotic fervour, it is not be cause of struggle qua struggle, but because they knew what the Russians would do – deprive them of their comforts and safety and the little luxuries of life, such as they had; and if they fought with ferocity against the socialists and the Catholics and the Jews and the Slavs, it was not for the love of struggle, but to get the material gains that came out of that. For comfort, in short, and safety.

#20 Comment By Clint On August 27, 2014 @ 7:53 pm

“Leftists become incandescent when reminded of the socialist roots of Nazism”

[9]

#21 Comment By Viking On August 28, 2014 @ 1:03 pm

Several comments here. One, Joseph McCarthy gave the left a handy word to condemn any dubbing of its adherents as Communists. OTOH, no such word exists for leftists describing rightists as Fascists.

Two, while there are clear differences between National Socialism and Communism, the two systems are both clearly collectivist. This was brought out by Clint’s excellent link.

Three, there is the danger of comparing apples and oranges here. That is, socialism is praised for its proclaimed goals, while capitalism is condemned for its actual results. This allows the left to disregard the question of whether socialism actually improves the lives of those for whom it professes to be speaking.

Fourth, any objective look at National Socialism and Stalinism will reveal considerable similarities, and many differences are more of strategy than a truly different philosophy. For instance, unions were allowed under Stalin, but so hamstrung as to be effectively worthless to the constituent workers. If they had been simply banned, as under Hitler, it would have made no practical difference.

#22 Comment By Reinhold On August 28, 2014 @ 2:36 pm

“Marx’s error, Hitler believed, had been to foster class war instead of national unity – to set workers against industrialists instead of conscripting both groups into a corporatist order.”
Clint, this quote from the article you link to says it all: Hitler rejected the basic premise of all Marxist socialism, and sent the communists to the camps. You can’t be a socialist who doesn’t believe in class struggle and would prefer to unite all classes, so where Hitler and Goebbels may have been influenced by socialism––in, say, the way Qaddafi was!––they clearly rejected its most fundamental premise.

#23 Comment By Jude On August 28, 2014 @ 3:09 pm

Always amazing the cunning Stalin was so blindsided by Hitler’s turn on the Soviet Union after Ribbentrop-Molotov, even if that had been predicated by allied unseriousness in seeking a treaty with the Soviet against Germany, despite Stalin’s urgent overtures to them.

Stalin was not blindsided by Germany. In June, 1941, the USSR had very large military forces massed in its Western territories, larger in some areas (tanks, guns) than that of Germany. Some have postulated that the USSR was preparing for a preemptive attack on Germany, just as Russia did in WW1. While the evidence for this is more speculative than strong, certainly from 1939-1941 the Soviet high command had at least plans for an attack on Germany.

#24 Comment By Viking On August 28, 2014 @ 11:13 pm

Reinhold, there were a good many theories of socialism before Marx arrived on the scene. So, yes, I think you CAN be a socialist without believing in class struggle, just not a Marxian one.

#25 Comment By Reinhold On August 29, 2014 @ 11:07 pm

“So, yes, I think you CAN be a socialist without believing in class struggle, just not a Marxian one.”
Nor an anarchist one, nor a unionist one. Before Marx, there was ‘utopian socialism,’ which yes did suggest that classes could be united in a common goal rather than engaging in class struggle. But for instance Stalin used to call the social democrats ‘fascists’ precisely because they wanted to unite all classes––corporatism––instead of waging class war. So then anyone who wants to unite all classes would be called a ‘socialist’ and a ‘fascist’ at once? That basically covers ANYONE who doesn’t advocate for class struggle….

#26 Comment By Elijah On August 30, 2014 @ 7:55 am

“Stalin was not blindsided by Germany.”

You’re completely wrong about this; the history is well-documented. Stalin refused to even believe the first several reports of the German invasion!

And I think the losses of men and materiel speak well of Stalin’s ill-prepared forces, especially his high command.

#27 Comment By Carlo On September 1, 2014 @ 12:10 am

Mark:

“Fascism is a movement of the hard right. Its entire project is against the goals and populations of the left. ”

That may be true of Nazism, but it is a deeply ignorant stetment about Italian Fascism, that was born from a renegade branch of the Italian Socialist Party and understood itself as a “post-Marxist” revolutionary movement. Not coincidentally, after World War II almost all young Italian Fascist intellectuals of the 1930’s became (very Naturally) Communist intellectuals.

#28 Comment By JonF On September 1, 2014 @ 11:22 am

Re: their desire for “struggle and self sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades”, would seem to line up the Nazis pretty solidly with the sentiments of many (most?) American Christians.

You can certainly find people like that, especially in the South where authoritarianism has always been given a seat at the table, but suggesting that “most” Christians are of that sort is a howling absurdity.

#29 Comment By Reinhold On September 2, 2014 @ 1:57 pm

“Not coincidentally, after World War II almost all young Italian Fascist intellectuals of the 1930′s became (very Naturally) Communist intellectuals.”
Bertolucci has a fascinating movie about the communists and the fascists called “The Spider’s Stratagem,” wherein there is a plot to kill Mussolini by the communists but, at the last moment––spoilers!––the assassin kills the communist leader instead. But still, more interesting than the simple fact that fascists and communists have common political influences, is the question––why would a communist turn to corporatism (unity of all classes in state) over socialism (rule of the working class over the others)? Because the economic theories are significantly different, and any attempt to elide this difference ignores this more interesting question and instead makes boring pronouncements on statism/collectivism (which aren’t even the same things and aren’t always together).

#30 Comment By Viking On September 3, 2014 @ 2:45 pm

Reinhold, you say on 8/29/14 at 11:07 PM : “So then anyone who wants to unite all classes would be called a ‘socialist’ and a ‘fascist’ at once? That basically covers ANYONE who doesn’t advocate for class struggle…” No, it at most covers anyone who is in favor of both collectivism and harmony among the classes. Fascism is certainly supportive of such strong state action, and a number of the many varieties of socialism are as well, so this would seem to dovetail rather nicely together. The corporatist side of fascism seems to equate particularly well, in theory, with guild socialism. But the latter has never been tried, to the best of my knowledge, and the former largely dispensed with its corporatist theory once in power. In any event, those who want rigid limits on governmental sweep and power don’t qualify as socialist and/or fascist whether they want class struggle or not.

As to your noting that both anarchist socialism and the unionist kind also advocate class struggle: yes, but those are two quite confused political theories IMO. AS wants action that can only come thru the state, but without that entity. US doesn’t seem to know if it wants the state to set prices and wages, or to have the unions set the latter through collective bargaining, which strongly influences the former. (Actually, the leaders of such movements probably do realize the incompatibility, but cynically use the unionist label to gain unsophisticated workers’ support.)

Regarding your statement of 9/2/14 at 1:57 PM that socialism is “the rule of the working class over the others”: again, you’re intent on making Marxism to be the sole definition of socialism, which it is not.

#31 Comment By Carlo On September 4, 2014 @ 10:00 am

Reinhold:

Del Noce’s explanation of Mussolini’s transition from revolutionary Socialism (Communism, really) to Fascism is that he accepted the Idealistic critique of Marxism that had emerged from the Italian controversy about Marxism of 1895-1900 (as expressed, especially, by Gentile’s book “La filosofia di Marx” of 1899)

#32 Comment By Reinhold On September 4, 2014 @ 3:18 pm

Viking: again, the only glue holding together all your disparate ‘socialisms’ is the primacy of the state, even if the state is differently defined (as it is also differently defined for liberalism). And my point about Marxism, anarchism, and syndicalism––in my opinion, all have shortcomings, but they’re the only socialisms that have ever really existed, on the left at least––was that they ALL support the rule of the working class––anarchism wants direct rule, unionism wants union rule, and Marxism wants workers’ state rule, but they all want working class rule, so I’m not pulling a fast one and saying that only Marxism is socialism.