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Do Fascists and Marxists Actually Exist?

During last year’s election season, we were treated to multiple comments [1] about how Donald J. Trump was no Edmund Burke.  As a historian and political observer I find such put-downs ridiculous. No Western politician today is following in the footsteps of Edmund Burke; nor can he.

His associates didn’t care what his views were on “women’s issues,” gay marriage or transgendered restrooms; and he developed a reputation as a reformer because he favored home rule under the Crown for Ireland, a gradual emancipation of slaves in the West Indies, and an end to the mercantile policies supported by his Tory opposition. Burke held extremely critical views about democracy and ridiculed the notion of “human rights,” which has become a pillar of American liberal internationalism. I for one agree with much of what Burke said on many subjects, particularly the French Revolution, but then I’m a septuagenarian political dinosaur who doesn’t belong to any significant political movement or party.

Of course it is possible to claim Burke, Aristotle, Kant or anyone whom a journalist or politician cares to invoke for any cause. One can attribute moderation or favorable intentions to anyone who is no longer on Earth and then maintain that if so-and-so were around, he’d be for Hillary, Obamacare, John Kasich, or sending weapons to Israel or Poland. People in the public eye do this all the time; and when they do, I find myself reciting the biblical passage about letting the dead bury the dead.

A related bad habit that I pound mercilessly in my anthology [2], Revisions and Dissents, is attaching obsolete labels and associations to contemporary movements and personalities. “Fascism,” “conservative,” and “liberal” are three terms that I would like to retire, since I don’t think they apply any longer to our politics. “Right” and “left” may still have relevance since they seem to me to be existential reference points that can exist independently of passing parties and movements. “Conservative” and “liberal” came out of the nineteenth-century and were centered on the struggle between the landed classes and the rising urban bourgeoisie. (A similar dialectic played itself out in this country in the clash between the Union and Confederacy in the Civil War.)  

By contrast Right and Left can be easily recognized even if the social and political battles of nineteenth-century Europe are no longer with us. The Deplorables who backed Trump or the French ploucs who supported the FN, clearly represent the Right. They are rooted in a particular place, oppose globalist ventures and what we in the US call the deep state, and hold relatively traditional views about gender and family relations. The globalist, pro-immigration class, which is situated mostly in large cities, and which energetically backs progressive lifestyles, exemplifies our version of the Left. Describing the current Left as “socialist” or “Marxist” is ridiculous and usually dishonest, because the lines of division between Right and Left are now found elsewhere.

I’ve noticed that our authorized conservatives don’t say much about Senator Elizabeth Warren’s cultural radicalism. Instead they berate her and former president Obama as “socialists” and even “Marxists.” What such figures once in power did or would do in pursuing feminist, gay, or transgendered agendas hardly rates a mention from our Republican spokespersons and Fox News All Stars. Far more worrisome for them is how a Democratic president might affect the GNP, or whether Senator Warren if she became president would have the government pay more toward college tuitions [3].

Although I’m by no means in favor of these policies, they hardly fit the classical criteria of socialism, like nationalizing the forces of production. A really intrusive side of the current (post-Marxist) Left, namely, their drastic social engineering projects intended to overcome “prejudice,” makes little impression on most of the authorized Right. Could it be that these critics are at least partly in agreement with or mostly indifferent to this undertaking? Perhaps they also sense that the Left has already won the cultural battle, and it might be best to limit partisan campaigning to pocketbook issues.

Still it’s wearisome listening to our would-be conservatives trot out bellicose Cold War rhetoric. This is equally evident in the characterizations of right-wing Russian nationalist [4] Vladimir Putin as a Soviet Communist. [5] From what I can tell, Putin jettisoned that assumed identity decades ago.

What partly inspired this tirade was reading a book [6] by French historian René Rémond about the three “Rights” that his nation inherited from the nineteenth century. According to Rémond, these three Rights, the legitimist one starting with the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty after the Napoleonic Wars, the Bonapartist Right which stressed French military glory, and finally the Orléaniste Right that issued from the liberal July Monarchy, established under Louis Philippe of Orléan in 1840, continue to shape our politics. In 2007, Rémond published a book, La Droite hier et aujourd’hui, that examines the continuing influence of these three French Rights. Rémond’s lines of descent are extremely problematic. One could easily place Charles de Gaulle in the nationalist military tradition of the French Bonapartists. Unfortunately, however, there’s been no national leader since le Grand Charles who can be cited by Rémond as a plausible successor to the Bonapartist strain of the French Right. Moreover, it’s stretching a point beyond credibility to trace the current French center-right (the rightness of which is also problematic) to the regime of Louis Philippe. The July Monarchy was fervently nationalist and monarchist in a nineteenth-century sort of way. Its base of support was the patriotic upper middle class of an earlier age, not the globalist class that helped elect Emanuel Macron.

Most problematically, Rémond presents as the successors to the legitimist monarchists of the early nineteenth century the Front National. But it’s hard to imagine how a modern populist party can be the direct linear successor of those monarchists who two hundred years ago totally rejected the French Revolution and yearned for the ancien régime. Mind you, I’m not condemning nineteenth-century legitimists or the Front National; and it is possible to argue that they both typified the Right, broadly understood, in different ages. Still we are dealing with different political phenomena in different centuries. Why the need for these overdrawn comparisons?

In most cases this happens because a party, movement or name-brand wishes to have the public believe they’re offering the same positions or products, even when they’re not. But people may also have a deep need for a continuing past, even an imaginary one, providing they can invoke it while seeing themselves standing in a “tradition” or while pointing to the supposed source of the sins that we’re being urged to expiate. Leaving expiation rituals to our media and public educational system, I shall confess my own reverence for earlier ages. Certainly we can learn from past thinkers and enjoy the cultural and artistic achievements produced by great civilizations. In morals, religion and the humanities we are totally in the debt of dead white males and others who helped create our unique Western heritage. But in politics, social developments, and popular culture, I see more disjunction than continuity. Since the 1950s when I grew up, the US has changed so fundamentally in so many respects, that it’s impossible for me to view it as the same country in which I once lived. One can only imagine how much greater the gulf is between the most recent present and Western societies two hundred years ago.

Attaching anachronistic labels to modern political figures and movements, like pretending that Obama was bringing back FDR’s New Deal or that Donald Trump is the reincarnated Andrew Jackson or Mussolini redivivus, won’t make altered historical circumstances go away. The past may offer lessons and precedents for the present. But we should be cautious about drawing extravagant comparisons between very different times. More often than not in our radically transformed America, we are moving in uncharted waters. Needless to say, I’m sure my admonition will be totally ignored by the media.

Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for twenty-five years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe.

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Do Fascists and Marxists Actually Exist?"

#1 Comment By Pezeletxan On June 27, 2017 @ 12:16 am

While I agree that your description of the Right as socially traditional and anti-globalization and the Left as urbane makes sense for are US, you also try to gloss this description into France. You describe the Right as matching up with not just Trump, but also Le Pen’s FN. If you are going to apply a left-right spectrum to not just the US, but also to France (or, indeed, to the U.K.) you are going to have to redefine left entirely. In France, Macron is not considered left, nor would he describe himself as such. Melanchon is left, and he received considerable support in the most recent election, just as in England, Corbyn has performed quite well. To include countries beyond the US in your spectrum, you will have to redefine your end points.

#2 Comment By Centralist On June 27, 2017 @ 6:46 am

Yes they do just not in the capacity or locations the majority of the windbag TV and radio host claim. They use it the same way the Soviets used reactionary to justify disliking someone’s ideas without having to properly engage with it mentally. It is a common signaling tactic because the majority of people are not nearly as well read on any topic as they like to think they are.

#3 Comment By connecticut farmer On June 27, 2017 @ 8:31 am

Excellent piece. And let’s underscore one point as it needs to be stressed again and again: Trump is many things.

But he isn’t “conservative.”

#4 Comment By AD Ward On June 27, 2017 @ 9:29 am

Trump is Aleric.

#5 Comment By BradD On June 27, 2017 @ 11:25 am

I’d be willing to say it is more of an X and Y axis, with a liberal/conservative and state/non-state axis. Right now most lean either right or left along with a tilt toward the state side. Both really believe that the state is useful, it just matters what it is useful for.

The left want their social engineering program to push people in their direction. They are more willing to use it to push for a certain action, such as pay or elimination of racism, than anything.

The right is also trying to social engineer, just in a different direction. I’d say they are more willing to use the state to enforce morality, think drug prohibition, than actions.

#6 Comment By pipper donnie On June 27, 2017 @ 12:32 pm

yes. ask why do the Koch brother owns the freedom caucus, the cato institute, the heritage foundation? why o why do the koch brother’s pore millions and millions of dollar each year into redistricting red states. corporate feudalism? corporate Marxistism? corporate fascisstism? DARN RIGHT! TIME TO EAT THE RICH AMERICA!

#7 Comment By One Man On June 27, 2017 @ 4:31 pm

“Trump is Aleric.”

I have no idea what that means, but it’s so unusual that I’d like to hear more. I know who Aleric was.

#8 Comment By Rossbach On June 27, 2017 @ 5:21 pm

“A really intrusive side of the current (post-Marxist) Left, namely, their drastic social engineering projects intended to overcome ‘prejudice,’ makes little impression on most of the authorized Right. Could it be that these critics are at least partly in agreement with or mostly indifferent to this undertaking?”

True. Looking at how “conservatives” in the GOP-controlled congress shrink from the task of extirpating mass Third-World immigration, government-mandated multiculturalism, and political correctness from national policy, one wonders why people even bother to vote anymore.

President Trump won the election by promising to do something about these problems, but we are still waiting.

#9 Comment By Ed On June 27, 2017 @ 7:39 pm

Good article. The idea that liberal and conservative labels don’t apply today is a favorite of John Lukacs’s. What he misses, though, is that even in the heyday of Gladstone and Disraeli, populism mightily shaped politics. Even when much of the working class couldn’t vote, politicians still pitched their appeals to the mass mind. To find a time when they didn’t — an age when politics was purely a matter of aristocratic or bourgeois elites — one would have to go even further back.

One could also ask whether right and left are really more fundamental and descriptive than conservative and liberal (or progressive). As the difficulty correlating French and Russian versions of right and left with the American version indicates, right and left are relative and conventional terms. Even within our country, what’s right-wing or left-wing changes with time.

#10 Comment By John Bruce Leonard On June 28, 2017 @ 1:52 am

I agree entirely with the premise of this article—but does this not indicate that the “conservative” has failed dramatically in his mission? The liberal of yesteryear has transformed into the progressive of today—but has the conservative not simply forfeited the field altogether? And in any case, what would it mean to say that the political viewpoint dedicated to conservation had mutated into something else?

I also wonder about the continuing relevance even of the left-right division. It is used widely, I do not dispute, but upon even superficial consideration of what it is supposed to entail, it breaks down altogether. “Left vs. right” made sense when all legitimate political positions shared a common allegiance to Enlightenment liberalism. The “left” which has “progressed” beyond such liberalism, or the “right” which rejects it out of hand, are no longer “left” and “right” in any meaningful sense, and dividing present political forms along such traditionalist lines will lead us into a bramble of confusions.

#11 Comment By redfish On June 28, 2017 @ 2:45 pm

“Right” and “left” may still have relevance since they seem to me to be existential reference points that can exist independently of passing parties and movements. “Conservative” and “liberal” came out of the nineteenth-century and were centered on the struggle between the landed classes and the rising urban bourgeoisie.

“Conservative” and “liberal” can just as much exist independently of passing parties and moments, although one would typically have to break down viewpoints before applying the label accurately.

For example, when talking about social problems, it is correct to say one could have a more “liberal” approach to addressing them; which is to say a greater degree of tolerance — more of a “liberal hand”.” On the other hand, one could also apply the same reasoning to economic matters, which is what applied to classical liberalism and to neo-liberalism. Modern liberalism I think is more generally speaking culturally liberal than politically liberal, though, which is what leads to justifications for regulation. A cultural liberal thinks all of society should be fair, tolerant, and just, not just the government, so it becomes okay to use state force to ensure that. Generally, the more people extend the justifications into the social realm, the more they tend to self-define as “progressive” rather than “liberal,” because liberal rhetorical tropes stop serving their purpose.

I’d also say when we’re talking about “conservativism” we’re also talking more about cultural conservativism than some type of strict political conservativism. Because its cultural over than political, it easily slides into “libertarian” the same way that liberal slides into progressive.

Though, even when talking about political liberalism and conservativism, I think its pretty important to acknowledge that these were always contextual to the cultural background and in fact the political movements took their labels and self-identification from the common cultural meanings of the terms. This had different consequences a century-and-a-half ago, where conservatives were more likely to be progressive and liberals more likely to be libertarian. But not, I believe, because conservatives back then were more principled as conservatives; but because the politics are different, and what being a self-identifying conservative means today is for pragmatic purposes something different.

#12 Comment By Ed On June 28, 2017 @ 5:01 pm

Is globalization right or left? If it’s left, what about free-trading capitalists? What about open-borders libertarians?

And if protectionism is on the right, what about other forms of statism or dirigisme? Are they on the right? Is limited government on the left?

Or if globalization is right-wing, does that make nationalism left-wing? And what to make of socialism’s leftist internationalists?

Right and left are relative or artificial or conventional terms with meanings that change with time. The energy that people spend on saying that all good is on the left or on the right could be better channeled into other endeavors.

I agree that today’s liberals don’t have much in common with Marxism. The idea of “cultural Marxism,” though, is something that some conservatives just don’t want to give up, even though it makes them sound a little silly, like Colonel Blimp raving about Bolshevism.

I think what they’re looking for is some way of characterizing what they see as liberals’ or progressives’ radical leap into the new unknown. They’re saying, we don’t know how all this will end up and the results could be devastating.

#13 Comment By redfish On June 28, 2017 @ 8:36 pm

At any rate, as for “Marxism” and “fascism”, I mainly think they’re useless as labels just because they’re so easy to misuse.

But the meanings can apply today. The OP mentions cultural politics, which can be argued to be a form of cultural Marxism. Marxism really focuses on class consciousness and class war over a debate based on neutral principles. Fascism comes from the symbol of the fasces and generally just represents a “unity in strength” perspective and sees either social disunity or lack of collective purpose as a political problem.

In many ways, both of these terms can be applied to politics today. The problem is that they’re used just as much to demagogue as speak truthfully, so when you use them to speak truthfully its like the boy crying wolf.

#14 Comment By a spencer On June 29, 2017 @ 12:22 am

Of course there are Marxists.

There will always be a segment that believes workers should have more ownership in the means of production.

#15 Comment By Ellimist000 On June 29, 2017 @ 9:55 am

“President Trump won the election by promising to do something about these problems, but we are still waiting.”

And you will continue to wait, because according to the election, a majority of the country doesn’t want those things. The Constitution that conservatives supposedly (to the author’s point) cherish prevents a President from doing a lot without good support. And the Buffoon makes it that much harder. But hey the same system that prevents him and the GOP is also the reason Clinton is not president despite winning 52%

#16 Comment By Ken T On June 29, 2017 @ 3:03 pm

a spencer:
a segment that believes workers should have more ownership in the means of production.

That’s not Marxism. Worker ownership of means of production is Socialism. Marxism is government ownership. They are two quite different things, despite the constant attempts of people with various axes to grind to equate the two.

#17 Comment By a spencer On June 29, 2017 @ 6:59 pm

I knew someone would correct me. 😉

Glad to be talking about Marxism on TAC. See you down at Abou Elie!