Conflating conservatism with extremism is a sophomoric error by those who don’t understand fascism’s place on the political spectrum
It is fashionable among the radical left to demonize the growing number of elected conservative governments in the Western world as the rise of the extreme or alt-right. This is most pronounced in the anti-fascist (antifa) movement, particularly on university campuses. However, the anti-fascist movement has a sophomoric misunderstanding of fascism and its location on the political spectrum. More disturbing, this lack of understanding extends to its own social media and even physical tactics that mimic the mob psychology, street rage and bullying that are hallmarks of the fascism they denounce.
Fascism is best thought of as a nationalistic version of socialism, embodied in Hitler’s National Socialist party, which was shortened to the Nazis. Fascist governments like those of Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini (and, to some degree, Spain’s Francisco Franco) in mid-20th century Europe believed in totalitarian control of the economy and oppressive state curtailment of individual liberty. Those are the antitheses of conservative principles. Fascism subsumes all ideology to the goals of the state and the need for state surveillance. The extreme version of conservatism isn’t fascism, as the left wants us to think. It’s libertarianism.
Instead of left and right or liberal versus conservative, a better schema is to locate movements on a spectrum that runs from tyranny to liberty. Fascism embodies many elements of the socialist’s state control of society. For libertarian icon Friedrich Hayek, Hitler’s National Socialism “was indeed socialist in concept and execution,” while H. Pierre Secher, biographer of one of Austria’s leading socialists, Bruno Kreisky, wrote of the striking similarities between the leftists and the fascists in that country: “Ideologically, the distinction between the ‘Sozis’ (Socialists) and Commies on the one hand and Nazis on the other, was probably only the internationalism of the Marxists and the nationalism of the Nazis. In every other respect they agreed on the evils of capitalism.” The connection of Jews with capitalism helped fuel the anti-Semitism of the Nazis.
Mussolini’s claim that in a fascist regime there was to be “everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state” is of course the totalitarian opposite of the libertarian ideal. Mussolini was long involved with the socialist movement in Italy, breaking with it because of personal ambition and because his socialist brethren would not support Italy’s entry into the First World War. Once in power, he inaugurated a major extension of welfare spending and public works projects. Mussolini’s insistence that his fascist deputies take seats on the far right of the Italian Constituent Assembly may have led some observers to wrongly conclude that fascism was right wing.
… ‘mob psychology’ and ‘the militant anti-reason impervious to argument’ are characteristics amply evident in today’s campus protests against a fascism they hotly denounce but whose tactics they generously employ.
Students have been drawn to the appeal of totalitarian certitude long before political correctness and the antifa movements arrived on campus. When the conservative sociologist Peter Berger, whose family fled Austria from the Nazis, found himself in the midst of a violent, left-wing anti-war demonstration in the 1960s, he said it reminded him “of the stormtroopers that marched through my childhood,” with student protestors adopting from fascists “their anti-intellectualism, their anger, their street theater, their glorification of youth, or their mysticism.” There was also their “mob psychology” and “the militant anti-reason impervious to argument.” These characteristics are all amply evident in today’s campus protests against a fascism they hotly denounce but whose tactics they generously employ.
Off campus, the triumph of religious appeal over reasoned argument today is found in the radical environmental movement, whose early roots were in German fascism. The historian Anna Bramwell, while making the common mistake of conflating conservatism and fascism, nevertheless wrote that “Greenness was seen as an incipiently sinister conservative or even Fascist idea in German thought” going back to Hitler’s support of renewable energy to help reduce Germany’s dependence on oil, in short supply through much of the war. The anti-fossil-fuel movement uses the fascist’s appeal to emotion over reason, demonizing all who dare question it as “climate change deniers.”
Today the rise of extremism is more pronounced and frightening on the left than the right. The demonization of the right as fascism, that therefore forfeits its place to be heard in the public square, employs the strategy developed by the Marxist scholar Herbert Marcuse. One of the progenitors of the so-called New Left in the 1950s, Marcuse maintained that certain views on the right had to be silenced because this freedom of expression was “serving the cause of oppression.” In this line of thought, censorship serves the cause of freedom because intolerance against the right, while indulging extremism from the left, somehow levels the playing field for democratic debate. That absurd notion is at last managing to take hold in many academic and media circles today.
• Philip Cross is the former chief economist at Statistics Canada.