Left-wing critics of Trump and of the worldwide resurgence of the populist right have been throwing the word fascist around liberally in recent years. But many people have missed the less readily apparent—but far more significant—manner in which the losers of the Second World War won the ensuing peace, defeating liberalism and socialism alike. Their armies were vanquished, but some of their dangerous ideas have prevailed, becoming more ubiquitously accepted with each passing year.
Liberalism vs. Collectivism
Liberalism is premised on individualism: the notion of individual choice and self-determination and the concomitant idea that government should protect and preserve individual rights and liberties from encroachment, including by government itself. Both left and right collectivism, on the other hand, begin from the foundation laid out by thinkers like Rousseau and Hegel, which assumes that the polity’s collective health and destiny should be prioritised, and the individual obliged to function within the grid lines plotted by visions of the common good. But there are also significant differences between communism and fascism.
While communism accords primacy to the material realm, viewing the cultural sphere as a superstructure dependent on an economic base, fascism regards economic concerns as secondary and conceives of society as oriented around a spiritual pole. As Mussolini and philosopher Giovanni Gentile write in “This Doctrine of Fascism” (1932),
The Fascist conception of life is a religious one, in which man is viewed in his immanent relation to a higher law, endowed with an objective will transcending the individual and raising him to conscious membership of a spiritual society … In the Fascist conception of history, man is man only by virtue of the spiritual process to which he contributes as a member of the family, the social group, the nation, and in function of history to which all nations bring their contribution.
In the modern west, the materialist view more or less prevails, albeit in a milder form than the rigid economics as base, culture as superstructure dogma of the Marxist left. Spirituality is largely absent from our public realm and is to be found—if anywhere—only within the purview of individual striving.
Three Distinctions Within Collectivism, Left vs. Right
1. The Universal Class vs. the Tribe
Other key distinctions between communism and fascism are directly relevant to our present-day predicament. First, while both left and right collectivists think in terms of groups rather than individuals, for the left, the favoured group has traditionally been the proletariat, Marx’s universal class. This is why Stalin’s resolve to consolidate socialism in a single nation, rather than working towards worldwide proletarian revolution, occasioned such controversy among Marxist intellectuals. But, still more fundamentally, left collectivism, like the left liberalism of earlier decades, has traditionally conceived of human beings as a single people, citizens of the world, possessed of universal rights, as exemplified by the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man. To quote sociologist Todd Gitlin, “If there is no people, but only peoples, there is no Left.” Right collectivism, by contrast, has always stressed human tribalism and specificity. As the great reactionary critic of the French Revolution, Joseph de Maistre, writes in his Considerations on France (1797),
The Constitution of 1795, like its predecessors, was made for man. But there is no such thing as man in the world. In my lifetime I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; thanks to Montesquieu, I even know that one can be Persian. But as for man, I declare that I have never in my life met him; if he exists, he is unknown to me … [A] constitution that is made for all nations is made for none.
The pivotal role played by the specific people of a nation, the Volk, is an idea introduced into our discourse by eighteenth-century German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, who—unlike the Nazi theorists of racial superiority who misappropriated his ideas—held that the people of each nation had their own peculiar greatness and should be left undisturbed by others, to cultivate their own society and pursue their own particular destiny. In Decline of the West (1918/23), Oswald Spengler, another deity in the far right pantheon, plays a minor key version of Herder’s distinctive cultural evolution tune. Later, Carl Schmitt, one of the principal philosophical voices of Nazi Germany, argued that the distinction between a polity’s inside and outside—between us and them, friends and enemies—is at the very core of what politics is, or should be, all about.
2. Reason vs. Passion
Traditional leftist ideology was founded on Enlightenment reason and a project to remake the world in accordance with the rational dictates of human intellect or, per Marx, in the belief that a perfectly rational and inevitable (r)evolution will lead us toward communism, whether we like it or not. In Marx’s simplistic view of human nature, we always act—and even should act—in our economic self-interest and, in effect, in our class interest: any concern motivated by patriotism, culture or religion is a kind of false consciousness. The traditional liberal view likewise conceives of rational, informed voters freely choosing their leaders, while the right to free speech, as John Stuart Mill argued, allows all manner of opinions to be pitted against each other in rational combat, and refined into something approaching truth. The collectivist right view, by contrast, emerged from the Counter-Enlightenment. Thinkers like Rousseau stressed that the passions, rather than reason, are at the core of our nature. For Rousseau, reason serves mainly to undermine the faith and religious observance necessary to keep people dutiful and oriented toward the common good. De Maistre argued that any republic engineered by philosophers could easily be dismantled by philosophers of a different bent. Lasting societies are built, he claimed, on bloody violence, religious observance and persecution and the solemn magic of traditions whose origins are lost in the sands of time. The true constitution of France, de Maistre argued, does not consist of any document that is or could be written, but rather, “is what you sensed when you were in France; it is that mixture of liberty and authority, law and opinion that would lead the foreign traveller in France … to believe that he was now living under another government than his own.” Like later fascist philosophers, such as Julius Evola, who believed that healthy societies are founded upon a spiritual bedrock, De Maistre conceives of the state as religious through and through: “The polity and the religion are founded together; the legislator is scarcely distinguishable from the priest, and his public institutions consist principally in ceremonies and religious holidays.” But even those secular thinkers who inspired the collectivist right embraced irrationalism. Though, like Marx, Nietzsche was an atheist, his ideas were appropriated by the far right (in a form distorted by his anti-Semitic sister). In sharp contrast to Marx’s preoccupation with power struggles waged on behalf of rational class interests, Nietzsche focused on the more primal, unreasoned “will to power,” derived from Schopenhauer’s absurd and irrational “Will.”
3. Equality vs. Hierarchy
Right collectivism, unlike its left counterpart, was constituted hierarchically and, as such, saw the need for an elite, who could herd the masses into the right pens, while left collectivism sought to elevate the masses themselves, believing that, once elevated, they would not need to be led.
The Left Opts for Elitism
This third and most utopian branch of left collectivism was the first to fall. Anticipated in this respect by the tyrannical left populism of the French Revolution, the very first communist revolution in Russia set up not a self-ruling people’s republic but a dictatorship of the proletariat, lorded over by a succession of authoritarian despots. Lenin argued that the continued stewardship of an educated revolutionary vanguard was necessary because tsarist Russia had been a backward and largely agrarian society, not the kind of society Marx had envisaged: an advanced capitalist economy with a large, powerful, urbanized proletariat, ready for revolution. Every subsequent left revolution has followed the Russian blueprint, occurring in backward nations and brought to fruition by juntas and totalitarian strongmen.
The key intellectual move that hastened the collectivist left’s abandonment of the working class—once supposed to constitute the very heart of the revolutionary body—was taken by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci argued, contra Marx himself, that before there could be any proletarian revolution, a difficult battle for power over mass culture had to be waged. Mass culture, for Gramsci, was the primary instrument through which the capitalist class exercised hegemony (Gramsci’s term, which has since become commonplace) over the proletariat and stupefied it, co-opting the proletarian consciousness and casting a spell over the masses, which rendered them unwilling to revolt against their exploiters. To zap them out of the trance, organic intellectuals—who were of working class origins and therefore understood the experience of the proletariat—had to prepare the ground for the revolution by undertaking a long march through the institutions to subvert the capitalist control of mass culture and turn the proletariat’s hegemonically instilled common sense into good sense. While left leaders today are anything but organic intellectuals—progressive elites are disproportionately wealthy, educated whites—those leaders remain well out in front, i.e., further left, of their would-be followers and persist in waging a cultural jihad against nearly every aspect of traditional culture, both high and low.
The Left Goes Tribal
The importance of intellectuals in advancing the cause of left collectivism was further stressed by the group of mid-twentieth-century quasi-Marxist thinkers known as the Frankfurt School, who played a critical role in the collective left’s abandonment of the ideal of universal humanity in favor of the ethnic, racial and other group essentialisms and particularisms generally the province of the collectivist right. The Frankfurt School sought to explain why, contrary to Marx’s predictions, the working classes in the most highly industrialized economies had failed to revolt en masse against their capitalist overlords. Their answer, like Gramsci’s, was that the masses had been hypnotized by the ruling class, which had used its control over the cultural sphere and mass media to manufacture and stoke false needs and get people addicted to over-consumption and mind-numbing, spirit-killing entertainments and amusements, which distracted them from the realities of wage slavery, rampant inequality and other forms of exploitation.
Several of the most prominent members of the Frankfurt School, especially Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse, argued that the working classes could no longer be counted on to be the engine of revolution and that the role of intellectuals like themselves was no longer merely to echo proletarian consciousness but to ally themselves with and marshal other progressive forces. From his post-War perches at several American universities, Marcuse, the massively influential father of the American New Left, wrote a series of widely read books and essays in the 50s and 60s, in which he expressly calls upon radical intellectuals to give up on America’s white working class (which is “integrated into the system and do[es] not want a radical transformation”) and, instead, constitute a new proletariat of “outsiders within the established order,” principally “national and racial minorities” or “those found in the ghettos among the ‘underprivileged,’ whose vital needs even highly developed, advanced capitalism cannot and will not gratify.” Marcuse himself mentored such noted academic and counterculture radicals as the communist Black Panther Angela Davis and, along with his fellow Frankfurt School critical theorists, became a seminal influence on critical legal studies and, through it, on critical race theory and critical gender theory, which later fanned out from academia into the mainstream. Other notable figures influenced by Marxist currents, such as Frantz Fanon and Edward Said, were likewise instrumental in turning the focus of the collective left away from the universal proletariat and toward groups defined by race, religion or geography. Those who came in their wake availed themselves of Marxist and socialist doctrines to attack western culture and, in the form of entire new disciplines—cultural studies, race studies and gender studies—re-oriented Marxist theory’s critical arsenal toward mirror image forms of the tribal identifications favored by the collectivist right. The left may have had a different view of which particular groups deserve to end up on top when the dust settles, but it came to agree with the right that tribal allegiances, rather than appeals to universal humanity, were the surest way to rouse people to action.
In our own times, of course, tribalist identity politics have become completely mainstream on the left, the most vocal segments of which now conceive of individuals only as belonging to various identity groups. Ironically, it is the center-right, i.e., the dwindling contingent of neocons and, perhaps, traditional liberals, from whom we most often hear the remaining calls for individualism and universalism, for race-blindness and the liberal Civil Rights Era ideal of judging each person for who rather than what they are. The bulk of the left, meanwhile, has joined the far right in speaking the language of identity, such that the Democrats, who could once lay claim to being the party of the working class, unions and so on, have now alienated much of the white working class by trading class for race and demonizing poor and working class whites as privileged racists allegedly benefiting from a history of systemic white supremacy. Even Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, with a very obvious preference for class-based over racial and other identity-based rhetoric, has been forced to play the race game to avoid losing ground to those whose penchant for racial divisiveness is more natural.
The Left Abandons Reason
Finally, today’s left has largely abandoned the language of Enlightenment rationality and adopted, instead, the fascist right’s counterattack against reason. The Frankfurt School laid the groundwork for this. As scholar Douglas Kellner writes, in a 1975 review of Martin Jay’s history of the school, “the Frankfurt School surrendered [the] belief in the desirability of a more rational socialist society and even attacked rationality and rationalization of society itself. They concluded that an instrumental rationality served as a new, more technologically sophisticated means of domination and that the increased rationalization of society would lead to increased domination, administration and slavery.” Marcuse, channeling Freud, argues that capitalism, like the individual superego, represses our irrational and violent impulses, but cannot fully succeed. The task of the revolutionary intellectual is to find those left out of the capitalist world order, those outcasts on society’s fringes, those in whom the irrational, violent flames still flicker most brightly, and bring them to the fore, to unleash the repressed primal passions of the rest. Thus, the Marxist dream of a more rational society brought to fruition by people acting in their economic self-interest was replaced by the daily summoning up of the kinds of racial and other identity-based passions and animosities that were once thought to be the exclusive M.O. of the right.
The most glaring example of the left’s abandonment of rationality is the growing preeminence of that ultimate hallmark of fascist practice: reliance on lynch mobs to enforce the rules. Driven by seething rage and other animal passions, unwilling to entertain arguments, evidence or dissent, trampling norms of civility, free speech, due process and the presumption of innocence, the social media mob and the intimidating, violence-prone protesting hordes go after their targets with a relentless fervor. Truth is secondary, as witnessed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s notorious complaint, when she was called out for a particularly blatant misstating of statistics, about “people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.” The left’s retreat from rationality is why we have witnessed prominent politicians and presidential contenders like Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris telling us that they “stand with Michael Brown” despite the fact—undoubtedly well-known to them—that President Obama’s Department of Justice investigation found that Michael Brown’s shooting was justified, while the hands-up-don’t-shoot narrative irresponsibly perpetuated by the race-baiting media was a complete fabrication. More broadly, it is why we keep being told that there is an ongoing epidemic of racist cops killing unarmed blacks despite the best empirical evidence that no such thing is going on. It is why we have seen standards of due process for male university students accused of sexual assault utterly abandoned and why we have been told to believe all women, even though a disturbing percentage of sexual assault allegations—including prominent ones—have proven false. It is why we are being told—in defiance of common sense and everything we know about the genetics and biology of human beings and other animals—that biological sex is a mere social construct. The bottom line is that, for both the modern-day left and the fascist right, being part of the right tribe is more important than standing for the truth. Whom you stand with is more important than what you stand for.
Antifa’s Ultimate Irony
One of the central ironies of the Frankfurt School’s starring role in the left’s drift toward fascism is that these are the same people whose most notorious contribution during their time in America was to pioneer the distortion of the term fascist and turn it into a slur against ideological opponents, just as it is used by much of the left today. In 1950, Horkheimer’s frequent collaborator Theodor Adorno and a team of like-minded thinkers published The Authoritarian Personality, which employs dubious and biased social science to invent an F-scale of personality characteristics, allegedly predictive of a predisposition towards fascism. Their hope was to bring about a brown scare analogous to the red one that would materialize in the 1950s, and to have their tool utilized by government and private employers to sniff out fascists and would-be fascists. Their book was enormously influential, especially within academia, and their plan succeeded spectacularly: in the intervening decades between then and now, the Gramscian long march through the institutions has worked its magic and brought Antifa and its many allies in media and academia to the fore.
The traditional leftist values are noble ones. Universalism, rationality, due process, free speech and respect for the needs and preferences of working people are values worth preserving. The left does not have a monopoly on these values, nor do these values have a monopoly on the truth—the Counter-Enlightenment’s elevation of organic social, national, cultural and religious traditions and societal unity also has a great deal in its favor—but, when the left gives up on its hallowed creeds and gives in to the paradigm offered by the collectivist right, without offering the vision of spiritual unity the collectivist right brings to the table, we lose the critical buffer we need to prevent the war of all against all. We are left with little more than one group pitted against another, and, in the end, every group against every other, a debased, zero-sum vision—a giant feeding trough in which teams of hogs fight over the slop.