In a recent discussion with a younger colleague about his book-in-progress on American historian Richard Hofstadter, I learned that, during the student riot at Columbia in 1968, Hofstadter repeatedly likened student radicals to European “fascists.” My colleague found this remarkable, given the fact that Hofstadter had spent decades agonizing over the “paranoid style” of the American nativist right. For Hofstadter and others of like mind, however, the campus radicals were not progressive reformers but haters of “liberal democracy.” Some of them, in deference to black nationalists, took a pro-Arab, anti-Israel stand; and this confirmed for Cold War liberals (soon to become neoconservatives) that their enemies —apparently on the left—were actually throwbacks to the interwar right.
This political geography went as far back as the “red fascist” images popularized by Truman and other Democrats during the early years of the Cold War. In order to smooth the transition from battling international fascism to resisting international communism, it was useful to blur the distinction between the two. Both were portrayed as faces of the same totalitarian foe; and though Stalinoid European refugees presented the “authoritarian personality” as an exclusively rightwing pathology, it was easily coopted as a Cold War liberal weapon. By the early 50’s, Seymour Martin Lipset was speaking of fascist personality development in Marxist-Leninists. Some historians, most famously James Gregor, tried to make the comparison from the opposite direction, though (for obvious reasons) with less acclaim. In an ambitious work on Italian fascism, Gregor, by picking his evidence selectively, made it appear that fascists were on the anti-democratic left.
Although not everyone who drew such comparisons was on the same wavelength (one thinks especially of the late Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddhin), most exponents of “red fascism” and its thematic permutations belonged to the same club. The postwar center-left found it comforting to believe that everyone opposed to “liberal democracy” (particularly in its New Deal American form) was a “totalitarian” or an “authoritarian” in need of coercive reeducation. This is the recurrent theme of the Vital Center, Political Man, and other products of the Cold War liberal imagination that flourished between the late 40’s and mid-60’s. Its supreme illustration, though persistently misrepresented as a “conservative classic,” is Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. In this best-selling tirade against Germans, postmodernists, hippies, and popular music, Bloom reprises the idèe fixe of Cold War liberals: that what appears to be an unkempt, malodorous, and riotous enemy on the left can be traced back to the anti-American, European, and especially German right. It was nice for a certified member of the postwar democratic left to think that he did not have to change his enemies as the Cold War heated up, or as campuses were occupied and littered by self-described Maoists in the late 60’s and by hirsute women burning their bras in the 70’s. Unacceptable leftists could be packed into the far right or introduced as anti-democratic Teutons in drag.
The argument that the New Left had something to do with the fascism is absurd: The New Left was far too tame to resemble the Nazis or communist thugs who destroyed the Weimar Republic and routinely murdered people in the process. In terms of violence and antisemitism, the New Left fell ridiculously below the standards of savagery of the Nazis, even before they came to power. The comparison of strident hippies to Latin fascists is equally farfetched, but for opposite reasons. The intellectual fathers of European fascism, in contrast to Angela Davis, Fidel Castro, and Franz Fanon, were eminently civilized gentlemen, including such figures as Giovanni Gentile, Vilfredo Pareto, Maurice Barres, and Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera. The founding generation of this movement had no desire to tear down either civilization or sexual mores. What concerned them was the explosiveness of the left and the fear that bourgeois society was too decadent to protect the world it had built or inherited. To the extent that fascists began to imitate the opposite side, they did so largely to forestall it. Thus they produced, in the memorable phrase of Ernst Nolte, “a counterrevolutionary imitation” of the revolutionary left.
It is true that serious thinkers and social critics could be found temporarily connected with the New Left—for example, Eugene Genovese, Paul Piccone, and Christopher Lasch. But these associations proved brittle, and thoughtful fellow travelers fled the movement with varying degrees of disgust. The reasons are clearly put in Stanley Rothman’s Roots of American Radicalism or in Genovese’s colorful commentaries. Both provide pictures of sexually disordered, often lewd exhibitionists full of uncontrolled rage against authority figures, starting with their parents. Rothman offers further insights into New Left anger by contrasting Jewish and Christian radicals and explaining why the former were more prone to sexual exhibition and the latter to random violence. My own memory attests that we cannot exaggerate the intellectual and social vulgarity of these radicalized louts. Indeed, fairness requires that any comparisons between them and the fascists favor the squadristi who marched on Rome in October 1922.
Moreover, the two movements had dramatically different fates. While in the 20’s and early 30’s, Western progressives and Catholic corporatists found elements of Italian fascism worth exporting, and labor legislation under Hoover and FDR looks like it was drafted by the Confederazione Nazionale Sindacati Fascisti, by the 40’s the fascist movement had collapsed. It had been vulgarized in Spain by Franco and identified with murderous imperialism through its selective absorption by the Third Reich. Fascism today lives on only as a hate word, invoked by the media against anyone or anything that fails to comply with its ever more stringent standards of political correctness, from Pat Buchanan to European critics of immigration.
The New Left, by contrast, has made out well. While New Leftists had once rapped about the evil of impersonal bureaucratic structures, they were happy to leave that particular concern to others, such as the denizens of right-wing fever swamps, once they became part of the “system.” They became the shock troops and cheering gallery of the therapeutic state. Compared to the New Left’s policy efforts on behalf of alternative lifestyles and marginalized minorities, the social changes wrought by the Italian fascists were minimal. The Carta del Lavoro brought before the Fascist Gran Consiglio in 1927 by the “anti-bourgeois” minister of labor Giuseppe Bottai did not even begin to create the proclaimed national workers’ revolution. The Carta was watered down into a pale forerunner of the New Deal, and its fate illustrates the fascist reluctance to tamper with bourgeois society: Don’t look to Italian family heads to turn the social order inside out! Only the Nazis could approach the nihilistic mentality of our own political class.
Despite its fire-eating rhetoric, early fascism, which was almost exclusively Latin or Latin-derivative, left the surrounding society largely intact. This was not only due to its counterrevolutionary aspect, but because of where it took root. Latin Catholic cultures were far less open to restructuring than Germanic Protestant ones. The human landscape was too cluttered, especially by a well-organized Church and tightly-knit families, to favor a central state or a revolutionary ideology demanding absolute power. Atomized societies that stress individual gratification are more promising terrain for such an enterprise. For these reasons, Latin fascism turned out to be a highly ornate but rudimentary instrument of managerial control. Listening recently to one of the younger neocons, who was up in arms against the “fascist impulse” in literary modernism, I was reminded of Bill Clinton celebrating our victory over “the tyranny of George the Third.” Note what Jesus said on the subject of motes and beams!