On December 16, 1962, Ayn Rand delivered a lecture at the Ford Hall Forum in Boston entitled “The Fascist New Frontier.” She began by quoting from an unidentified political platform which demanded profit-sharing, government care for the aged, legislation favorable to small businesses, government scholarships, public health and “the Common Good before the Individual Good.” She then surprised her audience by identifying this as the program of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party of Germany in 1920. Throughout her speech, she argued that the Democratic Party of John Kennedy was actually implementing fascism. In her April 18, 1965, speech before that same forum, entitled “The New Fascism: Rule by Consensus,” she attempted to equate Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society with fascism.
This equation carried conviction not only with her loyal admirers but also with many other conservatives. Throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, it was a set-piece of rightist rhetoric. Even today, one can find evocations of this thesis in conservative literature: a recent cover of the New American portrayed Bill Clinton standing with Hitler and Mussolini, haranguing the masses about his proposals for youth.
To understand the significance of Rand’s charge, one must consider when her first speech was delivered. By the first year of the Kennedy administration, it was evident that the anticommunist movement had not completely recovered from the fall of Joseph McCarthy six years earlier. The left saw its chance. One of its favorite techniques was to link its opponents to fascism. At that time, tales about the Nazi’s murder of millions of Jews were reaching the average American for the first time since the close of the Nuremberg Trials in 1946. There had been little national discussion of the subject in the late 1940’s and early 50’s. In many public schools, it was not taught. One reason is that the head of the Republican Party, Senator Robert Taft, had denounced the Nuremberg verdicts: “About this whole judgment there is the spirit of vengeance and vengeance is seldom justice. The hanging of the 11 men convicted will be a blot on the American record which we shall long regret.” The ensuing attempt by his opponents to link him with the defeated Axis was unsuccessful, and he retained his position of leadership in his party. Even as late as 1957, in Profiles In Courage, Senator John Kennedy was able to praise Taft’s stand on Nuremberg without fear of inviting widespread protest. Hollywood produced a movie starring Marlon Brando, Dean Martin, and Montgomery Cliff, in which a German soldier was depicted in a positive way. The sight of Spencer Tracy’s visage imitating a stern but wise judge would come later.
But times were a-changin’. In 1961, a bestseller was written about German atrocities during World War II. Movies were made about them, and “holocaust” slowly became a household word. Labor boss Walter Reuther and some New Frontiersmen began to speak of “thunder on the right.” Many young people started thinking that the defeated Nazis were the real enemy, not the Marxists; the latter were seen as heroes in the legal battle over segregation. Teachers of history harshly berated conservatives for opposing FDR’s efforts to get America into the war. Young conservatives were baffled: How does one account for all this?
Then came Ayn Rand.
Her major thrust was against the Kennedy New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. She emphasized the economic aspects, arguing that—like fascism—American liberalism adopted neither orthodox socialism nor laisscz faire capitalism but the middle position of seeking to control the direction of private investment.
This counterattack against the left had some success. But it is not the whole truth. Fascism did not initiate the idea of central economic planning. In pre-revolutionary France, a belief in economic controls held sway under the name “mercantilism.” According to Murray Rothbard, Louis XVTs Controller-General of Finance, Baron A. Robert Jacques Turgot, was a greater exponent of capitalism than Adam Smith. But when Turgot advocated an end to certain important subsidies, he shocked the court and had to go. So critical was the Abbe Barruel of this man that, in his 1798 work on The Anti-Monarchical Conspiracy, he accused him of singlehandedly weakening the regime. Even American revolutionaries such as Thomas Paine advocated old-age pensions, unemployment relief, family allowances, and the like, while the proclivities of Alexander Hamilton toward statism are well known. And though laissez faire capitalism became dominant in the early Victorian period, even then those who opposed government aid to combat the Irish potato famine were widely criticized. (The British Parliament eventually allocated ten million pounds to that task, quite a sum in the 1840’s.)
Ayn Rand alluded to Mussolini’s idea of the corporate state, which she correctly argued was an intellectual derivative of the medieval guild. But this idea was not invented by Mussolini, the so-called founder of fascism. It was developed early in the 20th century by Roman Catholic theorists expanding on the ideas of Pope Leo XIII, who had condemned both socialism and capitalism.
To be sure, the New Deal had some features in common with fascism: Rooseveltian intellectuals admired the writings of John Maynard Keynes, and so did the fascists. Both were against laissez faire capitalism; if Mussolini had not first called it the “Night-Watchman State,” some Democrat phrase-maker might have invented it. The New Deal had its Civilian Conservation Corps boys; the Nazi state, its Hitler Youth. Washington was planning for war, as was Berlin.
But that is where the parallel ends. Fascism was largely a reaction on the part of the European right against the early 20th century trend toward socialism and internationalism. It was led by men who despised democracy and who believed that monarchy was finished as a viable alternative. At that time, central economic planning was intellectually respectable, and they wanted to be the planners. It was to be autocracy by acclamation.
The New Deal, on the other hand, was a deliberate attempt to eliminate individualism and forge a different kind of nation. It placed its greatest hope in democracy, for its leaders knew that the anti-intellectual masses would happily, in return for a guaranteed bowl of porridge, turn aside the system devised by the Framers. Economic individualism was not an important political alternative in Germany, Italy, or Spain at that time; over there, only a few businessmen and intellectuals still accepted it. The fascists aimed at a dynamic replacement for monarchy. This was certainly the case in Germany. In Italy, Victor Emmanuel III was kept in power as a puppet; the real power remained with Mussolini. In Spain, the triumphant Franco was eventually able to bring monarchy back at the end of 40 years of maneuvering; there, fascism was less the replacement than the stalking horse for monarchy.
In her essay on Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Rand concentrated her attack on government by consensus, which she saw as an attempt to evade the responsibility of formulating an ideology. Once more, there are some similarities to fascism. Since fascism was an attempt to combine certain features of monarchy with those of democracy, the result had to be somewhat pragmatic. (Mussolini had admired William James.) Gentile did not publish a systematic ideology for fascism until after Italy had surrendered to the Allies. This lack of a defined ideology was also a characteristic of the medieval regime of Cola di Rienzi (the last of the Roman tribunes), which attempted to restore the ancient greatness. And Rienzi has long been regarded as a prototype of fascism.
This lack of ideological focus, however, is not unique to fascism and its prototypes. Take the case of Abraham Lincoln, who was bound and determined to save the Union, regardless of the cost. His reason for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation was resoundingly ad hoc; he wanted, among other things, to encourage a slave revolt. If General McClellan had acted with the ruthlessness which Lincoln desired, he might never have written that document. In his Second Inaugural, after identifying slavery as the cause of the war, Lincoln said: “Neither party . . . anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.”
What then are the true characteristics of fascism? First and foremost, fascism was a desire on the part of the post-World War I right to find an alternative to democracy and socialism that could take the place of monarchy, which was then so obviously in decline. In Italy and Germany, fascism stemmed from the nonreligious right. In Spain, it was supported by the devout; but there, as has been pointed out, monarchy was eventually restored. Most fascists were historicists; they believed that the climate of the age—not some abstract ideology—should guide public affairs. This may not have been true of Franco and his entourage, but it certainly was the case with the two more aggressive regimes. Their primary opponents, the Marxists, were also historicists, but the latter thought that the basic patterns of history were already known and that every man was determined to be either a progressive or a reactionary. The fascists, by contrast, tended to be voluntarists; in their minds, while it is the human condition to be so enmeshed in context that truth cannot be grasped, the right kind of man can, by force of will, cut the Gordian knot and with the strands bind together a stronger people. In this regard, America’s liberals are much closer to the Marxists.
The second essential characteristic of fascism is the cult of the leader. Practically, this was the problem of finding a substitute for the king. Intellectually, it was a 19th-century adaptation of Plato’s notion of the typical man. The typical man is not average. Every regime—monarchy, aristocracy, polity, or whatever—corresponds to a certain kind of man, who embodies or typifies it. In fascism’s version, the dictator represents his people; in a pure and unsullied form, he exemplifies the basic characteristics of the people. It would be legitimate for him to nullify an act of parliament if it were found that selfish interests had perverted the vote. In Germany, race was emphasized; in Italy, culture; and in Spain, religion.
This is not the case with American liberalism. Liberals certainly want their President to appeal to the various factions in the Democratic Party and to enough of those outside of the party to get him elected, but there is nothing grandly philosophical in this desire. To be sure, liberals are happy when one of their people has charisma, like FDR and JFK. President Clinton might brag that his Cabinet looks like America, but that is not really the fascist idea. The thought of Martin Luther King, Jr., having a holiday of his own is very gratifying to liberals. But if an admirer suggested that King is the archetypical American, many would regard this as bizarre.
The third characteristic of fascism is militant nationalism. This was manifestly the case with Hitler and Mussolini. American liberals, on the other hand, are militant internationalists. Moreover, fascism identifies with the host culture, whereas American liberalism despises American culture. In a patronizing mood, liberals refer to it as “Mom, the Flag, and Apple Pie.” In a less friendly mood, they speak of “Puritan Repression, Babbittry, and Racism.” For a long time, they tried to hide their true convictions behind legislation flattering to the masses. But no longer.
The partisan of Rand might object that fascists also ruined their countries. But this was not the case with Franco. If he had lost, the communists would probably have ruled Spain. While it is true that Hitler led his country to destruction and Mussolini severely weakened Italy, neither man had intended that result. This cannot be said of American liberals. As has been demonstrated time and again, they despise the basic American type. Even the courtly Adlai Stevenson described this type as fat, dumb, and happy. American liberals bear more similarly to the Soviets, who clearly hated the Russian people and did all they could to alter them. For 70 years, they bragged about “The New Soviet Man,” and when the new man finally emerged, he proved to be a proficient criminal.
How then should American liberalism be classified? One wonders why Rand did not follow the well-worn path of the American right and contrast democracy with the virtues of republic, as Benjamin Franklin had done. The propaganda value of linking American liberalism with fascism may not have been the only reason why Ayn Rand did not do this. She perhaps was hesitant to use something which came from classical political philosophy In the Politics, where Aristotle lists the three legitimate regimes—monarchy, aristocracy, and polity— and compares and contrasts them with the three illegitimate regimes—despotism, oligarchy, and democracy—he states that the latter three substitute private interest for the common good. But Rand argued that “there is no such thing as ‘the public interest’ except as the sum of the interests of individual men. And the basic, common interest of all men—all rational men—is freedom.” For Aristotle, the city or polis existed for the sake of the good life, not the maximization of liberty. More to the point, because of Rand’s exaltation of selfishness, she could not accept the notion that, in Hitler’s Germany, all were sacrificed to the self-interest of the ruler. In her mind, the principle of that regime was the sacrifice of all to the state. Whether Hitler was sincere or not was not an important question to her.
Doubtless, Aristotle’s typology could be made more consistent with individualism. One could adapt some of Aristotle’s words and argue that, in legitimate regimes, government is limited because law prevails over the will of men, while in illegitimate regimes, government is boundless. In these terms, a king who proceeded to the throne legitimately but behaved as a tyrant could be classified as a despot, regardless of the origin of his rule. The American republic could be distinguished from its degenerate democratic form by the fact that in the latter, the laws only pretend to be consistent with the Constitution. One could even argue that the present American government is a combination of two illegitimate regimes, oligarch) and democracy.
Nor was Aristotle’s theory incapable of comprehending an illegitimate change of regime within a single country; “People do not easily change, but love their own ancient customs, and it is by small degrees only that one thing takes the place of another; so that the ancient laws will remain, while the power will be in the hands of those who have brought about a revolution in the state.” But this still misses the point. American liberalism does not simply intend to rule but to destroy the United States as we have known it. Since Ayn Rand was partly aware of this fact, she may have been aware that the classical theory is not adequate for understanding that phenomenon.
With the Spanish-American War, America passed from republic to empire, as astute observers of the day recognized. William Graham Sumner wrote that the war should have been called Spain’s conquest of the United States; Spain was the original imperialist state of the modern West. Theodore Roosevelt, who believed that war checked the tendency of civilized men to go soft, had not anticipated what would develop from that change in regime. Less than 20 years after the charge up San Juan Hill, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt would conspire with First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill to send a passenger ship, the Lusitania, across the Atlantic from America, stuffed with weaponry. Soon, many a young American would have his rendezvous with death.
A better characterization of American liberalism was written in 1952, ten years before Rand’s “Fascist New Frontier.” The author was Garet Garrett:
Never in any world, real or unreal, has it been imagined before that Empire, out of its own pocket, should not only pay all the costs of Empire, but actually pay other nations for the privilege of giving them protection and security, defending their borders and minding their economic welfare.
That indeed is Empire in a new sign. The chasm is bankruptcy.
Not to make sense of it, which is impossible, but only in order not to forget that you belong to a race of once rational creatures, you have to keep telling yourself that it all began when you walked through the looking glass.
It is only by trying to make sense of it that one can understand the phenomenon of modern liberalism, not by trying to make converts by comparing it with something that liberals have carefully taught the masses to hate, root and branch. As Rand herself would have admitted, it is the Truth that should matter.
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