Adolf Hitler greets German workers in 1934. Concern for workers’ rights was part of the initial appeal of fascist leaders. Photo by Heinrich Hoffmann/Ullstein Bild/Getty


The lure of fascism

Fascism promised radical national renewal and supreme power to the people. Are we in danger of a fascist revival today?

by Jonathan Wolff + BIO

Adolf Hitler greets German workers in 1934. Concern for workers’ rights was part of the initial appeal of fascist leaders. Photo by Heinrich Hoffmann/Ullstein Bild/Getty

Ours is the age of the rule by ‘strong men’: leaders who believe that they have been elected to deliver the will of the people. Woe betide anything that stands in the way, be it the political opposition, the courts, the media or brave individuals. While these demonised guardians of freedom are belittled, brushed aside or destroyed, vulnerable groups, such as refugees, immigrants, minorities and those living in poverty, bear the brunt. What can be done to halt or reverse this process? And what will happen if we simply stand by and watch? Some commentators see parallels with the rise of fascism in the 1930s. Others agree that democracy is under threat but suggest that the threats are new. A fair point, but with its dangers. Yes, we must attend to new threats, but old ones can reoccur too.

Stefan Zweig, the Austrian author of Jewish descent, saw his books burnt in university towns across Germany in 1933. His memoirs paint a picture in which everything was normal until it wasn’t. But it would be wrong to think that we can predict how things will turn out. Who foresaw where we are now? The French philosopher Simone Weil, writing in 1934, probably had it right: ‘We are in a period of transition; but a transition towards what? No one has the slightest idea.’

Liberal democratic institutions, such as those we have now, exist only so long as people believe in them. When that belief evaporates, change can be rapid. Beware leaders riding a wave of crude nationalism. Beware democracy submerging into a vague notion of the will of the people. But why now? In 1920s Germany, it was obvious. The novelist and journalist Joseph Roth remarked:

Without the free food [that the unemployed man in Hamburg] gets in assembly halls he would starve to death. And in these assembly halls, where people used to go to smooch and drink, they are now daubing swastikas and Soviet stars on the grimy walls.

Mass unemployment isn’t what threatens us today. Instead, we’re facing something closer to the situation observed by Hannah Arendt in 1951:

It is as though mankind had divided itself between those who believe in human omnipotence … and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives.

Powerlessness can lead to detachment. But it can also lead to exuberant support for whomever seems to be on your wavelength. This is what happened in the 1930s. In considering the parallels between then and now, the Irish journalist Emily Lorimer’s book What Hitler Wants (1939) – written in October 1938, a month before Kristallnacht, and just after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia – is a remarkable resource. Lorimer realised that the English translation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf (1925) was highly censored; for example, it left out Hitler’s detailed plans to invade England. Few English people could read German, so Lorimer set out to make an English-language digest and summary of the key elements of the book. She suggested that three key elements drove Hitler’s initial plans: a concern for workers’ rights; a desire to create a purely German state; and violent opposition to social democracy.

The concern for workers’ rights is surely the forgotten element in far-Right ideology. In the first instance, far-Right ideas can bloom in those who consider themselves wronged or ignored by their political leaders. Early fascists latched on to low-paid workers, war veterans and others who felt betrayed by a system that gave them nothing in return for their sacrifices. As historian Samuel Moyn writes in Not Enough (2018): ‘It is no accident that the inventor of the still most widely used measure of national inequality, Italian statistician Corrado Gini, was a Fascist.’

Gini wasn’t just any fascist, either; he was the author of the paper: ‘The Scientific Basis of Fascism’ (1927). Yet, surely, national inequality is an obsession of the Left rather than the Right? In the end, what is the difference between fascist and Left-wing ideas? According to Oswald Mosley – the leader of the British Union of Fascists from 1932 to 1940 – the British Labour Party was pursuing policies of ‘international socialism’, while fascism’s aim was ‘national socialism’.

Mosley might have been wrong to regard mature fascism as a form of socialism. But he was right about its origins. Early Italian fascism broke from socialism only on the grounds of nationalism. The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini proposed giving women the vote, lowering the voting age to 18, introducing an eight-hour workday, worker participation in industrial management, heavy progressive capital tax and the partial confiscation of war profits. Of course, he also advocated extreme nationalism and Italian expansionism, but the pro-worker aspects of his programme are striking.

Espousing a concern for workers’ rights is not a protection against authoritarianism

In Germany, as early as 1920, Hitler set out his 25-point manifesto for the Nazi Party, of which points 11 to 15 concern workers’ rights:

11. That all unearned income, and all income that does not arise from work, be abolished.
12. Since every war imposes on the people fearful sacrifices in blood and treasure, all personal profit arising from the war must be regarded as treason to the people. We therefore demand the total confiscation of all war profits.
13. We demand the nationalisation of all trusts.
14. We demand profit-sharing in large industries.
15. We demand a generous increase in old-age pensions.

Connoisseurs will spot the antisemitic notes – ‘unearned income’ and ‘war profits’ – but, on the face of it, these points could have been taken from the manifesto of the German communists.

Mosley, who fell out with the socialists over their compromises with big business and what he perceived as the weakening of their principles, quipped: ‘The Socialists wore red ties until they faded pink after the last Labour Government.’ He added, in terms with which it is hard to quibble: ‘Real freedom means good wages, short hours, security in employment, good houses, opportunity for leisure and recreation with family and friends.’

Mussolini and Mosley are a reminder that espousing a concern for workers’ rights is not, in itself, a protection against authoritarianism. In the United Kingdom today, there is a growing belief that it was the Labour Party’s failure to embrace nationalist policies – thought to be favoured by its traditional voters – that led to its humiliating electoral defeat in 2019. There’s also the conviction, shared by some of the less thoughtful activists, that as long as they remain supportive of trade unions and retain pro-poor policies, their Left-wing credentials will remain intact, even if they embrace crude nationalism. But this terrain needs to be navigated very carefully indeed.

In practice, fascism’s initial championing of the rights of workers came to little. But, especially in Germany, fascists relentlessly pursued their second goal of creating a racially pure state. The nation, said the Nazis, was being ruined by traitors and parasites, and it was essential that purity be restored by any means necessary. And, of course, the traitors were the communists and the parasites were the Jews.

The idea of the need to restore national purity is common to all fascisms. As the American political scientist and historian Robert Paxton wrote in The Anatomy of Fascism (2004): ‘Fascisms seek out in each national culture those themes that are best capable of mobilising a mass movement of regeneration, unification, and purity, directed against liberal individualism and constitutionalism and against Leftist class struggle.’ This allows a person ‘the gratification of submerging oneself in a wave of shared feelings’.

In fascist literature, we see repeated a language of enemies, traitors, parasites and foreigners, and the dehumanising metaphors of pigs, dogs, rats and cockroaches, accompanied by the readiness for violent action by paramilitary and extrajudicial forces. A mob in coloured shirts exudes an aura of organised – yet brutal – force, even when those assembled have no training and little individual muscle. In the 1930s, nationalist parties around the world dressed not just in black and brown, but also in blue, green, grey, orange, silver and khaki and, not to be forgotten, the more elaborate white outfit of the American white-supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan.

As the British philosopher Brian Barry remarked in the 1980s, Anglo-American academia and liberal intellectual circles have had a difficult time with nationalism, regarding it as ‘inimical to civilised values’. Yet, this has left a gap that has been exploited by ruthless opportunists, as made evident in the 2016 Brexit vote. The Leave campaign claimed a monopoly on British values. Fringe elements of the campaign were openly racist. Even members of parliament and parts of the press joined in the hostility to immigrants and foreign residents, with all the unpleasant imagery of ‘swarms’ or ‘floods’ of refugees and low-paid workers at the UK’s doors.

In response, many on the Left have adopted an unashamedly pro-immigrant stance. But some Left-wing and centre-Right politicians have taken a different tack, attempting to capture nationalist sentiment without resorting to discriminatory or racist language, attitudes or policies.

Intellectuals have ignored nationalism at their peril. Yet they could adopt it at their peril too

The terms ‘progressive patriotism’ and ‘liberal nationalism’ have been used to try to capture this type of view. But what does it stand for? There are a number of ways to explain a distinction between ‘bad’ and ‘good’ nationalism. Bad nationalism, in the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s words, is ‘a mindless loyalty to one’s own particular nation’. Good nationalism, or what MacIntyre calls patriotism, is a matter of valuing the achievements and merits of one’s country, both because they are achievements and merits, and because they are ours.

What keeps this type of more sophisticated nationalism, or patriotism, liberal or progressive is that it is intended to be nonexclusive. You take pride in your country’s achievements while recognising that other countries can take pride in theirs. And you don’t exclude or demonise outsiders. But how easy is it to maintain this position? At the very least, it takes work to prevent it from sliding into the dangerous blind loyalty that breeds racism and xenophobia. The crowd can form too quickly.

Yet some philosophers argue that we have no real choice. We cannot wish nationalist sentiment away. Much of ordinary political and cultural life depends on it. Pride in national traditions of food, wine, sport, art, music and literature. Attachment to a particular, bounded, territory. Solidarity with those with a shared history. How else can, for example, the campaign for Scottish independence, supported by many liberals, be understood? Following the Second World War, intellectuals have ignored nationalism at their peril. Yet they could adopt it at their peril too. As the Israeli political scientist and former politician Yael Tamir writes in Why Nationalism (2019): ‘Without the balancing power of liberalism and democracy [nationalism] can easily turn destructive.’ All the more reason for strengthening liberalism and democracy to keep nationalism in check.

The third key aspect of the Nazi programme, according to Lorimer – after support for workers’ rights and the creation of a German state – was to defeat social democracy. I’m especially interested in this assault on liberal democracy and its institutions.

Fascism has the knack of turning democracy against itself. Democracy has been used as a stepping stone to power, only to be dismantled and replaced by authoritarian rule. Leadership, parades, celebrations and rallies take the place of politics. With them, a whole host of institutions and safeguards that keep political leaders in check are undermined. This process generally has two stages, both of which relate to philosophical debates about democracy.

The first stage concerns the basic question, What is democracy? Naturally, we identify democracy with majority rule. Going back on a decision made by the majority seems to be the epitome of antidemocratic arrogance, often represented as a form of elite capture of the state. Yet, the 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill is among many who have warned of the danger of majority rule. Before democracy was established, theorists had assumed that it would solve all our problems. If the people make the laws that bind them, why would they ever choose to oppress themselves? But Mill points out that democracy exposes us to a new sort of tyranny: the tyranny of the majority.

At the heart of democracy is a tension between the rule of the majority and the protection of the rights of the minority. Protecting minority rights means that, in practice, liberal democracy limits the rule of the majority. Many countries have a written constitution, covering issues that are simply too important to be left to ordinary day-to-day politics. They need a special, drawn-out process for change. For some matters of even greater importance, change can happen only at the hands of the international community. And these, of course, are human rights. A simple majority should not be enough to overturn constitutional or human rights.

Fascism disagrees. Mosley wrote: ‘The will of the people is greater than the right of the minority.’ The leader is there to carry out the will of the people, irrespective of the consequences for particular individuals. No one has the right to stand in its way.

A vibrant cultural world holds more than just intrinsic value; it also acts as a powerful source of critique

Liberal democracies have evolved a vast web of institutions that can interfere with an overreaching leader’s plans in different ways, and that collectively protect minority rights. The most visible are the formal mechanisms that limit power or authority. These include the rule of law and law courts. The upper house in parliament keeps watch over executive overreach. Local government provides an alternative source of concentrated authority. Healthy politics includes a ‘loyal opposition’, supporting the system but opposing the government of the day. The test for whether leaders understand this concept is if they dismiss expressed opposition as ‘treason’. Weil applies the Bolshevik leader Mikhail Tomsky’s comment on the feudal Russian regime to fascism: ‘One party in power and all the rest in prison.’

Other institutions publicise and debate government policies and their effects. These include the free press, independent think tanks and universities. Museums and archives remind us of our past glories and mistakes. Trade unions provide a collective source of strength. Finally, informal institutions of day-to-day life provide asylums relatively free from state control: think of religious communities; clubs, such as local history societies; adult education and more. Even some form of free economy, allowing diverse ways of making a living, is also a critical component for bolstering minority rights. Think of the many small businesses run by immigrants. Sometimes this is not a choice, but the only available avenue when the job market closes ranks. A vibrant and free cultural world of art, films, novels, plays and poetry holds more than just intrinsic value; it also acts as a powerful source of critique and resistance. Authoritarian governments detest activities they don’t control.

If the first stage of the fascist dismantling of democracy is to prioritise the will of the majority over minority rights, the second is to contest how the will of the majority is made manifest. Is it by majority vote? No, said Hitler, in a speech to Dusseldorf industrialists in 1932. In an argument reminiscent of Plato’s Republic, Hitler argued that democratic voting:

is not rule of the people, but in reality the rule of stupidity, of mediocrity, of half-heartedness, of cowardice, of weakness, and of inadequacy … Thus democracy will in practice lead to the destruction of a people’s true values.

Suspicion of the electorate is as old as democracy. Recently, a new layer of concern has emerged. Social media is manipulated by political parties but, more insidiously, spreads stories on the basis of their commercial value rather than truth. Scandalous allegations are much more widely read than their retractions, and the public too often shows its enthusiasm for hounding those who are already vulnerable. Social media, despite the initial promise of the internet, is helping to create a deluded, or at least misinformed, public. Something must be done – but what?

The concern for workers’ rights, the creation of a pure state and the opposition to social democracy – the three aims of the Nazis, as identified by Lorimer – came together in the development of a majority-pleasing nationalism, in which the will of the people steamrollers anything in its way. We hope never again to see the extreme form developed by the fascists. But defeating fascism didn’t destroy its seeds, and some observers think that they can see its shoots once more.

Authoritarian leaders, who believe that they have been elected with a mandate of radical national renewal, can become easily frustrated with the spider’s web of institutions that prevent them from exercising power as they wish. The press is biased; the news is fake; the judges are the enemies of the people; the universities crush free speech and promote subversive ideologies; the trade unions stand in the way of progress; local government is a viper’s nest; and the upper chamber is full of deluded, self-interested fools. The protective institutions of liberal democracy are being persistently chipped away. The task we now face is to restore and renew the vibrant intermediate institutions that can best protect vulnerable groups, and to create the political virtues that make democracy work.

I see two particular dangers. The first is the most obvious: the increase in Right-wing authoritarianism. But I’m also worried about a growing tendency on the Left: the idea that, in order to regain majority support, it’s necessary to adopt nationalist polices. This might be true, but it’s also playing with fire. Some, with roots in the traditional Labour movement, seem to think that, as long as they support trade unions and pro-poor policies, they are on the side of the righteous – whatever else they believe – and that this grants them moral immunity from criticism. But we have seen this combination of views before. It was the starting point for both Mussolini and Mosley, and possibly even for Hitler.

An acceptable nationalism would have to be tempered by liberalism. It would also need to be held in check by democracy that strongly supports the rights of the minority. We should never accept the argument that the intermediate institutions of government and civil society are standing in the way of the will of the people. On the contrary, they must be supported and strengthened. This is our best chance of keeping the unthinkable unthinkable.