Review of Paul Gottfried's "Fascism: Career of a Concept"
June 1, 2017 | Politics/Current Events
This book is not a quick afternoon read. The arguments are not easily reduced to Twitter-sized sound bites (even though we all chuckle in agreement when we read the current internet meme: “Everyone who disagrees with me is a fascist!”). Pay attention to the wealth of information Paul Gottfried provides, and the dividends will be many. You’ll discover the differences between totalitarianism versus authoritarianism, fascism versus Marxism, why generic fascism had a Latin flavor, and whether fascism is the same as nationalism. You’ll learn surprising tidbits, such as the fact that thinkers on the left first pointed out similarities between Nazism and Stalinism – a comparison that Gottfried explores further.
Here’s the burning question: Are Nazism and fascism the same thing? Chapter 7 tackles this question head-on. Spoiler alert: Gottfried makes a convincing case that Nazism was its own phenomenon, and not fascism in the generic sense.
One of my favorite sections is Gottfried’s discussion of the feuds among American political parties. Leftists claim that right-wing conservatives are fascist. American conservatives argue that fascism is a leftist movement. So which is it, left or right? Will the real fascists please stand up?
Gottfried skillfully untangles the mess and offers a useful framework that you don’t normally see in political analysis: namely, collectivist versus individualist. Collectivists support a large, invasive welfare state. Individualists support minimal government and free-market solutions in lieu of a welfare state. Why is this important? Because, as Gottfried points out, some prominent conservatives who equate leftism with fascism are building “on a tradition of argument extending back to the 1930s that is integrally related to the American case against the welfare state. We are urged to believe that what passes for American progressive policies are adaptations of fascist corporations” (p. 100). The problem, as he astutely notes, is that conservatives who accuse the left of fascism for expanding the welfare state are also guilty of expanding the welfare state (albeit at a different rate and in different areas of life). As Gottfried correctly notes (and as anyone who has been paying attention can attest): “Periodic expansions of the American welfare state have generally received endorsement from both national parties” (p. 99). This critique is spot-on, and I wish more people -- particularly those who make public policy and those who claim to be in favor of smaller government -- paid attention to it. Not surprisingly, Gottfried gives libertarians a fair hearing, since they tend to make the clearest arguments based on the collectivist/individualist framework.
Gottfried’s analysis here and throughout the book is gripping. He is a fair-minded historian who presents primary-source evidence without injecting his own biases. His knowledge is deep, and his ability to grasp philosophical concepts is impressive. He doesn’t resort to the obvious virtue-signaling traps that are so tempting to anyone writing on this subject, such as recounting war atrocities to prove for the millionth time that Hitler and Mussolini were bad guys. I particularly liked his five-page analysis of Sir Oswald Mosley, an English aristocrat and leader of the British Union of Fascists who was married to Diana, one of the fascinating Mitford sisters. It is easy to see Mosley as a naive at best, or mendacious at worst, but Gottfried’s description puts everything into perspective so that you can understand how a smart and cultured British man like Mosley became a Fascist and stayed that way to the end. His is an example of how the zeitgeist can grip the minds of intelligent people and turn them into devotees of trendy ideas, all the while convincing them that they are on the vanguard of a utopia that will solve mankind’s problems once and for all.
Fascism: Career of a Concept deserves wide recognition because it accurately defines what fascism is in its historical context, and the role it played in the intellectual and political milieu of the 20th century.
Note: This review also appears on Goodreads.