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The Surprising Roots of Fascism

Tuesday, August 1, 2000

A. James Gregor

The Two Faces of Janus: Marxism and Fascism in the Twentieth Century

Janus was the Roman god after whom January is named. He was considered the guardian deity of gates and doors and is usually shown as two-faced, since doors face both ways. But there is only a single body to this deity. Berkeley Professor A. James Gregor, in his superbly researched book, has presumably selected Janus to symbolize the twinning of the two ideologies that have so scarred the twentieth century.

Gregor has undertaken a difficult task in his attempt to deal with these two ideologies. I say difficult because while the ultimate consequences of Marxism were dreadful, there was at least a large collection of patristic writings, accessible and debatable, even intellectually respectable. Because Marxism provides a self-styled scientific socio-political analysis as well as a gallimaufry of beliefs and insights, it appealed to intellectuals and, alas, still does.

Not so with fascism, a name derived from the Latin, "fasces," a bundle of sticks, carried by judicial officers in Roman processions as an emblem of authority. (Hitler, of course, had his own emblem — the swastika — and his followers referred to themselves as Nazis, short for National Socialism.) Fascism had its theoreticians, and a distressing number of serious thinkers, the philosopher Martin Heidegger first among them, lent their support. But fascism in actual fact it had no intellectual basis at all, nor did its founders even pretend to have any.

Hitler’s ravings in Mein Kampf, Giovanni Gentile’s hortatory article in the Italian Encyclopedia, Mussolini’s boastful balcony speeches, all of these can be described, in the words of Roger Scruton, as "an amalgam of disparate conceptions." It is about this "amalgam" that Professor Henry Ashby Turner Jr. has written:

 Anyone who reads many studies of fascism as a multinational problem cannot but be struck by the frequency with which writers who begin by assuming they are dealing with a unitary phenomenon end up with several more-or-less discrete sub-categories. Regardless of what criteria are applied, it seems very difficult to keep fascism from fragmenting.

In spite of this, there has been a general reluctance to consider what must be regarded as a definite possibility: namely, that fascism as a generic concept has no validity and is without value for serious analytical purposes. . . . The generic term fascism is in origin neither analytical nor descriptive.

That such strictures have significance can be seen in Professor Gregor’s confirming remark about the Russian extremist politician, Vladimir Zhirinovsky: "In what sense Zhirinovsky is a fascist is difficult to say with any intellectual conviction."

Yet Gregor is right to ignore the Turner finding, for one important reason: "Fascism" still has meaning in democratic societies. For a recent illustration of this, consider the fracas over Austria’s Jörg Haidar. Labeling somebody you don’t like a "fascist" is still a popular polemical sport: Call someone a communist and proof is demanded and even when proof is supplied there is the risk that you will be called a red-baiter; call someone a fascist, that’s enough to convict. In the lexicon of the left, there is nothing lower than a "red-baiter" but there is no such thing as a "fascist-baiter." We’ve all heard about "communist hysteria," especially during the Joe McCarthy years, but there is no such phenomenon as "fascist hysteria." The name-calling got a little ridiculous when during the Sino-Soviet split, the Kremlin and Beijing called each other fascist.

Having combed their literature, Professor Gregor has shown beyond a shadow of doubt the affinities, too long ignored, between fascism and Marxism-Leninism. (It was Don Luigi Sturzo who provided the reductio ad absurdum: Fascism was black communism and communism was red fascism.) Richard Pipes has written that "Bolshevism and fascism were heresies of socialism."

Recalling that Mussolini began his political career as a distinguished Italian socialist, Gregor writes: "Fascism’s most direct ideological inspiration came from the collateral influence of Italy’s most radical ‘subversives’ — the Marxists of revolutionary syndicalism."

Even Nikolai Bukharin, the leading Soviet ideologist whom Stalin purged, began to have misgivings about the Revolution and began to allude to the fascist features of the emerging system. Gregor writes:

By the early 1930s, the ‘convergence’ of fascism and Stalinism struck Marxists and non-Marxists alike. . . . By the mid-1930s, even Trotsky could insist that ‘Stalinism and fascism, in spite of deep difference in social foundations, are symmetrical phenomena’ . . . .

Fascist theoreticians pointed out that the organization of Soviet society, with its inculcation of an ethic of military obedience, self-sacrifice and heroism, totalitarian regulation of public life, party-dominant hierarchical stratification all under the dominance of the inerrant state, corresponded in form to the requirements of Fascist doctrine.

Left liberals have frantically denied the "Janus" notion that Marxism-Leninism and fascism have a common origin. With scholarly skill and an enormous amount of reading has Professor Gregor made such denials as dated as the Communist Manifesto.