Paul Gottfried’s Fascism: The Career of a Concept: A Review

Jack Kerwick
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Posted: Jun 07, 2016 12:01 AM
Paul Gottfried’s Fascism: The Career of a Concept: A Review

To many readers of this column, the prodigious Paul Gottfried needs no introduction.

Those readers who have had to endure the misfortune of being unacquainted with Gottfried’s work may be interested in knowing a thing or two about this scholar whose illustrious career spans nearly five decades.

First, though Gottfried’s area of specialization is European intellectual history, American conservatism, leftism, and the administrative or managerial state are among the range of topics that he’s mastered. Indeed, few analyses of such matters have proven to be as perceptive as those of Gottfried.

Second, Gottfried is far from the proverbial egghead, for in addition to being a first-rate scholar, he has as well been addressing popular audiences via a variety of publications for as long as he’s had a career. Among these publications is that launched by Gottfried’s one-time friend, Bill Buckley.

Of course, that was then and this is now, for Gottfried is among the not-inconsiderable number of old rightists whose penchant for decimating the idols of our Politically Correct age have gotten them “purged” from “the conservative movement.”

This is a third thing to know about Dr. Gottfried: The man is fearless. This Jewish man, this person whose family members had to flee their native land upon the rise of the Third Reich, could’ve easily deployed his remarkable talents to the end of becoming a star of the “conservative movement.” Yet rather than forego his soul in exchange for acceptance by the whole GOP/neoconservative world, Gottfried chose instead to advocate on behalf of truth.

The self-appointed guardians of “conservative” orthodoxy—those who, in reality, are neoconservatives—may dread Gottfried, but the rest of us owe him an eternal debt of gratitude for his commitment to principle.

The most recent case in this last point is Gottfried’s newly published book, Fascism: The Career of a Concept (Northern Illinois University Press).

Given the barrage of charges of “fascism” with which the meteoric rise of Donald Trump has been met, few books could be as timely as this one.

And few writers possess Dr. Gottfried’s capability to expose these charges for the sheer nonsense that they are.

While Gottfried specifically addresses neither Trump nor this 2016 election, the point is that unlike that of the vast majority of his contemporaries—like Jonah Goldberg, say, whose Liberal Fascism Gottfried rightly criticizes as a “polemic,” a “partisan attack that is far from convincing”—his goal, as the subtitle of his work makes clear, is to supply a sober, objective historical examination of the often peculiar trajectory upon which the concept of fascism has been thrust throughout its “career.”

Gottfried achieves this end in spades.

Contrary to the ease with which the term “fascism” springs from the lips of partisans from across the contemporary political spectrum, the objects of virtually every accusation of “fascism” are actually nothing of the kind.

“As a historic phenomenon,” he writes, “fascism has nothing to do with advocating an isolationist foreign policy, trying to restrict Third World immigration, or favoring significant income redistribution in order to achieve greater social equality”—as today’s antifascists would have us think.

Nor, for that matter, should we be misled by the opponents of “Islamo-fascism” and the “far right” in Europe into thinking that either Islamic terrorism or select European politicians are the ideological heirs to the interwar phenomenon under discussion.

Gottfried warns against misreading his refusal to ascribe the label of “fascism” to the foregoing positions as an endorsement of them. Rather, “I mention these associations because all of them are characteristic of recent, divergent attempts to identify fascism with whatever the speaker happens to dislike [.]”

But the antifascist doesn’t stop there. He never stops there. Upon blasting his opponent’s view as “fascist,” the antifascist invariably begins “belaboring his or her target with the accusation of sympathizing with Nazi atrocities.”

Dr. Gottfried is having none of it. In fact, he goes so far as to argue that Nazism, while containing elements of fascism, is not entitled to be regarded—as it always is regarded—as a species of fascism proper, much less as the quintessential expression of fascism. “The Nazis ran a highly eclectic operation,” Gottfried explains. They borrowed not only from fascism, but from “Stalinism and, perhaps most of all, from Hitler’s feverish imagination.”

For a study of fascism, Gottfried notes, serious researchers on this topic recognize that “it is hard to think of real examples…in practice beyond interwar Italy.” In referring to Hannah Arendt, a German-Jew who had to escape from Nazi Germany with her family and who is, in my judgment, one of the most insightful and original political philosophers of the 20th century, Gottfried shows that he is in good company, for Arendt insisted upon distinguishing Nazism from what Dr. Gottfried calls “generic fascism” (e.g. the fascism of Mussolini).

Another question that Gottfried’s meticulously researched volume addresses is that pertaining to fascism’s location on the political spectrum. To judge from the readiness with which Democrat and Republican apologists brand each other with the “f-word,” it’s no wonder that confusion abounds on this score.

Yet Gottfried, while conceding that comparably able and honest researchers have indeed drawn rival conclusions as to whether fascism belongs on the left or right, seems to sympathize more with those of his colleagues who regard fascism as “a disguised movement of the Right [.]” Fascism as a movement is “distinct from the traditional Right, and far more prone to violence than European conservatism,” he states, but it is “essentially right wing,” for fascism shares “overlapping characteristics” with “an older Right.”

Both fascism and the traditional Right reject the propositions that: “progressive government policies” can transform “human nature;” human beings are equally capable of self-government and, thus, “should possess the same human rights;” and the future will bear witness to a utopia featuring a “self-improved humanity.”

Still, fascism is not to be conflated with traditional conservatism, for there are “two historical factors” that differentiate the former from the latter.

First, classical conservatives (in the vein of, say, Burke) wanted to conserve a hierarchical social order. Fascists, in contrast, sought to “reconstruct” such an order only after the original aristocratic article had already decayed or collapsed.

Secondly, whereas conservatives were determined to defend or restore the old social order, fascists were interested in advancing a “cult of violence,” a cult in the absence of which fascism “would be unthinkable [.]”

The author adds that fascists belonged to “a revolutionary Right in the sense that they planned to take power by force, and they viewed this exercise of force as a redemptive act.”

To read Paul Gottfried’s exhaustively researched, richly nuanced, and sober-minded exploration of this beleaguered concept and its descent into meaninglessness is to engage in another redemptive act.