Why the Left is sometimes Right
FERGUS DOWNIE examines the crossovers between supposed ideological enemies
In Arthur Koestler’s wartime novel Arrival and Departure, there is a striking scene where the author introduces a prototypically modern Nazi diplomat, who expounds on the intrinsically revolutionary character of the Third Reich before descanting on a vision of Europe in which history and tradition are rendered a junkyard. It is worth quoting at some length as it highlights a feature of the fascist worldview which is rarely explored with any intellectual rigour and consistency
“The laws of orthodox economy, customs, currency, frontiers, parliaments, churches, vested sacraments and institutions, marriage, ten commandments – all mumbo-jumbo. We start from scratch. I’ll tell you how…Close your eyes. Imagine Europe up to the Urals as an empty space on the map. There are only fields of energy: hydro-power, magnetic ores, coal-seams under the earth, oil-wells, forests, vineyards, fertile and barren lands. Connect these sources of energy with blue, red, yellow lines and you get the distributive network. Blue: the joint electric power-grid stretching from the Norwegian fjords to the Dnieper Dam; red: the controlled traffic-stream of raw materials; yellow: the regulated exchange of manufactured goods. Draw circles of varying radius around the points of intersection and you get the centres of industrial agglomeration; work out the human labour required to feed the net at any given point and you get the adequate density of population for any district, province, and nation; divide this figure by the quantity of horsepower it introduces and you get the standard of living allotted to it. Wipe out those ridiculous winding boundaries, the Chinese walls which cut across our fields of energy; scrap or transfer industries which were needlessly built in the wrong places; liquidate the surplus population in areas where they are not required; shift the population of certain districts, if necessary of entire nations, to the spaces where they are wanted and to the type of production for which they are racially best fitted; wipe out any disturbing lines of force which might superimpose themselves on your net, that is, the influence of the churches, of overseas capital, of any philosophy, religion, ethical, or aesthetical system of the past.” (1)
This is not an aspect of the Nazi world-view which comes across often in much of the laboured Marxisant-cum-Freudian analysis which hovers between some hackneyed variation on Nazism as the Final Crisis of Capitalism (the disastrous misjudgment of the German Communist party) and half baked theories of repression. Even where the studies are grindingly empirical they have a tendency unconsciously to assume that a focus on the human base material in itself captures the essence of a phenomenon as elitist as fascism. As a movement with a disproportionate following amongst an almost pre-industrial petit bourgeois threatened with proletarianisation, there has been an inevitable tendency to see Nazism as the last bloody gasp of an old world. What could be more indicative of this kind of recoil from the modern world than the pronounced anti-urbanism of the Nazis with all their glorification of the peasantry and the mittelstand, backed up by economic policies which might have been lifted straight from the Papal Encyclical Rerum Novarum? This is a misconception however, for what is more characteristic of the modern ideological age than the conscious recreation of tradition? Nothing is more revolutionary than a fascist, a fact which in large part explains the inordinate influence of Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger and Oswald Spengler on Frankfurt School Marxists.
Certainly, the modernity of fascism did not go unnoticed by the avant garde who recognized a kindred spirit when they saw one, and the endorsement of so many Futurists and Dadaists was handy for any movement staking a claim on the future, a pose historically adopted by socialists and the source of a cultural cachet which increasingly hemorrhaged towards fascist men of action. Most of the leaders of the fascist first wave saw themselves as self-consciously transcending the limitations of ‘actually existing’ socialism, and dissatisfaction with the increasingly bureaucratic and intellectually moribund state of parliamentary socialism had been mounting throughout Europe’s long fin de siècle.
In France, George Sorel’s antidote – an embrace of extra-parliamentary syndicalism and the aestheticisation of violence – presaged a kind of Left Fascism which was to become particularly influential in the 1930s. As far back as 1900 the Action Francaise founder Charles Maurras had asserted that
“…a socialism liberated from the democratic and cosmopolitan element fits nationalism well as a well made glove fits a beautiful hand”
and contrary to the Marxist cult of its own martyrdom (which conveniently diverts attention from their active collaboration with the Nazis following the Nazi-Soviet pact), the primary enemy of the extreme Right has always been bourgeois capitalism and the decadent world of parliamentary liberalism. Moreover, they furnished a critique which the Left was more than happy to adopt even when they remained on the Left.
The greatest novelists and writers of the preceding two centuries had mostly been men of the Right, with Nietzsche only a belated complement. Joyce’s or Proust’s hatred of the bourgeois philistine could make them useful allies of the Left and when the Left replaced Marx with Nietzsche, they were able to enlist the literary tradition of the 20th century in the service of ostensibly progressive ends (3).
But it was ever thus. These fluid boundaries between Left and Right predate this Nietzscheanisation of the Left and are evident in the mental furniture of the first self-declared socialist, Saint Simon. An ardent admirer of de Maistre, Saint Simon’s vision of a socialist utopia had one foot in the future and the other firmly in the Counter-Enlightenment; his Religion of Humanity a harbinger of the “god building” (4) which the Bolsheviks were later to turn to in an attempt to provide their arid materialistic ideology with some spiritual ballast. Marx himself was well acquainted with the ever present possibilities for ideological synthesis: it was serious enough for him to devote an extended passage in the Communist Manifesto to attack the false consciousness of feudal socialism, and he himself was not immune to the charms of its chief theoretician Thomas Carlyle, from whose` lexicon of anti-capitalism he poached liberally (5). It is a noteworthy fact that little of what still inspires contemporary Marxists about the great man can be described as the product of influences which are unambiguously Left wing. Marx’s vision of a classless society and his moving critique of alienation owe little to the dialectical materialism which supposedly held the key to his unified theory, and everything to a German Romantic vision which could be picked up just as easily (and was) by völkisch proto-fascists like van den Bruck.
This is the pre-modern aspect of the socialist impulse which was usually obscured by its appropriation of the language of modernity, but evident nonetheless to individuals who made the journey to fascism through socialism. The continuity of socialism with certain aspects of the feudal past was certainly evident to Oswald Mosley, one of the great might-have-beens of European fascism, whose early socialist affiliation was a natural outgrowth of his aristocratic world view. As Robert Skidelsky observes in his brilliant biography of Mosley, his socialism was the modern expression of the feudal idea of community, and the reasons Mosley gave for his early gravitation towards the left of the British Labour Party is worth quoting at length in so far as it distills core elements in the corporatist-fascist vision.
“Feudalism worked in its crude and inequitable fashion until the coming of the Industrial Age. Today the Feudal tradition and its adherents are broken up as a political power and in most cases are ignobly lending their prestige and their abilities to the support of the predatory plutocracy which has gained complete control of the Conservative Party. In modern times the old regime is confronted with two alternatives. The first is to serve the new world in a great attempt to bring order out of chaos and beauty out of squalor. The other alternative is to become flunkeys of the bourgeoise. It is a matter of constant surprise and regret that many of my class have chosen the latter course.” (6)
Himself from the kind of minor landed gentry who had adapted the least successfully to the political and economic triumph of the industrial middle class, Mosley’s class instincts alone inclined him to see in the corporatist state the paternalist manorial regime of his ancestors writ large, a reproach incarnate to the laissez faire individualism of the nineteenth century, and the class war of a theoretically daring but politically timid Left.
One of the RAF’s first pilots, Mosley shared Hitler’s obsession with the possibilities of advanced technology harnessed to an archaic pre-modern vision, and in this, their hybrid visions mirrored the schizoid character of the world to which they tried to adjust (with considerable success). As Leon Trotsky noted
“Fascism has opened up the depths of society for politics. Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth or the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms…What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance, and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet – fascism has given them a banner.” (7)
This is well put, and if you substitute Taliban for fascist it works just as well. Trotsky was a faithful enough materialist to attribute this to the social malfunctions of capitalist society, but what he was in fact observing was an enduring feature of the disenchantment of the world.
Max Weber, Nietzsche’s gloomy prophet in the social sciences, knew instinctively that the scientific worldview was fatal to that sense of the sacred necessary for any culture to endure, and posed the defining predicament for modern men destined to try and generate values whilst inhabiting an increasingly flattened bureaucratised world in which the sources of human creativity were progressively weakened. For the would-be Übermensch, fascism was a virile response to this stasis. As Skidelsky notes, the central dynamic of fascism was an attempt to fuse a quest for modernization with a revolt against the paralysis of the will that was its inevitable consequence, at a time when the heroic psychology of the “front generation” made this synthesis look feasible. Its prescriptions were bogus but we should always bear in mind that it took the protracted slaughter of a world war to make regulated markets and political democracy look the obvious remedy for staving off Europe’s social and political collapse; moderate solutions only look inevitable in retrospect, and the reprieve earned for Western civilization looks more temporary by the day. The European project famously was founded on a desire for repose, its technocratic planners believing, like Hobbes after the religious wars of the seventeenth century, that the continent needed a rest from the fanaticism of principles, and the long years of addled prosperity have been fatal for those human values which can only endure when tested by disaster or hardship. Nietzsche’s “tense bow” (8) has been slackened beyond repair and the continent’s ideological repertoire exhausted. Socialism has run its idealism aground on its supposed utopia, the welfare state. Orwell saw this coming in Wigan Pier, and Nietzschean socialists like George Bernard Shaw fretted at the prospect of rational administration driving out the heroic impulses and beckoning in the “men without chests”. In a world without enemies this is a cost easily borne, but in Western societies confronted with an existential civilizational threat it may yet be a fatal one.
FERGUS DOWNIE writes from London. © Fergus Downie, 2013
1. The Nazi occupation of Europe actually laid the groundwork for several key EEC supranational institutions such as the Common Agricultural Policy, and the European Coal and Steel Community
2. Conservatives seem unable to grasp this elementary point, which is why their thought gravitates between bland sociological analysis which ran out of useful insights after Burke, and elegy. It has the saving grace that the writing is beautiful. The pre-War ‘Conservative Revolutionary’ movement in Germany is a testament to the self-defeating project of political conservatism
3. It is important to remember that the image of the bourgeois as a calculating and utility maximizing egoist stems from an aristocratic critique, which Marx adopted
4. The phrase was coined by the Bolsheviks’ grotesquely named “Commissar for Enlightenment” Anatoly Lunacharsky, and denotes the attempt to replace the worship of God with the worship of Humanity. Lunacharsky’s concern was that atheism could not inspire the emotional commitment and idealism that religion fostered. His unimaginative and somewhat circular solution was to deify materialism. It was not notably successful
5. ‘Cash nexus’ is one of Marx’s better known borrowings from Carlyle. Carlyle incidentally was christened the “first National Socialist” by William Joyce, the infamous “Lord Haw-Haw”
6. Letter to the Morning Post in 1928, reprinted from Robert Skidelsky’s Oswald Mosley
7. What is National Socialism, 1933
8. A metaphor used constantly by Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil, and used to attack creeds which seek to relieve the tension between ideas and the world. For Nietzsche, the Jesuits, with their relief of the experience of sinfulness through such concepts of mental reservation, were the main culprits; in our own times it is surely the therapeutic worldview