Mises Wire

Paul Gottfried on Fascism

Fascism: The Career of a Concept. By Paul E. Gottfried.  Northern Illinois University Press, 2016. Vii + 226 pages.

Paul Gottfried’s immensely erudite survey of interpretations of fascism puts one in mind of Ludwig von Mises.  Although Gottfried does not discuss Mises, readers of his excellent book will again and again be surprised and instructed at the extent to which Gottfried defends views similar to those of the great Austrian economist. Surprise, though, is not really in order. Though Mises is a classical liberal and Gottfried a conservative, both are steeped in the values and traditions of European civilization, and they interpret fascism from this perspective.

Gottfried has been greatly influenced by the historian Ernst Nolte, who sees fascism as a reaction to the violence and disruption of the Bolshevik Revolution. “Fascist movements were ‘counterrevolutionary imitations of leftist revolution’ that developed as reactions to the dangers of leftist upheavals…According to Nolte, the fascists absorbed the disruptive tactics and revolutionary élan of their leftist enemies in order to vanquish them.” (pp.1, 37)

With characteristic insight, Gottfried points out that Nolte’s analysis of fascism stems in part from “Marxist origins. . .Like conventional Marxist historians but with more conceptual inventiveness, Nolte treats the social strife in interwar Europe as the background for fascism’s rise to power. . .The civil war in which the communists and fascists locked horns was specific  to what was economically and socially the world’s most developed region. This perspective went back to a firm Marxist belief about when a socialist revolution would first erupt. . .” (pp.72-73)

Mises saw Italian fascism in a similar way to Nolte, though of course he did not begin from Marxist assumptions. “The fundamental idea of these movements—which, from the name of the most grandiose and tightly disciplined among them, the Italian, may, in general, be designated as Fascist—consists in the proposal to make use of the same unscrupulous methods in the struggle against the Third International as the latter employs against its opponents.  The Third International seeks to exterminate its adversaries and their ideas in the same way that the hygienist strives to exterminate a pestilential bacillus; it considers itself in no way bound by the terms of any compact that it may conclude with opponents, and it deems any crime, any lie, and any calumny permissible in carrying on its struggle.  The Fascists, at least in principle, profess the same intentions.  That they have not yet succeeded as fully as the Russian Bolsheviks in freeing themselves from a certain regard for liberal notions and ideas and traditional ethical precepts is to be attributed solely to the fact that the Fascists carry on their work among nations in which the intellectual and moral heritage of some thousands of years of civilization cannot be destroyed at one blow.”(Mises, Liberalism, FEE, 1985)

In their stress on violence, Gottfried argues, the fascists drew heavily on Georges Sorel: “His ideas about ‘redemptive myths’ that would push the masses toward purifying violence but would not end the cycle of decadence and revolution had profound effects on the revolutionary Right. Sorel’s thinking attracted French and Italian intellectuals who accepted fascism as a redemptive myth that justified ‘national revolutions.’”(p.145)

Mises agrees: “It was the idea of French Syndicalism that influenced the most important movements of the twentieth century. Lenin, Mussolini, and Hitler were all influenced by Sorel, by the idea of action, by the idea not to talk but to kill. Sorel’s influence on Mussolini and Lenin has not been questioned. For his influence on Nazism, see the book by Alfred Rosenberg, The Myth of the Twentieth Century.” (Mises, Marxism Unmasked, FEE, 2006)

Fascism, thus, responded to a particular historical situation; and, contrary to leftists influenced by Frankfurt School Marxism as well as neoconservatives like Jonah Goldberg, it is not best viewed as a timeless category. “Fascism was a situational rather than a theoretical movement. Unlike the Marxists, fascists did not claim to be teaching a scientific form of socialism held together by historical and economic laws.” (p.136)

Mises makes a closely similar claim: “Fascism can triumph today [1927] because universal indignation at the infamies committed by the socialists and communists has obtained for it the sympathies of wide circles. But when the fresh impression of the crimes of the Bolsheviks has paled, the socialist program will once again exercise its power of attraction on the masses.  For Fascism does nothing to combat it except to suppress socialist ideas and to persecute the people who spread them.  If it wanted really to combat socialism, it would have to oppose it with ideas.  There is, however, only one idea that can be effectively opposed to socialism, viz., that of liberalism.” (Mises, Liberalism.)1

If what Gottfried calls “generic fascists” in the style of Mussolini lacked a cohesive program, Hitler was a different matter. Gottfried displays considerable sympathy for the contention of the historian Rainer Zitelmann that Hitler actively pursued economic modernization. “Zitelmann makes a cogent case that Hitler considered himself a revolutionary. The Nazis were not trying to recover the German past  but wished to forge ahead into what they believed was a modern, scientifically organized national community. . .Zitelmann observes that there is no reason to believe that modernization leads to increased political freedom. . .” (pp.163-164)

Mises also saw Hitler as someone applying a coherent, though radically misguided, economic program. In Omnipotent Government, he says, “The fundamental tenets of the Nazi ideology do not differ from the generally accepted social and economic ideologies. The difference concerns only the application of these ideologies to the special problems of Germany. . .[like the British left] The Nazis also desire government control of business. They also seek autarky for their own nation. The distinctive mark of their policies is that they refuse to acquiesce in the disadvantages which acceptance of the same system by other nations would impose upon them. They are not prepared to be ‘imprisoned, ’as they say, within a comparatively overpopulated area in which the productivity of labor is lower than in other countries.”(pp.222-223)

Rather than attempt.a comprehensive review of this very rich book, I have concentrated entirely on a comparison of the author’s views with those of Mises. Among the many topics in it that deserve careful study are the author’s brilliant discussions of Karl Mannheim and Giovanni Gentile.  A few minor points: Karl Jaspers did not remain in his German academic post during the war; he was forced to retire in 1937. (p.54). Although Kurt Lewin was an important contributor to Gestalt psychology; he was not the “father” of that school of thought. (p.68) The author contrasts Adorno and Horkheimer, “who could write knowledgeably and appreciatively about Goethe, Beethoven, Hegel, and other German luminaries” with “second generation” critical theorists like Habermas, “‘with little interest in German cultural achievements.” (p.70) But Habermas wrote his dissertation on Schelling and has also written about Kant, Fichte, and Hegel.  These points are, as I say, of minor importance, and one closes Fascism: The Career of a Concept with great admiration for Gottfried’s prodigious scholarship and historical insight.


  • 1By far the best discussion of Mises’s views on fascism is the brilliant article by Ralph Raico, “Mises on Fascism, Democracy, and Other Questions,” Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 12, Number 1, 1996.
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