What Mises Really Thought about Fascism
It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aiming at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has, for the moment, saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history.
—Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism: In the Classical Tradition
Mises controversially stated this quote in his book Liberalism: In the Classical Tradition. This seemingly profascist line is routinely taken out of context and used to justify tremendous amounts of outrage. Previous Mises Wire articles have done a much better job than I ever could at putting these words in their proper context to explain just how misguided these criticisms are. However, the quick answer is to simply read the lines immediately following that quote: “But though its policy has brought salvation for the moment, it is not of the kind which could promise continued success. Fascism was an emergency makeshift. To view it as something more would be a fatal error.”
However, even in its fullest context, these words still leave one asking if fascism really could be an acceptable emergency makeshift? After all, most people—especially most classical liberals as Mises describes himself—do not see fascism as even having the ability to be a makeshift option. To understand this better, one of the best possible examples is Spanish Civil War figure Francisco Franco. Franco is described by Warren H. Carroll as
not a tyrant or an oppressor, and certainly no totalitarian. He may have been too severe toward his enemies, but he never enslaved his own people. He was not eager for power, though he came to believe God had chosen him to save Spain from destruction and persecution of his fellow Catholics. He did not allow elections to choose a government or a completely free press, because to him that meant a return to the revolutionary anarchy of the Second Spanish Republic, but during all his years of rule after the Civil War the Spanish people could say what they liked in the cafes and plazas, and regularly did so.
While this description most certainly has its admirable qualities—not enslaving his own people, not eager for power, and devout Catholic—it is striking as a remarkably low bar for admiration, and it has glaring red flags to many readers. Most leaders ideally do not enslave their own people, and very few with a lust for power come out and say it. Not allowing elections or a free press strikes fear in the heart of most libertarians, and it is not all too comforting to them to say that, after wartime ended, people could say what they wanted in the public square. However, the story does not end here. There was one vital accomplishment, as Carroll goes on to explain, that makes Franco the perfect illustration of Mises’s depiction of a dictator who was responsible for saving European civilization:
Franco was short and pudgy and looked insignificant, except for his large and commanding dark brown eyes. But he had a lion’s heart and a steel-hard backbone. More than any other man, he saved Spain from the worst fate that could befall any nation in the twentieth century—conquest by communism—giving his people instead a generation and a half of peace, security, prosperity, and personal—if not political—freedom in which the Catholic Faith was restored and flourished throughout the country. The Valley of the Fallen will stand against the sky as his just monument when all his venomous critics are dust.
This is exactly what Mises was referring to when he claimed that fascism had temporarily saved European civilization. While anyone could comfortably tell you that fascism is bad, at that moment in history, fascism was called for to stand athwart the spread of communism. However, Mises explains that fascism would be at best an emergency makeshift, and to persist in fascism would be a fatal error.
This is true for two reasons. The first is that fascism is an evil in and of itself. The second is, as Mises states, the middle of the road leads to socialism. The worst possible outcome of fascism is even worse than fascism: it is socialism. Fascism is not the cure, and Mises—a genuine victim of fascism—knew this better than anyone. However, this does not mean we cannot appreciate the good that came from stopping the spread of communism exactly when it was needed, as Mises does.