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James Burnham

Fascism’s Dress Clothes

(July 1938)


From New International, Vol.4 No.7, pp.207-209.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


NO SOCIAL MOVEMENT, not even excepting the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat, has been so thoroughly and persistently misunderstood as fascism. Its historical roots, the social forces operative within it, its ideology and methods remain still, for all except a handful, the most obscure of mysteries. And this means, most important of all, that the way in which to fight it is still, to most men, unknown.

The “peculiarly Italian phenomenon” had no significance in Germany; and, in turn, what was “natural and inevitable” for Italy and Germany could have no relevance to France – repeated yet, as France hovers on the thin verge of fascism. And, naturally, these “European isms” can get nowhere in the United States. Similarly, for many years the plebeian mass base of fascism hid from most eyes the steel jaw of monopoly-capital which that mass base covered. But, when it became clearer that fascism was at the service of monopoly capital, it was most faultily deduced that open, blunt reaction was identical with fascism. Landon and Girdler are “fascists”. The statements and ideology of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or the Association of Manufacturers are “fascist”. Nothing, of course, could be more misleading or more disorienting: the phrases and ideology of the genuine fascist movement are radical, even revolutionary in appearance, at a far remove from the stupidly reactionary press releases of Girdler or the Chamber of Commerce.

At the same time, concentrating on the “abuses”, excesses, brutality and gross demagogy of fascism, it has been thought by many that fascism could never be accepted willingly by “respectable people”, by professors and scientists and doctors and lawyers and intellectuals generally. This impression was bolstered by the exiling of many such respectable people from Nazi Germany. But we seldom remember how few the exiles are compared with the number that remains; and how much fewer, even, are the exiles from Italy. Nor does it in the least follow that all those who have remained are secretly stern anti-fascists and anti-Nazis.

If it were true that these “respectable people” did not and would not accept fascism, this would be a most important fact, and would indeed make incomparably more difficult the task of fascism. The respectable people, though powerless themselves and as a group, have nevertheless a decisive social function to perform. It is they who elaborate ideologies, who supply intellectual material out of which mass leaders fashion their demagogy, from whom there filters down to the masses suitably fashioned mental and moral attitudes without which no social system exercizing a tyranny over the masses could hope to endure.
 

2.

In February of this year there appeared the first open expression by some of the respectable people of this country that they are getting ready for American fascism. The Examiner, a quarterly of more than a hundred pages, was issued by Geoffrey Stone from Rye Beach, New York. The Spring issue has followed in due course.

During the past year or two, the American Review and the American Mercury have come to be known as more or less fascist magazines. Neither of these, however, would admit the charge. And, though they publish articles sympathetic to fascism on occasion, the bulk of their material is little or not at all fascist in character.

The Examiner is altogether another matter. Its policy is frankly and avowedly fascist; it seeks, more particularly, an American form of fascism. In the first issue, the editor quotes approvingly from J.L. Benvenisti: “‘Fascism is an unpleasant business, but so are most surgical operations. Unfortunately a surgical operation is becoming a matter of steadily increasing urgency.’” And the editor then adds: “It is far from The Examiner’s intention to offer the fascist program as wholly suited to America; but, since fascism alone of present movements attempts a radical break with the forces that have produced our dilemma, and does not propose to cure our disease by a killing dose of the virus that has caused it, it is suggested that we may learn much of positive value from an intelligent and disinterested consideration of the fascist revolution.” With the exception of two brief articles, the entire second issue of 120 pages is given to a symposium under the title, An Examination of Fascism. The final contribution to this symposium is called: Fascism: An American Version.

Let us put out of mind at once associations drawn from a knowledge of fascist mass journals and broadsides. Here is no wild invective, no ultra-violent Jew-baiting (a few carefully introduced anti-Semitic phrases, that is all), no flaming scare-heads, no shattering bombast. That is not at all the job of The Examiner. Here all, or almost all, is suave, calm, measured, most “reasonable”. This, we must not forget, is the voice of the respectable people. The writers are mostly professors: two from New York University (one of whom, Ross Hoffman, has just been rewarded by the Jesuit Fordham College with a chair of History); one each from Bates College, Boston University, and Bennington College. The several foreign contributors are not, be sure, tainted Italians or Germans, but Englishmen all – one of them (Sir Arnold Wilson) an M.P. no less.

But let no one dismiss The Examiner with a sneer at the vagaries of crack-pot professors. Professors, particularly a group of them, tend to be timid creatures; they are not given to sticking their necks out needlessly, merely for the sake of getting them chopped off. The Examiner could not have appeared unless the social soil had been ripening for it (Geoffrey Stone has been for years a fascist, but it was not until now that he was able to issue a magazine). Many of the respectable people have sensitive noses. They can smell corruption ahead; and they aim to get going while there are still pickings left.

This is why The Examiner is important. The Examiner is a barometer, marking the drop in the social atmosphere toward the storm of crisis.
 

3.

The first of the three basic convictions of The Examiner, is “that Western civilization is in the midst of a crisis which cannot be resolved except through an essential change in society. This change may be either of two kinds. One will occur inevitably if the most strenuous measures are not taken to prevent it, and it will result in the end of civilization as we have known it ...” Put only a trifle more directly: the socialist revolution will destroy capitalist society and will conquer the world, unless we smash it with blood and iron. “The other will depend upon a reinvigoration of the institutions which, while now perverted from their original forms, are still the safeguards of such health as remains in the community.” Again translated: fascism is the only alternative to the socialist revolution. “We must,” the editor reminds his readers, “pass beyond easy assumptions and undertake a scrupulous reexamination of our ideas, making sure when we come to apply these ideas to concrete issues, that we extend them into a world which actually exists beyond the pages of The Nation and The New Republic.” Even these brief samples will indicate that the world of The Examiner’s pages is far closer to actuality than that other which it so scornfully dismisses.

What stands out perhaps most sharply from a reading of these two issues is the utter emptiness of liberal, democratic, reformist ideology – that is, the ideology of democratic capitalism – before the crisis of our time. Politely, facilely, with hardly a sign or need of heavy exertion, these writers tear the democratic ideology, its pretenses and wish-thinking and illusions and hypocrisies, into little shreds, and with an argumentative puff send the shreds scattering to the winds.

Very revealing is the editorial comment on Austria and the Press in the second issue. How almost too easy a job it is for Geoffrey Stone to deflate entirely the comfortable liberal-popular story of the rape of Austria!

“Dr. Schuschnigg might have been another President Masaryk, a smiling, wordy, Wilsonian Liberal, for all one hears to the contrary ... It [the Berchtesgaden agreement] was not a moral question ... the Austrian Chancellor was secured in power by the divisions of the popular will – his strength, in short, was predicated on his country’s weakness ... The Press now sings dirges for gay Vienna – whose gaiety seems to have been of the typical febrile post-War variety – ignoring the fact that Vienna’s ‘downfall’ began not at Berchtesgaden but at Versailles, when, with the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Austria as a nation was reduced to the suburbs of a functionless city ... the same socialists who had been treated to more than a whiff of grapeshot by Dollfuss ...”

All of the writers chisel the democratic ideology to bits, with expertness and dispatch. Ross Hoffman traces the rise and decline of the Liberal State. Stebelton H. Nulle ironically makes use of Strachey:

“Do those who disagree think that America is a fairyland, ‘set apart’, as Strachey says, ‘from the rest of humanity, wholly and definitely different; in whose favor the laws of science and logic are suspended so that like causes will not produce like effects’? Some Americans seem to think that liberal democracy is the final phase of government; that there is something natural and eternally valid about it ...”

And the point is that the democratic ideology has no answer to these writers, and they know it, and are conscious and assured in that knowledge. For they are stronger than the democratic ideologists. False and corrupt and rotted as their own view is, it is nevertheless based upon a mighty half of the truth about our time, upon the realization that now it is either the socialist revolution or fascism, that democratic capitalism is finished on a world-historic scale. And against their view, so based, the democratic ideology is entirely helpless.

There is more to it than this. The intellectual helplessness of the democratic ideology before the attack of the fascist ideology is the expression of the helplessness of the democratic-liberal organization of society before the onslaught of the fascist movement. This lesson too is adequately symbolized by The Examiner. Just as the democratic ideas cannot stand up against the fascist ideas; so is the anti-fascist movement founded upon those democratic ideas – the popular or democratic fronts – defenseless against the fascist movement.
 

4.

It is hardly necessary to add that when we turn from their telling critique of the democratic ideology to their own positive conceptions, these writers, at their own lofty level, show fully the immeasurably reactionary and morally and intellectually depraved features which are the universal marks of the movement to which they have sold their minds. In their own polite way they demand totalitarian dictatorship, calling it “the principle of monarchy”, “rule by a single head, upon whom devolves full responsibility for the welfare of the people as a whole”, or “the positive state, something distasteful to Marxist and liberal alike”. Calmly they will guarantee in perpetuity class rule: “At the same time, by its [fascism’s] recognition of class as inevitable, and good, it negates the Marxian view of society.” The family, and since the family “can endure only upon a basis of private property”, therefore also private property will be society’s eternal foundation. Blandly they describe how the corporative guilds will absorb the class organizations. Naturally religion will play a great part: “Are fascism or National Socialism by their nature incompatible with Christianity?” asks Sir Arnold Wilson, M.P. “My reply in each case is a decisive negative. The principles in each case can be equated with belief in the revelation of Jesus ...” And of course reason and science, humanity’s dividing mark which alone raises it from the animal, will play second fiddle. “The dark religion of the blood” becomes smoothly translated in these essays. Let us not be surprised to find that the great underlying principle of fascism, as J.K. Heydon discovers for us, is – love. “We must not be afraid of the word ‘love’ or we shall never understand the truth, so simple and yet so profound, of human life and liberty. ... It never occurs in communist literature . . .; but I notice that fascists tend to avoid the word, perhaps fearing to seem lacking in blood and iron. The omission, however, shows that they have not yet got to the heart of their own idea, for at that heart is love.” Yes, dear reader, and ponder well the sentence that follows: “Nor need they be afraid, for love can be very stern.” So the workers of Italy and Germany have learned, from even more convincing teachers. And so will the workers of France and the United States learn also, on their torn flesh, if their minds will not learn sooner.

James BURNHAM


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