210. Pushing upward (IV)
It is a cliché for a public figure to declare that they are a classical liberal—a libertarian, effectively—only to be met by accusations that they are really a “fascist”. The figure will try to explain that, on the contrary, fascism is a collectivist doctrine quite opposed to individual liberty. The words “fascism” and “Nazism” long ago, as long ago as the 1930s, became imprecise political swear words that are used to refer to any reactionary or conservative idea. Yet “fascism” still does refer to a real self-conscious idea and historical phenomenon; so, since the left always tells a half-truth rather than an outright lie, in what sense is it true that a classical liberal is similar to a fascist?
To understand the resemblance, it is first necessary to understand Bolshevism. What made Bolshevism distinctive from mainstream social democracy and moralistic socialism was its quasi-militaristic elite organisation, an organisation underpinned by a view—developed by Lenin, himself a lawyer—that socialism could be achieved through a state of emergency. The Bolsheviks conceived their political order as a state of emergency, an immanentisation of the eschaton, that would usher in socialism. This was in line with Marx’s idea of a dictatorship of the proletariat, an idea taken from ancient Rome—a place where a “dictator” was not a tyrannical ruler, as we understand the word today, but was rather a man delegated to rule by extraordinary measures for the duration of an emergency.
Lenin expanded this idea so that the Bolsheviks would suspend the legal order for a time to rapidly establish socialism and destroy their enemies, legally conceptualised as the equivalents of looters after a hurricane to be shot on sight. This is why Bolshevism was brutal; it operated in a space without any legal restraint, a permanent state of emergency. Although the USSR talked about “socialist legality”, especially after Stalin, the country was really ruled in a state of emergency from 1917 to 1989. The slogan, “By any means necessary,” remains popular with Western black nationalists—and it emerges from a Leninist view of the revolution as a state of emergency, a time when “any means necessary” can be employed.
Communists were “people of a special stuff” and, in line with their millennialism, refrained from ordinary pleasures during the “emergency”. Lenin refused to listen to Beethoven, though the music moved him, for fear it would soften his heart and stop “what had to be done”. If you have decided no laws apply for the duration there is no limit on what you will do, and this is what happened in Russia. The non-Bolshevik social democrats remained wedded to legality and never followed the Bolsheviks into this mindset.
Fascism is classical liberalism in a state of emergency, just as Bolshevism is social democracy in a state of emergency—recall that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was originally the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (Bolshevik). Classical liberals and, to an extent, conservative social democrats (of which Mussolini was one) reacted to Bolshevism’s state of emergency to implement collectivism with a state of emergency to protect individual liberty. Just as Bolshevism had a strong elitist aspect, so the liberal riposte had a collectivist tinge.
Hence classical liberals—such as Vilfredo Pareto, of the 80/20 rule—supported the Italian fascists as a redoubt of liberty. Libertarians will often say: “If the state infringes on our liberty much more, I’ll get together with my buddies—some of us were in the army together—and we will defend liberty against the socialist state.” If this happens—if classical liberals take up arms—then you have fascisti or squadristi, the organic bands of veterans who backed Mussolini. This is the truth in the left’s association of fascism with classical liberalism; it is just that it is a response to a situation where the left has abrogated the law in the name of emergency in the first place, a situation that evokes a symmetrical response from the defenders of liberty.