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Let’s Interview Fascism with Paul Gottfried, pt. 8 – Discussion and Conclusion

Part 1 – Defining Fascism

Part 2 – Fascism and Totalitarianism

Part 3 – Fascism as the Unconquered Past

Part 4 – Fascism as a Movement of the Left

Part 5 – The Failure of Fascist Internationalism

Part 6 – The Search for a Fascist Utopia

Part 7 – A Vanished Revolutionary Right and Addendum – Fascism and Modernization

Part 8 - Discussion and Conclusion (You are here)

Making sense of Gottfried

When I started this series, I said that I wanted to understand what fascism actually means beyond shallow political jabs at one’s enemies. I was concerned that Gottfried might be another Jonah Goldberg, a conservative trying to throw the charge back at the people who originally levied it.

To my surprise, however, Gottfried was not that shallow, and seemed to be earnest in discussing the topic at hand. This is obvious just from the topics he selected. While it’s true that he ultimately rejects many of the claims more mainstream and often silly takes public intellectuals, even some historians, give, he isn’t interested in just saying “no u” at every stage. Well, he kind of is, but he’s not being annoying about it.

In every chapter of this book, there’s an argument being made that is typically historically contextualized and with multiple believers in those viewpoints being cited. Gottfried doesn’t appear to be citing random people or those who aren’t even engaging with the subject seriously, he’s bringing up people who intentionally chose to speak about these things from their standpoint as public thinkers and intellectuals.

The contextualization is inherently necessary, Gottfried needs it when he’s trying to explain how the meaning of the term has changed and how its use has evolved. That he also wants to refute these people is a different thread running through this book.


We need to consider how correct Gottfried is. He’s gone over a seemingly-disconnected list of debates regarding fascism as an idea, citing many people while not being necessarily kinder/harsher to people on/against his side. But he might still be incorrect in one or more areas, perhaps even his whole thesis.

A good place to start might be chapter 3, which covers the Frankfurt School. As Gottfried tells it, the Frankfurt School was supported by the OSS in WW2 and post-WW2 so that the US government could understand what led the Nazis to power. The FS members all being Marxist, they argued that many seemingly normal (or within the Overton Window) behaviors were symptoms of being fascist/authoritarian/right-wing. Their influence is said to have created the modern understanding of what is or is not fascist, with Germany bearing the brunt of their attempts to assert their ideology as reality.

But there is some reason to be skeptical here. For one thing, understanding how the Nazis came to power was a broad project involving countless WW2 and post-WW2 researchers, political scientists, psychologists, and others. This chapter has been discussed prior to my own posts on themotte, with some pointing out that people of different ideologies all tried to understand the Nazi and totalitarian phenomenon and Gottfried doesn’t really demonstrate that an enduring legacy of the FS was its work on fascism. Consider, for example, this article from 2016 by Vox.

This study of authoritarianism began shortly after World War II, as political scientists and psychologists in the US and Europe tried to figure out how the Nazis had managed to win such wide public support for such an extreme and hateful ideology.

That was a worthy field of study, but the early work wasn't particularly rigorous by today's standards. The critical theorist Theodor Adorno, for instance, developed what he called the "F-scale," which sought to measure "fascist" tendencies. The test wasn't accurate. Sophisticated respondents would quickly discover what the "right" answers were and game the test. And there was no proof that the personality type it purportedly measured actually supported fascism.

More than that, this early research seemed to assume that a certain subset of people were inherently evil or dangerous — an idea that Hetherington and Weiler say is simplistic and wrong, and that they resist in their work. (They acknowledge the label "authoritarians" doesn't do much to dispel this, but their efforts to replace it with a less pejorative-sounding term were unsuccessful.)

If, as Gottfried seems to argue, it was the FS that created the modern academic view of fascism as a lurking threat, then Vox’s description of the F-scale and Adorno is evidence against this field’s mainstream position being part of the FS legacy. To be clear, there are still problems with how these researchers are doing what they do, but that’s irrelevant to whether Gottfried accurately depicted the influence of the FS.

A defense of the book despite possible inaccuracies about the FS is that Gottfried might be like Wikipedia – excellent at history that isn’t highly salient to modern politics. Maybe he’s entirely correct in how he describes the inevitable failure of fascist internationalism or the various types of fascist utopias. But I had a moment where I seriously pondered if this was correct. In chapter 7, Gottfried writes the following.

Ever since the defeat of Nazi Germany, and even during the struggle against Soviet communism, what were once deemed leftist ideas have been in the ascendant, and Americans and western Europeans have constructed parliamentary polarities on the basis of this given. Only the German government has been totally honest about this process. Chancellor Merkel’s chief advisor, Volker Kauder has indicated that after the horrors of the Nazi experience, Germany refuses to have a Right.5 Its parties must all come out of the Left or else out of a center that presumably tends in a leftist direction. To whatever extent the present Christian Democrats are “Christian,” Kauder explains, they are committed to social change of a non-rightist type.

When you go to the citation, it links to this article. Maybe Gottfried just has a better understanding of Kauder, the CDU, and Germany than I do (very likely), but I don’t see how you can interpret what Kauder said in the way Gottfried does. Kauder doesn’t seem to reference the Nazis at all, nor does he argue that all parties should only come out of the left. He does argue that “Bible faithful Christians” should not fragment the party and should work within it instead, but that’s about it.

I’m hesitant to argue that my reading is correct (I’m using Google Translate to read it and I have a superficial understanding of Germany), but if I am, then Gottfried at best is not always citing what he means to, and at worse, is using his own beliefs to convince himself of the strength of a citation.

Lingering points of confusion

Perhaps I’ll fully realize what all the points are that I found confusing in this book, but for now, I have just two.

The first is about the odd placement of Gottfried’s grappling with Roger Griffin. Griffin is a famed historian of fascism, having written several books and articles on the topic. I’m not entirely sure what his position on this is, but I’d hazard a guess and say that he doesn’t agree with Gottfried that it is something uniquely confined to the interwar era or WW2. But even if he did, it’s really odd that you don’t really see him cite or reference the man in the main book at all, only in an appendix and on the topic of modernism of all things.

The second has to do with why Gottfried exactly rejects Stanley Payne. Payne assigns the fascists to the revolutionary right, says that they cobbled together their ideology, and says they aren’t like the traditional right or even authoritarian nationalist parties. As far as I can tell, Gottfried would broadly agree with most of these. But he says the following about one of Payne’s books.

Payne reconstructs a fascist world view that looks like a grab bag of ideas borrowed from different sources. In Fascism: Comparison and Definition, the readers are given characteristics that Payne deemed common to fascist movements everywhere: they are all marked by a “permanent nationalistic one-party authoritarianism,” “the search for a synthetic ethnicist ideology,” a charismatic leader, a corporatist political economy, and “a philosophical principle of voluntarist activism unbounded by any philosophical determinism.

I can see why he would call it a grab bag, but what I don’t grasp is what the more serious distinctions between Payne and Gottfried’s positions are because this book doesn’t seem to explain it more explicitly. To the extent that Stanley Payne is more mainstream, it seems like a depiction of fascism that is mostly accurate and not confined to a specific period as Gottfried would argue. But he barely gets much attention, only a bit more than Griffin.

Final Thoughts

I had a great deal of fun reading this book. Gottfried writes in a way designed to illustrate what he thinks are the differences in views of fascism, which makes for a more engaging reading than simply stating his case without consideration for what other scholars think. At least, it does if you’re interested in getting some kind of map of the field/topic itself.

I lack the ability, of course, to critically look at depth into the sources he’s citing. I have neither time nor intellectual framework to really even do that. If you want to see someone more scholarly tackle the subject, I’ve found a startlingly barren field of reviews for this book. There’s only one that I can find, but it’s a short one.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested. At the very least, it does provide a more coherent argument for why you might be skeptical of the Frankfurt School and Marxist ideologies in general (read chapter 3 if you just want this). At least two people (1, 2) seem to agree with me that it’s much more convincing than hearing someone rant about Jewish Marxists more angrily.

As for me, I don’t think I’m going to jump into further books just yet, or perhaps never again. My interest in this subject has waned a bit, and I plan to start reading and eventually reviewing another book, one that should be more proverbial red meat for some of you.

Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed!

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I'd just like to say how much I enjoyed this series. Rarely have I seen fascism discussed in anything like a scholarly fashion, let alone on the internet. I found this whole sequence very informative and look forward to your next post.