Reinventing Normality in the 20th century
By Gwydion M. Williams
Conservative parties present themselves as the sensible choice. The people who don’t listen to silly radical ideas of left or right. But if you look at the conservative norm as it stood in Britain or the USA at the end of the 20th century, many aspects of this norm were Far-Left in origin.
There were also some that came from Fascism. But overall, 1930s Conservatism had far more in common with 1930s Fascism than it has with Conservatism as of 2015, or even 1990.
Sex outside marriage.
The Western mainstream would not legitimise this until the 1970s or 1980s, when a modified version of 1960s radicalism became the mainstream. On this particular issue, fascism and communism both favoured the attitude now accepted as normal: that early sex was fine, though it was also good to eventually settle down and marry.
All of this excluded official tolerance of homosexuality, one of a small number of radical changes which the Western liberal/left genuinely did pioneer. Nazism unofficially tolerated homosexuals when they had useful skills, but so did everyone else.
As with sexual equality, communism pioneered the attitudes now viewed as normal. Fascism wanted to go in the opposite direction, roll back the changes of the previous few decades.
It is also true that the west since the 1970s has gone further than late-Soviet practice. It was disastrous for European leftism that Brezhnev kept the Soviet system stable and static when it should have changed radically or else collapsed. Disastrous also that so many on the left were equivocal about it at the time.
Similar to racial and sexual equality, except that I can’t see that fascism was any more imperialist than the Western mainstream. The fascist powers were out to build their own empires, but also worked with anti-imperialists to undermine their rivals. In the end, it was their subversive side that counted for more.
Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress chose to stay neutral in the anti-Fascist war. Some Asian nationalists worked with the Japanese. Despite Japanese brutality to other Asians, this policy broadly worked.
Oddly enough, Hitler ended up doing more damage to White Racism than was done by any of the west’s principled anti-racists. He opted for an alliance with Imperial Japan, without apparent concern at what this would do to the world’s established racial hierarchies.
Of course Hitler was following the example of Britain, which made a strange alliance with Japan and gave Japan freedom to wage war against Tsarist Russia in 1905. Did they never reflect on how this would be seen by their own non-white subjects?
Awkwardly, Nazism was closer to the modern view than any other governing party before the 1960s. They also pioneered a recognition that cigarettes were dangerous. Of course there were plenty of ‘green’ viewpoints that were nowhere near Fascism – William Morris, for instance. But I am talking here about the beliefs of people with immediate power to change the world.
Fascism and especially Nazism were pioneers of the ‘Mixed Economy’, the idea that the state should take overall responsibility but not try to remove or replace private enterprise. This was the immediate basis of Fascist power – people got tired of liberal claims that a ‘free economy’ would heal itself if left alone.
The global economy of the 1930s was visibly not healing and was falling apart. [Though naturally, there are New Right ideologues who insist the patient would have flourished rather than died if given no treatment at all.]
The financial crisis of 1987 was the first of many when the rich called in the state to rescue them when things got tough. [Something much more drastic was done after the 2008 crash, with ‘Quantitative Easing’ being a fancy name for the state using public money to cover the gambling debts of the big financial institutions.]
Communism demanded total equality and fascism favoured separated and privileged elites. The Western mainstream has moved in the direction of communist ideas.
The New Right has reversed some of the earlier achievements on economic equality. This has been done by mobilising a populist resentment against the ‘managerial elite’ of the Keynesian era. Since the people who listened are now worse off, this may prove a short-lived achievement.
The communist ideal was that you should earn your status, not inherit it. Fascist ideas were mixed, a bit of both. The Western mainstream has become increasingly meritocratic. A 1958 book called The Rise of the Meritocracy was intended as a satire on this, but it is pretty much ignored nowadays.
In Britain, Sir Alec Douglas Hume was the last prime minister from the old elite. There is unlikely to be another one – Old Etonians are privileged but not elite.
The USA, once a pioneer of meritocracy, has now fallen behind. Since World War Two, Roosevelt and Eisenhower and Kennedy came from families that were already powerful, as did both Bushes. Truman, Nixon, Johnson, Carter and Bill Clinton were pretty much self-made, as was Gerald Ford, who was appointed rather than elected. If Hillary Clinton is the next president, it will be mostly due to her husband’s earlier success.
By contrast, no leader of the Soviet Union or the subsequent Russian Republic has been from elite background, apart from Lenin whose father had been an important Civil Servant in Tsarist times. The same has been true of China since the fall of the last Emperor, though Xi Jinping is the son of a former Vice-Premier of China.[A]
Romance and Grandeur in politics
This was a major factor in the success of Fascism, the romantic and heroic promise that seemed to make sense of a world where conventional ideas had visibly failed. This sort of promise helped the Bolsheviks also, even though the Communist movement claimed to be the ultimate in rationality
Critics of ‘irrationality’ in politics overlook what should be obvious – that it meets a basic human need, which has to have a safe outlet and is worthy of being turned to useful ends.
Liberal ‘rationalism’ is anyway often phoney, an assertion of prejudices. This has been even more true of the New Right. It is rational to believe that markets will find the ideal economic outcome, because…..
There is actually no coherent basis, just a false claim that Adam Smith proved it. He does nothing of the sort: he simply slips in the notion as an unproven assumption in The Wealth of Nations.[B]
Associated now mostly with the Nazis, genocide was the standard method of Western imperialism when faced by inconvenient natives. Britain’s Liberal Imperialists developed most of the methods used later by the Nazis. It was Anglo policy in the 18th and 19th centuries to remove unwanted native populations in North America, Australia, New Zealand and Southern Africa. Charles Darwin casually predicted that the Maoris of New Zealand would die out “like their own native rat”.[C]
The Concentration Camp was invented by the British in South Africa during the Boer War.[D] It was an application to white enemies of methods previously applied only to non-whites. The British were building on methods used by Spain in Cuba, but Spain lost that war. Spain put up barbed wire to fence humans, but was not inhumane enough to remove ordinary people from their own homes, as Britain did to the Boer farmers.
Genocide is now also a term applied to Soviet methods, despite the obvious point that the Soviet system wanted to include everyone. Soviet policies did not reject populations as ‘racially unsuitable’ as the various Anglo states did until the mid-20th century.
Bolshevik attitudes when they came to power in 1917 reflected decades of repression and pogrom under the Tsars. Tsarist brutality offended the civilised conscience of the time, but that did not stop first France and then Britain making an alliance. They also knew the cost of a failed revolution: in France the government had massacred the left after the Paris Commune.
Despite which, the Bolsheviks were initially moderate, abolishing the death penalty and in many cases letting their enemies go free. It was the anti-Bolshevik Russians who started the mass killing.
[This is an excerpt from an article called A Choice Of Inevitable Futures, first published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2008]
[A] Vice-Premier of China is not a hugely important post in Chinese Communist politics. Well below US Vice-President and similar positions elsewhere in the world.
[B] I give details of Smith’s dubious methods in my book Adam Smith: Wealth Without Nations.
[C] Page 521, Darwin, by Adrian Desmond and James Moors, London 1991.
[D] Strictly speaking, it was the Second Boer War, 1899-1902. The First Boer War, 1880-81, had been won by the Boers at a time when the British Empire was unsure if it wanted more territory.