‘The Apprentice’s Sorcerer: Liberal Tradition and Fascism’ reviewed by Guy Lancaster

The Apprentice’s Sorcerer: Liberal Tradition and Fascism

Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2012. 362pp., $28 pb
ISBN 9781608462025

Reviewed by Guy Lancaster

About the reviewer

Dr. Guy Lancaster is the author, co-author and editor of several books on racial violence, most …


In current American political discourse, such terms as “liberal” and “fascist” have – like “communist” and “socialist” – long been emptied of all substantive meaning, employed by right-wing commentators nigh interchangeably to signify ideas or people they find reprehensible. Indeed, Jonah Goldberg’s 2008 book, Liberal Fascists: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, attempted to formulate a taxonomy of fascism to allow its linkage to such leftist outgrowths as feminism, vegetarianism, gay rights, and even neopaganism. Meanwhile, the putatively “liberal” President Barack Obama has frequently been portrayed as both the fascist Adolf Hitler and communist Joseph Stalin, sometimes on the very same angry billboard, as if those figures represented identical ideological yearnings. The popular understanding of fascism clearly has not improved from the time when George Orwell, in “Politics and the English Language” (1946), warned of the practical effects of transforming such terms into ideological Rorschach blots: “Since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism?” (Less crucially, one might well pose the question: If one believes that fascism spawned feminist and gay marriage movements, how can one make sense of the Vatican’s support of so many fascist governments?)

A much-needed corrective not only to popular conceptions of fascism, but also to an academic record that has long misrepresented fascism as some political “third-way” between capitalism and communism, Ishay Landa’s The Apprentice’s Sorcerer convincingly argues that fascism does have its origin in the Western liberal tradition, though in a manner more in accord with Upton Sinclair’s pithy observation: “fascism is capitalism plus murder.” Landa begins by identifying as a historical precondition for fascism “the inherent tension between the political dimension of the liberal order and its economic one” (21). That is, the European bourgeoisie of the eighteenth century demanded representative governments in order to free the markets from feudal protectionism, but they were followed later by the lower classes who, in turn, demanded access to the franchise themselves in order to protect their own interests, pitting the original economic liberalism against emerging political liberalism. Where John Locke defended democracy as shoring up capitalism, Vilfredo Pareto, whose works inspired Benito Mussolini, lashed out at democracy “entirely on the premises of economic liberalism,” such as “its restriction of the ‘free movement of capital,’ and its encroachment on private property via progressive taxation” (53).” Similar strains of thought were current among German thinkers of the interwar period, most notably Oswald Spengler, and Adolf Hitler’s animus against German democracy was based upon the belief that “the [Weimar] Republic signifie[d] the unlawful and pernicious political interference in the economy” (78).

To better move the debate beyond the dominant “third-way” view of fascism, Landa conducts an exhaustive survey of what he dubs “anti-liberal liberals” – Arthur Moeller Van den Bruck, Thomas Carlyle, George Sorel, and others – examining how such ostensible critics of capitalism in fact seek to reinforce the liberal order. For example, Landa soundly argues that Carlyle’s critique of laissez faire is predicated precisely upon the observation that it “leads, quite in spite of itself, to democracy and the rule of the multitude, destroying elitism,” just as later fascist injunctions against laissez faire were employed “not out of revolutionary enthusiasm, but to forestall revolution; not to challenge capitalism, but to steady its ship; not to facilitate the classless society, but to entrench class divisions” (156, 157). The theme of the decline of western civilization, expressed so often by early twentieth century thinkers, regularly rises from despair at the involvement of the masses in politics, and Landa finds in Sorel “not so much an enemy of capitalism, as … an enemy of weak capitalism, given to seeking compromises with parliamentary socialism which been a kind of mixed, decadent economy” (197).

In the last two chapters of the book, Landa confronts four “myths” about fascism. Regarding the first, that fascism constitutes the tyranny of the majority, Landa illustrates how supposed liberal defenders of democracy, from Alexis de Tocqueville to Benedetto Croce, preoccupied themselves primarily with the supremacy of the propertied classes, while other thinkers such as Ludwig von Mises proposed that dictatorship might be necessary to defend liberalism. Secondly, against the notion that fascism fostered collectivism while liberalism fostered individuality, the author observes “that both fascism and liberalism were in fact shot through with irresolvable ambivalence in their approach to individualism” (251-2); indeed, though fascism regularly employed the rhetoric of collectivism (raising unto the highest the nation, race, or society), it also fetishized individualism in the form of the “great man” and dismantled democracy in the name of individualism. The origin of the “big lie” comes up for scrutiny next, and Landa locates it within a long liberal tradition of esoteric writing which aims to support elites while hiding the truth from the “vulgar” and “gullible” masses. Finally, regarding allegations that fascism constituted a nationalist attack upon liberal cosmopolitanism, Landa finds fascists having exhibited some of the same ambivalence about the idea of nation as they did about individualism (after all, it is through the nations that the masses have their rights), though for Germany the nation did provide “the necessary platform, from which to launch a capitalistic expansion campaign” (319).

Landa’s approach warrants not just a new conceptualization of the liberal tradition but also – since this puts forward a genealogy of fascism unused by most scholars of European mass violence – a revisiting of earlier analyses of the interrelationship between fascism and genocide. For example, Aristotle Kallis, in Genocide and Fascism: The Eliminationist Drive in Fascist Europe (2009), readily employs the “third-way” view in explicating how fascist regimes developed utopian visions of national regeneration that sought to erase the immediate past and redeem the nation state, but Landa’s thesis provides a much richer picture of this development, for now the past to be expunged is recognized as democratic advancement of the people’s interest, while the state to be reborn is one of hierarchical order and contentment among the various classes regarding their place in that order. Furthermore, the range of victims, which included not just Jews but communists and socialists as well as non-producers (the mentally and physically unfit), makes much more sense if fascism is understood as capitalism militant rather than a generic intellectual concept or anti-ideology.

However, some recent works in the field of genocide studies complement Landa’s thesis. Christopher Powell, in Barbaric Civilization: A Critical Sociology of Genocide (2011), argues that the very discourse of civilization actually increases a society’s capacity for – and enables the state’s monopoly of – violence, especially as the “civilized” habitus allows for an easy “othering” of those populations or individuals which do not share such performances of civilized behavior. Of course, one of the markers of civilization has been free-market economics, and the absence of such a system among many peoples of the world served well to justify European colonial exploitation of so-called “barbaric” groups; long before nineteenth-century European leaders were fretting over the doings of Marxists, the English in North America decried the “communist” tendencies of the natives, whose lack of any concept of “private property” marked them as savages. Even today, among the inheritors of the Western liberal tradition, capitalism is equated with civilization – the American occupational forces in Iraq began privatizing large sectors of the government the moment their feet touched the ground in Baghdad, presenting it to the world as a “modernization” of Iraqi society.

In his epilogue, Landa briefly illustrates how business and government elites in the United Kingdom and the United States actually sympathized with fascism, with Winston Churchill even sparing occasional praise for Hitler: “The real Sonderweg, it appears, is not a German, or an Italian, or a Spanish, or an Austrian way, but the way of the west” (248). Such an expansion of our perspective is long overdue. In one recent work, Origins of Political Extremism: Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century and Beyond (2011), political scientist Manus I. Midlarsky puts German National Socialism, Japanese imperialism, and radical Islam under the microscope but leaves untouched such atrocities as the brutal British occupation of India (the model to which Hitler aspired), the Belgian colonization of the Congo, or the United States’ genocidal war against Native Americans; but then, none of these, despite death tolls that rivaled the Holocaust, fit his definition of extremism, for instead of being perceived as outside the political center of their respective societies, discontinuous with previous history, the perpetrators of these atrocities embodied their respective societies’ ideals – especially the primacy of the capitalist system. Landa’s thesis therefore allows us to begin building a much larger conceptual framework of mass atrocity and its origins, revealing the liberal tradition that lies not just at the bottom of fascist extremism in Europe, with all its horrific trappings, but also Manifest Destiny in the United States and much more. Within this framework, the ideals and deeds of fascists become not so unique, not so odd, but all too familiar.

Where Landa occasionally loses the thread of his argument is in those places where he brings his analysis to bear upon the post-fascist decades (if we can speak of such). After noting how fascist rhetoric on individualism sanctified the sacrifice of the individual to the greater good – “‘the individual’ will come first when confronted with mass society; but ‘society’ will come first, when confronted with the demands of mass individuals” (255) – he jumps to the administration of Margaret Thatcher, illustrating the same dynamic in her rhetoric, such as her denial of the homeless as a group versus her collectivism in summoning up the greater good of society during the war over the Falkland Islands. Likewise, while explicating the liberal origins of the fascist “big lie,” Landa detours into the overlap of theater and politics, especially as manifest in the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, briefly contrasting such anti-establishment films of his as The Running Man and Total Recall with his pro-establishment tenure as governor of California.

Of course, it is a running subtext of this book that if fascism originates not from an anti-liberal and irrational impulse confined in time and place but rather from the very contradictions built into the liberal tradition, the tradition by which our lives continue to be governed, then fascism may emerge yet again, perhaps rebranding itself anew – or may have never gone away entirely. In the United States, numerous politicians, their careers financed by capitalists, work openly in order to limit the voting power of the poor and non-white – a classic solution to the crisis of liberalism. On the global scale, the International Monetary Fund demands that the nations of the global south be satisfied with their lot (the class contentment of old) as it privatizes components of their commonwealths and strips them of resources. Can we say that such measures bespeak elements of a fascist impulse within our political and economic systems? Yes, we can, for Landa’s masterful work answers George Orwell’s complaint by filling the word “fascist” with meaning and power once again, that it may be employed not as a generic slur but as a proper description of who would destroy democracy for the sake of profit.

2 November 2012

One comment

  1. A good introduction to a timely publication. Naked fascismis staring at us in countries like India which has some experience of parliamentary democracy
    What USA did inIraq – privatisation of public property – is be g done lna .assives ale in India Today

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