In 1852, Karl Marx wrote a pamphlet analyzing the rise of the strongman who became the Emperor Napoleon III in a pamphlet titled The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. The opening line of this pamphlet contains one of the more frequently misquoted statements by Marx:
Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Napoleon III rose to power out of the social upheavals that boiled over in the revolutions of 1848. Many people today have been looking back to the turmoil of the early 20th century to find parallels between Donald Trump and the rise of fascism. It might be illuminating to look back another hundred years to study how a more militaristic strongman can take over when a populist movement fails to deliver on its promises. Hopefully we won’t get to see Trump fail, and what that will bring.
What we are seeing, and what worries me about history repeating itself, is the same hard-line leftist purity that contributed so much to dividing the opposition to Hitler and helped him rise to the chancellorship. For instance, a Facebook friend just posted the following:
Trump is a fascist. There is no other way to describe him. He is violent, authoritarian and egomaniacal. … BUT WE’RE NOT FIGHTING TRUMP RIGHT NOW!!!. WE’RE FIGHTING HILLARY!
In the 1920s the communist left called social-democrats (like Bernie Sanders) “social fascists,” claiming that they were just fascists with a progressive face. Their strategy was to first defeat the social democrats and then take on the fascists. We all remember how far that got them.
Today followers of Bernie Sanders are making the same mistake about other progressive democrats. I’m old enough to remember making that mistake back in 1968 when I voted Socialist rather than for Hubert Humphrey. (In my naïveté I didn’t realize that the Socialist Party at that time was so rabidly anti-communist that it was more pro-war than most Americans.) Humphrey was perhaps an even more compromised progressive candidate than Hillary Clinton, and the anti-war left did everything we could to turn the general public against Humphrey. We ignored the fact that he was running against Richard Nixon. So we got Richard Nixon.
In the aftermath of 1968, Theodore Draper (speaking of compromised one-time progressives) wrote a long piece in Commentary analyzing the dynamics of the rhetoric of “social fascism.” The lessons of his introductory summary apply today as much as they did when he was writing.
Historically, the so-called theory of social-fascism and the practice based on it constituted one of the chief factors contributing to the victory of German fascism in January 1933. … But I would be less than candid if I did not confess that I was moved to look back at social-fascism because it is no longer of merely historical interest. In its original incarnation, it helped to bring about such a vast and shattering catastrophe that it once seemed such ideas could never again be revived on a large and dangerous scale. Yet this is exactly what has been happening. The term itself has not come back into general use, but the thinking behind it again has its devotees.
Telling yourself that it’s ok to damage Hillary because Bernie will beat Trump is to engage in the same triumphalist delusions that divided the German left against itself, instead of uniting to stop the rise of fascism.