TCS Daily

The Mustache on the Left

By Edward Feser - January 8, 2004 12:00 AM

As a Bush re-election later this year looks increasingly likely, some left-wingers worry that Howard Dean is too risky a candidate to put up against a popular President. There is, of course, the obvious comparison to McGovern and the fear that a true believer may inevitably be a sure loser. There is also the worry that Dean may not in fact be so true a believer in the first place: he did support Newt Gingrich's Medicare reforms, after all, and has been a little too cozy with gun rights advocates; might he not betray the Left in order to appeal to Middle America? Is the prospect of another Clinton the price to pay for avoiding another McGovern?

A solution for the Leftist might lie in turning one's historical eye back before either Clinton or McGovern, to find a model who was both genuinely radical and a solid electoral success. Then the task will be to find a modern politician who fits this paradigm as closely as possible. Who might serve as such a model?

One example stands out. Who was he?

He had been something of a bohemian in his youth, and always regarded young people and their idealism as the key to progress and the overcoming of outmoded prejudices. And he was widely admired by the young people of his country, many of whom belonged to organizations devoted to practicing and propagating his teachings. He had a lifelong passion for music, art, and architecture, and was even something of a painter. He rejected what he regarded as petty bourgeois moral hang-ups, and he and his girlfriend "lived together" for years. He counted a number of homosexuals as friends and collaborators, and took the view that a man's personal morals were none of his business; some scholars of his life believe that he himself may have been homosexual or bisexual. He was ahead of his time where a number of contemporary progressive causes are concerned: he disliked smoking, regarding it as a serious danger to public health, and took steps to combat it; he was a vegetarian and animal lover; he enacted tough gun control laws; and he advocated euthanasia for the incurably ill.

He championed the rights of workers, regarded capitalist society as brutal and unjust, and sought a third way between communism and the free market. In this regard, he and his associates greatly admired the strong steps taken by President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal to take large-scale economic decision-making out of private hands and put it into those of government planning agencies. His aim was to institute a brand of socialism that avoided the inefficiencies that plagued the Soviet variety, and many former communists found his program highly congenial. He deplored the selfish individualism he took to be endemic to modern Western society, and wanted to replace it with an ethic of self-sacrifice: "As Christ proclaimed 'love one another'," he said, "so our call -- 'people's community,' 'public need before private greed,' 'communally-minded social consciousness' -- rings out...! This call will echo throughout the world!"

The reference to Christ notwithstanding, he was not personally a Christian, regarding the Catholicism he was baptized into as an irrational superstition. In fact he admired Islam more than Christianity, and he and his policies were highly respected by many of the Muslims of his day. He and his associates had a special distaste for the Catholic Church and, given a choice, preferred modern liberalized Protestantism, taking the view that the best form of Christianity would be one that forsook the traditional other-worldly focus on personal salvation and accommodated itself to the requirements of a program for social justice to be implemented by the state. They also considered the possibility that Christianity might eventually have to be abandoned altogether in favor of a return to paganism, a worldview many of them saw as more humane and truer to the heritage of their people. For he and his associates believed strongly that a people's ethnic and racial heritage was what mattered most. Some endorsed a kind of cultural relativism according to which what is true or false and right or wrong in some sense depends on one's ethnic worldview, and especially on what best promotes the well-being of one's ethnic group.

Who was he? He certainly sounds like the ideal presidential candidate of a Pacifica Radio Network listener or Mother Jones subscriber -- or, to make a more timely reference, a contributor to It can only add to his appeal for such people that he was a target of American and British bombing raids and had to flee to the safety of an underground hide-out. And he was none other than Time magazine's Man of the Year for 1938: Adolf Hitler.


OK, it was a cheap trick; but I trust I didn't get anyone's hopes up too much. That der Fuhrer's biography has as much of a resemblance as it does to that of the typical granola-munching whale-saver is a fact of no small import, however. We'll return to that resemblance presently. For now let us note that it indicates that my little trick was no more cheap than was's recent ad morphing President Bush's image into that of the leader of the National Socialist German Worker's Party. The comparison of Republicans, conservatives, libertarians and right-wingers in general to Nazis and fascists is, of course, a tiresome and childish left-wing tactic. What is noteworthy is that even this desperate ploy is apparently not beneath the dignity of what purports to be a "respectable," mainstream liberal website, the financial support of which is the latest hobby of billionaire George Soros -- who has himself not been above comparing the Administration's policies to those of the Nazis and Communists who once ruled the Hungary of his youth. Once something of a Hayekian pseudo-intellectual, Soros has of late moved to the Left and become a pseudo-intellectual full stop. He is also, as this latest episode demonstrates, a flake, and a fool, and a dishonorable one at that. More than anyone else, a refugee from Nazi and Communist tyranny should be aware of the danger and dishonesty of Manichean politics.

One can, of course, reasonably disagree with the President's foreign policy. The trouble is, most of the disagreement with it has been decidedly unreasonable, if not lunatic. No accusation against Bush has been too uncharitable, and no conspiracy theory too preposterous, for the anti-war party manically to bounce it around its echo chamber until it can hear nothing else. Yet the case for the war in Iraq -- the focus (for the time being, anyway) of anti-Bush hysteria -- was, and remains, extremely straightforward and reasonable: 1. Saddam Hussein was required, as part of the treaty which ended the first Gulf War, to disarm himself of certain weapons, especially WMD, to remain so disarmed, and to agree to regular inspections intended to verify his compliance; 2. He repeatedly violated the terms of this treaty; so 3. The recommencement of hostilities was prima facie justified. (The question of the legitimacy of "pre-emptive" war is thus utterly irrelevant; the action against Iraq was no more "pre-emptive" than is the arrest of a convicted felon for violating the terms of his parole.)

Furthermore, whereas there may sometimes be good reasons for refraining from war even when it is justified, 4. The risk of Iraqi WMD someday being slipped to terrorists for use against the United States was, post-9/11, plausibly seen as significant enough that continued Iraqi non-compliance could no longer be tolerated. (The question of whether the threat was "imminent" is thus also irrelevant; and the threat was, of course, never claimed by the President to be imminent in the first place.) Also counterbalancing any possible reasons for refraining from war were: 5. The fact that modern methods of war make possible to an unprecedented degree the avoidance of civilian deaths (though of course these can never be avoided entirely); 6. The liberation of the Iraqi people from a brutal dictatorship would, in the short and long runs, save more lives than would be lost in a military campaign and produce other obvious benefits for the Iraqi people as well; 7. The elimination of the Baathist regime would put the fear of God into the hearts of other dictatorships who might think to produce or use WMD (as it in fact has in the case of Libya -- though this has not stopped some anti-war types from denying the obvious); 8. It would eliminate an important source of funding and/or training for Palestinian and other terrorist groups; and 9. It would allow the United States finally to pull its forces out of Saudi Arabia, their presence being, however justifiable, a source of resentment within the Arab world and a rationalization for terrorism on the part of the likes of Osama bin Laden.

In short, there was by virtue of Hussein's non-compliance alone a defensible justification for war; and the other considerations served to override any reservations one could raise about whether the price for going to war, even if justified, might be too high. Nor does the endless nonsense about Bush having "lied" about WMD carry any conviction. For one thing, we don't yet fully know what in fact Hussein had or thought he had. More to the point, no one, including the intelligence services of governments opposed to the war, doubted before the war that he had WMD; and only a fool would have interpreted his years-long non-compliance with the inspections regime as implying anything other than that he had something to hide. Finally, it takes a Flat Earth Society-level of credulity to believe that not only Bush, but also Blair and dozens if not hundreds of their employees, would have risked political suicide and/or criminal prosecution to cover up their alleged knowledge that Iraq had in reality absolutely no WMD to speak of.

Now my claim is, again, not that someone couldn't reasonably oppose the war despite the case I've just summarized. It is rather that the case for war is, at the very least, itself as reasonable as any case against. In particular, there is no reason whatever to appeal to sinister motives and conspiracy theories to explain the President's actions. And the point is not merely that those actions bear absolutely no resemblance to Hitler's -- that is, to put it mildly, a fact too blindingly obvious to be worth mentioning -- but rather to underline the unfathomable depth of the hysteria and disconnectedness from reality into which the anti-war Left has fallen. When you consider also that the President's policies on such matters as the Federal prescription drug benefit and immigration have been, regrettably, the sort of stuff for which liberals have agitated for over thirty years, the Left's hatred of him reveals itself to be pathological.

What accounts for this pathology? The problem is obviously psychological; the diagnosis must be psychological too. Such a diagnosis requires first that we examine the patient more closely.

The Far Left and Fascism

The argumentum ad Hitlerum has always been the first refuge of the moral and political ignoramus: "You don't approve of [welfare, sodomy, dope-smoking, Federal student loans, or whatever else a right to which the speaker considers the most precious]? You're a f***ing Nazi!" It rarely gets more sophisticated than that. The international Communist movement, however, which included a great many pseudo-intellectuals of Soros-like talents, had in its day slightly more subtle, if equally disreputable, grounds for making use of the ploy. Given that the Soviet Union had been, during World War II, one of the enemies of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, Communists could pass themselves off as paradigmatic anti-fascists; and from there it was, for them, but a short step to concluding that any enemy of such paradigmatic anti-fascists must himself be a paradigmatic fascist. Of course, these inferences are utterly fallacious; but one needs, perhaps, the average Communist's three brain cells to make them, rather than the two brain cells that suffice for the campus stoner to infer that anyone who wants to take his bong from him simply must have a well-thumbed copy of Mein Kampf hidden under the mattress.

The tendency of Nation-magazine style Leftists reliably to lapse into the fascist/right-winger comparison is in part a holdover from this hoary Communist tactic, a nervous tic that an old fellow-traveler can find it hard to lose even fifteen years after the collapse of the Evil Empire. What the comparison conveniently forgets is the alliance that existed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union before Hitler decided to betray Stalin, the Leftist dictator whose example had taught him so much about concentration camps and secret police. It forgets too the actual history of the development of fascist and National Socialist ideology, which had everything to do with developments in the socialist tradition in political thought, and absolutely nothing to do with the intellectual currents that gave rise to contemporary conservatism. But then, from Lenin and Stalin onward, the Left has been very good at airbrushing over any evidence of its true history, intellectual and otherwise.

It is a scandal that one has constantly to remind people of a fact that should be common knowledge: that Mussolini was for years a prominent socialist intellectual and publicist, as much a man of the Left as Noam Chomsky. His conversion to fascism was not a renunciation of this legacy, but a modification of it: he came to see solidarity with one's Nation rather than with one's Class as the key to breaking the hold of "liberal capitalism" over the modern world. The story of the deep historical and conceptual links between communism and fascism was a theme of Hayek's famous The Road to Serfdom and has been detailed by a number of scholars, most notably A. James Gregor in The Faces of Janus: Marxism and Fascism in the Twentieth Century. (A briefer study is to be found in David Ramsay Steele's important article "The Mystery of Fascism." ) It is thus baffling that so many left-wingers still see fit to equate fascism with capitalism, of all things -- as brazen an example of the Big Lie as any other that Marxists have come up with. Hitler truly learned from these masters of the art.

The bafflement only grows when one considers that Hitler's movement was not called "National Socialism" for nothing, much as lefties like to ignore the fact. It is true that Hitler was personally far more interested in exterminating the Jews than he was in implementing any economic program; but it is also true that he and the other Nazis regarded capitalism as no less odious a manifestation of the power of "world Jewry" than, in their view, communism was. They hated capitalism for the very same reason they hated communism: its internationalism, its tendency to dilute one's allegiance to Nation and Race; Nazism was, one might say, the original anti-globalization movement. Hence the national in National Socialism: one's comradeship ought, in its conception, to be primarily with fellow members of one's Nation or Race, rather than with an international Class. But the socialism was no less important, and featured centrally in the minds of such prominent Nazis as Ernst Roehm, Gregor Strasser, and Joseph Goebbels. As Stanley G. Payne notes in his magisterial A History of Fascism 1914-1945: "Much was made by Marxist commentators, during the 1930's and for nearly half a century afterward, about the alleged capitalist domination of the German economy under National Socialism, when the truth of the matter was more nearly the opposite." The suggestion, sometimes heard from Leftists even today, that Nazism was an outgrowth of (or at least inherently sympathetic to) capitalism is thus a myth, another lie propagated from Moscow during the war years and faithfully parroted by Communists, their sympathizers, and their spiritual descendents. The truth is that Marxism on the one hand and fascism and National Socialism on the other are rival interpretations of the same basic socialist creed, their differences analogous to the differences between rival sects within the same religion. To the sectarian, such differences are all-important, and anyone who dissents from them is a heretic, worse even than a non-believer; to the outsider, they seem far less significant than what the various sects all have in common.

Contemporary Anglo-American conservatism, by contrast, has roots in three intellectual sources that have no connection to socialism, and indeed have always been hostile to it: the traditionalist "Throne and Altar" continental European conservatism of thinkers like Joseph de Maistre; the British classical liberalism or libertarianism of John Locke and Adam Smith; and the moderate British conservatism of Edmund Burke which represents something of a middle ground between the first two trends of thought. Hitler, Mussolini, and other fascists and Nazis had nothing but contempt for these intellectual traditions; and the difference between the characteristic themes of contemporary conservatism -- the free market, limited government, traditional religious belief -- are so obviously and radically different from, and opposed to, the tenets of fascism and National Socialism that it is difficult to understand how any intellectually honest person could see any similarity whatsoever.

The Leftist might, in desperation, point to the "family values" that Nazis and fascists claimed, like contemporary conservatives, to champion. But this demonstrates, not a link between fascism and conservatism, but only the extreme decadence into which Leftist thinking has sunk. For the reason Nazis and fascists claimed to champion these things was that everyone in public life in the thirties and forties championed them, whatever their position on the political spectrum; there was nothing terribly distinctive about it. It is only in an age in which the common moral sense of the West has reached the depths it has that a commitment to "family values" could be regarded as anything other than an (admittedly banal) expression of one's grasp of the morally obvious. Presumably the Nazis also spoke up for good grooming and table manners; no doubt there is a Leftist somewhere who would see this too as a telltale sign of right-wingery.

The Nazis' persecution of homosexuals does not undermine the point; for public disapproval of homosexuality was also universal at the time and not at all distinctive of Nazism per se. Moreover, in private many Nazis, including Hitler, had (as did so many other socialists of the day) a far more lenient attitude; and of course, the prevalence of homosexuals within Ernst Roehm's SA is well-known. Roehm himself was a notorious sexual libertine, and his band of thugs, committed as they were to the cult of violence and the destruction of capitalist society, are reminiscent of nothing so much as the anarchist mobs of Seattle and Davos. The hormonally-driven Rage Against the Machine fan who's seen Fight Club twenty times and sports a Che Guevara T-shirt is far closer to the spirit of the brown-shirts than is the polite and dorky teenage Bible-thumper.

The supreme irony, however, is that the one great difference between National Socialism and Marxism -- the obsession of the former with race -- has in recent decades become, more even than hostility to capitalism, the hallmark of Leftist thinking. White Leftists, of course, are committed to almost the reverse of Nazi thinking about their own ethnicity: there is no crime any Caucasian has ever been accused of to which they are not eager to plead guilty. It is as if they take self-hatred to be the only way to prove their undying loyalty, in the face of the National Socialist heresy, to the pure and undefiled internationalist Marxian faith. By contrast, non-white Leftists have adopted, and have been encouraged by their white comrades to adopt, a hyper-solidarity with members of their own ethnic groups that would have disgusted Marx, but which Hitler would have understood completely. If National Socialism is the project of combining hostility to capitalism with a belligerent racial consciousness, then it is to be found today, not in the Republican Party, but in the Congressional Black Caucus and the faculty lounges of ethnic studies' departments. If we add anti-Semitism to the mix, then its closest approximation within American political life is to be found in the career of Al Sharpton; and internationally, in the Baathist movement, a mélange of socialist economics and Arab nationalism of which Saddam Hussein was, until recently, the chief representative. Perhaps this explains the strange inability of Leftists to get as worked up over him as they do George Bush.

But of course, Leftists have always had difficulty getting too worked up over mass murder and political repression whenever the motivation for it is sufficiently "progressive." The 100 million corpses produced collectively by such prototypical twentieth-century left-wing statesmen as Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Kim Il Sung, Pol Pot, Ho Chi Minh, Mengistu Haile Mariam, and Fidel Castro have been given no candle light vigils, no star-studded Hollywood epics, no specially-colored lapel ribbons. Their killers, far more prodigious in homicide than Hitler ever was, are much less well-known than he; and the average college student, whose liberal professors take pains to keep their charges apprised of every shortage of toilet paper in Indonesian "sweat shops," is taught next to nothing about the crimes of Communism. Castro can, to this day, make a visit to New York in the knowledge that he will face nothing more threatening than a bear-hug from Rep. Charles Rangel -- unpleasant, to be sure, but nothing like the hand-cuffs and firing squad he deserves.

The biographical portrait with which I began this essay not only describes Hitler, but would, with only slight alteration, fit Mussolini as well. But no amount of rewriting would make it a plausible description of George Bush, Ronald Reagan, or Margaret Thatcher. More significantly, it is in left-wing political thinking that fascism and National Socialism had their origins and have today their strongest echoes; and in left-wing governments that the crimes of the Nazis and fascists have the most glaringly obvious parallels. Yet for all this, it is right-wingers, we are assured, who are the real closet totalitarians -- the ones who fit the psychological profile, and whose political philosophy has dangerous implications. I ask again: what can be the source of such a pathological delusion?

The pop psychologists have a word for it: projection. The Leftist, unwilling to see his own worldview for what it is and has been historically, transfers what he knows deep down to be the truth onto his political rivals. He falsely sees in them what he ought to see in himself. He is like the child who blames his teachers, his parents, his dog -- anyone but himself -- for his poor grades; as in so many other ways, Leftism reveals itself to be a kind of arrested adolescence.

Hitler's famous mustache has its obvious analogues in those of Stalin and Saddam Hussein. But George Bush does not wear one. Still, the left-winger insists he can see it there whenever he looks at the President's picture. Perhaps he ought to consider the possibility that what he's really looking at is a mirror.

Edward Feser ( is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and author of On Nozick (Wadsworth, 2003).


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