I was recently working my way through (what survives of) Polybius's history of the Mediterranean during the second Punic War and the Roman intervention in Greece and Macedon, but happened to misplace my copy today, so I began to read (for the fourth or fifth time) Shirer's The Collapse of the Third Republic
. From his career (journalism) and his political asides in this and his more famous work, I think our politics differ considerably, and some of the assumptions he makes in the book concerning economics* and politics strike me as wrong headed,but the factual content, which is most of the work, is quite interesting, especially given the amount of first hand material, and it is a rather light read for such a serious subject, one I can put down and pick up weeks later and rejoin without a lot of effort. Along with Kinross' The Ottoman Centuries
and Oman's A History of England Before the Norman Conquest
, it is one of my favorite light readings in history, good for doctor's appointments, flights and the like.
What is interesting is, every time I revisit these books, and not just these but most books of which I am fond, I always seem to find some new revelation, some novel discovery, and many times, especially when reading history, that discovery helps to shed light on modern issues.
In this case, I recognized two points which have bearing on modern phenomena. Specifically, (1) the relationship between the left, right and authoritarian, especially nationalist, movements, and (2) a particularly apt comparison between the nationalist leagues of France in the 1930's and our own Paulbots.
Before beginning, I suppose I should revisit a point I made long ago in "The Political Spectrum
". Left and right are common terms, but also mostly worthless for discussing politics. For example, the idea that somehow Fascism grows out of conservatism is a strange concept. Or maybe not. I suppose it all depends on how one uses the nebulous term conservative. As I described in "The Political Spectrum
", the term came mostly from Europe, where what the liberals were fighting for was individual freedom, what today would be called "conservative" or "libertarian" in the US. And the conservatives, far from defending freedom, were fighting to retain aristocracy or even monarchy. The transplanting of the terms to the US was hampered by another problem, that happened in both Europe and the US. The socialist and labor movements, rather than appearing as independent political factions, had a tendency to emerge from among the more traditional 19th century liberals, and so the term "liberal" came to be used for both those fighting for minimal government, free markets and liberty, and those fighting for the opposite, under the banner of socialism. Similarly, "conservatives", came to embrace not just aristocrats and monarchists, but their sometimes allies among authoritarian nationalists. And, in the US, during the early to mid-20th century, thanks to the progressive and populist take over of the Democrats, their opponents ended up in the Republican party, at that time a party mostly in favor of protectionism, easy money and mercanitlist policies. And so conservative came to mean, in the US, those favoring protectionism AND
those favoring less government. And somehow it was assumed these were the same as the European conservatives, who included not just nationalists, monarchists and elitists, but -- although the majority of the export of US-style Goldwater liberalism to Europe would not take place until the late 20th century -- a handful of individuals fighting for less government. (And, to confuse things more, in the mid 20th century, Europeans often called small government advocates "radicals" or "radical liberals", even "socialists", to make it almost impossible to identify one's true political identity. -- See "Reticent
Adopt a Title
", "A Possible Designation
" and "The Right Identity
I mention all this, because it is important to ignore the terms "right" and "left" in what follows, or at least recognize we are using them in a 1930's French sense, and so they have little to do with modern usage. Though, the conclusion does have applicability to modern, as well as historical, matters.
For those unfamiliar with Pierre Laval, he was Marshall Petain's right hand man, and likely for most of his post-1940 career, probably the man behind most of Petain's decisions. And for those who don't know who Petain was, he was the head of the rump French nation established by the Nazis after they defeated the French in 1940. The Vichy government, as this state was called, was, for all intents and purposes, the French version of Hitler's Germany, or Franco's Spain, or Mussolini's Italy. It was thoroughly authoritarian, as well as largely subservient to the Germans.
I mention this, not because I wish to use the infamous "Hitler comparison", apparently no longer allowed in poltical debate, but because Laval actual provides an interesting model, which I have seen many times in my reading. According to many modern pop-political theories, fascism and nazism arise out of the "political right", by which they mean either small government movements, or at least those favoring free trade and reduced government involvement in business, as well as fewer welfare services. However, Laval would seem to argue against this. He started his political career as an extreme left wing socialist. Granted, he left the party when it became subservient to Lenin's Third International after the Russian Revolution, but he remained in the remnant socialist party loyal to the Second International for a long time, and even after leaving was an "independent socialist" for years. He did spend some time in the mainstream, before shifting into the nationalist camp, but all evidence is his beliefs remained extreme, even if he pragmatically joined more moderate cabinets.
This is worth noting because it seems to follow the pattern of many "right wing" authoritarians. It is often forgotten, but Mussolini started as a Communist agitator and journalist. And the early Nazi party took the "socialist" part of "national socialist" seriously, including many former Second International socialists and labor union members, who differed with traditional socialists only on their position of internationalism. (Hence the party name.) Nor are they unique. Time and again, it seems the most ardent nationalists, fascists, phalangists and nazis all began their careers on the far left, jumping to what many call the "far right" with ease.
And that is my point. It seems, from both policy and personal histories, these supposed "right wing" movements share much more with the far left than anywhere on the modern right. (The historical right is, as described above, too muddled to mean much of anything.) It seems again and again, individuals, and even whole movements, have shifted from communism and socialism to fascism, phalangism, militant nationalism, authoitarian technocracy, nazism and all those other supposed right wing beliefs. I know I have argued this before ("Misplaced Blame and A Power Play
", "The Political Spectrum
"), but it really does seem that these movements are poorly categorized as "right wing", at least in modern usage, and would be better described as variations upon the far left. (The way both nationalism and monarchism shared the designation of "right"a t one time, despite little common ground other than opposition to traditional liberals.)
The second thing that struck me was, how often, during periods of political collapse, it will be the children of the middle and upper classes who jump into the most extreme authoritarian movements. In this case, the French nationalist movements. Though, across the border, many of their German counterparts were joining up in equally militant German nationalist movements.
This strikes me as interesting, as I have recently noticed, both in 2008 and now, that many children of relatively affluent families are joining, not just the Ron Paul movement, but the flaky, semi-bigoted, lunatic fringe, conspiracy theory wing of the movement. Those middle and upper class college students who would normally be espousing some mild liberal positions they would later outgrow are now taking up a banner normally held by a handful of fringe individuals on the right and left. And that is somewhat troubling.
Fortunately, unlike the eras in question, those joining the fringe are still a minority (if a noisy, annoying one), and many of the young still mindlessly parrot liberal propaganda, so we are hardly in the same boat as the Weimar Republic. But it is a bit troubling to hear brainless 19 year olds spouting gibberish usually reserved for LaRouche tables outside post offices or sixty year old unemployed alcoholic dock workers who corner you at neighborhood bars.
Hopefully, 2012 is Ron's last gasp, and the Paulbots, deprived of a focus, will begin to fade from view, the hard core returning to their conspiracy blogs, mimeographs and "Bush=Hitler" stickers, with the majority recovering their sanity and drifting back into political apathy. But it is troubling to see something that, even in a small way, evokes memories of the 1930's, either in Germany or France.
* It is interesting to see how much liberalism changed with time, however. Despite his obvious sympathy with the labor movement, his ill-concealed hostility toward industrialists (sometimes degenerating into outright suspicion of their motives), and a clear sympathy for "moderate" socialists, such as Blum, Shirer avoids the Keynesianism which is endemic to moderate liberals of today, or the outright communism of the far left, and actually credits austerity measures, balanced budget and fiscal responsibility with positive effects. I have many problems with Poincare's solution to France's woes, but much like Reagan's imperfect solution to the problems introduced by Nixon, it was better than the alternative. And yet I doubt a single modern liberal would credit Poincare with saving France's economy. (To clarify, the inflation which ravaged the US in the 70's was, though worsened by some Carter measures, the result of Nixon's closing of the "gold window", itself the logical outcome of FDR's efforts to divorce the dollar from gold. -- See "Inflation
", "The Gold Question, Not "Why?" But "When?"
", "Monetary Issues Made Simple Part I
", "Monetary Issues Made Simple Part II
" and "Stupid Quote of the Day (January 7, 2012)
". I am not trying to shift the blame from Carter, I just recognize Nixon bears a far greater responsibility for that particular woe of the late 70's. Carter is to blame for enough others we can be honest about his role in this one. See "Memories of Jimmy
One other thing struck me as interesting. As the idiot twins who comment on this blog seem determined to convince me that all Jews are evil incarnate, openly plotting to destroy the world and are the single force behind communism and who knows what else, it was interesting to see Leon Blum mentioned, as his career makes me curious how these nutters would explain him. Blum was Jewish, and was a socialist. So far, he fits everything they claim is true. However, when the Third International attempted to assert communist control over the French Socialist party, Blum walked out, leacing the party to others, who, after a number of Trotsky-directed purges, were largely gentile. So, how does this fit with the vast Zionist conspiracy? The Jew Blum left in defiance of the Jew Trotsky, who then threw out other Jews to appoint gentiles. What happened? Did they not get the proper memos from the conspiracy? (Of course, Stalin's treatment of Jews always made me wonder how anyone could claim Jews were behind communism, but I am sure they would bring up a variation of the ludicrous, if offensive, "Jews created the Holocaust for sympathy" argument. As with most conspiracy theories, this one seems immune to evidence.)