Lawrence Samuels: Sailing into uncharted fascist waters?

Printed first at The Monterey Herald – April 28, 2017

By Lawrence Samuels, Guest commentary Monterey Herald

In response to the Herald’s reflections on the denial of free speech at UC Berkeley (“The battle over free speech on campus”), the question that begs to be asked is whether the political left has sailed into uncharted “fascist” waters. Are they intolerant, closed minded and violent? After all, the use of violence to silence opposition was a trait of the squadristi thugs in fascist Italy and the brownshirts in National Socialist Germany. But many prominent historians would take a different opinion, arguing that the extreme, modern left has always exhibited these reprehensible traits, essentially since they were the ardent midwife at fascism’s birth.

Historically, the “ideology of fascism,” which first surfaced in France, was according to one of the world’s leading experts on fascism, Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell, “a revision of Marxism” that was assisted by the pro-violence teachings of Georges Sorels’ “revolutionary syndicalism.” A. James Gregor from UC Berkeley concurs, professing that “Fascism’s most direct ideological inspiration came from”… “Italy’s most radical ‘subversives’ — the Marxists of revolutionary syndicalism.”

Even Hitler was heavily influenced by such collective ideology, who was elected Deputy Battalion Representative of the Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1918. Here, he followed the Jewish Marxist reformer Kurt Eisner, who was eventually assassinated. In solidarity, Hitler attended Eisner’s funeral, where photographs showed him wearing a black armband on one arm and the red communist brassard on the other.

So, what is the actual meaning behind the left and right? Historically, the political spectrum first appeared during the French Revolution. The original leaders of the French Revolution were the bourgeoisie, capitalists, merchants and artisans who first attacked tax collectors before assailing the Bastille in 1789. According to their seating arrangement, the left wing was the classical liberals, which included Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson under the “Girondins” faction of the Jacobin Club. They lowered taxes, limited government, supported private property rights and emancipated the Jews. The right side represented the authoritarians and monarchy.

But by 1793, the revolution was hijacked by Robespierre’s social revolutionaries (Montagnards faction) who sought greater power for government to impose social changes. On Oct. 31, 1793, 22 free-market French Deputies were charged with treason and guillotined, ushering in the Reign of Terror, where even Thomas Paine was arrested, jailed and almost guillotined.

So, what to make of all of this? It appears that the left is sometimes the right and the right is sometimes the left. It behooves political writers to first define ideologies before quickly slapping them with inaccurate left or right labels. Maybe this is why American is so divided today. Maybe nobody understands the nuances of the political spectrum and the ideologies that inhabit them.

Lawrence Samuels is a local author with a forthcoming book on the political spectrum.