Fascism As Abetted by Realism

Fascism is class warfare waged on behalf of the capitalists. This should be realized by anybody who is attracted to accidental features of Fascism such as nationalism, racism, or militarism. The Fascists are not on your side, even if they share your nationality or “race” or fascination with weaponry and military discipline.

This article could also be called “Collingwood on Fascism.” When Donald Trump was newly elected as President of the United States, I was moved to write here “Attribution of Fascism,” and one of my sources was Collingwood’s autobiography. Now I want to make available the several pages where Collingwood discusses Fascism and his experience of it in Britain in the time of the Spanish Civil War. I think the key points are as follows; the reader will be able to check whether my summary is fair, be it to Collingwood, or to reality.

  1. In society there is a distinction (however fuzzy) between doers and owners: call them workers and capitalists.
  2. Through freedom of speech, liberal democracy seeks to mitigate the conflict between the two classes.
  3. Socialism seeks the victory of the workers through abolition of private ownership of the means of production.
  4. This victory means obliterating the class distinction.
  5. Fascism seeks to maintain the distinction and thus the dominance of the capitalists.
  6. Fascists cannot be honest about this aim.
  7. Fascists resort to various deceits, such as nationalism, even though their true slogan might be, “Capitalists of the world, unite!”
  8. To deceive people is to confuse or prevent their thinking.
  9. By teaching that things go on unchanged, regardless of what we think of them, a philosophy of Realism prepares the ground for the deception on which Fascism is based.

Obviously much can be discussed and refined here. For now, I leave this work to Collingwood himself, as below.

An Autobiography was originally published by Oxford University Press in 1939. I have the 2002 reprint of the 1978 edition, which has an introduction by Stephen Toulmin and (though unmentioned on the title page) an index compiled by Patricia Utechin. Under Fascism, the index cites pages 156–9 and 163–7 (as well as xviii of Toulmin’s introduction); those are the pages I transcribe here, cutting and pasting from a searchable electronic pdf image of the 1939 edition that I probably obtained through Library Genesis. Bold emphasis is mine.

After the War the democratic system was threatened by two powerful rivals. There were two elements in that system, one of which was inherited by each rival. On a Lockian basis of private property the democratic tradition had erected a system of representative institutions designed to promote the good of the nation as a whole. But there existed, on paper since Marx formulated it, and in terms of political fact since the Russian revolution, a system having the same end but a different starting-point. The Socialists (I use the term as implying Marxian Socialism) agreed with the democratic tradition in aiming at social and economic betterment for the entire people, but proposed to achieve this aim through the public ownership of ‘means of production’. Then came Fascism in Italy and National Socialism in Germany, which agreed with the democratic tradition in making private property their first principle ; but in order to preserve it they [157] abandoned, not only the political institutions of democratic government, but also the aim of social and economic betterment upon which those institutions had been directed.

The real breach between the democratic tradition and the Socialists was not on a point of policy but on a point of fact. No one, I think, would deny that modern European society is divided into people whose energies are focused on owning things, and people whose energies are focused on doing things. Let these be called capitalists and workers respectively. All capitalists do things, and all workers own things ; but this does not obliterate the distinction. If what is vital to a man is his ownership of certain things, while his engaging in certain activities is relatively unimportant, he is a capitalist, however much he does. If the contrary, he is a worker, however much he owns.

Between these two ‘classes’ in modern European society, the Socialists held that there was in existence a ‘class war’, and that parliamentary institutions only disguised this war and did not overcome it. The democratic tradition maintained that parliamentary institutions acted in such a way as to dissipate any tendency to class war by means of free speech and open discussion. Fascism on this point agreed with Socialism ; though its mouthpieces, pursuing their declared policy of deceit, denied it. But whereas Socialism hoped to end the class war by a workers’ victory leading to the abolition of class distinctions, Fascism hoped to perpetuate it by a capitalist victory [158] leading to the permanent subjection of the workers. National Socialism is only the local German variety of Fascism.

Fascism could best be understood as a capitalist Socialism : a system in which the machinery of Socialism had been turned upside down in order to connect it up with a different prime mover, namely, the desire of capitalists to remain capitalists. In order to gratify this desire they were glad to pay blackmail to the Fascist state far in excess of any taxation and control ever devised by parliamentary government. In Socialism, the prime mover was the desire for the whole nation’s social and economic welfare. By comparison with this, the motive power of Fascism was not respectable, and had to be disguised. It was therefore concealed beneath a cloak of international hatred and jealousy.

Actually, Fascism was not compatible with international hatred. It was based not on the idea of nation but on the idea of class ; and had it been honest, it would have answered the Communists’ Manifesto with the call, ‘Capitalists of the world, unite.’

But Fascism was not capable of honesty. Essentially an attempt to fight Socialism with its own weapons, it was always inconsistent with itself. There was once a very able and distinguished philosopher who was converted to Fascism. As a philosopher, that was the end of him. No one could embrace a creed so fundamentally muddle-headed and remain capable of clear thinking. The great exponents of [159] Fascism have been specialists in arousing mass-emotion ; its minor adherents, tacticians and plotters.

Knowing all this, and thinking that in spite of some corrupting influences the true democratic tradition still existed in my own country, I rejected Socialism on the ground that the parliamentary system was still working well enough to perform its proper function of an antiseptic against class war ; rejected Fascism as an incoherent caricature of Socialism’s worst features ; and stood by the democratic tradition.

Collingwood goes on to describe being in Spain in 1930–1 and seeing none of the violence of revolution that British newspapers were reporting. When the military rebellion comes in a few years, Collingwood concludes (with reason) that the British National government are in support of the rebels. He continues on pages 163–7.

Why were they so anxious for the rebels’ success? Not because of ‘the Communist menace’, for although my old friend the Daily Mail, a keen supporter of the ‘National’ government, and now as ever a keen worker in the cause of corrupting the public mind, habitually referred to the Spanish government as ‘Red’, that is, Communist, the government knew as well as the Daily Mail did that republican Spain was not a Communist state but a parliamentary democracy, and that Señor Negrin’s cabinet, for example, contained only one solitary communist, who was included after his party had joined in the general declaration of loyalty to democratic principles. The Spanish civil war was a straight fight between Fascist dictatorship and parliamentary democracy. The British government, behind all its disguises, [164] had declared itself a partisan of Fascist dictatorship.

At the beginning of 1938, when this became clear to me, I formed no opinion as to how far individual members of that government knew what they were doing. Fascism, I repeat, is a muddle-headed business. I found it easy to believe that the ‘National’ government’s policy of truckling to the Fascist powers, and of refusing to tell the country what they were doing, need not have arisen from that government’s clear comprehension of its own aims, coupled with a clear understanding of their detestableness in the eyes of the country, and resulting in a clear decision that the country must be deceived. It might arise from imbecility of will and weakness of intellect, combined with certain sneaking admirations and certain unexamined timidities, a defective sense of responsibility, and a feeble and sometimes inoperative regard for the truth. If any one in 1937, or even early in 1938, had said to the prime minister, with a reminiscence of Dr. Johnson’s repartee to the Thames waterman, ‘Sir, your government, under pretence of inability to defend the national interests, is conducting a Fascist revolution’, I dare say the prime minister would have denied the charge with all the sincerity that he possesses.

The events of 1938 taught me nothing about the ‘National’ government that I did not know already. I began the year in the expectation of two developments : an open clash between the prime minister and the principles of parliamentary government, and a [165] more flagrant repetition, somewhere else, of the Spanish formula : aggression by a Fascist state, rendered successfuI by support from the British government under cover of a war-scare engineered by that government itself among the British people.

The first expectation was realized in the early summer, when in open defiance of the rules of parliamentary privilege a concerted attempt was made by members of the cabinet to suppress parliamentary criticism of the government’s already notorious inefficiency in carrying out the rearmament programme, by threats of prosecution under the Official Secrets Act against Mr. Duncan Sandys, the member of parliament who had dared to criticize. The matter was discreetly hushed up in the government newspapers ; but every one who had access to the facts knew that it meant war between a Fascist cabinet and the parliamentary constitution of the country it was ruling.

The second expectation was realized during the Czechoslovakia crisis in September, when the British prime minister flew successively to Berchtesgaden, Godesberg, and Munich, returning every time with orders in his pocket from the German dictator in obedience to which he changed the country’s policy behind the back of parliament, and even of the cabinet.

To me, therefore, the betrayal of Czechoslovakia was only a third case of the same policy by which the ‘National’ government had betrayed Abyssinia and Spain ; and I was less interested in the fact itself than in the methods by which it was accomplished : the [166] carefully engineered war-scare in the country at large, officially launched by the simultaneous issue of gas-masks and of the prime minister’s emotional broadcast, two days before his flight to Munich, and the carefully staged hysterical scene in parliament on the following night. These things were in the established tradition of Fascist dictatorial methods ; except that whereas the Italian and German dictators sway mobs by appeal to the thirst for glory and national aggrandizement, the English prime minister did it by playing on sheer, stark terror.

He gained his point. At the time of writing, England has not formally bidden farewell to its parliamentary institutions ; it has only permitted them to become inoperative. It has not renounced its faith in political liberty ; it has only thrown away the thing in which it still professes to believe. It has not given away its Empire ; it has only handed over the control of that Empire’s communications to a jealous and grasping power. It has not ceased to have a voice in European affairs ; it has only used that voice to further the ends of another power even more jealous and even more grasping.

This has been done not by the wish of the country, or of any considerable section in the country, but because the country has been tricked. To recall what I said on pp. 48–9, the forces which have been at work for nearly half a century corrupting the public mind, producing in it by degrees a willingness to forgo that full, prompt, and accurate information on matters of public importance which is the indispensable nourish- [167] hent of a democratic society, and a disinclination to make decisions on such matters in the public-spirited frame of mind which is a democratic society’s lifeblood, have ‘trained up a generation of Englishmen and Englishwomen’ to be the dupes of a politician who has so successfully ‘appealed to their emotions’ by ‘promises of private gain’ (the gain of personal safety from the horrors of war) that they have allowed him to sacrifice their country’s interests, throw away its prestige, and blacken its name in the face of the world, in order that he should glare out from his photographs with the well-known hypnotic eyes of a dictator. It is not the business of this autobiography to ask how completely the country has in fact been deceived, or how long the present degree of deception will last. I am not writing an account of recent political events in England : I am writing a description of the way in which those events impinged upon myself and broke up my pose of a detached professional thinker. I know now that the minute philosophers of my youth, for all their profession of a purely scientific detachment from practical affairs, were the propagandists of a coming Fascism. I know that Fascism means the end of clear thinking and the triumph of irrationalism. I know that all my life I have been engaged unawares in a political struggle, fighting against these things in the dark. Henceforth I shall fight in the daylight.

The reference to pages 48–9 concerns the so-called Realist philosophers, and to have them explained in Collingwood’s own words, I go back even to page 47, where Collingwood has been saying that the Realist program ends up as a rejection of any positive doctrine.

Among the first of these consequences was the attack on moral philosophy. Moral philosophy, from the days of Socrates down to our own lifetime, had been regarded as an attempt to think out more clearly the issues involved in conduct, for the sake of acting better. In 1912 Prichard announced that moral philosophy as so understood was based on a mistake, and advocated a new kind of moral philosophy, purely theoretical, in which the workings of the moral consciousness should be scientifically studied as if they were the movements of the planets, and no attempt made to interfere with them. And Bertrand Russell at Cambridge proposed in the same spirit, and on grounds whose difference was only superficial, the extrusion of ethics from the body of philosophy.

The ‘realist’ philosophers who adopted this new programme were all, or nearly all, teachers of young men and young women. Their pupils, with habits and characters yet unformed, stood on the threshold of life ; many of them on the threshold of public life. Half a century earlier, young people in that position had been told that by thinking about what they were doing, or were about to do, they would become likely on the whole to do it better ; and that some understanding of the nature of moral or political action, some attempt to formulate ideals and principles, was an indispensable condition of engaging creditably in these activities themselves. And their teachers, when introducing them to the study of moral and political theory, would say to them, whether in words or not—the most important things that one says are often not [48] said in words—‘Take this subject seriously, because whether you understand it or not will make a difference to your whole lives’. The ‘realist’, on the contrary, said to his pupils, ‘If it interests you to study this, do so ; but don’t think it will be of any use to you. Remember the great principle of realism, that nothing is affected by being known. That is as true of human action as of anything else. Moral philosophy is only the theory of moral action : it can’t therefore make any difference to the practice of moral action. People can act just as morally without it as with it. I stand here as a moral philosopher ; I will try to tell you what acting morally is, but don’t expect me to tell you how to do it.’

At the moment, I am not concerned with the sophisms underlying this programme, but with its consequences. The pupils, whether or not they expected a philosophy that should give them, as that of Green’s school had given their fathers, ideals to live for and principles to live by, did not get it ; and were told that no philosopher (except of course a bogus philosopher) would even try to give it. The inference which any pupil could draw for himself was that for guidance in the problems of life, since one must not seek it from thinkers or from thinking, from ideals or from principles, one must look to people who were not thinkers (but fools), to processes that were not thinking (but passion), to aims that were not ideals (but caprices), and to rules that were not principles (but rules of expediency). If the realists had wanted to train up a generation of Englishmen [49] and Englishwomen expressly as the potential dupes of every adventurer in morals or politics, commerce or religion, who should appeal to their emotions and promise them private gains which he neither could procure them nor even meant to procure them, no better way of doing it could have been discovered.

The result of all this might have been even worse than it has been, but for the fact that the ‘realists’ discredited themselves with their pupils before their lessons could take effect. This self-stultification was a gradual and piecemeal business. Not only did they jettison the entire body of traditional ethics ; as soon as they began work on their new brand of moral theory, whatever doctrine concerning moral action was tested, to show whether it was fit to form part of that theory, was found wanting. Another traditional philosophical science which was thrown bodily overboard was the theory of knowledge ; for although ‘realism’ began by defining itself as a theory of knowledge pure and simple, its votaries before long discovered that a theory of knowledge was a contradiction in terms. Another was political theory ; this they destroyed by denying the conception of a ‘common good’, the fundamental idea of all social life, and insisting that all ‘goods’ were private. In this process, by which anything that could be recognized as a philosophical doctrine was stuck up and shot to pieces by the ‘realistic’ criticism, the ‘realists’ little by little destroyed everything in the way of positive doctrine that they had ever possessed. Once more, I am concerned only with the effect on their pupils. It was [50] (how could it not have been?) to convince them that philosophy was a silly and trifling game, and to give them a lifelong contempt for the subject and a lifelong grudge against the men who had wasted their time by forcing it upon their attention.

Collingwood’s fight against Fascism continued in New Leviathan, which I have been working my through on this blog since January 2014.

For the record, I note the editing required for the excerpts of Collingwood’s Autobiography:

  1. insert page numbers between the cut and pasted pages,
  2. insert paragraph breaks,
  3. reunite the words broken between lines,
  4. render quotation marks directional as in the original text,
  5. supply italics (needed only for the Daily Mail), and
  6. correct errors in the OCR digitization—which in particular puts either a full space or no space before a colon or semicolon; I put a thin space, like Collingwood’s typographer.

I have not compared the electronic text line by line with the print; I have only tried to read it, both as a copy-editor and as somebody familiar with the print edition.

The first two images are from a site that seems to have all in the Cruisin’ series. I know the Cruisin’ albums only from their appearance in the Album Cover Album (Surrey, UK: Dragon’s World, 1977), as shown in the third and last images, taken by me.

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