European fascism & Australian liberal-conservatism

The Oslo murders recall an older Europe: an act of fascist terror committed against supporters of a left-wing political party, indeed because of the killers concern with government policy he was more likely to attack supporters of a moderate left party because he saw it as having an impact on politics. The well-developed Norwegian left of Labour parties would not be a target. I wonder also if Labour is more attractive to ethnic minorities with their pragmatic focus on services than are the further left parties. It is correct to characterize the Norway killer him as a fascist, attempts to describe him as a fundamentalist Christian are misleading, as Paul Woodward notes;

Anders Behring Breivik, the 32-year-old Norwegian man widely assumed to be responsible for the mass murder that took place in Oslo yesterday, is being referred to as a Christian fundamentalist in many press reports. His comments appearing on the political website suggest however that this is a rather misleading description. His views, as revealed there, are ideological rather than religious with his preeminent focus being his opposition to multiculturalism…Breivik, who probably sees himself as one of SIOE’s “freedom fighters,” describes himself as a cultural conservative and anti-Marxist liberal. In his comments at, he says little about his religious beliefs and seems to see his Christian identity primarily as a cultural identity.

One reason for the triumph of European fascism in the 1930s was the support it received from mainstream conservatives. As Michael Mann and Robert Paxton have argued. Many conservatives distrusted fascist demagogy and crudity and were suspicious of the anti-capitalist rhetoric often engaged in by fascists. However they shared fascism’s nationalism and fear of organised labour. It is important to note that many mainstream conservatives in 1920s Europe defined themselves as inheritors of a liberal tradition and in France even a Republican one. This is a significant point, just because someone calls themselves a ‘liberal’ or a ‘libertarian’ does not mean that they actually are one. In recent years Australian political historians have stressed the importance of ‘free trade liberalism’. However they have given little attention to the face that free trade liberalism as a political force was a strongly conservative one. Bruce Smith, often cited as an inspiration for contemporary ‘classical liberals’ ended his 1887 Liberty and Liberalism with a threat of armed resistance to democratic excess.

More broadly the revival of fascist ideologies should encourage us to reflect on the dynamics of fascism’s rise to power. It was the political left and the labour movement that defended democracy against fascism ‘classical liberals’ were nowhere to be seen. The major classic liberal analysis of the interwar European catastrophe is Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. Yet Hayek’s argument is that fascism was simply a manifestation of statist and illiberal ideas that had infected European culture. There is no doubt that Hayek was a sincere liberal but his analysis has dangerous political consequences. It implies that liberals should have been indifferent between social democrats and fascists. The issue has been further considered in relation to the relation between Hayek and Schmitt. As William Scheuerman (extracted here) has argued Hayek’s critique of democracy echoes that of Carl Schmitt. The example of Schmitt is noteworthy as a staunch Catholic he disliked the Nazis but to him the challenge of Nazism should be meet not by a defence of democracy but a reconfiguration of Weimar in a radically antidemocratic direction. Yet his elite liberal-conservatism lacked any significant base. As the question became (social) democracy vs. fascism Schmitt, like his fellow Catholic conservative Franz von Papen knew on which side he stood.

In real world politics the electoral and financial basis of right-wing liberalism was drawn from constituencies deeply vulnerable to the appeal of fascism. We can see this approach echoed by many contemporary conservatives or alleged libertarians who briefly and hastily disassociate themselves from the radical right but devote most of their time to criticising those on the left who criticise the radical right.

In Australia the great exponent of 1930s European conservatism was B A Santamaria. References to his legacy have become popular on the right. For Tony Abbott evoking Santamaria’s legacy is little more than just another example of his talent for annoyance but Santamaria means more to the radical right. Yet as far as I am aware Santamaria never reflected on how 1930s European conservatism ended. The fascist experience empowered those on the European right who had argued for support of democracy. The post-war European right was radically different from that between the wars. Post-war European political Catholicism was Christian Democratic. Australia had pioneered Christian democratic politics through the involvement of Catholics with the ALP but Santamaria set himself against this tradition.

In the Australian case fear of Islam has become a major platform of the far right. In particular it has been taken up by the Christian Democratic Party. Once conservative Catholics dissented from the ethno-cultural nationalism of the established right, the DLP was a staunch critics of the White Australia Policy, now however fear of Islam has completed the reconciliation of Catholic conservatism and the traditional right. Curiously the CDP has received very little political attention compared to One Nation. This is probably because most journalists regard it as an archaic anti-permissiveness organisation. It will be interesting to see what position the revived DLP adopts.


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