Fascism—America’s DNA

Chris Hedges’ Interview with Philosopher Gabriel Rockhill

December 2020


Chris Hedges (CH): Welcome to On Contact. Today we discuss how fascism is embedded within our society, and has always been embedded in our society, with the author Gabriel Rockhill.

During World War II, my mentor at Harvard Divinity School, the theologian James Luther Adams, who was bilingual in German and lived and studied in Germany in 1935 and 1936, was asked to give a lecture to US army officers preparing for service in occupied Germany following the war. Professor Adams dryly listed the central tenets of the Nazis’ racist ideology. He then asked the white officers if there was any difference between their racial attitude towards blacks, and the Nazis’ racial attitude towards Jews. He observed that there were not. How, he asked the officers, could they therefore distinguish themselves from fascists? Adams understood the strong undercurrents of fascism that are part of America’s DNA. Rather than defeating fascism in World War II, Gabriel Rockhill writes that the United States internationalized it. Professor Rockhill joins me to discuss the nature of fascism in our corporate state. He is a Franco-American philosopher and the founding director of the Critical Theory Workshop, and professor of philosophy at Villanova University. His books include (1) Counter History of the Present: Untimely Interrogations into Globalization, Technology, Democracy, (2) Interventions in Contemporary Thought: History, Politics, Aesthetics, (3) Radical History and The Politics of Art, and (4) Logique de l’Histoire. So let’s begin with how we define fascism. [The book] Male Fantasies defines it as, in essence, an emotional state, but before we talk about its undercurrents which have always existed in American society, let’s talk about what it is.

Gabriel Rockhill (GR): So fascism is often defined in terms of what we could call it’s superstructural aspects, meaning the ways in which it mobilizes a particular ideology that is driven by militarism, ultra-nationalism, that’s rooted in an ethnic base. White supremacy is often a part of it, but I think it’s important to recognize that those superstructural components are ultimately rooted in deep material relations of capitalist accumulation and so if we speak specifically about inter-war fascism in Europe and how it rose to power, it’s integral to recognize that this was at a moment in time at which the capitalist world system was coming into crisis. Of course that full crisis would occur with the Great Depression, and this was also at a moment in time on the heels of the first successful workers revolution in the Soviet Union. And so some of the central driving forces beneath the superstructural or ideological aspects of fascism that we need to discuss and bring to the fore are the desires to do two things. One is to impose, maintain and intensify capitalist social relations. And the other is to beat back the threat of workers organizations, and, more specifically, communism and socialism.

CH: And there’s an uneasy alliance often between the business elites and the self-identified fascists, in the case of the Nazis, or, I would argue, the kind of Christian fascists in the United States. It’s not the state capitalism that was imposed by the Soviet Union. It has a different relationship with capital, sometimes an uneasy relationship with capital. Can you speak about that alliance?

GR: The global ruling class… If we talk just specifically about the emergence of European fascism and what some people refer to as a classical model of fascism… So in Italy and Germany the global capitalist class and more specifically the US capitalist class—Ford, General Motors, Rockefeller etc.—bankrolled the rise, particularly in Nazi Germany, and the reason for that was at least twofold. One was that Germany, in the wake of World War I, was seen as a viable site of investment for re-armament and particularly for big industries. So big capital invested massively in Germany. In fact, it was one of the central sites of American foreign investment in Europe at that point in time.

At the same time, there was an interest on the part of the capitalist ruling class to crush workers’ organizations and to make sure that there weren’t picket lines, strikes or an organized workforce that was causing them problems in the negotiations between big capital and labor. In that regard, the Nazis’ rise to power, as well as the Italian rise of fascism that started prior to the Nazis, was funded by big capital, and there’s excellent work both in Europe and in the United States [on this topic].

As they came into power, they worked through liberal parliamentary democracy, of bourgeois democracy. A very important part of this history, is that liberalism and parliamentarianism was not a bulwark against the rise of fascism. On the contrary, it provided for a framework within which the fascists could rise to power bankrolled by big capital. So we have bourgeois democracy much like what we have in this country where big money wins out. Once in power, though, you’re absolutely right that in the case of Italy it was a little slower. In the case of Germany, it was quicker, but there was a shift from a fascist mobilization of certain sectors of civil society in particular—the petty bourgeoisie—to a more authoritarian, state-driven form of consolidated top-down power, and what the investor class of big capital was interested in having happen, particularly in the case of Nazi Germany because its power far exceeded that of Italy, was to destroy the real threat which was the Soviet Union, and to partake in a colonial rampage to the east that was mirrored on, quite explicitly, the colonial rampage of the United States to the west and the western frontier.

One of the complications—and I take it that this is what you’re alluding to—is that it was very hard once Hitler, in particular, but Mussolini as well, had really consolidated their power in the state apparatus, for big capital to make all of the decisions regarding the particular policies that were being implemented. So one way of understanding what happened was that big capital backed this project for very explicit reasons, and then it kind of ran amok, and got a little bit out of control.

So one of the big questions was how they could save their investments and nonetheless shut down, or allow, I should say, the Nazi war machine, in particular, to be shut down because ultimately it was the Red Army that was at the core of the defeat of Nazism, not the US intervention which was very small in comparison to what the Soviets were doing. It’s at that point in time, when it was clear the Soviets were marching westward that there was an endeavor on the part of the US in particular, the US national security state—the OSS that became the CIA—to protect assets and to make sure that the business investments of big capital, particularly American big capital, but more generally international big capital, were protected. So of course there were no corporate prosecutions in the wake of World War II. A lot of the assets and the investments were protected by the national security state, as well as a lot of the Nazis that they worked very closely with.

CH: Before I ask you about the protean nature of fascism and how, as you argue in your writings, it did not disappear with the end of World War II—in fact, it was enveloped by the United States or certainly large sectors of the ruling elites, the military-industrial complex—let’s talk about fascism within the United States. Robert Paxton, in his book Anatomy of Fascism, argues, for instance, the Ku Klux Klan was America’s most authentically fascist movement, and that movements that can be described as fascist predate World War II and go up to the present. Can you talk about that undercurrent of movements that we would describe as fascist within America? And then we’ll talk about what happened after World War II.

GR: Yes, that’s absolutely essential because fascism emerged first and foremost as a set of movements, and it was only later that it was conceptualized and eventually made into a doctrine, even in the case of Italy where, of course, the term first appeared. But if we look at the movements themselves and don’t get hung up on when it was labeled and how it was labeled, it’s obvious that the structural similarities between what was going on in Europe in the interwar period and what was going on in the United States, not only in interwar period but of course before that, not only resembles fascism but many recognized it as fascism once the term itself was minted, so to speak.

So in the case of the United States it’s important to recognize that when the US entered World War I, the idea was, according to Woodrow Wilson, that we would fight a war to make the world safe for democracy, but he specified that what that meant was to “keep the white race strong,” and to preserve “white civilization and its domination of the planet.” So within this context, of course, you have the US white supremacy that dates back to the deep history of the settler colony but that really also took off in the interwar period and was recognized directly by the Nazis as the best model for racial apartheid and racial statecraft, and they studied the American examples for precisely this reason. Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that there was one model of a state that had developed the aspects of racist statecraft that needed to be taken to their next level in the Nazi Third Reich and that was the United States.

So in the case of organizations like the Ku Klux Klan we have five million vigilantes who orchestrated parastate violence that was racist, white supremacist, pro-Christian, pro-capitalist, and it was allowed to act with impunity. So it’s a very good example of precisely the structural mechanisms that were operative within the case of interwar fascism or the rise of fascism within the European case. In fact, so much so that when Italian fascism first came on the international scene, there were many articles in the US press that recognized that fascism in Europe was the European model of the Ku Klux Klan.

Moreover, it’s not just the clan. There were a whole series of other vigilante organizations, fascist organizations, explicitly Nazi organizations, as well as corporate-backed vigilante forms of violence that were put in place in order to protect the rule of big capital. I’ll just highlight two examples in that regard. One is the role of the American Legion. We shouldn’t forget one of the commanders is on record as saying “the fascists are to Italy what the American Legion is to the United States,” and the American Legion was, of course, involved in the 1934 attempt to orchestrate a fascist coup within the United States. This example is extremely important, but it’s also significant that just as in the cases in Italy and Germany, fascism operates largely from parastate violence, or violence that is outsourced to civil society in various ways, but it also mobilizes the state.

Published by the Critical Theory Workshop

In the interwar period we should not forget about the Palmer Raids and the ways in which in 1919 and 1920, the general intelligence division of the US justice department orchestrated raids in more than thirty US cities, arresting between five and ten thousand anti-capitalist activists. You had an enormous crackdown both on the part of the state, these parastate forms of vigilante violence, that was not only parallel to what was going on in Europe but was largely recognized as feeding into and a model for a lot of what developed there.

CH: When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation about the nature of fascism in our corporate state with professor Gabrielle Rockhill… Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about fascism in our corporate state with professor Gabriel Rockhill. So let’s talk about what happened after the war. And it wasn’t just Verner von Braun and the 200 Nazi scientists who came over to work for the defense industry and on the space program. There was a huge incorporation of some of the worst war criminals in the Nazi intelligence apparatus who were fused into the American intelligence apparatus. So on the one hand you had public denunciations of fascism, but internally, within the structures of power, there was an embrace, not only of fervent fascists, but, I think you would argue, the ideology of fascism itself.

GR: Absolutely. One of the things that’s important to recognize is that a lot of the history that we’ve been given regarding World War II and its consequences is an ideological history that also focuses on visible government or what was going on above board, meaning in the political theater that the capitalist state presents through the corporate media that it controls. But the invisible government, meaning the US national security state—which was really formed in its basic architecture in World War II with the OSS that then would become the CIA—this invisible government worked very closely to ensure that the Nazis and fascists, who had been recognized prior to World War II as great allies—because they were anti-communists and they were very good at organizing militarily to crush workers’ movements—and this is not only communism but various forms of socialism, anarchism, any progressive movement really that’s driven by popular power—and so already during World War II, one of the important parts of this history is that Alan Dulles, who was in Switzerland at the time with the OSS and would later become the head of the CIA, was working to try to broker a peace agreement with the Nazis so that the Nazis would sign an agreement with the West, with the United States, and they could unleash the full force of the Nazi war machine against the Soviets.

He wasn’t able to successfully broker that, but as the war began to draw to a close, he then—with others who would become major architects in the national security state, like James Angleton who was working in Italy—undertook Operation Sunrise. Operation Sunrise was an endeavor to repurpose the Nazis and fascists for doing what they’re best at, and what they were doing prior to World War II (and the reason they were supported prior to World War II) and that was fighting communists. So there’s a number of examples of this. You’ve already alluded to the scientists that were brought into the United States through Operation Paperclip. It is important to note that there were 1,600 scientists who were referred to as “Hitler’s angels of death” that were brought in. They were given laboratories. They were given housing. Their families could come. They were promised citizenship if their work bore fruit. Bearing fruit meant developing, as they did, chemical weapons, biological weapons that could then be used by the US empire in its post-war global hegemony. But this is, of course, only part of the story.

There are also the intelligence services within Germany and Italy that were then repurposed. The case of Germany is quite flagrant because Reinhardt Galen was the head of German intelligence under the Nazi Third Reich that was directed against the Soviet Union, and in the post-war period, the CIC, which worked for the army, was an intelligence branch of the army, and then eventually the CIA, so the US national security state, undertook an examination of Galen and his organization, and decided that the best thing to do with him, instead of incarcerating him, bringing him up on charges at Nuremberg or other such things, was to repurpose him as the head of the intelligence service in Germany, and he worked very closely with the US national security state. It’s estimated that his organization, the Galen organization, rounded up some 4,000 Nazi agents to work within Germany, and this became actually the core of the contemporary German intelligence service.

The same thing went on in Italy. Also, for any of the Nazis and fascists that the US national security state wanted to work with, that they couldn’t maintain in Europe, they established rat lines. Rat lines are basically forms of exfiltration—ways to get Nazis and fascists from Europe to other parts of the world where they could be used productively in the CIA’s international war against socialism and communism. There are thousands, if not tens of thousands, that were allowed to go to Latin America. There were in fact 10,000 Nazis that were allowed to immigrate into the United States in the post-war period. All of this history, I think, is important for understanding…

There’s actually one other aspect that I’d like to touch on and that is the network of stay-behind armies in Europe. The stay-behind armies were set up in all NATO countries in the wake of World War II by the US national security state. The idea was that the US should hire fascists, Nazis and collaborators in sub-rosa organizations—clandestine organizations that were militant terrorist organizations that would be able, if the Russians moved westward, to function as a stay-behind army, behind enemy lines, and then undertake acts of terror, exfiltration, sabotage and other such things. These armies were actually mobilized very explicitly in the 1960s, and following, in what’s referred to as the strategy of tension in which there were a series of terror attacks across Italy, Germany and Belgium that were blamed on the hard left and in particular on the communists but were actually overseen by the stay-behind armies that were funded by the CIA and overseen by the CIA and the MI6, which is, of course, the British version of the CIA, with NATO backing and intelligence backing.

When you put all of these pieces together—and there are a few others as well—what you see is not a defeat of fascism in the post-war era but rather an internationalization of European fascism under the liberal cover of the United States’ pseudo-democracy, and that internationalization really set up the architecture for global politics in the post-war era.

CH: I used to live in Cochabamba, Bolivia. I studied Spanish there when Klaus Barbie lived there. I saw him on the prado with his bodyguards—the butcher of Lyon, the man who killed Jean Moulin. Certainly during the Garcia Mesa coup in Bolivia he was running the intelligence operation, so that was just a small example. He was eventually extradited to France when the Bolivian government became a democracy. I want to ask about where we are now. You have these undercurrents which you’ve just described, not only ideologically but also structurally which remain in place. Now we are facing the kind of social inequality that we saw in the 1930s—the severance of large sectors of the population into what we call Trumpism but certainly a non-reality-based universe, filled with rage and focusing on scapegoats. I think it should always be said that racism, anti-Semitism—these are irrational. I find historians who go back and ask questions about why Hitler was anti-Semitic. Was it because his mother was treated by a Jewish doctor and died? [They are] ridiculous because this is not a rational belief system, and if you come at it purely from a Cartesian point of view, you won’t understand it. We’re seeing a very similar period and I always remember Fritz Stern, the great historian telling me… He was a refugee from Nazi Germany, left when he was eighteen, taught at Columbia University. He said that in Weimar Germany there was a yearning for fascism before the word fascism was invented, and I think we’re seeing that yearning today. I want you to talk about the fact that fascist ideology, and structures that have embraced fascism, remain within the country and what that means for the current crisis, certainly within the United States, but we’re seeing it in Hungary and other places as well.

GR: Yeah, that’s an excellent question and so important for the contemporary moment. I would say two things. The first is that it is very important to resist what I refer to as the one-state, one-government paradigm, meaning the idea that if the corporate media tells us that we’re living in a liberal democracy, then that is the last word and that liberal democracy oversees the entirety of the population, meaning that we all have rights, there’s a state that’s going to protect them, and other such things. Against this I put forth a kind of multiple-modes-of-governance model, and this is a recognition that there are different sectors of the population that are governed differently, based on the particular needs of capitalist social relations. If fascists aren’t directly in power and don’t have state power consolidated, this does not mean in the least that there aren’t fascist movements—on the contrary. So the analysis of fascism has to be expanded beyond the state apparatus, and we need to recognize that even in the interwar period that we were just talking about, there were fascist movements in all capitalist states in the wake of the Great Depression.

Secondly, just highlighting and coming back to some of the things that you pointed out, there are a lot of remarkable structural similarities between the interwar period one hundred years ago and what we’re living through now. We have a severe economic crisis that rivals if not surpasses the Great Depression. We have an enormous political crisis in which the legitimacy of so-called representative democracies, after forty to fifty years of neoliberalism, is withering away and people see through it very clearly. If they don’t see through it ideologically, they see through it materially, meaning that they recognize that they don’t have access to affordable health care, affordable education, affordable housing and everything else that was at least part of the welfare state, which is not to make the welfare state into an ideal but is to recognize that one of the things that neoliberal capitalism has done is to slowly but surely wither away the social protections that were guaranteed under the welfare state.

What this means is that the general population is facing a situation in which there’s a crisis in global capitalism, a severe one, that’s combined with a crisis of political legitimacy and we can add to that, of course, a social crisis of extreme sorts as we’ve seen with the racist police violence that is going on unabated within the United States. We have a global health crisis on our hands. All of that is calling into question the political viability of the pseudo-democracies that have tried to establish some form of hegemonic rule within the capitalist world. What I mean by hegemonic rule is rule by consensus. If the material basis for affordable health care, affordable education, other such things—survival wages and things like this—are maintained, then some people will have the material basis by which to give their consent to the government, but given the withering away of that material basis, there is more and more a crisis of these modes of governance and in response to that, there are different reactions. What we see—I couldn’t agree more—is a radical polarization. So globally there’s been a very clear rise in authoritarian fascist modes of governance. There are a million examples that I’m sure all of your listeners and viewers are familiar with, and a lot of that is a response on the part of international capital to the crisis of capitalism and the need to shore it up. One way of shoring it up is through militarized accumulation, through investing in forms of repressive violence that are simultaneously forms of capitalist accumulation that are very profitable, and they serve to quell the social unrest that is inevitable when people don’t have the material basis by which to survive.

At the same time, on the hopeful front, there are very resurgent, I would say youth-driven, proletarian-driven, working-class movements in the United States. It’s very clear, as we’ve seen, across the summer and into the fall that there is a sense that, if it be the Democratic Party or even the Sanders campaign, there’s a lot of political organizing in movements, parties, organizations etc. that are to the left of the consolidated consensus of these neo-liberal parties, if they be Democratic or Republican. So in that regard, the battle of the 21st century is very much emerging as emergent, or re-emergent forms of fascism confronted with social movements from below that are gaining power. At the same time, maybe the last thing that I would say is that when fascism rose to power in the interwar period, it was also largely in response to the Soviet Union and to the communist states. In the current global situation, the dynamic is obviously very, very different. So one thing that’s important for progressives to recognize is that we have to build power quickly. We have to consolidate organizations. We have to work through party mechanisms because that’s the only real way of defeating fascism.

CH: Thank you very much. That was professor Gabriel Rockhill, director of the Critical Theory Workshop and professor of philosophy at Villanova University.