Much has been made recently about fascism in wake of Donald Trump’s ascendency to the position as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. Even noted scholars of fascism, such as Robert Paxton, have weighed in on the discussion of whether or not Trump is a fascist, as well as if the movement coalescing around him is “authentically” fascist. The problem with the analysis put forward by Paxton, which is that Trump and his movement don’t provide neat historical parallels to Mussolini and Hitler’s movements, is that it ignores a key component of fascism, namely its mailability and fundamentally pragmatic political character.
Pragmatism, like fascism, is often a slippery term to grasp. In the American context, the reason for this is twofold. In everyday political speak, pragmatism is meant as a descriptor for those select politicians that are able to find the “middle ground”, or those who forego grand ideological schemes and visions to pursue the policy of only doing “whatever works”, regardless of politics. Pragmatism, as a philosophy, has a different meaning than our everyday usage of the term as a label bestowed on those select politicians that can “see above the fray of politics”. In the philosophical tradition, pragmatism occupies the unique place of being, outside of Jeffersonian political philosophy, one of the few major American philosophical exports.
In the simplest terms, pragmatism holds that truth is created by its usefulness. A philosophical pragmatist claims that the theories which prove most useful are also the most true. Due to pragmatism’s instance that it is not truly possible to know the laws which govern society and nature, beliefs and practice are reduced to the effects they produce, rather than the objective truth of their claims. What produces a desired effect and seems to work in practice is a posteriori desirable. This philosophy was created by Charles Sanders Pierce, an American chemist, mathematician, and philosopher, in the 19th century. While Pierce is recognized as the founder of pragmatism, it was William James that spread the philosophy into the public consciousness through his popular writings. In James’ What Pragmatism Means, the pragmatist is one who “…turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power.”1
It is this position of pragmatist philosophy, namely its insistence on action and power being the sole determiners of truth, that provides a basis for an American fascism. The scholars of the past century who have studied fascism, Robert Paxton chief among them, have noted fascism’s opposition to lofty theories and precise political programs. In their place the fascists have fetishized “action for action’s sake”, as noted by the conservative psycho-historian Robert G. L. Waite in his study of the origins of German fascism, Vanguard of Nazism. This exaltation of action above all else lies at the historical and philosophical roots of Italian fascism. In Benito Mussolini’s Doctrine of Fascism he described his pre-World War I political experience as “…that of both a follower and a leader but it was not doctrinal experience. My doctrine during that period had been the doctrine of action.”2 To the historical Italian fascists action was higher than doctrine, action was truth. Mussolini, in recounting the years before the fascist March on Rome stated that “the need of action forbade delay and careful doctrinal elaborations. Fighting was going on in the towns and villages. There were discussions but… there was something more sacred and more important… death… Fascists knew how to die. A doctrine – fully elaborated, divided up into chapters and paragraphs with annotations, may have been lacking, but it was replaced by something far more decisive, by a faith.”3
Fascism’s rise in Europe mirrored the rise of pragmatist philosophy into mainstream American discourse in the early 20th century. In 1904, in a speech to the Universal Peace Congress, James expressed his uneasiness at the prevailing idea that war, and the possibility for war, were being gradually eliminated. According to him life would lose all “zest” and “interest”, and a “deadly listlessness” would come over humanity, in the event that people merely believed that war could be done away with, simply because “the plain truth is that people want war”. Of course it was no coincidence that James’ pragmatism provided the ideological underpinnings for a rising American imperialist bourgeoisie that would in a few short years unleash all the horrors of war on the battlefields of Europe.
Speaking in terms that a few decades later would be the stock and trade of fascists, in that same speech James expressed his belief that a country which turned its arms only against an “uncivilized” country was wrongly criticized as being “degenerate”, but a country that wages war on a “civilized” country commits a crime against civilization. In this sense, pragmatism’s role as a philosophy for cheerleading imperialist wars is laid bare. In our era, Trump’s call for widespread military intervention and occupation in the “uncivilized” parts of the world, with the Middle East being the prime target, provides a perfectly Jamesian justification for imperial action and expansion.
Similarly, Trump’s characterization of immigrants, which in Trumpite rhetoric are part of the “uncivilized hordes”, as rapists, murders, and thieves creates the firm dichotomy of the “civilized” empire pit against the “uncivilized” Other. In Trump’s world there would be no shortage of a Jamesian “zest” and “interest”. Trump’s followers can partake in this “zest”, as they already have begun to do, whether by punching peaceful protesters or forming armed militias to violently suppress opposition and to protect their leader.
The connections between pragmatism and fascism are not merely of a philosophical nature, they are also personal. Giovanni Papini, an Italian pragmatist theorist that worked closely with James, would become an Italian futurist, a committed fascist, and dedicate his History of Italian Literature to Mussolini. Mussolini himself remarked how James’ pragmatism laid the ground work for fascism. “The pragmatism of William James was of great use to me in my political career. James taught me that an action should be judged by its results rather than by its doctrinary basis. I learnt of James that faith in action, that ardent will to live and fight, to which Fascism owes a great part of its success.”4 By the 1930s John Dewey, then America’s leading pragmatist and political philosopher of a revived liberalism, expressed his desire for a corporatist framework similar to the Italian fascist model based on “a coordinating and directive council in which captains of industry and finance would meet with representatives of labor and public officials to plan the regulation of industrial activity…”5
In our era of Trump, an era in which pragmatist philosophy is still the normative basis of political reasoning, fascism rears its head again. Despite the historical specifics that Paxton claims are absent, namely a powerful political Left and a deep economic crisis, fascism on American shores is assuming a unique character that is poorly recognized and understood. With the swirling rhetoric of violence, racism, xenophobia, and ultra-nationalism that has been sold by Trump to a social base of angry, de-industrialized, and largely forgotten, segments of the white working-class for the purpose of reactionary violent political mobilization, this is a dangerous misstep. In their quest to find a quintessentially fascist political program, scholars of fascism have overlooked the fact that American fascism will lack a clear program, not only because fascism abhors doctrines other than “action” and “faith”, but because pragmatism, with its principle of “action as truth”, has long ago conquered American thought and politics.
Trump’s own political rise and his successive campaign is not based on any grand ideological narrative, or programatic exposition, in fact he disdains programs and ideology. Trump portrays himself as the quintessential pragmatist, one who is an outsider and “above the fray of politics”. A politician of a new breed that speaks the same language of doing “whatever works” and judging by the results, which in the case of Trump and his supporters means doing violence against women, people of color, immigrants, and those on the Left. But for Trump, an advocate for rapacious imperialist wars across the globe, the violence, both physical and rhetorical, mobilizes him and his movement, as only the best Jamesian pragmatist could do, towards action and power. For the pragmatist, as for the American fascist, the movement is everything, the final aim is nothing.
Trump’s program, if it can be properly called a program, is full of generalities and right- wing platitudes. It offers no substantive policy proposals. It is pure rhetoric to stoke the fires of reactionary segments of Americans. Yet, his movement grows because he is seen as a man of action, a politician that will lead the charge against, not only the “traitorous” conservative establishment that never delivered the prosperity and happiness that it promised, but to also strike back at the liberal “elites” who have sold out the country and who have deepened the neoliberal assault on the American working class. For this battle, no program or ideology except “action as the sole determiner of truth” can apply, because the only truth that can be found is in the act of revenge against those who betrayed the nation. Those who made America “not great” through their own actions.
While many scholars are trapped in rigid check-list like formulas of identifying fascist movements, our current situation demands that those of us on the Left go further in our analysis. While some scholars look for political pronouncements and programs that speak of a violent national “rebirth” and classic fascist iconography to identify fascism, the Left and marginalized and oppressed peoples cannot afford to be so apprehensive in our willingness to label a movement fascist. Lives and livelihoods are at stake. The only way to fight back is with a clear theory of what American fascism is, a mass mobilization of all progressive and revolutionary forces aimed against it, and a clear political program to disarm it.
- James, William. “What Pragmatism Means,” https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/us/james.htm. (Accessed April 17, 2016.)
- Mussolini, Benito. “The Doctrine Of Fascism.” http://www.worldfuturefund.org/wffmaster/Reading/Germany/mussolini.htm. (Accessed April 17, 2016).
- Interview with Mussolini in Sunday Times (London), April 11, 1926.
- Dewey, John. Individualism: Old and New (New York, 1962), 54.