How Theodor Adorno redefined Fascism.
Fascism and Nazism are both phenomena of the left. This makes ideological sense, because at their core they represent ideologies of the centralized, all-powerful state. Moreover, fascism grew out of Marxism, and fascism’s founder Benito Mussolini, was a Marxist and lifelong socialist. Hitler, too, was a socialist who headed the National Socialist Party and in fact changed the name of the German Workers Party to make it the National Socialist German Workers Party.
How, then, did progressives in America re-define fascism and Nazism as phenomena of the right? This sleight-of-hand occurred after World War II, once fascism and Nazism were discredited with the reputation of Holocaust. Then progressives recognized it was important to cover up the leftist roots of fascism and Nazism and to move them from the left-wing column into the right-wing column.
The man most responsible for the progressive redefinition of fascism is Theodor Adorno, a German Marxist intellectual and a member of the influential Institute for Social Research, otherwise known as the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt School scholars were leftists and most of them were refugees from Nazi Germany. Some settled in Europe; others like Adorno and Herbert Marcuse came to the United States.
Adorno’s influence in defining how fascism came to be understood in America cannot be underestimated. When he and Marcuse arrived, America had just waged war against the Nazis, and after the war Nazism became the very measure of political horror and evil. Not much was known about fascism and Nazism, outside of superficial newspaper and radio coverage. In academia and the media, there was an acknowledged curiosity about what had attracted so many people to fascism and Nazism, with its attendant anti-Semitism.
Marcuse and Adorno were Jewish, and so could be expected to know about anti-Semitism and the fate of the Jews. And they were refugees from the Nazis, so they could claim to be speaking about Nazism, as it were, “from the inside.” Their work was embraced by the American Jewish Committee, which naturally felt that these two German exiles would know precisely the nature of Nazism, fascism and anti-Semitism and how to overcome them. The two Frankfurt School scholars basically shaped what was considered anti-fascist education in the United States.
In reality, the American Jewish Committee had no idea that Adorno and Marcuse had their own agenda: not to fight fascism per se, but to promote Marxism and a leftist political agenda. Marxism and fascism are quite close; they are kindred collectivist ideologies of socialism. Their common enemy is, of course, free markets and the various institutions of the private sector, including the church and the traditional family. Marxism and fascism both sought to get rid of capitalism and remake the social order. So did Marcuse, Adorno and the Frankfurt School.
Adorno decided to repackage fascism as a form of capitalism and moral traditionalism. In effect, they reinvented fascism as a phenomenon of the political right. In this preposterous interpretation, fascism was remade into two things that real fascists despised: free markets and support for a traditional moral order. With a vengeance that appears only comic in retrospect, the Frankfurt School launched a massive program to uproot nascent fascism in the United States by making people less attached to the core economic and social institutions of American society.
The classic document in this regard is Adorno’s famous F-Scale. The F stands for fascism. Adorno outlined the scale in his 1950 book The Authoritarian Personality. The basic argument of the book was that fascism is a form of authoritarianism and that the worst manifestation of authoritarianism is self-imposed repression. Fascism develops early, Adorno argued, and we can locate it in young people’s attachments to religious superstition and conventional middle-class values about family, sex and society.
With a straight face, Adorno produced a list of questions aimed at detecting fascist affinities. “Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn.” “Homosexuality is a particularly rotten form of delinquency.” “No insult to our honor should ever go unpunished.” “No matter how they act on the surface, men are interested in women for only one reason.” Basically, a yes answer to these questions showed that you were a budding fascist.
The underlying logic of Adorno’s position was that German and Italian fascism were, at their core, characterized by internal psychological and sexual repression. A moment’s reflection, however, shows why this position is nonsense. By and large, the social attitudes toward religion, the family and sexuality were actually quite similar across these countries, allowing for some modest variation. One might speculatively argue that the Germans of the time were more uptight than, say, the French, but who would argue that the Italians were more repressed than, say, the English?
So Adorno’s F-scale had no power to explain why fascism established itself so powerfully and destructively in Germany and Italy but not elsewhere. Most real fascists, historian A. James Gregor dryly observes in The Ideology of Fascism, “would not have made notably high scores.” Now there is one question that would in fact have uncovered fascist affinities: Do you support increasing the power of the centralized state over individuals, families, churches and the private sector? Significantly, Adorno did not include this question on the F-scale, presumably because it would have brought enthusiastic yes responses from progressives and Democrats.
Given the patent absurdity of Adorno’s antifascism, with its obviously fraudulent and pseudo-scientific F-scale, why did the mainstream of American academia fall for it? Why did they go along with Adorno and proclaim his work the definitive basis for antifascist education? The short answer is that even then academia had a strong progressive tilt, and the progressives discovered the benefits of embracing Adorno’s thesis.
Here, after all, was a German Jewish scholar declaring fascism a phenomenon of the right. Clearly he was sticking fascism on conservatives who supported capitalism and affirmed religion and traditional families. This was a lie—real fascists detest those institutions and want to destroy them—but it was a politically convenient lie.
So the progressives delightedly climbed aboard the bandwagon and cheered him on, and the cheering continues. In 2005, for example, the progressive sociologist Alan Wolfe admitted flaws in Adorno’s work but praised The Authoritarian Personality as “more relevant now” because it “seems to capture the way many Christian-right politicians view the world.”
Adorno’s value to such people is that he empowers them to say, “Down with fascism! Now let’s get rid of conservatism and expose those evil people on the right.” And today Adorno’s deception enables the left to call Trump a fascist and Republicans the modern incarnation of the Nazi Party. Only by understanding this big lie can we inoculate ourselves against it and correctly locate fascism and Nazism where they have always belonged—on the political left.
Dinesh D’Souza’s new book The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left is published by Regnery.