Fascism Can Happen Here


By J. MELBOURNE SHORTLIFFE, Professor of Economics, Colgate University, Ithaca, N. Y.

Delivered in the General Electric Company Farm Forum, Station WGY, Schenectady, New York, September 8, 1944

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 763-764.

WHERE is ample reason for making this statement at this time, even though Fascism has been defeated in a large part of Italy, and we expect the defeat to be completed in Italy and in Germany. One reason is that the defeat of the system by force of arms in Italy and Germany will not destroy nor convert all Fascists in those countries, nor convert all Fascists in many other countries, including our own. Another reason is that it is possible that the war may produce conditions that will promote the Fascist tendencies which have been present in this country and are present here now.

There is not time for details, nor for anything approaching a complete analysis of the conditions and interests that produced Fascism in Europe after the previous war. Briefly, there was a serious economic situation with much unemployment. There was hunger. There was rioting and violence. There was dissatisfaction and disillusionment with respect to the war and the peace. There was fear of Communist revolt. There was inflation, promoted by large deficit spending by governments for relief and social welfare. Many middle-class persons lost their properties, and were forced to become workers or unemployed. They became angry at the system which they blamed for their misfortune.

Mussolini and Hitler capitalized on discontent and hardship. They poured salt into every sore spot in their respective peoples. They fanned every spark of discontent into flame, and every flame into conflagration. They made promises. They preached nationalism, militarism, and imperialism. They sneered at freedom, liberty, and democracy. They preached the gospel of obedience, and enforced it ruthlessly. They acquired a following, obtained votes, and either abolished their national legislatures or rendered them powerless. They took complete control in their own persons. Though retaining private ownership in farms, factories, and machines, they dictated their uses. They controlled production, prices, wages, industrial relations, domestic marketing, and imports and exports. They controlled the whole life of their people.

To gain lands and glory, and to provide employment, they planned and made wars. For this purpose they went to uneconomic extremes to make their countries self-sustaining. They financed their war preparations and their wars largely by government borrowing, in addition to the debts for relief and civilian public works.

The people of this country do not need to be told that we have had, and do now have, some conditions in this country that are strikingly similar to many of those which produced Fascism in Italy and Germany. I merely invite attention to the apparent relation of these conditions to the possibility that Fascism can happen here.

We, too, have had a long, hard depression, with millions unemployed, business failures, bank failures, farm mortgage foreclosures, and unemployed marching on Washington. Our government has undertaken to provide employment and to supply currency, largely by borrowing bank credit. Wehave had an enormous relief program, in addition to the various public works programs. The government has paid persons, directly or indirectly, to make goods scarce or to keep them off the market, in order to maintain prices, on the theory that economic wisdom requires that prices be maintained even though that kills the market for the commodities, and people cannot obtain the goods they need. Industrial combinations were encouraged by legislating immunity from the anti-trust laws, for the same purpose of maintaining prices. Floors have been put under wages and ceilings on hours of work. The policy has been to give all groups more out of a smaller total.

Out of these conditions and experiences has come an attitude, a point of view, a philosophy, that may prove to be even more powerful in promoting Fascist doctrines, Fascist following, and Fascist control than the conditions which gave rise to the attitude and the philosophy.

As in Italy and Germany, many of our people became; cynical and defeatist with respect to our economic and political system. They lost faith. They lost hope. They became critical—destructively critical. Not understanding the anatomy and physiology of the system, they diagnosed the case, and pronounced the patient incurable. The patient must die. Some other politico-economic system must be set up in its place. Some wanted Socialism; others, Communism; still others, Fascism. The first two of these have very little prospect in this country so long as we have a numerous and powerful middle class.

But Fascism is preferred by the middle class when a substitute is to be selected for democracy and free private enterprise. It was so in Italy and Germany. There is evidence that it will be so here, if the choice has to be made.

Some of our economists, too, became disillusioned and defeatist with respect to our economic and political system. They began to preach that our economic system has become "mature"—too mature; that it has passed its peak, and is now in decline, if not senility. These economists purport to possess the secret of fate. Therefore they speak with unlimited and unqualified assurance that our economic system can not be made to work with substantial satisfaction.

So we are offered Fascist proposals, though not by that name: centralized planning and control of our economic life. And if the vast amounts of money required to finance the necessary governmental organization can not be obtained by taxation, we are assured that an enormous government debt need cause no concern, provided it is not owed to foreigners.

All of which conditions, ideas, attitudes, and policies are the stuff of which; Fascism is made. And they have found favor in high places.

And they may be present after this war. If we get a bad depression, with a large volume of unemployment, business failures, and fear of another war, the stage will be set for renewed and expanded agitation for increased centralization of control of our economic life, not merely for purposes of relief and recovery, but, also, as a permanent feature of our economic and political system. Such a possibility must not be discounted by those who wish to retain a substantial degree of political and economic freedom.

On the other hand is a fairly encouraging prospect that private enterprise and the democratic process will justify their claim to our confidence—if the government will give private enterprise a fair chance to show what it can do. There is not time for details.

It can only be added at this time that there is sufficient danger to impose upon every person who loves liberty the obligation to do his or her utmost in all of his or her economic and political activities and relationships to enable the system to function by its principles, and to avoid every possible abuse or frustration of those principles. There is no other salvation of the system. If we fail in this, we shall pay in the loss of much that we have held dear for a century and a half.

Benjamin Franklin is reported to have said to the people after the Constitutional Convention: "we have given you a republic—if you can keep it." That is the challenge to us now, and will be the challenge after this war. Can we keep a republic?

Political and economic freedom must not be taken for granted. It must be nourished and protected not by word only, but also by deed.