Pawns for Fascism

This piece from 1937 envisions the forces that make a demagogue like Trump possible

Russell Lee/Library of Congress
Russell Lee/Library of Congress


Stephen Bates gives Reinhold Niebuhr his “Nostradamus moment” in an essay articulating how the political philosopher “envisioned the forces that make a Trump possible.” “A shrewd demagogue,” Bates writes, “may catalyze a mass movement by preying on their social anxiety, playing to their anti-collectivism, and directing their resentment toward scapegoats.”

Of the various strata of human society the small tradesmen, clerks, white-collar workers and poorer farmers, who constitute the so-called lower middle class, would seem to the casual observer to be least capable of fulfilling a fateful role in contemporary social history. Yet the indications are that they hold a position in modern society of such strategic significance that the fate of modern civilization may well be decided by them. If this should prove true it is also fairly certain that their decision will be an unfortunate one.

The significance of the lower middle class does not derive from its possession of any particular political virtue or capacity. On the contrary it exceeds all classes in political ineptitude. But recent developments in lower middle class politics prove that social desperation may be compounded with political confusion into an independent political impulse of such fanatic power and such ambiguous direction that it may become the chief source of confusion in an age of confusion. Individual life is probably under stricter personal discipline in lower middle class existence than anywhere else in society. In that sense the genteel poor are a force for stability in a social structure. But they are least able to find themselves amidst the complexities of a technical civilization and the perplexities of a period of change. They are therefore potentially the chief source of social disease in modern history.

Until the post-war period the lower middle classes have never expressed a political will or fashioned a political instrument of their own. In the struggle between the landed aristocracy and commercial wealth which determined European politics during the past two centuries the lower middle classes were a politically negligible force. In both France and England they were the main constituents of that neutral element in the population which asked only to be left alone and which tended to give its loyalty to any government able to establish itself. The rising industrial workers of the early 19th century were more potent allies of the commercial classes in their struggle against feudalism than the poorer brethren of the middle class. They had a truer instinct for the realities of political life and a more natural inclination for collective action.

In the 20th century the most significant political and social struggles are those in which the workers are pitted against the commercial and industrial classes. Once the workers had helped the business men to destroy the aristocracy or at least to win their freedom from the political and economic disabilities which a decaying feudalism sought to impose upon commercial life, the alliance between the workers and the bourgeoisie tended to dissolve. The business classes, in safe possession of the basic economic power of modern society, naturally exchanged their radical for a conservative role. Their primary concern was to prevent the political liberties, which the workers had won in joint action with them, from becoming a source of peril to their economic power. The history of Spain during the past five years of revolution telescopes into a brief span of a few years the whole social history of Europe with its triangular struggle between landed gentry, business men and workers and its volte face of the upper middle class, once the destruction of feudalism has been accomplished.

It was natural to assume that the struggle between the industrial and financial oligarchs and the workers would determine the history of European civilization in the next hundred years, as the struggle between finance and land had determined its past. The prophecies based upon this assumption have been rendered fatuous and void by the sudden emergence of the lower middle classes as a distinctive political force. The consequence of this emergence is the rise of fascism. Peculiar national traits and circumstances may contribute to the rise of fascism but the deepest roots of its power lie in lower middle class life. The radical interpretation of fascism as essentially a contrivance for the preservation of a dying capitalistic civilization is inaccurate. Business communities come to terms with fascism because they prefer it to socialism, and without their final alliance with it fascism could not come to power so easily. But the financial oligarchy does not originate fascism. Nor does it enjoy the restraints and restrictions which fascism places upon economic life once it has come to power. The real source of fascism lies in the social resentments and the political confusion of lower middle class life.

Psychologically the basic characteristic of lower middle class life is an individualism which has only indirect contact with the collectivist tendencies of capitalism and frantically fears the collectivist creed of socialism. Economically and socially, the primary determinant of petty bourgeois attitudes is the possession of minimal property in the form of savings, and the possession of a home, small business or farm. For the petty bourgeoisie the idea of property is therefore related to the idea of security. Property is not, as regards the owners of industry, a source of social and political power; and it is not regarded, so far as the workers are concerned, as the cause of social oppression. Property is the individual family’s basis of security. The individualism of this attitude is accentuated by types of employment in which individual capacity, skill and diligence tend to create so many differentials in wage and income that general levels of income are obscured. As a consequence individual resourcefulness is preferred to common action in securing and protecting social status and economic security.

The reliance upon property and upon individual initiative sharply distinguishes lower middle class attitudes from those of the workers. The social experience of the workers persuades them to regard property chiefly as an instrument of social power in the hands of their opponents and to rely upon common rather than individual action for the improvement of their standards. Thus workers are naturally collectivists both in terms of their immediate trade union experience and in terms of their ultimate social philosophy. This is not quite true of American workers, among whom bourgeois individualism has maintained a considerable influence, but it is becoming increasingly true of them as well as of European workers. The lower middle classes, though sometimes poorer than skilled workers, are consequently inclined to espouse a more conservative political creed than the workers. They imagine the libertarianism of owners is identical with their own and fail to recognize the gulf between property as social power and property as minimal social security.

This social conservatism alone would not, however, have prompted the petty bourgeoisie into an independent political movement. It was, on the contrary, the cause of their long dependence upon the politics of the richer middle classes. Their ambition to establish an independent political force was created by the contraction of modern capitalism with its depreciation of property values and its consequent destruction of their social security. Whether a depression results in the foreclosure of a farmer’s mortgage or the bankruptcy of a small trader or the clerk’s unemployment, the common consequence is a profound resentment, which is the more bitter for its failure to articulate itself clearly. It is ignorant of the cause of, and confused about the ways of escape from, the social difficulties in which the petty bourgeoisie find themselves. The worker, at least the worker schooled in trade union solidarity, is never purely an individual. A sense of mutual dependence and a common fate binds him to his fellows and thus transmutes social difficulties into a new social hope rather than into pure desperation.

What is most interesting about the middle class situation is that the social desperation and resentment in this class, though at first dissipated in individual attitudes, has been finally molded into a collective force. This has been the work of demagogues, whose method and creed reveal striking similarities in all the western nations, however great may be the differences between them. Their economic creed, whether expressed in Hitler’s idea of “freedom from interest servitude” or Father Coughlin’s inflationary program or Townsend’s old age pensions or the late Senator Long’s “share the wealth” panacea, looks forward to some form of property equalization without a disturbance of basic property relations. It is profoundly ignorant of the essentially collectivist character of property in a technical society and cannot understand that the centralizing tendencies in capitalism work automatically to the advantage of the owners of big property and against the small owners. It consequently seeks to establish social security by money and credit manipulation and by moratoria upon debts and mortgages. A part of its creed, as for instance inflation, is more perilous to the savings of the lower middle classes than helpful in relieving them of their debts. Other portions of the general program, such as moratoria and credit manipulations, tend to arrest the process of expropriation to which the small owner is subject but cannot finally stop the pitiless logic of centralization.

More important than the economic creed of the demagogue is his appeal to the social resentments and his exploitation of the psychological difficulties of the lower middle classes. Racial prejudice is a common human weakness but the lower middle classes are more prone to it than either the aristocrat, the plutocrat or the worker. Each of these classes has a cosmopolitanism of its own. In petty bourgeois life a natural parochialism in social experience combines with a sense of individual frustration to create racial and national resentments and prejudices. A sense of racial superiority is a compensation to the little man for his sense of individual inferiority. Thus the “cracker” white of our South is most venomous in his prejudice against the Negro, and anti-Semitism flourishes most violently among the petty traders of Germany.

Up to the present moment petty bourgeois demagogy has fortunately not yet tapped this weakness of lower middle class life in America. The history of our post-war Klan proves how vulnerable our middle class life is in this respect. One may well wait with bated breath for the moment when an artful demagogue will provide an inevitable articulation for the racial resentments of our petty bourgeois life.

National as distinct from racial prejudice is an equally strong force among the poorer individualists. It was the force of national sentiment which helped the financial and commercial classes to defeat the feudal aristocrats. They required national unity for healthy commerce. The business classes thus first supported the king against the nobles and finally democracy against the king in their effort to overcome feudal anarchy. Having succeeded in establishing the nation, the logic of a technical civilization, with its international interdependence, forced them into internationalism. They bequeathed their nationalism, as it were, to their weaker and poorer brethren. The latter were desperately in need of some symbol of social solidarity in an individualistic existence in which the sense of community was atrophied and therefore tempted to morbid compensations. Perhaps this tendency among the genteel poor was accentuated, at least in Europe, by the nationalistic internationalism of the worker, whose Marxian thought tends to perpetuate an 18th-century disregard of legitimate national sentiment.

The old conservatism and the new spirit of rebellion in middle class life naturally lead to an ambiguous political program which seeks to combine both bankers and workers in the role of a common enemy. The only justification for such a political orientation is the undoubted fact that skilled workers frequently have the collective power to protect their standards against a contracting economy better than the individualistic poor. The latter consequently feel themselves ground between the upper and the nether millstone and draw the erroneous conclusion that the two millstones are parts of the same system of oppression. Since the only similarity between capitalistic oligarchs and the industrial workers is a rationalistic inclination to disregard traditional national boundaries and sentiments, patriotic passion therefore becomes the only possible basis for opposition to both groups. In Germany fascism has accentuated the power of national sentiment by identifying it with racial solidarity. Since Jews are prominent in both finance and labor organization, though their prominence is not as disproportionate as claimed, they are rather effective foils for this kind of hysteria. Whatever may be said about the ludicrous character of German Nazi anti-Semitism it must be admitted that it is an extremely effective instrument for combining resentments against foes who have nothing in common. The instrument gains in effectiveness because it fits so admirably into the parochial narrowness and the sense of individual inferiority of lower middle class life.

The pathetic consequence of the political ineptitude and social confusion of petty bourgeois life is that the most timid portion of a national population should give birth to so violent a social movement and that individualists should, in their effort to escape collectivism, fasten a tyrannical state upon society. The violence of timid people is not as paradoxical as it may seem, since cruelty is a natural temptation to the weak. And desperate. The collectivism into which petty bourgeois individualists become betrayed is particularly defective because it is not suited to the necessities and logic of a technical age. It seeks by powerful state action to desiccate rather than to control the inevitable centralization of economic power in a technical civilization.

Lower middle class politics are consequently a retrogressive force in modern history. Without their confusion modern society would have a much clearer chance of readjusting its political structure to the necessities of its economic life. It is not at all unlikely that this confusion may become the primary cause of disaster in modern civilization. The peril of this confusion is the greater because petty bourgeois politics aggravate the anarchy of international life in the effort to overcome the anarchy within the nation.

It must be added that lower middle class attitudes have not reached the degree of desperation in the more favored nations which they attained in Italy and Germany. In France these classes are for the time being united with the workers in the popular front government of M. Blum. In America Roosevelt claims the allegiance of both workers and lower middle classes for a political program which satisfies both because ultimate issues are postponed in it. The alliance between the genteel and the industrial poor may function for some time in this country because the workers are only slowly disavowing bourgeois political attitudes and asserting the type of radicalism which it is the destiny of workers in western civilization to assert. Yet this alliance is insecure in both France and America. In France petty bourgeois prejudices restrict the popular front government from carrying through any rigorous policies of socialization. It must content itself with burdening a very sick economic system with additional social services, a program which will soon bring it into fiscal difficulties. The peril of fascism is far from being laid in France, though it may be averted for some time.

The wealth of America is so great, even in a time of depression, that social desperation has not yet reached any such proportions as tempt the lower middle classes of Europe into their confused rebellions. Nevertheless it is true that if Senator Long had lived the peril of American fascism might be an immediate one. Should the present prosperity prove to be a very brief respite in a general tendency of contraction (as many economists predict) lower middle class desperation would undoubtedly express itself in fascistic or semi-fascistic terms in the election of 1940. It may well become the decisive factor in our political life at that time.

It is too early to prophesy, and much too early to write, the tragic social history of our era. Europe is drifting toward a war which it seems powerless to avert. No one can predict what may lie on the other side of that conflict. But it is fairly safe to predict that if modern civilization fails to find a way out of its chaos before the anarchy of its life breeds death and destruction, the chief contributory cause of its failure will lie in the demonic force latent in the lives of all the good little people, so touching in their personal rectitude and individual discipline, who serve us in the shops, who till our soil and who perform all functions in our social mechanism with the exception of industrial labor. If that should prove true it would add a peculiar pathos to the tragedy of modern existence.

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Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was the author of Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) and The Nature and Destiny of Man (1943), among other books. He was a theologian and political philosopher.


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