I’m currently reading William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It’s brilliantly researched, and the author’s prejudices and idealism do little to reduce its value. One of the things that strikes one very forcefully is the list of 25 demands in the program of the Nazi party, and the discussion of which ones were implemented and which ignored. Many of these program points are reminiscent of American populism–both the left-wing variety and the right-wing. If you look at some of the right-wing American populists (Father Coughlin, Huey Long, &c) you’ll see the same thing you see in the program of the Nazi party: proposals to break up financial oligarchy and to distribute the wealth more evenly–the same things you see in the program of left-wing populists. Is the only difference between them that these program points are instantly dropped and forgotten when a Hilter or a Long comes to power?
Both left-wing and right-wing populism are distinguished by hostility to theory and to politics–by the belief that we don’t need an in-depth understanding of what we’re fighting against, it is sufficient that we’re angry at how the elite are abusing their privileges. But privilege and power have a complex dialectical relationship to one another; it takes power to maintain privilege, and privilege in turn confers power. Power in a society is what we call politics, and the argument over who has this power, who ought to have this power, and what ought to be done with it is the expression of the economic conflicts that drive society. To take a stand on the economic conflicts but to ignore the political is to leave one’s self open to the influence of demagogues. At best, you have the IWW, whose hostility to theory and politics led to their collapse; at worst you find yourself backing a Hitler, a Huey Long, a Ron Paul, and wondering how you got there.
Shirer’s book is frightening, because it shows what can happen when rage and despair have no productive outlet. It is also encouraging, because a scientific understanding of how society works–and this book exactly a contribution to such an understanding–is our best hope.