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.