Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 9, No. 10. August, 7, 1946
USA and Fascism
USA and Fascism
In the 1930's, the forbidding menace of fascism was cracking the soft shell of bourgeois art and literature. Writers such as Thomas Mann, Wells, Feucht-wanger, had already been shaken by its impending violence. Particularly significant evidence of this, in view of recent events in the USA, is provided in Sinclair Lewis's 11-years-old novel, "It Can't Happen Here."
Lewis sets out to portray the events leading up to, and ensuing from, the election of flamboyant fascist "Buzz" Windrup to the office of President in 1936, and the reactions of Doremus Jessup, liberal editor of a small newspaper in Vermont. By means of the familiar sequence of lies, bluster, brutality and collaboration with the forces of high finance, Windrup's power is ensured. Jessup, at first noncommittal, becomes more anxious on personal contact with the Windrup organisation, and finally joins the underground resistance movement which has been set up by honest Walt Trowbridge, unsuccessful Republican candidate for President.
Such is a brief sketch of the plot; and it would seem that here are all the appurtenances of fascism—the minute men (Windrups private army), race persecution of negro and jew, sex and power perverts at their leader's right hand. Concentration camps abound and the disobedient are crammed therein. At the bidding of Big Business, labour rights are swept aside and wages are stabilised at the rate of a dollar a day.
But somehow the complete picture is lacking. Windrup is too bombastic, too flashy; his followers are too picturesque in their perversions. To some writers of 1935 perhaps these qualities were most vivid in the Hitler's and Mussolini's of the day. But while the advertisements of fascism may be colourful, its Head Office is staffed in the main by stolidly normal financiers and industrialists with steady habits and executive ability. In short. Lewis's treatment of potential American fascism gives it the appearance of a fungold growth, unnatural and short-lived, having no real economic determinants.
Such an interpretation has been convincingly disproved by the events of the intervening period, culminating in the labour regulations of last June and the atomic bomb politics of the USA. Here are indeed "the beginnings of fascism in America." It has come with beatings, not of drums, but of strikers and negroes. Its leaders are eminently respectable public men, business leaders, in a few cases exalted members of the clergy. It rarely rants—more frequently it needs but to assert. Its voice is that of "sound business." "private enterprise"—monopoly capitalism.
Nor did the bourgeoisie during the occupation period become the backbone of the underground antifascist movement, as Lewis seems to presume it would in the USA. The reverse was the case. Mainly to the working classes of Europe fell the task of organised resistance—a task gloriously fulfilled, while the bourgeoisie found profit in Quisling—but dignified—activity. No evidence has been shown to prove that events would be otherwise in the USA: indeed, the activists of American fascism have been traditional adherents of the upper classes.
The leaders of the workers, the Socialists and Communists, become for Lewis merely the occasion for cheap sneers, as is shown in references to Upton Sinclair and the progressive US paper "New Masses." In fact, at some points in this book, one could assume that his sole purpose in writing it was to indulge in such scurrility.
If, then, there is a lesson to be found in this story, it is that fascism comes, not in the fashion Lewis describes, but entering confidently, mouthing the sentiments of the wellfed and prosperous, assuming office as a voluntary sacrifice, and revealing its true form only when power has been assumed.
Given courage, a clear insight into the economic roots of fascism, and less preoccupation with vilifying contemporary progressive opinion, this might have been a text for anti-fascist Americans today. With these qualities omitted, it remains just another novel.