What is Fascism?: A Study of Cases

Several recent biographies have accused Le Corbusier, one of the two or three most famous architects of the 20th century, of having been a fascist and anti-Semite. In The Spectator, a man named Jonathan Meades defends Le Corbusier against the charges, saying that in fact, Le Corbusier’s politics were similar to that of all architects: he was willing to do work for whoever would pay him to implement his visions, whether they were fascist or communist.

Meades clearly wishes to defend Le Corbusier, whom he calls a “great architect” unfairly scapegoated for every piece of poor urban design in the late 20th century. Meades blames leftists for attempting to smear Le Corbusier, and in a somewhat bizarre and conspiratorial closing paragraph, he begins pointing fingers at “apologists for collective farming and Palestinian terror.” What he means by any of that is beyond me.

But I don’t want to wade into the nitty-gritty of some minor political-historical dispute among architectural biographers, since I can’t imagine anything more tedious. Instead, I want to make a brief point about fascism.

The question of whether Le Corbusier was a fascist seems to involve scouring his articles, diaries, and designs, to examine the extent to which he worked with fascist governments and expressed anti-Semitic opinions. If he did, he was a fascist and those who like his architecture are undermined, since they are expressing admiration for a fascist. If he didn’t, or if Meades can prove he was merely an apolitical “prostitute” who would service any government willing to pay, then he remains respectable and it is still fie to call him “a great architect.”

But all of this seems beside the point. It’s a useless debate, because we don’t need to know who Le Corbusier did or didn’t work for in order to condemn him. Allegations that he was a fascist are not substantiated by whether he was ever given a commission by the Vichy government or whether he ever railed against a global Jewish banking conspiracy. They’re substantiated by his work and theories.

In fact, calling Le Corbusier a fascist is confusing, because of the subtle distinction in cases that we make in ordinary usage. Much as a Democrat is someone who supports the Democratic Party, but a democrat is someone who believes in democracy (same with a Republican/republican), an uppercase-Fascist is a supporter of Hitler or Mussolini or their corresponding aligned parties elsewhere, whereas a lowercase one simply refers to someone who believes in totalitarian or fascistic principles. The difference in cases is often important and easy to get lost in.

Judged by this metric, we can debate whether Le Corbusier was a Fascist, but he was certainly a fascist, insofar as he was an authoritarian who detested democratic rule and wished to impose a grand new state-oriented machinelike vision for humankind’s existence. James C. Scott has a wonderful diagnosis of Le Corbusier’s frightening politics in his book Seeing Like a State, in which he classifies Le Corbusier alongside Lenin as a supporter of “authoritarian high modernism.” For Scott, this isn’t quite fascism, but a kind of scientific totalitarianism, which wishes to impose a rationalistic utopian order from above using the state. It’s a belief common to both fascists and Marxist communists, and it’s almost certainly why Le Corbusier found a comfortable home among governments of both tendencies. As Scott says, “there is no ambiguity to Le Corbusier’s view of how authority relations should be ordered: hierarchy prevails in every direction.” On the title page of one of his books, Le Corbusier wrote “This work is Dedicated to Authority,” and he consistently spoke of the need for an all-powerful philsopher-king who would be willing to wipe away all existing structures to implement his grand visions. He believed in what he called “the Plan,” the one correct position, drawn up by a small group of “lucid minds” well away from “the cries of the electorate.”

Many critics of Le Corbusier’s architecture, like myself, might be tempted to make the new allegations of Fascism and anti-Semitism a centerpiece of their critiques. I think this is a mistake, because it allows Le Corbusier’s defenders, like Meades, to simply point out that Le Cobusier also worked for the Soviets. And since Leftists will not wish to condemn the Soviet Union with the same vigor, the force of their critique disappears. The stronger point, however, is that Le Corbusier was a lower-case fascist, whose every idea involves the subjugation of the individual to the planned state. And that charge is both far more easily proven and even more damning.

The broad point that this illuminates, though, is as follows: it’s too easy to get wrapped up in disputes of historical fact and lose sight of the principles at stake. We end up debating whether, say, Heidegger was too cooperative with the Nazi government during the war years, instead of making the far more simple point that Heidegger was never a democrat and never did a lick of work for the cause of freedom, which is sufficient to condemn him. I don’t care what Le Corbusier wrote in this or that editorial about Hitler, because for me his work speaks for itself. He disrespects and trivializes democracy and the people who inhabit his structures, and this is more than enough for me to reject him completely. He would not be redeemed if it were discovered that the allegations of Fascist associations were false, because it would make him no less of a lower-case fascist.