Created 11/17/1997
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Was Robert Heinlein a Fascist?

Director Paul Verhoeven uses substantial amounts of neo-fascist imagery in his movie adaptation of science-fiction author Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. This has led to a debate over whether this is fair to Heinlein. Is the novel Starship Troopers in some sense "fascist"? Or is Verhoeven unfairly distorting the themes of the novel on which his movie is based?

The question "was Robert Heinlein a card-carrying fascist?" is easily answered: no. While Heinlein was writing Starship Troopers, he was also writing Stranger in a Strange Land. Soon thereafter he wrote The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Neither of those science-fiction novels could have been written by a fascist, for both are very "liberal" in the old-fashioned classical sense of "liberty"--libertarian in fact.

But if we ask about the authorial voice in Starship Troopers we get a different answer. The characters the author seems to approve of, the opinions they express, and and the philosophies that they espouse are far from libertarian--and are in fact profoundly hostile to the belief that governments are established to safeguard the liberties of individuals.

Is the authorial voice inStarship Troopers fascist? The German philospher Ernst Nolte's classic Fascism in Its Epoch set out four key characteristics of fascism:

The viewpoint character in Starship Troopers adopts, and his sympathetically-drawn teachers preach, the first three of these at great length in the novel.

The fourth key charactgeristic is implicit in the novel. Consider the fear of the Bugs as a mighty adversary ("we were learning, expensively, just how efficient a total communism can be when used by a people actually adapted to it by evolution" (p. 152)). Consider the invented historical background of the novel, in which the twentieth-century United States collapsed because of its excessive solicitude for individual rights and its worship of the words of Thomas Jefferson and was replaced by the "veterans' government" that made no claim to derive its powers from the consent of the governed.

All of Nolte's key characteristics of fascism are present. Other political philosophies share one or two of these characteristics: conservatism, for example, shares the fear of Marxian communism and the belief that liberal political institutions like democracy may have to be sacrificed to stop it; republicanism shares the belief that individuals have duties (but these duties are owed only to a state that safeguards their rights). It is the combination of the four that qualifies for the label of "fascism."

Thus the authorial persona in Starship Troopers is "fascist"--where "fascism" is not just an insult, but is a descriptive label for a certain viewpoint that has been tragically common in twentieth-century politics.

So Verhoeven is fully within the bounds of authorial intention in using fascist imagery for Starship Troopers. In so doing, he is being true to the authorial persona of the novel.

For example, from Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers:

"'What is "moral sense"? It is an elaboration of the instinct to survive. The instinct to survive is human nature itself, and every aspect of our personalities derives from it. Anything that conflicts with the survival instinct acts sooner or later to eliminate the individual and thereby fails to show up in future generations. This truth is mathematically demonstrable, everywhere verifiable; it is the single eternal imperative controlling everything we do.

"'But the instinct to survive', he had gone on, 'can be cultivated into motivations more subtle and much more complex than the blind, brute instinct of the individual to stay alive. Young lady, what you miscalled your "moral instinct" was the instilling in you by your elders of the truth that survival can have stronger imperatives than that of your own personal survival. Survival of your family, for example. Of your children, when you have them. Of your nation, if you struggle that high up the scale. And so on up. A scientifically verifiable theoryof morals must be rooted in the individual's instinct to survive--and nowhere else! --and must correctly describe the hierarchy of survival, note the motivations at each level, and resolve all conflicts.

"'We have such a theory now; we can solve any moral problem, on any level. Self-interest, love of family, duty to country, responsibility toward the human race--we are even developing an exact ethic for extra-human relations...'" (p. 118).

From Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers:

"All wars arise from population pressure. (Yes, even the Crusades, though you have to dig into trade routes and birth rates and several other things to prove it.) Morals--all correct moral rules--derive from the instinct to survive; moral behavior is survival behavior above the individual level--as in a father who dies to save his children. But since population pressure results from the process of surviving through others, then war, because it results from population pressure, derives from the same inherited instinct which produces all moral rules suitable for human beings....

"Without debating the usefulness or morality of planned parenthood, it may be verified by observation that any breed which stops its own increase gets crowded out by breeds which expand. Some human populations did so, in Terran history, and other breeds moved in and engulfed them.

"Nevertheless, let's assume the human race manages to balance birth and death... and thereby becomes peaceful. What happens?

"Soon (about next Wednesday) the Bugs move in, kill off this breed which 'ain'ta gonna study war no more' and the universe forgets us.... [B]oth races are tough and smart and want the same real estate....

"But does man have any 'right' to spread throughout the universe?

"Man is what he is, a wild animal with the will to survive, and (so far) the ability, against all competition. Unless one accepts that, anything one says about morals, war, politics--you name it--is nonsense. Correct morals arise from knowing what Man is --not what do-gooders and well-meaning old Aunt Nellies would like him to be.

"The universe will let us know--later--whether or not Man has any 'right' to expand through it.

"In the meantime the M[obile] I[nfantry] will be in there, on the bounce and swinging, on the side of our own race." (pp. 186).

From Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers:

"'The basis of all morality is duty, a concept with the same relation to group that self-interest has to individual. Nobody preached duty... the society they were in told them endlessly about their "rights"

"'The results should have been predictable, since a human being has no natural rights of any nature. '

"Mr. Dubois had paused. Someone took the bait. 'Sir? How about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"?'

"'Ah, yes, the "unalienable rights." Each year someone quotes that magnificent poetry. Life? What "right" to life has a man who is drowning in the Pacific? The ocean will not hearken to his cries. What "right" to life has a man who must die if he is to save his children? If he chooses to save his own life, does he do so as a matter of "right"? If two men are starving and cannibalism is the only alternative to death, which man's right is "unalienable"? And is it "right"? As to liberty, the heroes who signed the great document pledged themselves to buy liberty with their lives. Liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes. Of all the so-called natural human rights that have ever been invented, liberty is least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost.

"'The third "right"?--the "pursuit of happiness"? It is indeed unalienable but it is not a right; it is simply a universal condition which tyrants cannot take away nor patriots restore. Cast me into a dungeon, burn me at the stake, crown me king of kings, I can "pursue happiness" as long as my brain lives--but neither gods nor saints, wise men nor subtle drugs, can insure that I will catch it.'

"'... And that was the soft spot which destroyed what was in many ways [the] admirable culture [of twentieth-century America].... [T]heir citizens... glorified their mythology of "rights"...and lost track of their duties. No nation, so constituted, can endure.'" (pp. 119-120).

And now, after scanning these passages into the computer, I feel dirty.

So let me cast my lot with Thomas Jefferson, with the idea that individuals have rights that legitimate governments respect, preserve and secure, and with the belief that governments derive their legitimate powers from the consent of the governed.

Let me shudder at the philosophy that governments have power to impose duties on individuals, and that the only proper morality is one of: "Service to the state! Glory to the race!"


Created 11/17/1997
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Brad DeLong's Home Page

Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans
University of California at Berkeley; Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax