A Very Short Introduction to Fascism
07 Friday Apr 2017
The word fascist lost its adhesion to two particular strains of political movements decades ago and became a general term of abuse for those whose attitudes and behaviors one didn’t like, from too-strict parents to police to Presidents. Since the 1990s in parts of Europe, however, the word has been applied to political movements which either use fascist about themselves, or whose language and attitudes are similar to those of Italian Fascism and German Nazism prior to, and through WW II, and are so designated fascist by scholars, journalists and others. The 2016 political season in the United States, and Trump’s unpredicted win, and subsequent actions, have brought it into high usage here as well, sometimes simply as an expression of anger, other times in serious, analytical ways.
One recent example is Christopher R Browning’s review, in the “New York Review of Books,” April 20, 2017 , Volker Ullrich’s scholarly biography, Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939. Browning, “states emphatically” that “Trump is not Hitler and the American Republic in the twenty-first century is not Weimer” Germany. He then goes on to compare war records, early childhood, attitudes towards women of the two men, paragraph by paragraph. This is amazing and disturbing stuff. So what is this fascism about which we are hearing so much? Can we go beyond the epithet to a useful understanding, without full semester courses, or 900 page books?
Two available short introductions are Robert Paxton’s 2004 Anatomy of Fascism (I review here) which I found particularly useful, and more recently, in the very well regarded “Very Short Introductions” series from Oxford University Press, is Kevin Passmore’s, 2014, Fascism: A Very Short Introduction.
While interesting, and presenting matters not in the Paxton book, it is not, in my estimation, an ideal book as an introduction, at least not to the general reader. To those already immersed in the politics and history of the 20th century it would be a useful recapitulation of concepts and actors, new findings and little known predecessors of what would become fascism. Perhaps Passmore had in mind students at Oxford, already facile with concepts and authors he uses to make his case, cognizant of Marxist, Weberian and Totalitarian definitions of the subject, of Michel Foucault and “post modernists,” and his arguments with other scholars of fascism such as Michael Burleigh or Roger Griffin. Although Passmore is a primary source scholar of fascism, for example his Women, Gender and Fascism in Europe 1919-1945, Rutgers University Press, 2003, his expertise over-runs his introductory powers.
Look for no simple definition of fascism. such as “an authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization,” at Google, or even a longer, more nuanced one as this by Robert Paxton,
“Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints.” [from my review of his book, Anatomy of Fascism.]
However, if you want a generous summary of pre-fascist ideas and movements in France, Italy and Germany, small risings in Romania, Scotland, Iceland, as well as what ideas were shared, split, twisted and re-shared over a period of some 40 years there are many nice details here. An opening paragraph about French salt-miners in 1893 turning against immigrant Italian workers on the basis of wage-threat and rumors of murder will be entirely recognizable in this day of attacks on Muslims or those of “Arab” appearance.
A link to the writing of Maurice Barrès is revelatory. He was the first, it is believed, to use the idea of “National Socialism” –socialism not as a universal goal but only for those of the “nation, ” whether by blood or culture. In the chapter “Fascism before fascism?” Passmore shows an interesting trail of ideas from which fascism later drew, such as Rousseau’s idea of “the General Will, ” and the quasi-mystical and “back to the soil” Romantics’ revolt against reason, industry and regimentation. Nationalism itself began as a French idea of the left: a new nation of the common people which was to be formed out of the Revolution of 1789, against the reactionary church and king. Others writers such as Georges Sorel, Gobineau (influencing Richard Wagner, who influenced the Nazis) are introduced.
An interesting idea I had not come across before was that the rise of today’s specific disciplines in universities began in the 1880s, leaving the generalist professors, lawyers and doctors, feeling displaced and resentful, some of them moving to politics where new ideas of nation, race and Social Darwinism began to reinforce each other. Substantial passages on Italy and Germany give historical dates and events as well as shared attitudes towards common themes — the role and attitude of women, for example, in fascism, the currents of masculinity race, militarism and expansion.
I had not fully appreciated that the extension of the right to vote in many parts of the industrializing world — though not to women– was one of the conditions for the rise of fascism. The old ways of governance by “the right people,” the gentlemen’s clubs that had decided things before began to come apart. Technology and literacy meant that many more people could find out about conditions, be interested in the polices that affected them, and push for change. Associations of Catholics, Socialists, Women’s Groups, rose and pressed their ideas and agendas. It was “the age of the masses.”
The rise of organized men at work worried the owners and their circles and so reaction set in. Socialists and communists organized, Counter organizations were set up and funded. One ingredient of all fascist movements was their violent antipathy to socialists and communists; street battles gave rise to calls for authoritarian return to the certainties of the past. Existing conservative governments were held to be too weak to manage the troubles; manly fascism, with its sacrilization of violence, became a “third way,” soon enlisting many of their former, conservative, opponents.
From the outset, however, Passmore is entangled in questions of demarcation: what are the necessary and sufficient elements of a definition to include all those movements understood as, or claimed to be, fascist, and to exclude those not? Why is something fascist and not Authoritarian, or Dictatorial, or Theocratic? [ And, I ask myself, do we care? Does it matter, except academically, to distinguish between kinds of extreme, state violence? Is the military dictatorship of Assad any more or less reprehensible than fascism, properly defined?]
Another problem, for me at least, is that this 2014 version is a substantial re-write of the original 2002 text, which I initially began to read. Re-beginning with the latter I found he critiques himself for his earlier “drawback of using definitions,” and in fact says “Now, Scholars doubt the usefulness of a definition of fascism, even if it were possible to agree on one.”
His starting point is Jose Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher who, in 1927, wrote that fascism was a composition of opposites “A and not A,” as he called it; reactionary, looking back to the past, but modernizing, fascinated by speed, equipment, technology; organizing rebellion while being authoritarian; taking over the old state but reconstituting another in parallel.
So, as an introduction to a subject which begins as self contradictory, and about which the author doubts the usefulness of definition we get a 155 page introduction, to wonder at the end if what we have is a genera, a species, or a subspecies of human political organization. We appreciate the complexity of history, behavior and scholarly distinctions, but we don’t have the feeling, I’m afraid, that “I know what it is and I can recognize it if I see it.”
An analogy is haunting the United States – the analogy of fascism. It is virtually impossible (outside certain parts of the Right-wing itself) to try to understand the resurgent Right without hearing it described as – or compared with – 20th-century interwar fascism. Like fascism, the resurgent Right is irrational, close-minded, violent and racist. So goes the analogy, and there’s truth to it. But fascism did not become powerful simply by appealing to citizens’ darkest instincts. Fascism also, crucially, spoke to the social and psychological needs of citizens to be protected from the ravages of capitalism at a time when other political actors were offering little help.
The origins of fascism lay in a promise to protect people. [See all ]
Is then Donald Trump a fascist? From my perspective the answer is No
But many of the ingredients for fascism, in the US and the world, are in closer proximity than they have been in decades past.
- Ultra national feeling, defined by race and religion, is high, and getting higher;
- Uncertainty about one’s well being and that of one’s family is not diminishing;
- A sense that personal effort is not enough and so a turn towards others with similar feelings;
- Resentment towards those in near proximity who not of the nation, and are a possible source of one’s loss;
- A feeling that established governments have failed, or are not capable of correcting the problems;
- Organized groups willing to use physical violence against others, and in the US, massive number of hand-weapons available;
- and more….
Though these ingredients are in close proximity –we can see and sense them– they are not yet coalesced in a critical mass. As we’ve seen in recent years, the same ingredients which make fertilizer, can re-constituted to make bombs. The ingredients in Europe of the early 20th century were profoundly forced by the impact of four years of brutal war (17 million dead, 20 million wounded), and then by the Great Depression. Without such forcing, or even if forced over a longer period of time, the fascism we are most familiar with, and afraid of recurring, might not have happened. Such shaping forces seem not to be gathering today, however…..
Even if Trump/Banon/ et-al are not fascists, the ingredients remain. Different conditions, unforeseen events could reshape them to more dangerous combinations… the world has nuclear weapons this time around.
Gianni Riotta at the Atlantic Magazine. No.
…having grown up in the birthplace of fascism and lived through its aftereffects, I am dead sure: Trump is not a fascist. Using the label not only belittles past tragedies and obscures future dangers, but also indicts his supporters, who have real grievances that mainstream politicians ignore at their peril. America should tackle the demons Trump unleashes in 2016, not tar him by association with ideas and tactics he doesn’t even know about.
Issac Chotiner at Slate in An interview with Robert Paxton. Yes and No.
There are certainly some echoes of fascism, but there are also very profound differences.
Noam Chomsky with Amy Goodman No, but don’t take your eye off…
“Yes, it’s dangerous, but I think it’s well short of what we regard as fascism. But it’s not to be dismissed.”
Sheri Berman in RawStory… No
Like fascism, the resurgent Right is irrational, close-minded, violent and racist. So goes the analogy, and there’s truth to it. But fascism did not become powerful simply by appealing to citizens’ darkest instincts. Fascism also, crucially, spoke to the social and psychological needs of citizens to be protected from the ravages of capitalism at a time when other political actors were offering little help.