Understanding the Historicity of Populism and Fascism.

By Ali Yasin

One of the most prevalent challenges faced by academics when attempting to analyze/interpret the ideologies of fascism and populism, is distinguishing them as a historical phenomenon from their common use as pejorative political labels.  As Victoria de Grazia notes in “What we don’t understand about Fascism”, the use of the terms fascist and populist to stigmatize one’s political opponents has been almost ubiquitous in the modern political landscape since the end of the Second World War. Movements across the ideological spectrum including the social democratic Jeremy Corby and Bernie Sanders factions of the Labour and Democratic parties respectively, as well as the wing right nationally conservative regimes of Viktor Orban in Hungary and the Law and Justice party in Poland, have all equally been described as populist. Likewise, the term fascist is frequently used not only to describe actions of many governments by their opponents, but also by those same governments to characterize the nature of their opposition and subsequently delegitimize them.

Frederico Finchelstein convincingly attributes this problematic tendency to inclination of scholars and the public to regard fascism and populism as ahistorical concepts, in his introduction to “From Fascism to Populism in History”.  Rather than understanding both political systems as the outcomes of historical processes and both the material and ideological evolution of the modern nation state, they are instead often seen as spontaneous aberrations appearing only as temporary detours from the overarching historical narrative of ever expanding liberal-democracy This inevitably reduces them from empirical phenomenon with concrete historical causes and characteristics, to vague transnational metaphors for a number of contradictions faced by the contemporary neoliberal global hegemonic order.  Furthermore, it also obscures the historic and theoretical relationship between the development of both fascism and populism.

Both fascism and populism can be described as a reactions to the political and material crises created by the simultaneously liberal and imperialist Anglo-American led global order of the 19th and 20th centuries. They differ definitively however on their relationship to and potential place within the spectrum of democratic governance. Fascism with its open embrace of both political violence and totalitarian leadership, is intrinsically antithetical to any form of democracy, liberal or otherwise. Although fascist movements routinely built on the theoretical approaches established by the early populists of the mid to late 19th century, they radically departed from their predecessors with their holistic rejection of democracy as a source of political power. The success of the fascist agenda inherently necessitates a complete dismantling of the democratic process and concurrent institutions. By contrast, populism with its tenants of majoritarianism and antagonistic repoliticization, conceives of itself within a democratic paradigm. While populist leaders like their fascist counterparts, often portrayed themselves as quasi-messianic figures with the privileged and often exclusive position of being able to speak on behalf of “the people”, they legitimated their authoritarian rule on the basis of majoritarian representation rather than socially Darwinian understanding of the ethnic nation and its relationship with outside groups. They also claim that a powerful leader is needed not to bypass the democratic process entirely, but to counteract the corrosive effect of the elites on democratic representation. These distinguishing characteristics have defined populism as a political ideology distinct from fascism both before and after its emergence in the early 1920s. Therefore, populism can be better understood as a form of authoritarian democracy that thrives in highly unequal political/economic systems, rather than a public relations driven recharacterization of fascism for the post-war era.

Works Cited:

Rogers Brubaker, “Why Populism?” NUPI Podcast (51 minutes) https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/why-populism-rogers-brubaker/id1200474003?i=1000449389000

Victoria de Grazia, “What We Don’t Understand about Fascism” Zocalo Public Square https://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2020/08/13/understand-fascism-american-historymussolini- hitler-20th-century/ideas/essay/

Federico Finchelstein, “Introduction: Thinking Fascism and Populism in terms of the Past” in Federico Finkelstein, From Fascism to Populism in History (University of California Press, 2017).

One Reply to “Understanding the Historicity of Populism and Fascism.”

  1. Very well expressed and an educational as well as enjoyable read. I hadn’t considered the Bernie Sanders example, but it fits. I do agree with you about Poland, though I would also add a caveat as though to the wider democratic world the ruling party has raised several eyebrows, in their own country they are not truly delegitimized except within academic circles (frankly I have several things I could say about the situation in Poland but not in this post as I don’t want to get sidetracked). The way you explain Finchelstein’s article is brilliant (I especially liked the aberration reference, its a word that draws the eye). I wouldn’t fully agree that Populism is Authoritarian democracy because while so far populism has been that it hasn’t fully solidified yet, when it does democracy (as we now understand it) will likely cease. While I agree that fascism hasn’t rebranded into populism, I would add that fascists as individuals have instead joined the populist movement in order to seem respectable while bringing violence with them and exacerbating populist tensions.
    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

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