Metapolitical Chimerism of the Nouvelle Droite

By Absalom Sink

The protests of 1968 are often held up as the apotheosis of the New Left—to borrow from Hunter Thompson, the “high water mark[…] where the wave finally broke and rolled back”—as the student activism that undergirded them generally failed to meet their revolutionary aims. But as this week’s readings make clear, 1968 also served as a critical inflection point in the trajectory of the ultranationalist right: the French protests of May ’68 provided a crucial impetus for the genesis of a French, and later transnational, “New Right.”

Tamir Bar-On’s “Transnationalism and the French Nouvelle Droite” examines the ideological influences Alain de Benoist’s ‘Nouvelle Droite’ (ND), and the factors that allowed it to transcend national boundaries and become a transnational cultural and metapolitical movement. Bar-On predicates the ND’s success on the prolific output of its ideological architect, de Benoist, on the movement’s ability to metamorphose following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and its adoption of Gramscian hegemonic theory. The latter stems from de Benoist and his fellow travelers’ “hatred and envy for the [left] 1968ers”: the mass-mobilization of leftist activists and students had shown the radical right the extent to which left-wing politics had captured “hearts and minds”. The goal of the ND, then, was to “regain cultural power from the liberal left by regaining the ‘laboratories of thought,’” that is, through the creation of a web of think-tanks, journals, conferences, and by carving out spaces in universities sympathetic to ND discourse.1

Key to this right-wing neo-Gramscianism was a necessity for transmission and adoption of ND ideology and ethos beyond France. After all, communism, egalitarianism, socialism, liberalism all would continue to exist outside France even if ‘defeated’ within France, and thus might reenter the French cultural discourse. The fight would need to be transnational in order to succeed.2 The attempt to export ND abroad met with varying levels of success; Richard Marchi’s “The Nouvelle Droite in Portugal” argues that Portugal’s Nova Direita “seemed influenced less by the content and more by the methods of the French ND,” and adopted ND tactics like Gramscianism, while eschewing aspects like the ND’s anti-Christianism.

With all that said, it is crucial to recognize that even the French ND is not a static entity; rather, it is a metapolitical chameleon, changing its colours to camouflage its ideological underpinnings within the broader politico-cultural discourse. At core, the New Right is a “transnational ideological cocktail,” a chimera born from disparate parts, and everchanging to match the prevailing political conditions in such a way that it can always be tugging the discourse to the right.

1This right-wing Gramscianism has been reflected again in recent years in alt-right and far-right discourse about shifting the “Overton Window”

2 Similarities to Italy’s attempt to export fascism in the interwar years is not coincidental; as both Bar-On and Roger Griffin make plain, the self-described ‘superfascist’ Julius Evola was a key ideological influence on the French ND.

Works Cited

Riccard Marchi, “The Nouvelle Droite in Portugal: A New Strategy for the Radical Right in the Transition from Authoritarianism to Democracy,” Patterns of Prejudice 50, no. 3 (July 2016): 232–52.

Tamir Bar-On, “Transnationalism and the French Nouvelle Droite,” Patterns of Prejudice 45, no. 3 (July 2011): 199–223.

Roger Griffin, “Between Metapolitics and Apoliteia: The Nouvelle Droite’s Strategy for Conserving the Fascist Vision in the ‘Interregnum,’” Modern & Contemporary France 8, no. 1 (Feb. 2000): pp. 35–53.

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (New York: Random House, 1972)

Russia in Europe: A New Game, An Old Playbook

By Absalom Sink

Things fall apart; the centre looks less like it’s able to hold, as the European Union continues to be buffeted by the widening gyre of euroskeptic nationalism. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the rise of the European far-right isn’t exactly organic. In fact, you’d almost need to be willfully ignorant in order to miss the signs of Russian influence. The Kremlin has a well-established habit of supporting right- and far-right euroskeptic political parties and movements in Europe and beyond. In the short term, Russia’s goal is to agitate for the lifting of sanctions imposed on it following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. But its long-term goals are no less transparent: Russia wants to weaken NATO and the EU, and reestablish its hegemony over former Soviet Bloc countries. Vladimir Putin did, after all, call the break-up of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.”

Hence, Russia’s support for nationalists, particularly the euroskeptics: illegal funding for Italy’s Lega Nord; the Ibiza scandal involving Austria’s far-right deputy chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache; potential links between Russia and Germany’s AfD, the official opposition party; the miraculous loan from a mysterious Russian bank that kept Marine Le Pen’s Front National afloat in 2014; the list is long, and that’s without even touching on the likelihood of Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum or the 2016 United States presidential election. Still, if we remove the latter two—obviously huge wins for Russia if they tipped the scales in either case—the win-loss record is decidedly mixed. While Lega Nord did end up in a ruling coalition Italian government, Marine Le Pen was soundly defeated by Emmanuel Macron, and the Ibiza affair led to Strache’s resignation in Austria, to say nothing of apparent far-right failures in a handful of other European states recently.

But Russia’s record is spotty only if we count a Russian victory as being the installation of a sympathetic party in those countries. In reality, the Kremlin may be playing a much more nuanced game, one that instead harkens back to the Great Powers competition of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Before World War I, European states sought any advantage they could to tip the continental balance of power. An increasingly common tactic over that period was to back anti-colonial nationalist movements in opponents’ colonial empires, as a way to force that opponent’s focus inward. The Russian Empire themselves supported Armenian and Kurdish nationalists as a way to destabilize the Ottoman Empire. Nazi Germany revived the practice during World War II, hoping to undermine the British war effort by supporting Indian and Arab nationalist movements.

Remember, Russia’s goal is the disruption of the NATO and EU status-quo. In that regard, anything that weakens either is a point for Russia. The Kremlin certainly would have benefitted from a victory by Marine Le Pen, but it would be naïve to think that they haven’t benefitted simply from the uncertainty and political polarization that came with the contested 2017 French election. Even the renewed majority government that Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS)—famously frosty in its relations with Russia—won earlier this month is something of a minor victory for Russia, given PiS’ euroskepticism. If the Kremlin’s playbook in Europe is a throwback to those pre-WWI great power tactics, Putin and pals’ implementation is remarkably effective.

Still, it’s not all sunshine and roses for Russia. Their short-term goal of getting economic sanctions lifted is seeing little success. And even though Putin still looks to have his strongman hold over the country, “the shrinking economy, the shrill nationalism as a distraction from internal decay, an inward-looking elite feuding over the division of spoils while taking its monopoly on power for granted” might be signals of a crumbling grip, that some new revelation is at hand. If that’s the case, it yet remains to be seen what rough new beast will slouch towards Moscow to be born.

Women and Fascism

“History is written by the victors” is a phrase often heard and thought about in the context of historical analysis. How can we compensate for the fact that most histories are very biased? Looking at history from the “loosing side’s perspective”? How about those who are dismissed or simply overlooked? López and Lower both answer these questions by looking at a perspective that is often simply overlooked or dismissed as unimportant in previous historical analysis. López with the history of the role of conservative, far-right women as spies during the Spanish civil war, and Lower with the study of nazism-abiding women’s role in enabling the genocide take a stand for those forgotten perspectives because of their historical value. They both look at women who adhered to fascist ideologies, which can be an uncomfortable for today’s historians because it can be impossible to wrap our heads around the idea that some women would abide in a male-dominated ideology.

López makes a good point in reflecting on the fact that, even though it was a very male-dominated ideology that prescribed submission of women, women knew about the ideas associated with feminism (easily manipulated, fragile, innocent, etc.) and used it to their advantage to become spies. She goes as far as saying that even men on the fascist side acknowledged this power and how important women, young women were to the growth of the movement. This is fairly recent work. This pushes the question : how many more perspectives have gone without consideration? And how much would our understanding of the historical event change?

The answer is a lot of it would be flipped on its head and we can see this is Lower’s book. Lower points out the ways in which women, because of their assumed character (i.e. innocent and fragile) even though they enabled genocide, very few were punished for their actions during the Second World War. This was shocking as the male-prevalent historiography of the war rarely talks of the involvement of Aryan women in the holocaust.

Thus, looking at an overlooked perspective or one deemed impertinent by other historians like that of young women is crucial to the understanding of histories like that of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. However, one should be careful of not overcompensating for the lack of female perspective on the “loosing side” by overestimating their role in the causes in effects of these events, even though it is absolutely necessary that we understand their importance.

Agency and Complicity in Fascist Regimes

By Absalom Sink

There is a decades-long discourse on the extent to which populations under the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s—Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Romania, Francoist Spain on the right, and the Stalinist USSR on the left—were complicit in the atrocities committed by their states. It is a question we have touched on somewhat tangentially in previous weeks, but which becomes the central question of this week’s readings.

We have read of Fascists’ conception of gender roles, with masculinity rooted in stoicism and martial prowess in contrast to the feminine role as nurturer and reproducer, roles which were designed to constrain the agency of women and ensure ‘racial purity.’ And we have read of the victimization of women who refused to confine themselves to the rigid gender dynamics imposed upon them, women like Ilse Totzke in Laurie Marhoefer’s “Lesbianism, Transvestitism, and the Nazi State.” But as becomes clear in reading Wendy Lower’s book Hitler’s Furies and Lopez and Sanchez’s “Blue Angels”, historians and lay people alike have been all too willing to accept stories women’s victimization by Fascist regimes while ignoring the crucial roles that a staggering number of other women played in the administration of those regimes, and in the violence they wrought.

Lower traces the war-time trajectory of a handful of women in Nazi Germany. Some, like the Nazi-loathing nurse Annette Schücking, are rather sympathetic figures, especially when contrasted with others like Johanna Altvater, a secretary who moonlit as a murderer of Jewish children. But Lower also muddies the waters by making clear that participation in a regime totally committed to war and genocide means complicity in those crimes. Though the Nuremberg Tribunal exempted the clerks, the secretaries, the stenographers who staffed the SS and Gestapo offices, the Holocaust could not have been carried out without them.

Likewise, as Lopez and Sanchez make clear, Republicans were not the only women who took up arms in the Spanish Civil War. Many Nationalist women were involved in espionage and sabotage. But Nationalist writers, unable to square these women combatants with the Fascist feminine ideals—the “excellent virtues as loving mothers, selfless wives, the tenderness of the sister, the fidelity of the fiancée”—whitewashed history. The fighters were ignored, and the official account of Nationalist women had them “help[ing] the war effort by carrying out traditional feminine roles: nursing, charity and social services, sewing clothes, writing loving yet chaste letters to the soldiers, keeping the home warm and orderly for moment that the men should return victorious, and so on.”

In effect, by ignoring the part that women played in the Nationalist fight against the Republicans in Spain and in the machinery of genocide in the Third Reich, we are accepting at face value decades old Fascist propaganda; we are accepting the notion that men alone are the perpetrators of Fascist violence and that women are passive, wholly lacking in agency. Lower would disabuse us of that notion:

“Genocide is also women’s business. When given the ‘opportunity,’ women too will engage in it […] minimizing women’s culpability to a few thousand brainwashed and misguided camp guards does not accurately represent the idea of the Holocaust.”

Works Cited:

Kühne, Thomas. “Protean masculinity, Hegemonic Masculinity: Soldiers in the Third Reich.” In Central European History 51, Issue 3 (September 2018): 390-418.

Lower, Wendy. Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2013.

Rodríguez López, Sofia; and Cazorla Sánchez, Antonio. “Blue Angels: Female Fascist Resisters, Spies and Intelligence Officials in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–9.” In Journal of Contemporary History 53, no. 4, (Oct. 2018), pp. 692–713.

Marhoefer, Laurie. “Lesbianism, Transvestitism, and the Nazi State: a Microhistory of a Gestapo Investigation, 1939-1943.” In The American Historical Review 121, 4 (2016): 1167-1195.

Masculinity and Demographic Anxiety in Totalitarian Regimes

By Absalom Sink

Previous weeks’ readings have already investigated the cult of heroism, the glorification of violence, and the rejection of the “outsider” common to fascist movements. Here, we see those themes coalesce in a number of totalitarian regimes’ conceptions of masculinity. But for all the trumpeting of masculine values by these totalitarian ideologies, the particular gender constructs in question prove remarkably nebulous.

In Thomas Kühne’s “Protean masculinity, Hegemonic masculinity,” the author investigates the Nazi regime’s ideal of soldierly masculinity—”hegemonic masculinity” predicated on “physical, emotional and moral hardness”—as a component of the broader Nazi ideal of “collective will”. Kühne notes that men who met the “hardness” requirement were afforded greater leeway in participating in activities seen as typically un-masculine; at core, “emotional hardness meant decisiveness, aggression, brutality, discipline, and control over others: over women and weaker men, but also over oneself, one’s own body, impulses, and fears.”

It’s not much of a logical leap to recognize that the Nazi regime’s abhorrence of male homosexuality—to the point of criminalization—was grounded both in the view that homosexuality was an affront against the masculine ideal, but also in broader demographic anxieties. Male homosexuality was a threat to the reproduction of the “master race”. As Laurie Marhoefer explains in “Lesbianism, Transvestitism, and the Nazi State,” female homosexuality, by contrast, did not present the same threat and thus was not explicitly criminalized in the same way. Underlining this point, Marhoefer quotes a Nazi jurist who points out that “while homosexuality wasted a man’s potency […] ‘the woman who is inclined to lesbianism’ was ‘nevertheless capable of reproducing.’” That is not to say that female homosexuality was ignored; as Marhoefer makes clear, many in the regime viewed it as an outward indicator of additional “deviation”, and the Gestapo kept tabs on a number of women known or suspected to be lesbians. But by and large, as long as the ideal of man’s domination of woman was upheld, female homosexuality did not represent the reproductive threat of male homosexuality.

Similar concerns arise both in ideological fellow-travellers, like Italian Fascism, as well as in Nazism’s great illiberal ideological rival, Soviet communism. As Barbara Spackman explains, the Fascists inherited from Marinetti a paradox in which women are both bemoaned as vectors for feminization of males—“proximity of women turns boys into girls and heterosexuals into ‘pederasts’”—while simultaneously acting as the proving ground for masculinity via sexual conquest. Italy’s rebirth obviously requires reproduction, but bourgeois family values are held to sap the virility of the Italian man. For Marinetti—and given his philandering, one can assume for Mussolini as well—”Divorce, free love, and destruction of the bourgeois family” allow for the sporadic proximity that ensures masculinity, without leading to “effeminization.”

As Dan Healey explains in “Forging Gulag Sexualities,” in the Soviet Union it was actually the closure of the Gulag and the relative liberalization of the post-Stalin period that saw the crystallization of homophobia in the Eastern Bloc. While anti-homosexual laws had been on the books since the thirties, the regime’s tacit acceptance of homosexuality within the Gulag led to its proliferation; the closure of the Gulag actually saw an increase in the enforcement of anti-sodomy laws, and “both official and popular attitudes towards homosexuality hardened as a result of the reform of the Gulag and wider reforms of Soviet society under de-Stalinization.” Here again, a crucial component of the homophobia, and the implied Soviet value of masculinity, was the “demographic anxiety already [that] stalked all official deliberations touching on sexuality and gender relations.” Having lost some 26 million people during World War 2, the Soviet Union was yet another totalitarian state focused on a sort of rebirth.

Works Cited

Healey, Dan. “Forging Gulag Sexualities: Penal Homosexuality and the Reform of the Gulag after Stalin.” In Russian Homophobia from Stalin to Sochi (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2017).

Kühne, Thomas. “Protean masculinity, Hegemonic Masculinity: Soldiers in the Third Reich.” In Central European History 51, Issue 3 (September 2018): 390-418.

Marhoefer, Laurie. “Lesbianism, Transvestitism, and the Nazi State: a Microhistory of a Gestapo Investigation, 1939-1943.” In The American Historical Review 121, 4 (2016): 1167-1195.

Spackman, Barbara. Fascist Virilities: Rhetoric, Ideology, and Social Fantasy in Italy (Minneapolis, 1996)

Fascist Commodification of Leisure, and the Purchasing of Popular Consent

By Absalom Sink

In 1926, shortly before his arrest by Mussolini’s Fascists, the Italian Marxist politician and philosopher Antonio Gramsci laid out his theory of hegemony, that is, the ruling class’ domination and imposition of its worldview onto a society. This domination depended in part on coercive means (ie. violence), but to an even greater extent on the consent of the ruled. Without sufficient buy-in from the non-ruling classes, the hegemonic class would be unable to maintain its control over the state. All four sources this week deal with the ways in which the ruling parties in a trio of fascist states—Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Falangist Spain—manufactured or purchased the consent of their nations’ populaces.

Maiken Umbach’s “Selfhood, Place, and Ideology in German Photo Albums, 1933-1945” describes a particular socio-cultural discourse between hegemon and subaltern in Nazi Germany: the “appropriations and reappropriations of visual templates” between state propaganda and amateur photography in the Third Reich. On the one hand, Hitler’s photographer Heinrich Hoffman mimicked the snapshot form of amateur photographers as a means of creating an artificial intimacy between the Fuhrer and the viewer, “as a counterpoint to the calm composedness of more obviously staged propaganda imagery that usually documented official occasions.” On the other, Hitler’s pensive, nature-bound poses were adopted by the German masses in their own snapshots, subconsciously buying in to Nazi propaganda of the Germans’ connection to the land (contrasted with the “rootlessness” of diasporic Jews and Roma). Combined with Germany’s position at the forefront of camera technology—typified by Leica, Zeiss, Rolleiflex—Umbach concludes that the interplay between state and private photography “did not turn people into Nazis per se, but it did prove conducive to the ambitions of totalitarianism: as a form of affective and performative political behavior that transcended that which had traditionally been defined as the business of politics.”

Shelly Baranowski’s Strength through Joy, by contrast, is much more direct, as it investigates the titular organization within the Third Reich, the Kraft durch Freude (KdF). The KdF was, in essence, an attempt by the Reich to weaponize the leisure time of the working- and middle-classes, both to “prove” the extent to which the regime had improved the lives of its workers, and to inculcate in ethnic Germans a sense of racial superiority. Its primary method of achieving those goals was the organization of heavily subsidized and heavily regimented tourist travel, both within Germany and throughout Southern Europe and North Africa. And in spite of some persistent problems in the program—inter-class and inter-regional strife, for instance—the KdF was largely successful in its aims. AAs Baranowski explains, “the images of smiling tourists traveling to previously inaccessible places became a metaphor for the regime’s ‘achievements’.”

Both Crumbaugh and de Grazia’s pieces examine similar methods by which Francoist Spain and Mussolini’s Italy, respectively, attempted to buy the consent of their people. In de Grazia’s it was through state appropriation, reorganization, and codification of traditional Italian pastimes, while in Crumbaugh’s it was through Spain’s opening to foreign and domestic tourism. Both states were less effective than the Third Reich in coopting leisure in such a manner; the Italians simply never received the same level of buy-in from the ruled classes, particularly the working class, while in the case of Spain, Crumbaugh argues that the state’s attempt to dupe the people into a sense of freedom actually did lead to gradual economic and even political liberalization, wholly contrary to the state’s goals.

If we can accept the premise that these three fascist states resorted to means other than the coercive power of state terror to rule—specifically, by purchasing the consent of the masses—we’re left with an important question: to what extent were they successful in actually being granted that consent, as opposed to taking it by force? In the case of the so-called “Good Germans,” for instance, were those who claimed after the war to have opposed the Reich but been too afraid resist telling the truth? Or had they willingly sold their consent?

Works Cited:

Baranowski, Shelly. Strength through Joy: Consumerism and Mass Tourism in the Third Reich. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Crumbaugh, Justin. “Prosperity and Freedom Under Franco: the Grand Invention of Tourism” in Destination Dictatorship: the Spectacle of Spain’s Tourist Boom and the Reinvention of Difference, 15-41. New York: SUNY Press, 2009.

de Grazia, Victoria. The Culture of Consent: Mass Organisation of Leisure in Fascist Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Ramos, Valeriano, Jr. “The Concepts of Ideology, Hegemony, and Organic Intellectuals in Gramsci’s Marxism.” In Theoretical Review 27 (March-April 1982). https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/ncm-7/tr-gramsci.htm

Umbach, Maiken. “Selfhood, Place, and Ideology in German Photo Albums, 1933-1945.” In Central European History 48, 3 (2015): 335-365.

Nationalist Internationalism, or Internationalist Nationalism?

By Absalom Sink

(Note, this piece was posted nearly a week late, thus any references to “this week” actually pertain to the week ending on Saturday, September 20)

As David Motadel points out in his New York Times opinion piece from July 3, 2019, there is an apparent paradox at play in the international cooperation between the far-right, ultranationalist parties of Europe. In the EU Parliament, a broad assortment of far-right Eurosceptic nationalist parties—including France’s National Rally, Italy’s Lega Nord, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland—has coalesced into a more-or-less united bloc. Motadel quickly moves to the obvious question: “Why are nationalists so eager to embrace an ethos of international cooperation?” These are, after all, the people who frame international politics as a zero-sum game, in which a nation only wins through another nation’s loss. Why would a French nationalist ally with a German nationalist?

Of course, as a number of this week’s readings make clear, far-right nationalists have a long of forging international bonds. In his opinion piece, Motadel quotes George Orwell as pointing out in 1937 that “fascism is now an international movement, which means not only that the Fascist nations can combine for purposes of loot, but that they are groping, perhaps only half-consciously as yet, towards a world system.” In particular, arch-nationalists are able to coalesce into international alliances when confronted with a common foe. For Germany and Japan in 1935—with the addition of Italy and Spain in 1937, and a handful of other nations in 1941—the common enemy was the Comintern. For today’s European far-right, the primary adversary is the European Union itself, upon which they project a plethora of grievances, both shared and local: the EU’s supposed ‘softness’ on immigration from the Middle East, the supposed influence of international Jewish finance, fiscal austerity, liberalism, etc.

As Motadel makes clear in another of this week’s readings, “The Global Authoritarian Moment: The Revolt Against Empire,” this particular form of internationalism can make for some strange ideological bedfellows. The piece highlights the Third Reich’s support during World War II of anti-colonial and anti-imperial movements throughout the British and French colonial empires, which presents another strange, apparent paradox: a regime founded on the claimed racial superiority of white Northern Europeans, helping to foment revolutions by colonized populations against other white Northern European states. In reality, the Nazis were drawing on a still-older playbook, reviving a tactic used during WWI of supporting colonial revolts against their colonizers. The Reich’s support for the Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose or the Palestinian Amin Al-Husayni did not spring from ideological alignment—although Al-Husayni was an ardent cheerleader for the Nazis’ antisemitism—but rather from cynical expediency.

Paul Hanebrink’s A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism highlights a second feature of nationalist internationalism: the need for a central myth. The particular myth on which Hanebrink focuses reveals the internal inconsistency of far-right mythologizing, the incongruous idea that Jews simultaneously control world finance, and are responsible for the Bolshevik system which sought to overthrow financial capitalism. It’s a tension that has never been adequately resolved, and yet the twin conspiracies of Judeo-Bolshevism and a shadowy, world-dominating cabal of Jewish financiers that provided a cornerstone for the Nazi political structure are still held up—contradictions and all—by the Third Reich’s ideological descendants. Far-right groups need an ‘other’ on which to hang their grievances, and the Judeo-Bolshevik myth “offered its users a way to interpret the multiple dislocations caused by economic modernization, democratization, and cultural pluralism”

We see these two factors today in the coalition of Europe’s far right: the “pragmatic” necessity of banding together against a common enemy, and the reliance on myth to create that enemy. These days, it’s less about Judeo-Bolshevism—though that remains a common refrain—and more about alternative myths, like the so-called “great replacement theory.” The song the EU’s Eurosceptic bloc is singing isn’t a new one after all. It’s just a variation on a theme.

Works Cited:

Hanebrink, Paul. A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2018.

Motadel, David. “The Global Authoritarian Moment: The Revolt Against Empire.” In American Historical Review 124, Issue 3 (July 2019): 843-877.

Motadel, David. “The Far Right Says There’s Nothing Dirtier Than Internationalism – But They Depend on It.” New York Times, July 3, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/03/opinion/the-surprising-history-of-nationalistinternationalism.html

On Fascism and Right-Wing Populism, By Absalom Sink✢

In years past, when I was a much younger man of more active politics, I, like many of my peers, had the habit of leaning on a particular word when describing those deemed far to my political right. Fascist, I called them. Relatively ignorant of history, and certainly ignorant of pre-World War II Italian history, I had picked the word up from my older friends, my political mentors. This was the term to be used against as much to describe police and conservatives as it was for racists and neo-Nazis. I was an anti-fascist, opposed to bigotry, fighter-for-what’s-right.

Essentially, I fell into the trap that Gilbert Allardyce was lamenting decades earlier, writing in 1979’s “What Fascism is Not”. Allardyce argues that the term is so nebulous, so open to interpretation by sociologists, historians, and political scientists—let alone the public—that it becomes both difficult to take seriously, and all-but-useless as a focus of scholarship. The crux of his argument could be summarized by a quote he borrows from an earlier article by Stanley Payne titled “Spanish Fascism in Comparative Perspective,” in which Payne concludes that “the term fascism can be applied to the entire broad genus only at the cost of depriving it of any specific content.” Fascism to Allardyce is a term whose use as a descriptor ought to be confined to political movements from the period of 1919-1945 or so; anything outside that timeframe ought not be classified as “fascism,” much as the term “romanticism” is reserved for the artistic movement temporally bound to the early 19th century.

In the past few years, the term “fascist” has seen increasingly widespread use, as right-wing populism gains both in popularity and political clout. Questions swirl as to whether or not Donald Trump is a fascist, to say nothing of arguably still further-right figures like Viktor Orbán, Jarosław Kaczyński, and Marine Le Pen. Of course, even ignoring Allardyce’s exhortation to not apply the term “fascist” outside the early 20th century, there is a set of core characteristics of fascism, as Dylan Matthews argues*, few of which the above mentioned populists evince. For instance, none of them advocate an outright rejection of democracy, and few are fervent anti-individualists in the vein of Mussolini; indeed, as Matthews points out, Trump is fervently pro-individualist. And while today’s borderline mainstream populists may inspire violence, they rarely advocate for it directly. By contrast, as Zeev Sternhell explains, the early 20th century saw the proto-fascist Georges Sorel calling violence “something very beautiful and heroic,” not just a means to an end, but a worthy goal in itself. And Mussolini himself valorized violence while decrying pacifism, exhorting that “war alone maximizes to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have the courage to meet it” in his 1932 essay “The Doctrine of Fascism.” Peace is “thus hostile to the spirit of Fascism”.

It is crucial to recognize that Fascism arose in response to a particular set of historical circumstances in Europe in the post-WWI years. By contrast, as Cas Mudde argues, today’s right-populist wave—what he and others describe as “illiberal democracy”—arose from its own set of historical circumstances; in particular, as a reaction to inequality and feelings of disenfranchisement brought on by the undemocratic, technocratic implementation of liberal economic and political doctrine. Mudde argues that the neoliberalism that emerged in the US and Western Europe in the 1980s and its attendant increase in financial inequality and instability has inculcated a popular reaction, which opponents of liberalism have stoked through charismatic leadership and effective propaganda in order to gain power and enact illiberal agendas. But unlike Mussolini or Franco, they gain that power through democratic means; thus, definitionally, they cannot be fascists.

With age and education, I am better able to reckon with the mistakes of my youth. We are clearly facing a right-wing populist “moment” today. But even a salty, battle-scarred old radical like me recognizes that those ascendant populists and would-be authoritarians should be fought and denounced on their own qualities; fascists they are not—at least not at present—and to call them otherwise not only undermines the damage caused by the real fascists of the early 20th century (ie. “cheapens the term”), but also risks any criticism not being taken seriously (a sort of “boy who cried wolf” syndrome). There certainly are still fascists to be “anti-“—as Dylan Matthews makes clear, Greece’s “Golden Dawn” would qualify, as might any number of homegrown, anti-democratic “Western” chauvinists—but as for the more mainstream, right-wing pop-authoritarians like Donald Trump, better to find terms with which to criticize them without resorting to ahistorical, imprecise name-calling.

✢ This author has used a pseudonym.

*For a still more in-depth read of the characteristics of fascism, Umberto Eco’s 1995 article Ur-Fascism is an exceptional resource.

Works Cited

Gilbert Allardyce, “What Fascism Is Not: Thoughts on the Deflation of a Concept,” American Historical Review 84 (1979): 367-98

Cas Mudde, “Populism in the Twenty-First Century: an Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic Liberalism” The Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy, University of Pennsylvania, https://www.sas.upenn.edu/andrea-mitchell-center/casmudde-populism-twenty-first-century

Dylan Matthews, “I Asked 5 Fascism Experts if Trump whether Trump is a fascist. This is what they said” Vox May 19, 2016 https://www.vox.com/policy-andpolitics/2015/12/10/9886152/donald-trump-fascism

Benito Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile. “The Doctrine of Fascism.” Enciclopedia Italiana. 1932. http://facweb.furman.edu/~bensonlloyd/hst11/mussolinidoctrines.htm

Zeev Sternhell, The Birth of Fascist Ideology: From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution (Princeton University Press, 1994).