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.

Fascism versus Internationalism?

Fascism, as determined by many scholars, is sometimes contradictory and difficult to understand. For example, the ideas that fascism is very nationalistic by definition and arose to remedy problems concurring with a nation’s specific needs, are well accepted. So, if fascism is a national movement, how does it often relate or flirt with internationalism?

It may be hard to understand that nationalism and internationalism in this case can be related to one another, complementary not simply contradictory because of a western mindset. The western ontology and the remnants of modernism allow for a specific understanding of the world which puts all things in neat and orderly grids where lines are borders that cannot be crossed. It creates a dichotomous or binary vision of the world which can be dangerous, as we have seen in other articles by Gilbert Allardyce. However, even though the relationship between fascism and internationalism seem to blur fascism’s definition even more, scholars like David Motadel and Ruth Ben-Ghiat have made a case for this connection.

Motadel argues that fascism’s internationalism was established for ideological and practical reasons. Ideologically, fascism’s international entity comes from the cross-national united struggle against colonialist empires of Europe and North America. He argues that fascist nations and groups “forged a radical international against empire, characterized by transnational militancy and anticolonial solidarity” (p. 844). So, even though fascism is a national movement, it extend beyond borders to combat the fact that other peoples and community cannot be nation because of imperial powers.

It also is practical because as Ben-Ghiat argues, the fascist feared the power of other ideologies and nations if they were left uncontrolled as they though it might compromise or erase their national traditions and cultures as it can often be found in imperial colonies. In Italy, for example, intellectuals were allowed to travel to study other cultures and as they were very influential in the propagation of radical ideology in their home nation, they associated places like Russia or the United-States and women’s emancipation as bad because it interfered with what they believed to be the natural order of things with women at home, submissive to their husbands. It might then be important to look at the role of the intellectual class in disseminating radical ideas in the fascist context. It is common in other historical periods to see scholars or academics run away from systems that oppress freedom in research and the academia in general. However, according to Ben-Ghiat, most of the young intellectuals of the time in Italy fully supported the fascist government.

In brief, Motadel in his article The Global Authoritarian Moment and the Revolt against Empire and Ben-Ghiat with Fascist Modernities help us understand the ambivalent relationship between fascism and internationalism as a means to the fascist’s end in terms of ideology and protection of such ideals. Intellectuals also had a part to play in the internationalism as they travelled to study other “enemy” nations and made connections with others which led to a transnational anticolonial movement.

Works Cited

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

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, “Conquest and Collaboration” in Fascist Modernities: Italy, 1922-1945 (University of California Press, 2004), pp. 17-45 and pp. 123-

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,

Dylan Matthews, “I Asked 5 Fascism Experts if Trump whether Trump is a fascist. This is what they said” Vox May 19, 2016

Benito Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile. “The Doctrine of Fascism.” Enciclopedia Italiana. 1932.

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

The Ghost of Fascism

By Danielle Johnson*

Ever since its beginning in the early 30s, defining fascism has been a challenge for political scientists and historians. This, according to Gilbert Allardyce, historian and professor emeritus at the University of New Brunswick, is the reason for which the term has been loosely used in politics at the time he was writing his article What Fascism Is Not: Thoughts on the Deflation of a Concept. This was in 1979 and this thought interestingly still applies today in a contemporary setting. The tendency to reduce fascism to a general concept is a fallacy according to Allardyce and many more historians like Robert Paxton.

Consequently, this complex concept is used as an insult in the political sphere. But, how can one understand fascism as it is used today if it was a ghost of the past, an entity that was understood as never coming back to haunt this age’s political realm? Allardyce wrote that fascism should be “untranslatable” to other historical periods. Outside of its assigned historical frame, fascism becomes a generalization made by political candidates to serve their political agenda. Dylan Matthews proves this in his article I Asked 5 Fascism Experts if Trump whether Trump is a fascist. This is what they said. The use of the term fascism in the news and political sphere is used without its historical context reduces its meaning and destroys the plurality which defines it. It brings back the bipolar view of fascism as only existing in the Nazi state and Mussolini’s Italy, when in fact individual fascist movements rose everywhere with their own identities forged from the national needs and contexts. So, is it then possible to reapply these terms to a contemporary setting? Frederick Finchelstein and Matthews both refer to the fact that it is not in fact fascism represented in today’s global politics, but populism. They both understand a rejection of democracy as part of the defining aspects of fascism, rather than the rejection of said democracy for a certain minority only.

Thus, this use of fascism in a displaced context should warn us against the dangers of pulling historical elements from their place of origins. It should be clear that the vocabulary used to describe certain political systems around the world needs to be accurate, and that historians have a responsibility to point out the historical “shallowness” of the media.

*This author is using a pseudonym

Works Cited

Gilbert Allardyce, “What Fascism Is Not: Thoughts on the Deflation of a Concept,” American Historical Review 84 (1979): 367-98
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).
Dylan Matthews, “I Asked 5 Fascism Experts if Trump whether Trump is a fascist. This is what they said” Vox May 19, 2016
Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York, 2004), pp 3-23, pp. 206-220