Recently, we have been confronted by the rise of populist political forces supporting authoritarianism all over the world: Trump, Russia’s Putin, France’s Le Pen, Hungary’s Orbán and Erdogan from Turkey all belong to a very specific group, with similar ideological patterns, including disrespect for the elements of democracy; nationalism; using fear as a political tool; inciting anger against minorities, opponents and surrounding nations. Some commentators openly call them fascists and there is some online dispute under way as to whether they belong to the fascist camp. Google them one by one, and you find numerous articles on their fascistic nature, the majority written by journalists or non-experts.
Fascism – minimal definitions
However, the scholarly mainstream tends to avoid using the term: they prefer other expressions instead. The aversion to using the F-word has a long tradition in academe: in his world famous essay published in The American Historical Review in 1979, Gilbert Allardyce called for a virtual ban of the usage of the word, because of its loose character. According to him, fascism was an Italian phenomenon and the word could hardly be deployed in any general way. However, other scholars dealing with fascism (like Ernst Nolte, Stanley G. Payne, Theodor Mommsen, Emilio Gentile) used the world for similar systems outside Italy or Germany (some called these systems ‘fascisms’).
This group set about trying to identify the core elements of fascism. For Payne, for example, fascism included such strands as anti-liberalism, anti-communism, anti-modernism, anti-conservativism, the creation of a collectivist state based on oppression and the existence of a mythic nationhood, a party-army, emphasis on aesthetics and political belief, the tendency toward an authoritarian, charismatic, personal style of command, whether or not the command is to some degree initially elective.
Others also add a leader-cult. The aim of these scholars was to find the general meaning of fascism (a fascist minimal definition). Their lists were intended to serve as a checklist of fascistic features applicable to any ideology or system. They could be used to monitor the rhetoric of clamorous politicians. A similar project (but less systematic) was embarked on by the writer Umberto Eco, who developed his concept of the Eternal (Ur) Fascism in his brilliant and very personal essay, selecting 14 features which included the cult of tradition; the rejection of modernism; irrationality; fear of difference and diversity and hatred of independent thinking; permanent mental warfare inside and outside the country; ultra-nationalism; praising action over thinking; appealing to an aggrieved middle class and popular elitism; macho attitudes; a hatred of rotten parliamentarianism. If we check out these works, we find that most of the characters and ideas of the populists in our opening sentences fit into this framework of fascism – with the exception of high level forms of aggression, i.e. the abolition of the multi-party system, any free press, individual freedom, together with the instigation of actual war both inside and outside the country.
These approaches to common features were not espoused by Marxist interpretations of fascism, which preferred to stress the premise that fascism is an offspring and product of capitalism. There is little common ground between this analysis and the one mentioned above. According to this interpretation, fascism is the inevitable outcropping of a capitalist system where workers get become increasingly critical of their exploiters.In order to fend off any change to the status quo, the middle class (especially the petty bourgeois) makes a covenant with the bourgeois who own capital (the oligarchy), which results in the deployment of social terror to maintain their economic interests.
The Marxist interpretation of fascism made the concept considerably more fluid: many conservatives (and, in certain instances, democratic socialists) were labelled ‘fascist’ by orthodox Marxists from the thirties onwards. Later, the Marxist approach proliferated into several different versionss, all of which tended to draw the border between fascism and other ideological streams differently. For example Trotsky and others excluded traditional (democratic) conservatives or social democrats from the list of potential culprits.
It is worth pointing out that these Marxist interpretations would have allowed one to argue that today’s US, merely thanks to its income differential, where the bottom 80% of society owns only 7% of its wealth, is already a fascist state. And we can be sure that many of them would call Trump, the figure of a billionaire with racist and anti-democratic views, a fascist.
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