Monday, September 27, 2004

Fascism: left or right?

Genius NZ asks "what is Fascism?" and attempts to debunk the "illusion" that fascism is a right-wing ideology. In the process he reaches the fashionable right-wing conclusion that fascists were socialists. Since I've been reading Kevin Passmore's Fascism: A Short Introduction recently, I thought I'd throw in my two cents.

Firstly, definitions of fascism vary. Traditional Marxist definitions see fascism solely in terms of class. An example of this can be seen in Reading the Maps' recent post on whether Destiny Church are fascists:

Fascism occurs when a capitalist class, or a section of the capitalist class, is unable to control an insurgent section of the working class using the normal insitutions [sic] of the state. Fascist leaders often come from the petty bourgeoisie or military, and they are called in because they can mobilise a section of the petty bourgeoisie and/or working class to smash organised labour and the left.

Fascist leaders also destroy bourgeois democracy (ie multi-party parliamentary democracy), because it is a luxury capitalism cannot afford in a revolutionary crisis. Fascist leaders also frequently rein in the 'free' market, using a 'corporate state' state to commandeer economic resources and to force puppet unions and a cowed bourgeoisie to cooperate 'in the national interest'.

The problem with this approach is that it puts too much weight on what is almost certainly a matter of historical accident. There's no question that early twentieth-century fascist movements rose to power with the collusion of wealthy conservative factions who feared the influence of communists. German conservatives made Hitler Chancellor in 1933 and helped pass the Enabling Act; Italian conservatives responded to the March on Rome by handing Mussolini the reins of power. But what about our own National Front? They're a group of criminal losers without any wealthy backing, but at the same time they're fairly clearly fascists. It also makes it difficult to distinguish between fascism and a standard right-authoritarian dictatorship (like that of Pinochet in Chile), and indeed difficult to distinguish what a fascist actually is (other than a pawn of capitalism). What it is good for is talking about causes (fascism does seem to be a response to crisis), and for placing fascism in its historical context.

A second approach is that adopted by anti-Marxist American scholars after WWII. Being anti-Marxist, they couldn't talk about class, and in any case their intent was to discredit communism by linking it with fascism, so they defined fascism as a form of totalitarianism. A checklist definition was provided by C. J. Friedrich (as quoted in Passmore):

  1. A single mass party, led by one man, which forms the hardcore of the regime and which is typically superior to or intertwined with the governmental bureaucracy.
  2. A system of terror by the police and secret police which is directed against the real and imagined enemies of the regime.
  3. A monopolistic control of the mass media.
  4. A near monopoly of weapons.
  5. Central control of the economy.
  6. An elaborate ideology which covers all aspects of man's existence and which contains a powerful chiliastic [messianic or religious] moment.

On this analysis, fascism is distinguished from communism by the ideology - fascists pursue an extreme form of nationalism which suborns all other interests to "the nation". Fascism is therefore the totalitarian pursuit of a nationalist utopia. There's some advantage here in that firmly fingers extreme nationalism - the belief that all interests must be suborned to that of the "nation" (usually defined in exclusivist and racial terms) - as being the core of fascism. It also points at the radical aspect of fascism - fascists seek to remake society and sweep away the old, corrupt one. But there's a danger of overstating the case. Fascists seem to be quite comfortable with existing structures and interests if they are not perceived as being incompatible with nationalism. There's also the weakness, shared with the Marxist analysis, of trying to push all enemies into the same box.

A third definition is that given by Umberto Eco in his essay Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt (itself part of a larger essay entitled "Ur-Fascism"). This identifies fascism as an irrationalist, ultra-traditionalist movement characterised by action for action's sake, a fear of difference, and contempt for the weak, born of a sense of frustration, humiliation, and feelings of being beseiged by a vast conspiracy (traits some may notice in a few of our local right-wing bloggers). It's an excellent picture of the psychology of fascism, but puts too much emphasis on the traditionalist aspects and not enough on the revolutionary ones.

Finally, there's Passmore's definition, which draws on some of the above. He identifies fascism as being essentially about ultranationalism, and the core goal as creating a "mobilized national community". He identifies it as reactionary - anti-socialist and anti-feminist - because those "isms" put class or gender above the nation, and as being of the extreme right, chiefly because of its extreme hostility to the traditional left. He also stresses fascism's radicalism, as it seeks to overthrow and replace existing elites who are perceived as having betrayed the nation, and because it will override traditional conservative and right-wing interests (such as private property) in pursuit of this goal. Finally, it is characterised by paramilitarism and a willingness to use violence, thuggery, and intimidation in pursuit of its goals.

Is this "socialist"? No. The hard core of fascism is nationalism - something traditionally associated with the traditional right - and this trumps any conceptions of class. Socialist-style policies may be pursued insofar as workers are identified as important to (or even defining) the nation, but they are not the goal, and woebetide any workers who put their own interests above the perceived interests of the nation (by e.g. striking for higher wages). While some historical fascists started out as socialists (notably Mussolini), this ultimately gave way to nationalist concerns (Mussolini ditched the socialists in 1915, and his movement waged a paramilitary war against them). Genius NZ is correct to say that fascism is not "a classic right of the political spectrum position in the modern sense", because the right is traditionally conservative, while fascism is radical and revolutionary. But it is of the right nonetheless. There are a great many similarities between fascist regimes and Stalinist ones, but that is due to the authoritarian nature of fascism - not because it is of the left.

As for US Republicans, there are some disturbing similarities which become apparent on reading the Eco piece, and they score a couple of ticks on Friedrich's definition. Worse is the growing influence of extreme right-wing elements. Orcinus has spent a great deal of bandwidth on the way that the Republicans' reaching out to gun-nuts and extreme fundamentalist Christians over the last decade has fed those extremist's memes back into the mainstream of the party, notably in his Rush, Newspeak and Fascism. And there's certainly a great deal of fascist-style psychology in the "conservative movement" at the moment. But they're not fascists - yet. What's scary is that they could quite easily go that way. One of my great fears over Iraq is what happens when the Americans lose. Because they're going to lose if they keep doing what they're doing - you simply cannot defeat that sort of popular insurgency with the current tactics - and then they will have a toxic combination of wounded pride, embittered veterans, and serious economic troubles. The parallel with post-Versailles Germany and Italy is striking, and some in America are already complaining of a liberal Dolchstoss (as they did after losing Vietnam). So while the Republican party isn't fascist yet, a loss in Iraq could tip some parts of them over. And then we should all be very, very afraid.