III: The Core of Fascism
One of the problems with the easy bandying of the term "fascist" nowadays is that, by being loosely attached to figures who are only conservative -- including people like Rush Limbaugh and George W. Bush -- it obscures the actual mechanism by which genuine fascism manifests itself. It also lends itself to a hysterical assessment when clarity and focus are what's really needed.
Let’s take a hard look today at the actual nature of fascism, by way of understanding not just who really fits the description in today's world, but how much danger to the nation in the post-9/11 environment they actually represent.
As I mentioned, a definition is much easier in the case of communism than it is for fascism. My friend and fellow blogger John McKay points out that the work of defining fascism has spun its own cottage industry of competing models:
- Defining Fascism is a very slippery business. I spent most of a graduate seminar a decade ago studying and dissecting this question. There is no agreed upon and authoritative one-sentence definition for Fascism. In fact, fighting over one is a still-healthy cottage industry that provides employment for plenty of historians and political scientists. My own take on it is to emphasize two points that lead to this slipperiness.
The first is a point you already made: Fascism is mostly reactive in nature. It is more defined by what it is against than by what it is. First and foremost, it is anti-liberal. This is not necessarily the same thing as being conservative. We too often define political positions as a scale between two polar opposites, when reality is broader and sloppier than that. So, while Fascism is a thing of the right, it is not just extremism beyond normal conservatism. Next, it is anti-pluralist, which usually means nationalist, racist, and/or unilateralist. Fascists don't like to share.
Second, it is not just one thing. There have been many forms of Fascism. The popular image of Fascism is simply Nazism. Some scholars debate whether Nazism is one variety of Fascism or a separate (though related) phenomenon. I lean toward the variety school. During its heyday in the thirties, there were scores of Fascist parties in over a dozen countries. These evolved from earlier political movements and some survive in successor movements. The use of pronouns like proto-, post-, and neo- helps a little in sorting them out, but only a little. One reason for its persistence is its mutability. Most political societies can produce a fascism.
The first attempts to study fascism were largely conducted from a Marxist point of view, which predictably explained it primarily as a reaction against the "communist revolution." In many ways, that’s what it was -- though of course, it was also a great deal more. Many of these early studies, not surprisingly, reduced fascism to an aggressive form of capitalism. In the years after World War II, when fascism had largely been eradicated as a form of governance, studies of it expanded the definition considerably and created a far more realistic, nuanced and accurate understanding of it.
The bulk of these studies essentially defined it descriptively -- that is, as a series of various traits that were found to be pervasive among fascist systems. (This was the approach Umberto Eco attempted in his "Ur-Fascism" essay.) The best-known and -regarded example of this approach is Stanley Payne’s work, which offers a "typological definition" of fascism:
- A. The Fascist Negations:
-- Anticonservatism (though with the understanding that fascist groups were willing to undertake temporary alliances with groups from any other sector, most commonly with the right)
B. Ideology and Goals:
-- Creation of a new nationalist authoritarian state based not merely on traditional principles or models
-- Organization of some new kind of regulated, multiclass, integrated national economic structure, whether called national corporatist, national socialist, or national syndicalist
-- The goal of empire or a radical change in the nation’s relationship with other powers
-- Specific espousal of an idealist, voluntarist creed, normally involving the attempt to realize a new form of modern, self-determined, secular culture
C. Style and Organization:
-- Emphasis on esthetic structure of meetings, symbols, and political choreography, stressing romantic and mystical aspects
-- Attempted mass mobilization with militarization of political relationships and style and with the goal of a mass party militia
-- Positive evaluation and use of, or willingness to use, violence
-- Extreme stress on the masculine principle and male dominance, while espousing the organic view of society
-- Exaltation of youth above other phases of life, emphasizing the conflict of generations, at least in effecting the initial political transformation
-- Specific tendency toward an authoritarian, charismatic, personal style of command, whether or not the command is to some degree initially elective
Payne’s approach is useful, in the same way that Eco’s is -- it contains important descriptive information that helps us get a sense of the multifaceted phenomenon that fascism in fact is. (Payne’s typology is also a good deal more systematic and logically coherent than Eco’s.) But these approaches share a similar flaw -- that is, a number of the traits described in these systems also can clearly describe not only communism, which is by its nature the ideological opposite to fascism, as well as other political ideologies. In that sense, it’s clear these traits tend to be endemic to totalitarianism broadly -- they’re going to be woven into what is fascist, but they won’t be unique to it.
Much wrangling has ensued (Payne’s Fascism: Comparison and Definition was published in 1980). The long and short of it is that the consensus (and debate) since the early 1990s has tended to revolve around the work of Oxford professor Roger Griffin, who lectures on the History of Ideas at the school. His 1991 text, The Nature of Fascism, is considered by many to be the definitive work on the subject.
Griffin has essentially managed to boil fascism down to a basic core he calls palingenetic ultranationalist populism. (Palingenesis is the concept of mythic rebirth from the ashes, embodied by the Phoenix.) One of Griffin’s signature essays on fascism opens with this useful definition:
- Fascism: modern political ideology that seeks to regenerate the social, economic, and cultural life of a country by basing it on a heightened sense of national belonging or ethnic identity. Fascism rejects liberal ideas such as freedom and individual rights, and often presses for the destruction of elections, legislatures, and other elements of democracy. Despite the idealistic goals of fascism, attempts to build fascist societies have led to wars and persecutions that caused millions of deaths. As a result, fascism is strongly associated with right-wing fanaticism, racism, totalitarianism, and violence.
Griffin, of course, is an academic, but once you wade through the definitions and link it all together, it makes a great deal of sense, and actually provides some sharp definition to an otherwise murky phenomenon. In general, I’ve found all these studies, while often competing in nature, to be useful each unto themselves. (Another text I’ve obtained, an English translation of Harald Ofstad’s Our Contempt for Weakness: Nazi Norms and Values -- and Our Own, which is not generally available, has also proved very insightful and helpful, but it’s hard to recommend since few readers can get it.)
It’s clear that Griffin’s work gives the most concrete handle on fascism as a phenomenon, especially since he manages to drill down to its animating core. For the most part, other approaches to fascism mostly offer useful descriptive traits that clearly complement Griffin’s central concept. What makes Griffin’s argument so compelling is that the tripartite components of Griffin’s core -- palingenesis, ultranationalism and populism -- are nearly unique to fascism and appear mostly secondarily if at all among the other kinds of totalitarianism.
What is particularly useful about Griffin’s model is that it does not, like Payne’s and Eco’s, necessarily draw on the manifestation of a fully matured fascism for its examples. Thus, using these older analyses, we’re inclined to see fascism only as it replicates these older and mature forms. As Pierre-André Taguieff suggests, fascism will not return in a form we can readily recognize.
Griffin recently assessed the potential for a resurgence of fascism in an article in the British antifascist magazine Searchlight titled "Paper tiger or Cheshire cat? A spotter’s guide to fascism in the post-fascist era." He points out that if we look for fascism using the Payne or Marxist models, we’ll mostly be looking for it as a mature phenomenon:
- Certainly any definition that stresses the style, policies or organisation of interwar fascist regimes -- the charismatic leader, the uniformed choreography of "aesthetic politics", the territorial expansionism or Kafkaesque agencies of ministerial propaganda and state terror -- makes contemporary fascism dwindle to practically microscopic insignificance.
- If fascism is defined in terms of a core ideology of ultra-nationalism that aspires to bring about the renewal of a nation's entire political culture, then the picture changes. The features so firmly associated with it in the popular historical imagination cease to be definitional. Instead they can be seen as external and time-bound manifestations of the central ideological driving force that is its only permanent feature: the war against the decadence of society and the struggle for national rebirth.
If we think of fascism in these terms, a much clearer picture of it emerges. For one thing, we can recognize its antecedents throughout history, while also perceiving how the forces of industrialization and modernization reshape these ancient impulses into the thoroughly modern creature that fascism is. More to the point, we get a much clearer picture of the actual presence of latent fascist forces at work around the world.
Griffin’s definition tends to confirm the characterization of Islamic fundamentalists as "Islamofascists," but makes clear that there is one important difference: while fascism has typically sought to achieve "national rebirth" by fusing a mythologized notion of "traditional values" with modernist idealism, Islamists are irrevocably antimodern in their worldview. (Of course, this could be, as it is among far-right Christian Identity extremists, more a pose to recruit and discipline the faithful than a core principle, and thus it may be discarded when no longer convenient.)
It also confirms that such forces are at work in the United States -- though not, importantly enough, in the form of such mainstream GOP figures as Rush Limbaugh and George W. Bush. We may hear Republican luminaries from time to time refer to the theme of national rebirth, but not frequently enough that it’s become a major theme (yet); and their nationalistic and populist tendencies are well-known, but both are mitigated to a great extent by their steadfast refusal to partake of the conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism and other forms of extremist thinking common to populists.
However, as the little Eco exercise demonstrated, there are enough similarities between these figures and the behavior of historical fascists to throw up a warning sign. And as we’ll see, they do indeed play an important role in the potential for a resurgence of genuine fascism in America.
Next: Tracking fascism