The stench of new face of fascism
The stench of fascism is upon the land. Or, is it? The rise of Donald Trump in the U.S. with his fact-free speeches, Marine Le Pen in France, the Golden Dawn in Greece, and right-wing UltraOrthodox settlers in Israel, amongst others, all with their shrill racial rhetoric, and threats of violence, beg questions about the nature of democracy and the rise of fascism in countries with a democratic tradition. But are these groups fascists, or just media- savvy Know-Nothings?
Many years ago my parents gave me a copy of Sinclair Lewis’s classic 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here, about the election of a demagogic populist fascist as president of the U.S. What needs to be emphasized is that in this novel fascism comes to the U.S. through elections. However, contrary to what most people think, Hitler was democratically elected (the Bavarian peasant party casting the deciding votes).
So what is fascism? How do we define it? The term is thrown about so imprecisely that it loses any meaning. The American media has referred to Trump as the “New Furor” (pun intended), while the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz refers to right-wing Ultra-Orthodox settlers and their violence as theocratic fascists.
Defining fascism is difficult and often depends on the national and historical context. Fascism as a political movement is complex and takes different forms — that is, there are a variety of fascisms — as many historians have noted. There is a tendency however, to equate authoritarianism, totalitarianism, dictatorship, and racism, with fascism. But these are not synonymous. Nor does fascism necessarily have to be racist or anti-Semitic.
So what is fascism? Fascism is a specific statist ideology, which may or may not be racist in a particular national context, and is based on a particular form of economic organization. Historians and economists have identified those commonalities which define fascism from other economic and political formations.
Fascism takes both political and economic forms. In terms of economic organization fascism is statist in that it attempts to reconcile the differing economic and class interests of government (state), the business sector (capitalists), and unions and workers (labour).
Germany, Italy and Japan are often viewed as the stereotypical fascist models, however there were significant differences between them; Spain under Franco was an example Clerical Fascism. The fascism of the 1930s often exhibited three commonalities. First, the middle-class, and initially the working class, supported the rise of fascist governments as a result of their deteriorating economic position and their desire for social stability. Second, a repressive political apparatus was used against internal opposition, such as the concentration camps in Germany; and third, often a reliance upon a national “creation myth” such as the Japanese being descendants of the Sun God, the German Volk, or Italians glorifying ancient Rome. Today the Hebrew “Chosen People” invoked by Israeli settlers is the same.
Italy is an interesting case in point. Anti-Semitism was never part of Italian fascist ideology or its program. Mussolini once famously said,” We are Fascists, not anti-Semites.” He also had a Jewish mistress. Mussolini took power in 1922, but his regime did not become officially antiSemitic until 1938 as a result of German pressure. As historian Susan Zuccotti (Columbia University) has written in her, The Italians and the Holocaust, “Many [Italian] Jews were loyal Fascists from the start” and “many Jewish businessmen … helped finance the fledgling Fascist movement”; many Italian fascist literary magazines of that era had Jewish editors.
But it is extremely dangerous for people to confuse form and content when defining fascism. History does not have to repeat itself with black jack boots, torchlight parades or swastikas to be fascist or Nazis. History rarely repeats itself or takes the same form.
The new right-wing demagogues in various countries represent the frustrations and fears of their political base. By overusing and abusing the term fascism we run the risk of “crying wolf.”