a very short introduction
by Kevin Passmore
Oxford University Press,
Aigues-Mortes, France, 1893
In the late 19th century, the saltworks
of Mediterranean France were largely unmechanized, and the task
of lifting salt was an exceptionally exhausting form of labour.
Under the blazing August sun, workers pushed heavy barrowloads
of salt along wooden planks to the top of an ever-higher heap
of salt. Since the work was seasonal, poor, itinerant workers
inevitably performed it, and because France suffered from a shortage
of labour, many of these were immigrant Italians.
On 16 August 1893, at the saltworks of
Aigues-Mortes, unfounded rumours that Italians had killed three
French workers triggered a veritable manhunt against the unlucky
migrants. The next morning, the police escorted as many Italians
as possible to the railway station. On the way the frightened
workers were savagely assaulted by Frenchmen. At least six Italians
were killed en route, and two elsewhere. Eventually, the Italians
were given refuge in the medieval Tour de Constance at Aigues-Mortes.
No one can say how many more Italians met anonymous deaths in
the saltmarshes in the following two days.
Brawls between French and immigrant workers
were common during this period, though not usually mortal. Antipathy
to foreign workers marked all political tendencies - at Aigues-Mortes
one column of French workers was headed by a red flag. Yet there
was something novel about the Aigues-Mortes massacre.
By coincidence, Maurice Barres, a writer
seen by some as one of the inventors of fascism, had set his 1890
novel, Le Jardin de Be're'nice, in Aigues-Mortes, and had used
the Tour de Constance as the symbol of a new kind of nationalism.
Barres rejected the liberal and democratic view that the nation
was the expression of the rational interests of individual (male)
inhabitants of France. For him, the nation emanated from a spiritual
feeling beyond normal human understanding - a view shaped by then
trendy psychological ideas about the collective human unconscious,
and by the literary symbolist movement, which believed that art
could access the hidden myths underlying human behaviour. Barres
saw the nation as the product of history, tradition, and of the
long contact of the French peasantry with the national soil. From
the top of the Tour de Constance the hero of Le Jardin de Be're'nice
is able to see the vastness of the French countryside. He communicates
with France's medieval past, and realizes that he, as an individual,
'is just a single minute in this vast country'. Barres's hero
was at one with the French soil. An immigrant never could be.
Barres might seem to be just another self-obsessed
artist, convinced that he possessed the keys to the human soul.
There is indeed plenty of that kind of arrogance in Barres's writings.
Yet there was more to him than this. In 1889 Barres had been elected
to represent the eastern city of Nancy in parliament as a follower
of General Boulanger, a soldier who had promised to cleanse France
of corrupt parliamentary politicians. Barres's electoral campaign,
moreover, had exploited the antisemitism of the Nancy population.
Increasingly, he saw nationalism as the solution to all problems.
A few weeks before the Aigues-Mortes massacre, Barres wrote a
series of pieces for the daily Le Figaro, under a headline that
needs little elucidation: 'Against foreigners'. These articles
were published at a time of poor relations between Italy and France,
when Italian immigrants were regarded as potential spies. Barres
was not directly responsible for the events at Aigues-Mortes,
but his novels and political journalism linked popular xenophobia
with the intellectual origins of fascism. In 1898 Barres referred
to himself as a 'national socialist'.
Rome, 16 November 1922
Newly appointed prime minister, Benito
Mussolini presented his administration to parliament on 16 November
1922. Although there were only 32 Fascists in the chamber, Mussolini
was supremely confident. Journalists found him in expansive mood,
posing as a man of will and decision. He obviously delighted in
the luxury hotel in which he had taken up residence (with his
shabbily dressed armed guard).
It was unclear what Fascism would mean
in practice. The 8 Blackshirts had not staged the 'March on Rome"
to see Mussolini become another high-living prime minister in
the Liberal regime.
They expected a thoroughgoing 'national
revolution'. Yet Mussolini did not owe his elevation to the Blackshirts
alone, for ruling liberal politicians had offered Mussolini the
premiership well before the Blackshirts arrived in the capital.
Who would have the upper hand - the Blackshirts or Mussolini's
Then there was Mussolini himself He told
a Times journalist that he intended to improve living standards
for the poor, and that the bourgeoisie had some nasty surprises
in store. Others learned that he would proclaim himself 'the prince
of reactionaries' and create a special ministry of police, or
that he intended to bend the people to his will in a new national
community. Mussolini was hardly less contemptuous of his own lieutenants
than he was of established politicians.
Mussolini's speech in parliament clarified
little. He multiplied assurances to the establishment, claiming
that constitutional government was safe. Yet he threatened deputies
with Fascist revolutionaries if they refused to grant him special
Turnu Severin, Romania, May 1924
Despite the weight of evidence against
him, Corneliu Codreanu, a 24-year-old law student at Iasi University,
wasn't especially worried as he awaited the verdict in his trial
for murder - perhaps because the jurors all wore swastika badges
in their lapels. Even the prosecuting lawyer had spoken of extenuating
circumstances: 'Anarchy had penetrated the university because
of the large number of foreigners', he said, adding an appeal
for 'Romania for the Romanians'.
Romania was rewarded for its part in the
Allied victory in the Great War with lands carved from the Austro-Hungarian
and Russian empires. These 'new territories' included substantial
minorities of Jews, Hungarians, and Germans, who were especially
numerous amongst the urban business and professional classes.
Romanians agreed that the 'new territories' must be fused into
a homogeneous Romanian national state, and that ethnic Romanians
should replace Jews in business and the professions. Some minorities
would be 'assimilated'; others - especially Jews - would be excluded.
Ethnic Romanian students like Codreanu
at the Iasi campus in Moldavia were at the forefront of the struggle
to 'Romanianize' the new territories - intellectuals in Romania
had traditionally seen themselves as the nationalist vanguard.
These radical nationalists, Romania's future lawyers and doctors,
held Jews responsible for the brief upsurge of left-wing activity
that had followed the Great War. Codreanu felt that Romanian students
were 'smothered by the immense mass of Jewish students from Bessarabia,
all agents of communist propaganda'. In 1922 a campaign for the
restriction of Jewish enrollment in universities (a numerus clausus)
erupted across Romania. Radical nationalists saw the government's
rejection of the restriction as evidence of the authorities' partiality
to Romania's enemies. Yet a student charged with assassinating
an alleged police informer was acquitted by the courts.
In October 1924 Codreanu murdered the
Iasi prefect of police, an opponent of the student movement. A
first attempt at trying Codreanu in the Moldavian town of Focsiani
was abandoned because of antisemitic riots. In May the trial reconvened
in the small town of Turnu Severin on the distant Danube, which
the government hoped would be quieter. Yet thousands of Codreanu
supporters stirred up antisemitic feeling. The whole town wore
national colours, and many sported swastikas. The Romanian Bar
Association tried to ensure that none of its members represented
the prefect's widow. Although the prosecution did manage to secure
the services of a weak counsel, Codreanu was acquitted, to no
Codreanu is best known to history as the
leader of the Legion of the Archangel Michael, otherwise known
as the Iron Guard. This fascist organization fought a bitter battle,
punctuated by political murders, against a succession of constitutional
governments, and then against a royal dictatorship. In November
1938 the royal government suppressed the Iron Guard, and garrotted
The Kroll Opera House, Germany, 23 March
The opening session of the last Reichstag
took place in the Kroll Opera House, situated on the Tiergarten
in central Berlin, for the Reichstag building had been destroyed
by fire a few weeks previously. Inside the hall a huge swastika
flag hung behind the platform occupied by the cabinet and president
of the Reichstag. To get to the hall, deputies had to run the
gauntlet of insolent swastika-wearing youths massed on the wide
square in front, who called them 'Centrist pigs' or 'Marxist sows'.
Communist deputies had been imprisoned because of the Party's
alleged involvement in burning down the Reichstag building. A
few socialists were also incarcerated, and another was arrested
on entering the building. Nazi stormtroopers lined up behind the
socialists and blocked the exits.
Only one item lay before the Reichstag:
an Enabling Law, giving the chancellor the power to issue laws
without the approval of the Reichstag, even where they deviated
from the constitution. Since the law entailed a change to the
constitution, a two-thirds majority was required, and the Nazis
therefore needed conservative support. Hitler's speech introducing
the proposed law reassured conservatives that neither the existence
of parliament nor the position of their icon, President Hindenburg,
were threatened. It was understood that conservatives would vote
for the Enabling Act.
Frowning intensely, Hitler read his declaration
with an unusual self-possession. Only in calling for public execution
of the author of the Reichstag fire, and in uttering dark threats
against the socialists, did his more habitual frenzy surface.
At the end of his speech Nazi deputies thundered out 'Deutschland
In reply, the socialist Otto Wels courageously
invoked the 'principles of humanity and justice, of freedom and
socialism'. Yet the French ambassador remembered that he spoke
with the air of a beaten child. His voice choking with emotion,
Wels concluded by expressing best wishes to those already filling
concentration camps and prisons. Hitler, who'd been feverishly
taking notes, passionately responded by accusing socialists of
having persecuted the Nazis for 14 years. In fact, Nazis had been
punished only mild y, if at all, for their illegal activities.
Socialists heckled, but stormtroopers behind them hissed 'you'll
be strung up today'.
The Enabling Law was passed by 444 votes
against the 94 of the socialists. It destroyed the rule of law
and laid the basis for a new kind of authority based, in principle,
on the will of the Fuhrer. In practice it licensed the Nazis to
act as they saw fit, in the 'higher interests of the German people',
against anyone deemed to be an enemy of the Reich. The socialists
were the next victims.
The term 'fascist' was first applied to a political movement combining
ultranationalism with hostility both to the left and to established
conservatism by Mussolini in 1919. Three years later Mussolini
came to power at the head of a coalition backed by conservatives,
and in 1926 he began to establish a full-scale dictatorship. By
this time Fascism was widely admired by a plethora of distinguished
political and literary figures outside Italy, not all of them
on the right. During the economic, social, and political crisis
beginning in 1929 Nazism made its `: breakthrough and came to
power in January 1933. While Mussolini set out to create a 'totalitarian'
society, Hitler embarked on the creation of a racial Utopia, a
dream that entailed the elimination of Jews from Germany and military
conquest of Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, significant fascist movements
emerged in many other European countries and in Brazil.
Increasingly, the struggle between fascism
and its opponents dominated the political landscape. Popular Fronts
against fascism won power in France and Spain. Even in countries
where there was little indigenous fascism, such as Sweden, left-wing
governments presented innovative welfare and agricultural price
support policies as means to fend off a potential fascist threat.
Mussolini's and Hitler's military expansionism spread the conflict
between fascism and antifascism to international relations too,
forcing even the pariah Soviet Union out of its diplomatic isolation.
From 1939 the Nazis' conquest of much of Europe permitted fascists
briefly to enter government in countries where they would otherwise
have remained in opposition, notably Croatia and Romania. But
the insatiable desire of Fascists and Nazis for conquest created
an international coalition which eventually crushed fascism at
the cost of millions of people dead, wounded, and displaced.
Famously, the American political scientist C. J. Friedrich defined
totalitarianism as follows:
1. A single mass party, led by one man,
which forms the hard core 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 real and imagined enemies
of the regime.
3. A monopolistic control of the mass
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.
Fascism is a set of ideologies and practices that seeks to place
the nation, defined in exclusive biological, cultural, and / or
historical terms, above all other sources of loyalty, and to create
a mobilized national community. Fascist hostility to socialism
and feminism, for they are seen as prioritizing class or gender
rather than nation. This is why fascism is a movement of the extreme
right. Fascism is also a movement of the radical right because
the defeat of socialism and feminism and the creation of the mobilized
nation are held to depend upon the advent to power of a new elite
acting in the name of the people, headed by a charismatic leader,
and embodied in a mass, militarized party. Fascists are pushed
towards conservatism by common hatred of socialism and feminism,
but are prepared to override conservative interests - family,
property, religious, the universities, the civil service - where
the interests of the nation are considered to require it. Fascist
radicalism also derives from a desire to assuage discontent by
accepting specific demands of the labour and women's movements,
so long as these demands accord with the national priority. Fascists
seek to ensure the harmonization of workers' and women's' interests
with those of the nation by mobilizing them within special sections
of the party and / or within a corporate system. Access to these
organizations and to the benefits they confer upon members depends
on the individual's national, political, and / or racial characteristics.
All aspects of fascist policy are suffused with ultra nationalism.
Imitations of Italian and German fascism appeared all over Europe
and the Americas in the inter-war years. Close inspection reveals
that some were not actually very similar to their supposed models.
Foreign imitators interpreted fascism according to their own lights.
They borrowed some features, modified others, and did not see
some important aspects at all. So not everyone who called themselves
a fascist was one in the sense in which we are interested. The
Mexican Goldshirts, organized in 1934, mimicked Italian and German
styles, but their nationalism was really closer to that of the
pre-1914 European radical right. Much the same applied to ultranationalist
groups in 1930s Japan. They admired some aspects of Nazism, demanded
institutional reform, militarization, and expansion overseas,
but they would have regarded the organization of a popular nationalist
movement as a crime against the emperor.
Genuine fascist movements also emerged
- even in countries with strong democratic traditions. In the
United States, the American-German Bund was genuinely fascist,
but gained at most 6,000 members at its peak.
The movement was partly a product of the
ill treatment of Germans, which had been common since America
entered the Great War (this was the period when the frankfurter
was renamed the hot dog). Although the Bund established some links
with the KKK, its appeal was restricted by this same anti-Germanism.
Father Charles E. Coughlin's National Union For Social Justice,
founded in 1934, was larger but less extreme - Coughlin won a
million votes in the 1934 presidential elections.
Fascists in the United States, Britain, and France didn't come
close to power. It is perhaps surprising that fascism should have
been so weak in the United States, given the extent of racism
in mainstream Protestant opinion (the KKK may have had between
two and eight million members in the early 1920s), the severity
of the economic crisis, conservative dislike of President Roosevelt's
New Deal, and the extent of isolationist opposition to American
involvement in the struggle against fascism in Europe. [In the
U.S.] the most convincing explanation for the failure of fascism
is that the social policies of the New Deal channelled anti-establishment
populism into the left rather than the extreme right. This was
all the more possible because racism was not absent from the mainstream
left or right in America.
At what point does a movement that abandons some of the key: features
of fascism cease to be usefully described as fascist? We might
find evidence that a movement consciously attempts to dupe the
electorate in the interests of obtaining power. In other cases
we won't. Even where we do find such evidence, we still have to
take into account the fact that hundreds of thousands of people
vote for parties in the conviction that they are not fascist,
and might not have done so had they thought that they were.
To resolve the problem we must return
to the question of definition. A concept can be elaborated according
to which cases we wish to include. If we want to include marginal
cases, we simply widen the definition a little. Yet there is a
cost, in that the definition's sharpness is reduced. Watering
down our definition of fascism highlights similarities between
historic fascism and the contemporary extreme right. But we have
to leave out important features of the definition, such as hostility
to electoral democracy and paramilitarism. The price of doing
so is that the distinctiveness of historic fascism, and especially
what differentiated it from other movements at the time, becomes
harder to pin down.
To my mind, the cost of weakening the
definition of fascism to include the contemporary extreme right
is too great. One alternative would be to use the term 'neo-fascist'.
It has the beauty of familiarity, and rightly in many cases reveals
a deliberate attempt to make fascism relevant in new conditions.
This term has the potential disadvantage, however, of obscuring
some fundamental differences between fascism and contemporary
forms of the extreme right. Whereas fascism sees the destruction
of democracy as a precondition for the triumph of ultranationalism,
the contemporary extreme right attempts to ethnically homogenize
democracy and reserve its advantages for the dominant nationality.
Their imagined society is perhaps closer to the South African
Apartheid state or to the ideals of white separatists in the United
States. I prefer to use the term 'national-populist' to describe
this form of movement.
The far right in the United States
The United States is another country in
which a well-rooted populism is capable of being turned to the
far right. Here, the origins of the extreme right were to be found
in the ranks of the disillusioned of both main parties. White
Southern Democrats resented the role of the Democrat administrations
of the 1960s in enforcing civil rights legislation. The KKK once
again expanded in this period, and some members backed the avowedly
racist dissident Democrat George Wallace's presidential bid in
1968. disillusioned Southern voters then turned to Ronald Reagan's
Republicans in 1980. Meanwhile, since the 1950s the right of the
Republican Party has denounced its own administrations' alleged
failure to have done with the New Deal's interventionist economic
policies, and for their supposed softness towards international
communism (some believed that President Eisenhower was a Communist
puppet). Again, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the ultraliberal
wing of the Republicans attacked President Nixon for his supposedly
interventionist economic policies. In the 1970s, this ultraliberal
right converged with the Christian fundamentalist movement, which
saw family and Christian schools as under attack by the state.
There were some incompatibilities between these three components
of the right - economic liberals, for example, disliked Southerners'
predilection for high spending on white voters. Nevertheless,
the two latter tendencies, with some themes borrowed from the
first, were extremely influential during the presidency of Ronald
Perhaps predictably, Reagan did not satisfy
his radical supporters. Abortion was not abolished, prayers were
not introduced into schools, and some disliked his willingness
to negotiate with Gorbachev. His successor, George Bush, worsened
discontent by raising taxes. More radical forms of rightism emerged,
with Pat Robertson's campaign for the Republican nomination in
1988. Radical rightism remained within the Republican party with
Newt Gringrich's Contract With America campaign of 1994, and with
Pat Buchanan's campaigns for the party's nomination in 1992 and
1996 Soon the cycle of hope and disappointment had set in again,
and discontent moved outside the established right. Buchanan ran
as candidate for the Reform Party in the 2000 presidential election.
He espoused all the traditional right-wing causes, such as antiabortion
and prayers in schools, and he decried the feminist and gay rights
movements. Buchanan also revived the right's old opposition to
US entanglement in world affairs. He saw Bush's announcement of
a 'New World Order' as a betrayal of American interests to the
big corporations and the partisans of globalization, and accused
free-trading governments of neglecting the interests of American
workers. Buchanan's campaign had much in common with European
national-populist movements. He gained 21% of the vote in the
1996 Republican primaries.
Comparison with the European experience
is still more intriguing if we examine another new movement -
the militias, or Patriot Movement, which sprouted in the wake
of the death of 76 people at Waco, Texas, in February 1993, as
a result of the FBI's siege of the headquarters of a religious
sect. The militias hold that the armed citizenry of the American
Revolution must prevent the federal government from running amok
again in the future. Only the gun-toting citizen can defend the
original constitution of the American people against a government
bent on selling out the country to the global world order, incarnate
in the United Nations. Combat-ready UN troops and their black
helicopters, it seems, have been sighted on American soil. The
original American freedoms, moreover, were held only by whites,
and were never intended for blacks.
The militias differ from European national-populists
in that they are strongly libertarian. They deny the government's
right to issue drivers' licences or tax the people. Some claim
that the government infringes the true meaning of the constitution,
others that the constitution itself was an imposition upon free
Americans, and even that the constitution is a cover for the continued
rule of the US by the British monarchy and its ally, international
finance. This hostility to a pro-globalization federal government
in the name of an ethnically pure nation recalls that of European
national populists to the European Union.
What are the prospects for fascism today? If there is one thing
that we should learn from history, it is that prediction is a
risky business. So far, however, no movement that openly assumes
the mantle of historic fascism has come close to making a political
breakthrough. The explanation for this failure is not only that
for most people fascism evokes fear, but that many of the features
of inter-war society that made fascism what it was - for example,
the medical profession's belief in eugenics, the conviction that
national security depended on a high birth rate among the 'native'
population and economic autarky, and young men's predilection
for uniforms and marching - are not so evident in contemporary
society. Nevertheless, there are neo-Nazi movements in most Western
countries. Fascism remains an 'available option', and there is
no reason to suppose that fascists could not gain power in circumstances
quite different to those pertaining in the inter-war years. Modern
society, after all, depends on a potentially fragile network of
trust and negotiation, which could easily come crashing down.
At the moment the prospects for national-populism
are rather better than those of fascism proper, as the rise of
the far right in France, Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, the United
States, and Russia demonstrates. The prevalence of racism in the
West, the demonization of Islam, fears that globalization is corroding
nation states, the belief that immigrants will undermine some
ill-defined national identity, and the conviction that politicians
are all corrupt suggest that further victories might be on the
way. It would be complacent to assume that democracy is now so
deeply rooted as to make it impossible for the extreme right to
win power, for democracy itself is not free from discriminatory
tendencies. Democracy is deeply rooted, but it is not always connected
to a belief that all human beings deserve equal treatment. For
many, it means simply the right of the majority to do as it wishes,
and national-populism has successfully exploited this conviction.
The success of Jean-Marie Le Pen in reaching
the second round of the French presidential election of 2002 demonstrates
the ingrained strength of national-populist racism in certain
areas of Europe, while his crushing defeat on the second ballot
reveals the extent of opposition to the extreme right in the rest
of society. Both the profitability of the extreme right's 'electoral'
strategy and its limits were exposed. Whether national-populists
will ever be able to convince a broader section of the population
that it really could solve all social and economic problems through
the ending of immigration and the return of women to the home
is open to question. Furthermore, while many people seem psychologically
troubled by the notion that the benefits of democracy might be
appropriated by people who are not like us', or who are considered
'undeserving' in some way, they might be less ready to give these
advantages up themselves. Would women be happy to see themselves
forced out of the job market? How would the inevitable labour
shortages and loss of purchasing power caused by the departure
of immigrants be dealt with? The inevitable problems might be
'resolved' peacefully. It is equally possible that a cycle of
violence and counter-violence might be unleashed, and that authoritarianism,
and even full-blown fascism, might emerge.