a very short introduction

by Kevin Passmore

Oxford University Press, 2002

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 conservative allies?

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 legislative powers.

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 one's surprise.

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 Codreanu.

The Kroll Opera House, Germany, 23 March 1933

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 uber alles'.

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 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.

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 Reagan (1980-8).

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.

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