“It would be so much easier for us,” wrote Umberto Eco in his 1995 essay Eternal Fascism “if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, ‘I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Blackshirts to parade again in the Italian squares.’ Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances — every day, in every part of the world.”
— A Review of Robert O. Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism —
To label someone a Fascist today has lost all meaning, so often is that insult hurled, but the political ideology of fascism again presents a clear and present danger. Fascism lives on in many forms, like a deadly virus frozen in arctic ice, waiting for the thaw to reanimate.
But what is fascism? Where does it come from? How can we spot it in its early stages? In his study The Anatomy of Fascism, Robert Paxton attempts to draw together the disparate strands of research into what he calls “The major political innovation of the 20th Century, and the source of much of its pain.”
Deeply concerning, to even a casual observer, is how closely the conditions which enabled the rise of fascism in the 1930s resemble the modern world.
Fascism was born in a Milanese meeting room on 23rd March, 1919. Benito Mussolini convened the first meeting of his Fascist Party, with around one hundred followers. Within 25 years the ideology had wrought the worst suffering the human race had ever seen, or even been able to imagine. What might that ragtag gang of disaffected socialists, intellectuals, futurists and First World War veterans have thought had they been confronted with the images of horror which their ideology would produce?
Paxton is at pains to point out that fascism did not occur in a vacuum. There had been precursors, nationalists morphing into authoritarians; racialists; uniformed thugs seeking to protect their status (he points out the Ku Klux Klan as an interesting early example). But in order to take root fascism needs the correct conditions.
The advent of universal suffrage after the First World War was key. Most of the uneducated masses had no idea how to use Democracy to their advantage, and many rejected it altogether, either through allegiance to Communism or fascism. Worse still, the existing conservative elite, raised to believe they had a right to rule, had no idea how to communicate with the common man. They had lost touch, in modern parlance, and so were rejected by the working men of Europe. Instead the proletariat, and more importantly, the bruisers and thugs who had ruled the streets of European slums, gravitated towards demagogues like Mussolini, Thaelmann, Hitler et al. It was, as William Shirer put it, as if the gutter had risen up, flooding the streets. Thomas Mann was even less charitable. “The common scum had taken power, accompanied by rejoicing of the masses.” In Mann’s words though, we find a cause of proletariat rage: the contempt in which they were held by the educated classes. So fascism came as the evil kid brother of the more established Communist movement, and then came to be its nemesis.
It is all well and good being “for the people” as these demagogues claimed, but the reactionary mind craves something to be against, and the early fascists found its anti-thesis in the internationalism of the left. It presented itself to the working man as the antidote to International socialism or communism, instead claiming to be a kind of national socialism, defined by its difference from other nations. “We Germans/Italians/British/Spanish etc, will not be dragged into an amorphous European mass.”
The fascists used the overt nationalistic propaganda of the war, against the elites which had fostered it. In modern times the Fascist can easily call upon the European project as the greatest threat to “us,” whoever “we” are. Witness Le Pen or Farage and the rage they tapped to bring about Brexit, (and perhaps a future Frexit?)
Of course, the promises made to the hoi polloi were as hollow as the ideology itself. Paxton notes that “when the Fascists came to power they did nothing to carry out their anticapitalist threats,” instead they “enforced with the utmost violence their threats against socialists.” Why?
The answer lies in the expedient minds of the Fascist leaders. Whilst they spoke of the universal good, all of them were motivated by power. The Fascist is first and foremost an opportunist, who will play upon any fear, roll any dice, and get in to bed with any party who can help him (and it is almost always a him) climb the ladder.
Both Hitler and Mussolini, and Paxton’s main focus is on the two most notable Fascist states of Europe, realized that motivating a small section of the working classes, and a fair number of petty bourgeoisie would not be enough. They had to use their popularity with a minority of voters, many of whom were willing to use violence to achieve their goals, as a stick against ruling elites. No fascism has ever prospered without the approval of existing conservative elites. The working people of today should take note: they, like their forebears, are being sold snake oil.
This opportunism lies at the heart of why fascism has proven such a difficult ideology to characterise. Every fascism is different, as Paxton notes. Each must appeal to the peculiar grievances and fears of its target audience, as well as appealing to their unique sense of nationhood, and national myths. Thus, if fascism came to England, it would cloak itself in Arthurian legends; the myth of “the few”; the glory days of the British Empire. If it came to the United States we would hear talk of the self-made American; the pioneers; the city upon a hill etc. That these national myths are based on falsehoods is irrelevant. They stir the passions of the masses. One only has to watch a Donald Trump rally to see this effect at first hand.
Fascism needs a sense of grievance. A call back to something that has been lost, and a call for national regeneration. Return to the good old days (Make America Great Again is a perfect example). Hitler had his treaty of Versailles, ISIS have their humiliation of the Ummah at the hands of Jews and Crusaders.
Because it feeds upon the national self-image, fascism finds it incredibly difficult to cross borders. Unlike its mirror image, communism, it is confined to a single identity. There is nothing in fascism which guarantees it becomes racist, but it always ends up that way because of its exclusion of the other, as being not part of the national identity. Indeed, as Paxton points out, a number of Mussolini’s early backers were Jewish.
What is more fascism calls for strength. Modernity represents weakness. Compromise represents weakness. The call for strength flirts with the muscular, angular manual worker, enticing him on to the dance floor. These men whose lives are defined by their physical prowess are naturally drawn to an ideology which makes great virtue of their only commodity, which promises to make them for once masters of their own destiny. When Donald Trump tells unemployed auto-workers in Detroit that he will order manufacturers to return the industry to their city, we must understand that he is doing this for a specific reason. The spectacle of the rally, mirroring those of the 1930s, has a peculiar allure to the individual. The appeal is towards the sense of being a part of something larger than oneself. If you can convince an auto-worker that he is a player in a cosmic struggle between good and evil, you might just get his complete obedience.
Paxton’s work is of the utmost importance to us today. All around the world we see these twisted and hateful ideas on the rise. From Poland to Hungary, from Brexit to the rise of Trump, the people are rejecting the status quo, and just like in the 1930s, the elites are losing touch and failing to communicate their ideas. In the Arab world, the sense of grievance is played upon by the Muslim Brotherhood, in the United States the urge towards regeneration and purification is played upon by the Christian-right Dominionists.
If we are to prevent a return to what WH Auden called “That low, dishonest decade,” we must be ready to face the challenges presented by the extremists, the bullies, the thugs and bruisers whose predecessors wrought so much damage to our species. This might also, alas, include accommodating and ameliorating the fears, however unfounded, that the masses feel. Fear of the other, and of progress or change, is a normal human reaction. It could even be that this is our natural state, an evolutionary hangover from the long gone days when family, clan or tribal loyalty ensured the survival of our genes. A hangover which is expressed today through nationalism, in group/out group enmity, even sports teams and rival schools. How can we prevent the outbreak of hostilities based upon such pointless disagreements in the future? Paxton, as a historian, offers no easy answers, but it is through a close reading of the history of our nadir, that we can prevent a catastrophic return.