Washington, DC (openDemocracy) – Recently, we have been confronted by the rise of populist political forces supporting authoritarianism all over the world: Trump, Russia’s Putin, France’s Le Pen, Hungary’s Orbán and Erdogan from Turkey all belong to a very specific group, with similar ideological patterns, including disrespect for the elements of democracy; nationalism; using fear as a political tool; inciting anger against minorities, opponents and surrounding nations. Some commentators openly call them fascists and there is some online dispute under way as to whether they belong to the fascist camp. Google them one by one, and you find numerous articles on their fascistic nature, the majority written by journalists or non-experts.
Fascism – minimal definitions
However, the scholarly mainstream tends to avoid using the term: they prefer other expressions instead. The aversion to using the F-word has a long tradition in academe: in his world famous essay published in The American Historical Review in 1979, Gilbert Allardyce called for a virtual ban of the usage of the word, because of its loose character. According to him, fascism was an Italian phenomenon and the word could hardly be deployed in any general way. However, other scholars dealing with fascism (like Ernst Nolte, Stanley G. Payne, Theodor Mommsen, Emilio Gentile) used the world for similar systems outside Italy or Germany (some called these systems ‘fascisms’).
This group set about trying to identify the core elements of fascism. For Payne, for example, fascism included such strands as anti-liberalism, anti-communism, anti-modernism, anti-conservativism, the creation of a collectivist state based on oppression and the existence of a mythic nationhood, a party-army, emphasis on aesthetics and political belief, the tendency toward an authoritarian, charismatic, personal style of command, whether or not the command is to some degree initially elective.
Others also add a leader-cult. The aim of these scholars was to find the general meaning of fascism (a fascist minimal definition). Their lists were intended to serve as a checklist of fascistic features applicable to any ideology or system. They could be used to monitor the rhetoric of clamorous politicians. A similar project (but less systematic) was embarked on by the writer Umberto Eco, who developed his concept of the Eternal (Ur) Fascism in his brilliant and very personal essay, selecting 14 features which included the cult of tradition; the rejection of modernism; irrationality; fear of difference and diversity and hatred of independent thinking; permanent mental warfare inside and outside the country; ultra-nationalism; praising action over thinking; appealing to an aggrieved middle class and popular elitism; macho attitudes; a hatred of rotten parliamentarianism. If we check out these works, we find that most of the characters and ideas of the populists in our opening sentences fit into this framework of fascism – with the exception of high level forms of aggression, i.e. the abolition of the multi-party system, any free press, individual freedom, together with the instigation of actual war both inside and outside the country.
These approaches to common features were not espoused by Marxist interpretations of fascism, which preferred to stress the premise that fascism is an offspring and product of capitalism. There is little common ground between this analysis and the one mentioned above. According to this interpretation, fascism is the inevitable outcropping of a capitalist system where workers get become increasingly critical of their exploiters.In order to fend off any change to the status quo, the middle class (especially the petty bourgeois) makes a covenant with the bourgeois who own capital (the oligarchy), which results in the deployment of social terror to maintain their economic interests.
The Marxist interpretation of fascism made the concept considerably more fluid: many conservatives (and, in certain instances, democratic socialists) were labelled ‘fascist’ by orthodox Marxists from the thirties onwards. Later, the Marxist approach proliferated into several different versionss, all of which tended to draw the border between fascism and other ideological streams differently. For example Trotsky and others excluded traditional (democratic) conservatives or social democrats from the list of potential culprits.
It is worth pointing out that these Marxist interpretations would have allowed one to argue that today’s US, merely thanks to its income differential, where the bottom 80% of society owns only 7% of its wealth, is already a fascist state. And we can be sure that many of them would call Trump, the figure of a billionaire with racist and anti-democratic views, a fascist.
The rise of a new discipline: far right studies
At the beginning of the nineties, Roger Griffin created an influential one-sentence description of the concept of fascism. According to his definition, fascism is an ideology which places ultra-nationalism as a myth at the centre of its discourse, aiming to completely transform the life of a nation. This, he referred to as a transformational national re-birth (or palingenesis). In the case of this new stream of modern politicians this description might be applicable: they are overtly nationalistic, and they do want to transform society. On the other hand, Griffin’s book tends to suggest that they would not qualify under this definition, because they do not want to abolish the framework of democracy completely.
In sum, there are numerous conflicting definitions of fascism. However, from the beginning of the nineties, some scholars felt that the new breed of candidates were in fact only after a reform of society. Analysts such as Payne claimed that fascism must be kept distinct from authoritarian rightwing governments, governments who had fought against fascism in the twentieth century and were not radical enough to qualify. The level of aggression of these governments was not as high as in the fascist groupings, and their aim was crucially to stabilize rather than destabilize society.
As a result of this differentiation, a new group of scholars emerged: researchers using a huge range of extremely diverse expressions including ‘far right’ (mostly used in a general way for all the groups), ‘extreme right’, ‘radical right’, and ‘right wing populist’. All these terms are associated with the predominance of aggression in fascist regimes and ideologies. They claim that fascism must be openly and violently repressive and that its most aggressive, totalitarian form is called Nazism. Fascism has inspired far right ideology in the past, but often these extremist groups are just using mimicry to attract support. They do not want to completely abolish democracy or democratic principles (this camouflage is called ‘para-fascism’ in some works). Others from the far right are labeled only ‘radical populist’ by scholars such as Cass Mudde. Such populists may break some of the frameworks of democracy, but they do not actively seek deep changes in the system.
Such a distinction between fascism and other far right groupings is mostly accepted by scholars – apart from the Marxists. As Walter Laqueur points out in his book on Putinism, in a fascist state there is no opposition, no party but one – otherwise, it cannot be called fascism and there is a high chance it is only a right wing dictatorship. A similar opinion is stressed by Robert Paxton from Columbia University: as he put it, “Donald Trump shows alarming willingness to use fascist terms and styles.” However, he claims that only if Donald Trump goes so far as to “put his followers in colored shirts and they begin to fight in the streets, then you’ve got fascism”. Viktor Orbán, the most successful demagogue in Europe in this current round (who is busy poisoning the EU with xenophobia and authoritarianism in his home country) is perceived as a politician using dangerous radical right clichés in his speeches, rather than threatening fascism, regardless of his ‘Rivers of blood’ speeches stuffed with hate, and March 2016 comparison of his opponents to parasites.
The same old clichés can be heard in the talk of all the above-mentioned politicians: a high level of nationalism, chauvinism against other nations (“Mexicans will pay for the wall”). We find racism (see the relationship between Erdogan and the Kurds, official segregation in schools in Hungary or the xenophobic statements by the Front National). Sometimes anti-Semitism is also present. There are common references to the decadence and dangers of democracy, liberal constitutionalism and individual choice. If they are in the government, they use oppression to abolish democratic rights, and change fundamental rules and guarantees.Their strong leaders like to cheat in elections, destroying their opponents sometimes physically, but more often simply by cowing them into submission by firing journalists in Hungary or starting investigations against university professors in Turkey. They usually have a propaganda-machine behind them. They are continuously in a mental war with other nations or their opponents inside their countries. They like to make people feel humiliated and degraded by other nations.
Whatever the analytical strengths – and they are many – of this stream of expert analysis, it has to be said that with the exception, surprisingly, of the Marxist tradition, their nuanced definitions are lacking one quality that belongs to the people on the streets and nowhere else. When people on the streets call politicians ‘fascist’, isn’t there something they understand that eludes most of these great scholars? Simple-minded European Antifa groups fighting on the streets of the UK against the fascist British National Party or Pegida; those in Germany fighting against racist and xenophobic groups like Alternative For Germany (AfD) – they know the inherent nature of these groups and the direction in which they tend. They know that they flourish on excluding another part of our society. And they also know that refugee shelters are not going on fire in Germany by themselves. All of these anti-democratic forces, parties and politicians are dangerous. And I for one strongly believe that most of them would gladly destroy our democracies if necessary to pursue their goals.
What I want to argue is that the common core of all these groups (new populists, fascists, far right) is an anti-Enlightment mentality shining through the statements of these politicians, groups and leaders. For them, the era of “freedom, equality, and brotherhood” is over. They hate liberalism, because it is tolerant – why would it be important for someone to be tolerant, if you know the absolute values necessary for the society, including everybody in it? They hate individualism. They hate human rights. They hate rationalism. They mostly hate the separation of religion and state. No separation of powers is necessary for them.
One of the most creative scholars of fascism, Zeev Sternhell associated fascism with the political ideology of the anti-Enlightenment, a tradition he claims that has been with us in the western world since the Enlightenment, like its shadow. Fascism is a part of our culture, it is among us. If some want equality, others claim inequality is necessary and righteous (there are too many dumb people in society, they claim). If some prefer universalism and internationalism, others claim national interests are more important, and attack foreign nations. While some support individualism and liberty, others claim collective well-being is far more important.
When Sternhell was asked whether Russia had become a fascist state, he said that Russia had become an autocracy, a semi-dictatorship, in which the fundaments of fascism are already present: ultra-nationalism, the nation at the center, the protection of Russian soil, racism, the re-creation of ‘old power’, the cult of violence and virility, the hatred of liberalism, the stressing of western decadence and a propaganda based on lies. When he was asked what he believed about Israeli democracy, he claimed that a multi-party system does not exclude the presence of fascism: we have to check the system of check and balances and the power of the government. If such power is nearly limitless, we have to be afraid.
In the interpretation of Sternhell, authoritarian right wing and classical fascist streams, far from being distinct, often influence each other to abolish democracy. In his book on the Vichy-government and France, he explains how French salon-fascism after WWI was created based on authoritarian right wing ideas. This proto-fascism had nothing to do with the Germans, but was the homegrown idea of French conservatives. A very similar narrative can be found in Hungary as well. Between the two world wars, Governor Horthy’s regime adopted hundreds of anti-Semitic laws (e.g. limiting the number of Jewish students in higher education in 1920), basing itself on a leadership cult, strict Christianity, feudalism, and repression of the poor. Still, historians call him conservative, or authoritarian right wing conservative, because in their opinion his regime was not as repressive as some, and Horthy fought a kind of political war with more extreme groups such as the Arrow Cross in the country.
Right-wing authoritarianism – an alert
Fascism will never come back the same way it appeared before. Still, a recent poll suggested that one half of all Americans think Trump is a fascist. 64% of blacks and 74% of Latinos agreed with this statement: they know what it feels like to be oppressed.
They are warned by the experts that using such terms loosely is dangerous. But isn’t it at least as dangerous to miss the phenomenon that is appearing in our midst because each example can be said to lack certain elements or so far lack them? Read one of the leading experts, Bob Altemeyer’s opinion on Trump followers, read his free online available book on the authoritarian personality, and compare his work with Adorno’s F-scale (fascist scale). Even from the psychological perspective, differences between these streams seem less important than what they have in common. Sternhell’s theory at least encourages us to interpret the authoritarian right as a watered-down form of fascism, and we have every reason to state that all of these groups belong to the anti-democratic camp, and would harm democracy, the rule of law and human rights if they had to, to remain in power. If the scholars cannot answer the question, what is in common in the aggressive politics of de Maistre, Maurras, Mussolini, Hitler, Trump, Franco, Putin or Orban, everyday people must give an answer. Whatever descriptives we choose, such anti-democratic forces have no place in a democracy, and all of them are dangerous.
This report was prepared byfor openDemocracy.