Why an ideology received its marching orders...

July 9, 2004

'Fascist!' may survive as a term of abuse, but current neo-Nazi and clerical thuggery cannot disguise the fact that fascism is dead, says Michael Mann.

In the early 20th century, fascism dominated half of Europe - but in 1945 it crashed to defeat. Sixty years on, is it still dead or is it enjoying a 21st-century revival? Of course, the answer depends on what we mean by fascism. As I define it, in its heyday it was the pursuit of a transcendent and cleansing nation-statism through the use of paramilitarism. This means that fascists pursued aggressive nationalism, including cleansing from the nation those they viewed as aliens; they were statists, believing social and economic problems could be solved by vigorous authoritarian states; and they believed they could transcend class and other conflicts of modern society by knocking heads together with paramilitary violence.

Fascism became important in the general crisis that followed the First World War. Much of Europe had been devastated, capitalism was teetering and there were new states with disputed constitutions and borders. Fascism made a plausible claim to solve the crisis through nationalism, statism and violence. The influence of the war was obvious.

States had just mobilised their citizens to great sacrifices, military veterans went straight into peacetime paramilitaries, the war brought the Bolshevik Revolution, which encouraged class conflict elsewhere, and postwar economic instability led into the Great Depression. These crises transformed fascism from defining small coteries of intellectuals to mass movements.

So was fascism the product of a particular time and place? After all, the Second World War had a very different aftermath. There were no paramilitaries, no revolutions (except in Asia); there was seemingly stable communism in the East, vibrant democracy and capitalism, bringing the compromise of class conflict, in the West, and decolonisation and mild Third World socialism and nationalism elsewhere. Fascism had brought world war and genocide. Its defeat brought a new and better world. Fascist solutions were irrelevant.

So fascism then endured as the exclamation "fascist!" - a term of imprecise abuse. Only crackpots and thugs called themselves fascists (or Nazis) and only a few more pursued policies that resembled fascism. From the 1970s, the postwar settlement in Europe began to falter a little, and new problems were brought by globalisation, deindustrialisation and immigration. But these have been nothing compared with the troubles following 1918.

Small groups of neo-fascists and neo-Nazis did appear, but they were insignificant, though they offered good copy for journalists. Bigger "radical populist" parties of the right also began to acquire between 10 and 25 per cent of national votes. Parties such as Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National, the Austrian Freedom Party of Jörg Haider, and the late Pim Fortuyn's anti-immigration List in the Netherlands are a persistent minority feature of European politics. Yet they are full of contradictions.

They denounce the system and the establishment but endorse democracy. They demand the state be tough on law and morality but say they want the state off their backs. Some are neo-liberals, such as Haider, who wants business deregulated and the civil service cut by two thirds. This is closer to the state-hating Republican right in the US than state-worshipping fascism.

They thrive on the single issue of foreign immigration, which they connect to law and order, moral decline, unemployment and housing shortages. They say immigrants are alien to national culture, but they are not aggressive abroad, have no general theory of race or culture and they lack paramilitaries. Skinheads embarrass them, losing them votes. They do best where they can capture discontent with traditional parties. But their problems mount with success, for then they receive more critical scrutiny, and the major system parties make a comeback. They seem unable to break through to being major parties. Though unpleasant to immigrants, they are not very fascist. European fascism is dead.

Across some ex-communist countries there is authoritarianism and ethno-nationalism, but they also want membership or aid from the European Union, Nato, the US or international banks. Some parts of the South look to a powerful state to promote development, and ethno-nationalism is endemic.

Where states factionalise, paramilitaries emerge. It is tempting to label some movements in failed states or civil wars as fascist, though they lack the principles and the breadth of the real thing. Their ethno-nationalism is local, based on no general theory of race or culture; and they lack fascism's macroeconomic programmes. Leaders such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela are more likely to weave statism and populism into an economic development project, but they are closer to socialism than fascism. The single fascist package, combining statism, cleansing nationalism and transcendent paramilitarism, seems absent.

It comes closest in religious garb. This is partly for historical reasons.

Hitler and Mussolini helped anti-imperialist Muslims and Hindus in the 1930s and 1940s, and these adopted authoritarian discipline and paramilitarism. Madhav Gowalkar, the leader of the Hindu RSS paramilitary, said of Hitler's attacks on the Jews: "Race pride at its highest has been manifested here... a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by."

Hindu nationalists emphasised Hindu rastra (Hindu nation) and Hindutva (Hinduness), a purity enforced by the state. Maulana Madoudi, the major Islamist theorist of the 1940s, called his ideal state "totalitarian because it subjected everything to the rule of God". Some call this "clerical fascism" - though Hinduism lacks a real clergy, and Madoudi did not believe that clerics should rule. But since these movements backed the losing side in the Second World War, it was secular, leftist movements such as Congress and Ba'ath socialism that ruled Hindu and Muslim countries from 1945. Only when these decayed during the 1980s did potential "clerical fascists" revive.

In India, the Hindu Nationalist BJP party came to power in the 1980s, flanked by the durable RSS and other paramilitaries. Hindu militants demanded a nation cleansed of Muslims and Christians, and a state enforcing Hindutva. Yet the BJP leaders knew that constructing electoral coalitions, winning elections and governing an orderly country meant restraining militants. Since the BJP also endorses neo-liberalism, it has not been very statist. Overall, Hindu nationalism offers little role for the state in secular matters, and though the RSS and its allies can provoke murderous riot cycles in particular northern Indian cities, they are much weaker in the countryside and in other regions.

The term Islamic fascism has also spread recently, especially among Americans and Israelis and other Jews denouncing the jihad launched against them. Again, it is mainly a term of abuse, and jihadis never call themselves fascists. Israelis/Jews also draw a connection between Islamist and Nazi anti-Semitism. Jihadis do seek an authoritarian state that would enforce a utopian Koranic ideal, they are aggressive toward infidels and want to cleanse them from Muslim lands, and they mobilise paramilitaries - international brigades in the war against Soviet Afghanistan, armed bands of enforcers under the Taleban and Iranian mullahs, and clandestine terrorist networks elsewhere.

Some Islamists are also so anti-Zionist as to conjure up comparisons with Nazis. But Jihadis are ambiguous on nationalism. They thrive off national liberation movements, but they also often denounce them as being secular.

Their long-term goal is a single Muslim caliphate, a form of pan-nationalism, but this has so far been fantasy. The great divisions within the Muslim world, and persecution by secular and conservative Muslim states, mean that jihadis cannot form coherent, disciplined, authoritarian movements (resembling fascism), even if they wanted to. Nor has extreme Islamism much interest in the state except to enforce the Sharia (Islamic law). The Taleban were ferocious on burqas and videos, but (like al-Qaeda) lacked policies on the economy, health and education. The Iranian mullahs pass supposedly Islamist five-year economic plans, but the real economy operates more through pragmatism and corruption.

In any case, Christians and Jews are not the only ones to use the term "fascism". Muslims call the Bush administration "fascist" because it is dominated by nationalists and advocates of empire who declare their foreign enemies to be "evil", to be cleansed by any means, including indiscriminate fire-power and torture. But US behaviour is too incoherent to amount to fascism.

Though some have called interwar fascism a "political religion", it was overwhelmingly secular in its goals. It called its militants "political soldiers", not some quasi-religious term equivalent to jihadis. Today, Islamism and Hindu nationalism really are political religions, offering a sacred, not a secular ideology and state. There might be a case for calling them clerical fascism or sacred fascism, though I prefer labels that recognise that extremism can have diverse forms, such as fascist, communist, imperialist, religious, ethno-nationalist and so on.

The world has changed since fascism's heyday. With the collapse of fascism and communism and the rise of neo-liberalism, the charms of statism have lessened. Nationalism has developed more local roots, abandoning grand theories of race and struggle. Paramilitarism is now the way guerrillas kill their enemies, not a way to transcend conflict and reunify the nation.

We can argue about terms forever, but true fascism is dead. However, most of us will continue to hurl the epithet "fascist!" at our enemies.

Michael Mann is professor of sociology, University of California, Los Angeles, and author of Fascists , published this month by Cambridge University Press.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments