A Historian's View of Post-Fascism

Alan Wald

The New Faces of Fascism:
Populism and the Far Right
By Enzo Traverso
London: Verso, 2019, 200 pages, $24.95, hardback.

THE TITLE OF a recent exchange of opinions in the New York Review of Books, “How to Write About the Right,” accentuates the imperative to theorize the global phenomenon of the rise of a new populist, xenophobic, and racist Right that Enzo Traverso tackles in his new short volume from Verso. Yet the interchange bizarrely climaxes with liberal iconoclast Mark Lilla channeling the voice of a wise wizard (possibly J. R. R. Tolkien’s Gandalf):

“Whatever we are facing [in world politics], it is not twentieth-century fascism. Hell keeps on disgorging new demons to beset us. And as seasoned exorcists know, each must be called by its proper name before it can be cast out.”(1)

This is a startling oracular pronouncement, not to mention a confection of dodgy history, from a noted specialist in the extremism of “philotyrannical intellectuals.”(2) Is such credulity about the elephant in everyone’s room just a cringe-worthy overstatement?

To be sure, it is irresponsible to label just anyone we find repulsive a “fascist,” and it would be a serious mistake to make an epistemic transfer, projecting one bygone experience onto another. Yet to decree with such magisterial certainty an unqualified absence of 1920s-40s type fascism in the new millennium leaves those of us tracking the rise of reactionary parties and social movements around the world wondering: Can this dismissal pass muster as a careful appraisal of such events as the dramatic escalation of the Far Right in almost all countries of the European Union?

Yes, there is temporal dissonance between objective historical conditions then and now, but most of the up-to-date analysis is clear-eyed that we are actually living in a moment that overlaps past and present expressions of racism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism. If Lilla’s readers accept his assurances that the racist populism of the moment is exempt from entanglement in some arc of fascist resurrection, the ensuing heedlessness could lead to a state of affairs like that depicted by the holocaust novel Badenheim 1939 (1972).

In this celebrated allegory written by Aharon Appelfeld (1932-2018), Nazis — without jackboots, in the guise of concerned “sanitation workers” — arrive at a Jewish artists’ resort of Badenheim in Austria, near Vienna. They put up posters that praise the fresh air in Poland and lure the puzzled inhabitants to travel East on a fancy vacation by train.

The victims, led by the Panglossian Dr. Pappenheim, are somewhat wary of this unexpected proposal, which is presented in increasingly authoritarian terms. Yet they allow themselves to be dissuaded by various apologists from imagining that it could all be a fiendish deception. Clutching at the alternative, milder explanations tendered, the artists and intellectuals refuse to acknowledge that they are, in fact, facing deportation and death until it is too late.

The following exchange between two musicians, about what could happen to them in Poland, smacks of Lilla’s asking us to deny what we see:

“‘Kill me, I don’t understand it. Ordinary common sense can’t comprehend it.’

“‘In that case, kill your ordinary common sense and maybe you’ll begin to understand.’” (72)

So let’s strip this debate down to its skivvies, for the obvious reason that we must thwart this creeping global sickness of our time by telling the right story and acting accordingly. We are not looking to the past to understand the present as an intellectual exercise in order to appreciate speculative fiction like Appelfeld’s.

Look around at capitalist elites bonding with mobs, bigots appointed to institutions of the state, and atomized masses scampering toward shoddy nationalist myths. What we see may be the crystallizing forces of an ideology that never died, marked by a blend of both chronological distinctness and historical sequence.

This movement is presently evolving under new socio-economic circumstances. Now is the time to emulate political theorist Hannah Arendt — increasingly the go-to person for insight into the genealogy of colonialist imperialism, anti-Semitism, and totalitarianism — and “think without a bannister.”(3)

We must acknowledge that, in the specter currently haunting Europe (and beyond), what we find to be most hideous may be what actually exists. Enzo Traverso suggests a conceptual lens to identify it: “post-fascism,” a phenomenon in transition.

Awakening of the Ghosts

While the most frightening ghosts of history seem to be awakening, and interwar episodes of Blackshirts and Brownshirts instinctively come back to our thoughts, we can’t let ourselves be hurtled by memory into a simplistic recreation of the past. For example, there is no evidence of a fascist-like demand for a “New Man,” nor has there been a real threat of working-class revolution provoking fascism as “a revolution against revolution.”

Yet it is equally reckless to play down the conspicuous fact that noteworthy fractions of the Far Right movements are publicly declaring themselves in the fascist tradition: Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary, and the National Party in Slovakia. The National Front in France, while not fascist at present, was the progeny of French fascism five decades ago.

Many more Rightists are cheek-to-cheek with fascist thinking and behavior even as they refuse the term for what are likely tactical reasons. On our side of the Atlantic, Donald Trump could be said to have the temperament of a fascist but not the political program.(4)

Moreover, there exist tacit alliances among numerous of these movements, and more than a few “not-yet-fascist” parties have the potential of moving toward fascism in the future. The danger is that a dogmatic blind spot, obfuscating authentic fascist antecedents and potential evolutions of these movements under changing material conditions of the twenty-first century, would disarm the Left from developing an appropriate, militant perspective and strategy to turn the tide and rebuild an emancipatory alternative.

Luckily, we live at a time when what began as a trickle of books and essays about the New Right and historic fascism is becoming a tsunami. Answers beyond the superficial are emerging and this year the volume by Dr. Enzo Traverso, a Marxist-internationalist professor at Cornell University, does more than just help provide a compass.(5)

In The New Faces of Fascism: Populism and the Far Right, Traverso has written a standout book in a crowded field that has the capacity to guide us through a mass of difficult material, with an enviable clarity essential to acquiring an assessment about our politically indeterminate moment.

Achingly Timely Questions

Traverso is scrupulous in the delineation of his hypothesis: “The main feature of today’s postfascism is precisely the contradictory co-existence of classical fascism with new elements that do not belong to its tradition. Wider developments have encouraged the change” (32).

Postfascism crosses borders, existing in the past as well as the present. A useful artistic correlative for his definition might be the 2018 German film Transit. In director Christian Petzold’s rendering of the 1942 Marxist novel by Anna Seghers (a pseudonym for Anna Relling, 1900-83, a German-Jewish Communist), the Nazi juggernaut is recreated as a cinematic super-imposition linking two eras. It is not merely some hideousness that lingers in our imaginations, but rather re-emerges before our eyes in all its violence.

To create the film’s hybrid atmosphere in Paris and Marseille, in which a Nazi occupation transcends its original period and setting, Petzold’s cinematic world is neither fully of the late 1930s or today.

Technology and buildings are blended from both eras, as well as the composition of the hiding and fleeing populations (anti-fascists, Jews, North African immigrants, targets of ethnic cleansing).

This eerily smooth fusion produces a heightened reality of the present; a second coming of the vileness through which humanity has already lived is what haunts the heart of the narrative pounding out the harrowing events in Transit.

Traverso’s book is devoted to helping us disentangle and decipher this postfascism, a phenomenon not totally new yet not a simple reproduction. In a two-part structure, “The Present as History” and “History in the Present,” he presents six chapters with many subtle, penetrating and frequently surprising points, and explains why all this is important.

As always, Traverso provides crisp and focused writing that includes a masterful synthesis of contemporary scholarship. Undergirding all is a firm grasp of classical Marxism, a historian’s range of depth and vision, and even a biographer’s feel for the personalities that bring ideas to life.

Traverso’s itinerary of topics tells us at once that his volume is less a monograph than a reference book of methodological reflections on critical elements such as “Populism,” “Identity Politics,” “Anti-Semitism,” “Islamophobia,” “Anti-Antifascism,” “Totalitarian Violence,” “ISIS and Totalitarianism,” and much more.

In each intervention, nuance and flexibility are combined with precision, as indicated in his observations about “Interpreting Fascism”: “The very definition of fascism is a controversial topic. The most restrictive approach refers exclusively to the political regime under the leadership of Benito Mussolini which ruled Italy between 1922 and 1943. A wider depiction includes a whole set of movements and regimes that appeared in Europe between the two world wars, among which the most important were German National Socialism (1933-45) and Spanish Francoism (1939-75).” (97)

To this he appends other candidates including Vichy France, Salazarism in Portugal, and nationalist and military powers in central Europe, Asia and Latin America. Each chapter is short and tightly focused, providing an admirably clear account. The often superb footnote citations, and astute comments, remind us how deeply researched The New Faces of Fascism is, and the thoughtfulness behind its strategy of continually raising achingly timely questions.

Readers’ eyes won’t glaze over as Traverso’s prose recurrently crackles with energy and vivacity: “Postfascism belongs to a particular regime of historicity — the beginning of the 21st century — which explains its erratic, unstable, and often contradictory ideological content, in which antinomic political philosophies mix together.” (7)

Slippery Definitions

The book’s first hundred pages home in on certain terms customarily used to label aspects of the new features of our current political scene. The problem is that many of these have slippery definitions and semantic ambiguities. Traverso’s aim, however, is to establish a lexicon that allows for historical comparisons with the goal of generating analyses and pursuing difference — not simply seeing repetitions.

“Populism,” for example, although appearing in the 19th century as the Nardodniks in Russia and the People’s Party in the United States, cannot be indulged today “as a fully fledged political phenomenon, with its own profile and ideology.” Rather, “populism is above all a style of politics rather than an ideology. It is a rhetorical procedure that consists of exalting the people’s ‘natural’ virtues and opposing them to the elite — and society itself to the political establishment — in order to mobilize the masses against ‘the system.’” (15, 16)

He then points to the wide range of international figures to whom “populism” has been applied — Nicholas Sarkozy, Bernie Sanders, Eva Morales, Nestor Kirchner — and concludes that the word “has become an empty shell, which can be filled by the most disparate political contents.” (16)

On the other hand, when we turn to Traverso’s discussion of “Identity Politics,” he offers some positive guidelines for an activist perspective on both Right and Left varieties of “identitarianism” — those that aim at exclusion (the French National Front’s defense of “the French” against foreigners) and inclusion (the claims of oppressed minorities).

Among the many informative sub-topics addressed in his two-dozen pages on the matter is the writing of Houria Bouteldja, the French-Algerian spokeswoman of the Party of the Indigenous of the Republic who wrote the controversial Whites, Jews, and Us (2017). Traverso observes that Bouteldja’s work, which eschews any biological determinism, is falsely accused of anti-Semitism and anti-white racism but is flawed by its use of categories such as whites, Blacks, and Jews as “homogeneous entities, erasing the differences and contradictions that characterize these terms.” (53)

Traverso also displays an almost preternatural understanding of debates in the United States around “intersectionality,” in which “the social question and the racial question are deeply interwoven.”

This perspective comes into play in his justification of Left-wing identity politics against the Right’s embrace of white nationalism on behalf of its of racism and xenophobia: “Left-wing identity politics are something quite different: they are not a matter of exclusion but a demand for recognition….an extension of existing rights and not a call for the restriction or denial of other peoples rights.” (55, 57)

At the same time, however, Traverso offers an important caveat: “an exclusive identity politics — politics reduced to identity claims — is as short-sighted as it is dangerous, for the role of politics is precisely to overcome and transcend particular subjectivities.” (59) In other words, identity politics weakens the Left when it forsakes any prospect of unity, the only foundation on which we can fight for mutual causes.

In his third chapter, “Spectres of Islam,” Traverso takes up “Anti-Semitism” and “Judeophobia,”

“Islamophobia” and “Islamic Fascism (?).” His insights are surprising, refreshing and provocative. Islamophobia, he asserts, has now replaced the anti-Semitism that was the scapegoat of European nationalism for two centuries: “Like the former Jewish Bolshevik, the Islamic terrorist is often depicted with physical traits stressing his otherness.” (67)

At the same time, “Islamophobia is not simply an ersatz version of the old anti-Semitism. It has its own ancient roots and it possesses its own tradition, that is, colonialism” (75).

Nonetheless, Jews have certainly become the innocent prey of a new “Judeophobia,” especially in France. This Jew-hate — brutal terrorist killings such as the one in the kosher supermarket in Vincennes — is not of the same origin as that once emanating from Christian Europe, although the earlier version has not entirely vanished and some anti-Jewish stereotypes are shared.

In the past, however, European states persecuted Jews while today they defend Jews. To a large degree, the deplorable recent Judeophobia stems from minorities who feel excluded from the European nations and attack Jews as representatives of the West — in some instances educated by the fraudulent text The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and inflamed by policies of the Israeli State against its subjugated Arab population.

When it comes to “Islamic Fascism,” a expression used by both Left and Right, Traverso believes it is “more a term wielded for reasons of political struggle than a fruitful analytical category.” (83)  Italian Fascism and German Nazism after all were not outright religions as is the Salafi doctrine within Sunni Islam; both were more accurately substitutes for political religions, setting out to replace traditional religions, although they eventually made compromises.

Conversely, the (trans)nationalism of ISIS is devoid of the fascist cult of blood and soil, and boasts a universal dimension based on a principle that ostensibly unites all religious believers regardless of territorial limits — somewhat analogous in that respect to Zionism.

Legacies of Fascism

The book’s second part surveys in more detail the legacies of fascism, antifascism and totalitarianism as they discomfit current intellectual debates.

To explore the first, Traverso primarily takes up the scholarly writing of three giants in the field: George L. Mosse (1918-99), a refugee from a German-Jewish family to England and the United States, who taught at the University of Wisconsin for many years; Zeev Sternhell (b. 1935), a Polish-born Israeli historian who taught at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and today writes as a Zionist supporter of the Peace Camp for Haaretz newspaper; and Emilio Gentile (b. 1946), an Italian historian who teaches at the University of Rome.

What Traverso admires in all three is that they “set their investigations in comparative perspective, which finds its shared horizon in the concept of fascism.” (98)

Mosse, who was also gay, “took his inspiration from his own recollections and experiences as he wrote on bourgeois respectability, the complex relationship between nationalism and sexuality, norm and otherness, conservatism and the artistic avant-garde, as well as the image of the body in fascist aesthetics.” Sternhell, in contrast, “belongs to the classical history of political ideas.” (99)

Gentile commenced as a biographer of Mussolini but reoriented his work toward cultural history. Traverso proceeds to evaluate the scholarship of each of these, along with numerous related scholars in passing, under the rubrics of “Culture,” “Ideology,” and “Revolution,” noting strengths and weaknesses.

Many of the vulnerabilities reveal themselves most problematically in what Traverso calls “the public use” of this history, “the interpretations of fascism from the perspective of their impact on historical consciousness and collective memory of the countries where they met with their largest reception…” (127)

One longstanding mystery about George Mosse that that I wish Traverso had been able to address is the relation of his ideas to the life and Marxist activism of his younger sister, Dr. Hilde Mosse (1912-1982). The connection seems critical inasmuch as Traverso notes that Mosse’s thinking was “the result of a peculiar intellectual experience which he described in his memoirs” (98), one that started in the Weimar Republic, then Cambridge and Harvard university in the 1930s. (See “A Puzzle,” below.)

Fascinating Observations

Traverso’s concluding chapters five and six, on “Antifascism” and “The Uses of Totalitarianism,” are reprints from earlier journals and conference proceedings, and some of the material may seem familiar from earlier books. Nonetheless there are so many fascinating observations that it is all worth a second look.

Most disconcerting is his description of the success of what he calls the “anti-antifascist” paradigm in Italy and elsewhere. According to historian Francois Furet (a former French Communist), “anti-fascism [w]as the humanistic and democratic mask with which, at the time of the Popular Fronts, the Soviet Union extended its pernicious, totalitarian influence on the French intelligentsia” (137).

So far as I can judge, this wide-ranging volume is mostly error-free. One minor exception is his statement that Trump called “for Muslims to be expelled from the United States.” (77) He must mean the January 2017 travel ban on foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries (preceded by candidate Trump’s call for “a complete and total ban on Muslims” entering the country).

No doubt some readers will find that certain complicated arguments or references might need more elaboration or balance, and there are several that have stayed with me that I plan to further explore: How do we fully understand Judeophobia and anti-Semitism, when the Israeli state itself cavorts with European despots and holocaust deniers as it further implements its racist policies?

How and why has the myth of an identity between capitalism and democracy persisted when the more obvious association would be between antifascism and democracy? How can we switch the public understanding of communism as reduced to a violent ideology when history itself shows that it was a contradictory force combining social movements fighting for genuine liberation and top-down governments repressing human rights?

Is the 20th century defined more by a misguided utopianism of the Left, or a racial panic of racists, fascists, anti-semites and Islamopohobes that produced even more graves than Stalinism?

Traverso’s Challenge

The New Faces of Fascism ends fittingly with fire alarms ringing in the face of the Right’s volatile cocktail of xenophobia, racism, white identitarianism, and anti-globalism: “We know that things are coming to a boil, and the lid is about to come off. Big changes are going to take place, and we need to be prepared for them. When they do, the right words will surely come.” (187)

Traverso‘s scholarship is an active agent in creating a usable collective narrative of mass anti-fascist resistance to address the precariousness of insecurity we feel. Yet this book’s most salient aspect is Traverso’s historicizing of consciousness about the legacy of what revolutionaries once fought and how we contested it — the internal contradictions and ambiguities of fascism and antifascism that he exquisitely excavates.

As we work each day to invent a new political model for a global Left, constructing our vision of socialist hope right at this instant, we must not abandon memory or the relentless pursuit of a critical understanding of what happened. There are many ways to destroy what democracy we have, and we can’t simply be commanded by impulse, one moment leading to another, any more than we can succumb to illusory teleologies about historical fates and class destinies.

We can never forget that the admirable militants of the 2010 Arab Spring discovered that huge mass mobilizations might nonviolently overthrow an existing dictatorship, but not prevent a new one from trampling the rebels underfoot. And it is unlikely that heroic revolutionary fighters are going to just appear, straight out of central casting, with magical answers.

Unlike Mark Lilla, who seems to want to evade an earlier period that in certain respects is very much alive, Traverso is an activist-scholar who can see that what went before is hardly restricted to an oldies act and that a fascist-like ambiance is partially back. Still, the point of this book is that postfascism is a mutation that has not been completed.

Fascism may not be an immediate threat of coming to power, but it can also escalate rapidly; or the racist Right could go in a different direction, perhaps toward an authoritarian populist democracy. Activists must keep their eyes wide open.

As a creative Marxist thinker, Traverso shares one eminent characteristic with Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians in Slaughterhouse Five (1969); he can see all times at once. We simply cannot allow anyone to close the books on the antifascist past and remove it from memory.

While much of our popular culture makes it seem as if political insanity reigns everywhere — see the popular CBS television show The Good Fight with Christine Baranski — this means that Traverso enlightens the dark political landscape of 2019 by connecting the present with historical precursors such as Mussolini, Hitler and friends. This may help us confront the ultimate question: Does a comeback story await these guys?

If so, no single Marxist or revolutionary current can solve the puzzle of how we must organize ourselves and what to do next. We have long known that “party ideology” with its own dogmas and secular theologies is a dead end. Moreover, in the recent organizational crises of some of the most highly regarded groups on the Left, the British Socialist Workers Party and the U.S. International Socialist Organization, we have been reminded that bad personal behavior also infects the Left.

Individuals full of deluded self-importance, and sometimes sexist entitlement, have developed the ability to evade all the therapeutic critiques of vanguardism and substitutionism with which critics have been filling journals and discussion bulletins for decades.

Our dangerous world is here and at present, not in some fearful beyond. Traverso’s challenge to make preparations and find “the right words” is one that must be faced by revolutionary activists from differing backgrounds and generations.

This is surely a tough assignment, but needs to be undertaken by those who have the humility to admit our limitations, will partake of open dialogue, and are willing to come forward to join in common practical efforts, and ultimately unite to build our future in the present.

Notes

  1. See https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2019/01/17/how-to-write-about-the-right-an-exchange/.
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  2. See Lilla’s books, The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals and Politics (2016) and The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction (2016).
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  3. Hannah Arendt, “On Hannah Arendt,” in Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World, ed. M. A. Hill (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1979), 376.
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  4. A strong case against designating Trump as a fascist is made in Dylan Riley, “What Is Trump?” New Left Review 114 (November-December 2018): 5-31.
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  5. See the earlier reviews in Against the Current of Traverso’s work: https://solidarity-us.org/atc/194/, solidarity-us.org/atc/183/p4699/ and https://solidarity-us.org/atc/112/p367. Among the many new impressive volumes on the Right-wing present and fascist past are David Neiwet, Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump (Verso, 2017) and Michael Joseph Roberto, The Coming of the American Behemoth: The Origins of Fascism in the United States, 1920-1940 (Monthly Review, 2018). For a helpful article on the European Right, providing a careful analysis of current trends, see the two-part Against the Current essay by Peter Drucker: https://solidarity-us.org/atc/197/europes-political-turmoil/ and https://solidarity-us.org/atc/198/europes-political-turmoil-part-2/.
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July-August 2019, ATC 201