People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 19

May 09, 2010

Fascism Then, And Now


Aijaz Ahmad


REMEMBERING the victory over the fascisms of the first half of the 20th century gives us an opportunity to recall what that phenomenon really was, and to reflect on some of the tendencies of our own time.

Bourgeois histories tend to present those fascisms as temporary aberration in an otherwise liberal, democratic history of modern Europe. Focus tends to be mainly on Germany. The mass criminality and violence of the Nazi regime is remembered today chiefly in relation to the Jewish holocaust. And, explanatory models tend to emphasize the racism, irrationality and personal pathology of Hitler and his associates. In an astonishing travesty of history, much bourgeois scholarship tends to equate Hitler, the chief protagonist of the Nazi project, with Stalin, who led the Soviet Union in the struggle against global fascism, as equally culpable dictators  in what Ernst Nolte, one of the most prestigious German historians, simply calls �an international civil war.� This revisionist historiography is particularly dominant in the West since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is only on the Left that fascism is still remembered for what it really was.

Let me summarise some of the main facts:

(1)  Far from being restricted to a couple of countries, fascism during those years was a global phenomenon. Germany was the most powerful of the countries where it took power but it also captured state power in Italy, Spain and Portugal. Beyond Europe, fascism spread across the world, from Japan to Argentina. Numerous political formations across Asia and Africa-- such as the Phalange in Lebanon, the RSS or the Hindu Mahasabha in India and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt-- were profoundly influenced by it. By the time the Soviet Union entered the Second World War, most of Europe had fascist governments in place, with capitalist liberal democracy getting pushed into its Anglo-Saxon enclaves, in Great Britain and the United States. From France to Denmark, the Nazis found tens of thousands of collaborators to buttress their occupation and form client regimes. The Soviet war effort was decisive in restoring Europe to liberal democracy itself, not just in expanding the sphere of communism.

(2)  The murder of six million Jews was certainly a cardinal crime of the Nazis but this too needs to be seen in historical perspective. The main responsibility surely lies with the Nazis but they found countless collaborators all across Europe, not just in �backward� countries like Poland but also in super-civilized France. The number�six million killed�is horrific enough but bourgeois scholarship routinely ignores the fact that 20 million Soviet citizens died in the fight against the Nazis. And, while the Unites States turned back shiploads of Jewish refuges fleeing from the Nazi murder machine, the Soviet Union opened up its borders for similar refugees.

(3)  Methodical Nazi genocide was a novel event within the border of Europe. But it was no novelty in European history, as the victims of that history have experienced it outside Europe. The United States was founded on such a genocide, as was virtually all of the New World, from Canada to Australia, as well as much of Latin America and the Carribean islands. And, strangulation of entire populations has been a punctual feature of all imperialist offensives, from the African slave trade to Vietnam, and from presentday Iraq to presentday Palestine. 

(4)   Fascism captured state power only after the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution.  But seeds of it were much older. Historians have traced some of it to the kind of German state that arose under Bismarck in the 19th century; to the ideologies that were propagated in France by thinkers such as Sorel and Maurras in France, also in the 19th century; and  to tendencies in German irrationalism in particular and reactionary anti-Enlightenment ideologies more generally. The broad phenomenon is, in other words, a punctual feature in the whole history of modern imperialism, from 1880s onwards, even though it erupts as a serious contender for absolute power only under circumstances.

What were those circumstances? Situations differed from country to country, and so did the form fascism took in them. Certain general characteristics can be summarised, however:

(1)  In the European heartland, the human devastation caused by the First World War did much to create immense insecurity among the general populace while the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia instilled among the bourgeoisies all over Europe a fear of revolutionary possibility in their own respective countries. The short-lived revolutionary upsurge in several countries, especially in Germany and Italy, in the years following that War, from 1918 to 1922, strengthened the resolve among the propertied classes to organise a counterrevolution at all costs, even at the cost of liberal democracy.

(2)  Fascism came to power in five countries even before the Second World War. The three where it took the most murderous form�Germany, Italy and Spain�were also the ones, outside the Soviet Union, where the labour movement was the strongest, with massive political parties and trade union confederations; in Italy and Spain, there were also huge peasant movements. In all these countries, fascism arose to defeat peasants and workers which liberal democrats had not been able to do. In Italy, fascism captured the countryside before it captured the cities. Rural militias and terror squads were first unleashed by the landowners while trained fascist cadres moved in only later to take over such militias and then expand them greatly. They were often assisted by the state machinery, and the governing liberal coalition in government made no effort to stop any of it. Mussolini was funded from the very beginning by key industrial houses. More and more did so as his power grew.

(3)  Fascism never came to power by winning a majority in parliament. Both Mussolini and Hitler first came to power with the assistance of centrist parties. In 1919, Mussolini got less than five thousand of the almost 2 lakh votes in Milan when he stood for elections. By 1922, after he had been invited to be part of a Nationalist coalition, he was appointed prime minister even though fascists had only 35 seats in a parliament of over 400. In 1928, the Nazis commanded less than 3 per cent of the popular vote. Two years later, the centrist Conservative and Liberal parties had declined to such an extent that millions were marching to the Nazi tune and Hitler was invited to become Chancellor, even though the Nazis were a minority in the Bundestag. In both cases it was the inertia and collusion of the liberal centre that paved the way for the consolidation of fascist power. In both cases, extreme economic crisis created among large sections of the masses deep disillusionment with the capacity of the liberal order for social reconstruction. There was clamouring for a radical solution, either from the Left or the Right. In the event, the far Right was much better armed to walk into the vacuum.

(4)  This coddling of the fascists by the liberal order was not just an internal matter of particular countries. Britain continued to support Mussolini right into the mid-30s and had excellent relations with Salazar�s Portugal before, during and after the Second World War. American capitalists had no compunctions about doing extensive business with Nazi industrialists until the war broke out. When the war was over, with fascism defeated elsewhere, Stalin recommended that the Allies move into Spain and Portugal as well, to dismantle fascism there, but Britain and the US refused. In stead, both of those countries were gradually brought into NATO as anti-communist allies. This relationship lasted until the dictatorships there collapsed owing to internal causes.

(5)   In all cases, the question of empire and the colonies was paramount, albeit differently in different countries. Japan did not have the kind of working class movement that Germany did but it needed a fascistic, single-party authoritarian state for the kind of colonial project it was pursuing in East and Southeast Asia before and during the Second World War. In Germany, Nazis sought not so much a re-division of the world but a transcontinental, imperial Reich by first capturing all of Europe and then as much of the rest of the world as possible. Mussolini sought to expand Italy into some contiguous areas of the neighbouring countries but also colonies in Africa. The Spanish Phalange sought colonies in North Africa and dreamt of emerging again as the leader of the Hispanic world in Latin America. Portugal was the most backward country in Europe, with about 45 per cent illiteracy rate, but also had a colonial empire, not only with huge possessions in Africa but also as far away as Goa and Macau. 

That was the past. But what now? It is unlikely that fascism in today�s world shall take the precise form that it did in the 1930. Signs, however, are ominous:

1-    Since the victory over European fascisms some six decades ago, the US has waged a global war against communism and revolutionary nationalism�especially economic nationalism. In the process, it sponsored destruction of the liberal order in the name of containing communism, as in Indonesia, Chile and elsewhere.

2-    Since the promulgation of Truman doctrine in 1948, the US systematically used Islamism against the progressive forces, sponsoring the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world, Jamaat-Islami in Pakistan and Wahabbism more generally through its Saudi Arabian allies. All of this reached a climax in Afghanistan when the CIA assembled thousands of Islamicist fighters against the communist government of the PDPA. This global Islamism, some of which is still allied with the US while some has turned against it, is the direct outcome of imperialist policies of the past sixty years.

3-    Religion plays in much contemporary politics the role race played in Nazi ideology, while the most vicious kinds of racisms are also arising all over the western world.

4-    Fascist tendencies are alive and well across Europe, although they do not use that name any more. This is particularly true of Austria, France, Denmark etc. Some of these tendencies have found a home inside rightwing parties such as the Tories in Britain or Sarkozy�s coalition in France, just as similar forces have a home within the Republican Right in the United States.

5- Noam Chomsky, one of the most level-headed thinkers of our time, now thinks that situation in the US today increasingly resembles the conditions which gave rise to Hitler in Germany around 1930. Millions of families have been ruined by the recession, receive no reprieve from the government that gifts trillions to the banks, and are enraged by the whole order. A third of the population identifies with Evangelical Christianity. Twenty per cent say that they have no confidence in the federal government; Thirty percent say that the government endangers their freedoms. Some 18 per cent say that the Tea Party, a newly confected movement of the Far Right, represents their aspirations. Obama is a conservative Democrat. If someone of his charisma and eloquence were to rise on the far right, a powerful fascist movement is entirely possible.

Finally, India! We all know the potentialities of the Sangh Parivar and the willingness of the liberal order to work out all sorts of accommodations with it. We have also seen conclaves of India�s top industrialists, Ratan Tata included, showering extravagant praise on Narendra Modi as fabulous administrator and great leader�implicitly a potential prime minister. This axis of communal fascism and the liberal order is one side of the story. Then there are structural facts about the economy as well. The Indian ruling class is intoxicated with the thought of emerging as a world power. Recent rates of growth and concentrations of wealth undoubtedly buttress that dilirium and make much of the middle class a party to it. At the other end, corpses of peasant suicides keep piling up and the great majority of the population lives under such dire conditions that India, this emerging great power, retains its place near the bottom in the UN human development index, at 134th, slightly above Cambodia, below Laos, Tajikistan and much of sub-Saharan Africa. This structural dichotomy is unsustainable, and there is nothing in the record of the past sixty years to suggest that the structure will change dramatically. Peasant suicide is as expression of extreme anger that becomes despair and turns inward. What happens if the anger begins to turn outward? The recent spread of Maoism may well be a sign of times to come. Not that Maoism itself will somehow spread all over India, but that the rebellions of the immiserated might multiply, and keep multiplying, giving rise to more and more claimants to lead it, including the fascist ones. This combination of potentially massive unrest from below and the willingness of the ruling class to use all its machinery of violence to defend its enormous privileges is highly combustible. This is all the more possible if the economy itself begins to falter in case of a deeper, more durable global downturn. In that event, India may not be the only major economy teetering on the brink of a brand new, 21st century version of fascism.

Too keen a celebration of 8 per cent growth is the quickest way to fall asleep in the midst of an impending disaster.