The term ‘fascist’ has again become vogue in political discourse across the world. Just open your social media account, and search for the term, and you shall see hundreds of people accusing each other of being one. This should not be surprising. For decades, the term has been used as a political football, by both the left and right, who have accused each other of totalitarian tendencies. In an age of disinformation, the mis-characterization of who constitutes a fascist is bound to increase. But the mis-characterization of today is more dangerous. While being accused a fascist today can imply social boycott, a large number of people on the other hand, intentionally or due to lack of information, fail to acknowledge the true danger of fascist politics. I am sure that many of you may have come across people who end up saying that “Hitler did many good things for the Germans”(or you may have said that yourself). How can we reconcile these two contradictory trends? Above all, which one of the two sides is more wrong? These questions are important to ask when we actually understand what fascism means, and who actually is one in today’s age.
There exists a paradox in the contemporary world. In popular culture, there is increasingly a lack of historical information regarding interwar Europe, the cradle of fascist politics that destroyed Europe in the Second World War. This is something that is bound to happen. After all, it has been almost five generations since that fateful event. Historical amnesia is an inevitable fact of progress of time. But at the same moment, across the world and especially in democratic societies, the intense political polarisation has brought relevance to the term, in ways unseen in the last couple of decades. As a witness to the rise of identity politics, younger people in colleges are out on the streets, protesting against policies of right-wing governments from the United States to India. Yet, parallel to this is another trend, Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf has become a bestseller across the globe, including in Germany when it was reissued in 2016. To an extent, both trends are a result of ignorance regarding history. To begin with, let us focus on the former.
So who were the fascists and what was their politics about? To understand this we need to appreciate the context under which fascism emerged. The liberal democratic experiment after the first world war had created fragile institutions. Though based on idealistic principles these polities were riddled with instability. In such a charged political environment, the liberal order was threatened by the Bolshevik takeover of erstwhile Tsarist Russia. But, the real threat to the liberal order came exclusively from the right, both ideologically and realistically. As no European democracy was overthrown by the left in the inter-war period.
The right represented an alternative tradition to liberalism and can be classified into two broad strands. The first were the dictators that came into power with the help of the traditional elite. These men like General Franco of Spain, and Admiral Horthy of Hungary held a distaste for mass politics, which automatically translated into dislike for democracy. The second strand was that of the fascists, which came to power by employing mass politics and winning majorities in elections. It was the use of mass mobilisation as a tool for politics, which became the categorical difference between these two sections of the right. Fascism was a movement that had its roots in democratic politics. It is often mentioned that Mussolini and Hitler captured power not through a military coup but by contesting elections. Though they first grabbed power electorally, fascists aimed at creating a new order distinct from liberal values.
This order can be characterised by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition, and the attempt that creating an organic state where an individual’s worth was overtaken by the state. But scholars have since debated on the exact definition of this form of state. Though there does exist a “fascist minimum”—a term compiled by Roger Griffins a political theorist—which can correspond to characters mentioned before. Therefore, fascism is not just an ideological disposition as many would like to imagine, it is a system of order altogether distinct from democracy.
The failure to acknowledge that last detail is one of the reasons why the word has attained such high usage today. This has ended up creating more troubles for our political discourse. There have been cases where speakers from the right have been unable to give lectures at college campuses. Though many of these people have been rightly protested against, the problem arises when the consistent use of the accusation of being a fascist, to denounce many other sensible right-wing speakers, ends up reducing contact between ideas. The fear of being subjected to social humiliation, in cases when the issue is not obnoxious, has driven many people to self-censorship. Political correctness has been one of the reasons which created right wing echo chambers online.
These echo chambers have now been magnified by social media. Karen Stenner is a political psychologist and behavioural economist who has worked extensively on fascist and far-right movements. She had predicted the rise of the far-right in these exact conditions two decades ago. These far-right echo chambers later became the informational infrastructure for the rise of leaders like Trump. It is important to understand that many people who become part of such systems strongly feel that they are a part of a counter-culture. Hence, one reason for someone being part of such a movement has to do less with ideological commitment, but instead the self-importance that person derives from the association.
But there is no reason to assume this is not a dangerous thing. And yes—many in such circles are actual fascists. But to move beyond mere identification, the far-right can have another sinister implication. Hannah Arendt, in classic work The Origins of Totalitarianism, argued that the rise of the National Socialists in Germany, had a precursor in anti-semitism in Europe. People who actually believed in racial sciences and anti-semitism were initially the fringe; just like the far-right of today was for the last two decades. Only later did the Nazis actually implement these crackpot theories on a scale with horrendous human cost.
The far-right of today, though in many ways distinct in space and time from anti-Semites of the nineteenth century, has to be tackled seriously. It has now started to occupy political spaces which were considered unthinkable only a few years ago. One only has to point out the recent victories of far-right parties across Europe. A better way to address its ascent could be to incentive public engagement. Especially the ones who form the outer circle of the movement, as mentioned before, can be exposed to counter-arguments. The Auschwitz Memorial has been able to do the same on social media. By requesting the public to increase its following on twitter, it has in a short time gained nearly a million followers. The impact of such sensitisation is debatable. But recent research point outs that fact-checking and exposure to alternative viewpoints, does have the potential to de-radicalise individuals hooked on fake-news and far-right content.
Then comes the bigger question. Are right-wing leaders like Trump or Modi fascists? By the classic definition, they are not. Though authors like Madeleine Albright did point out the sinister resemblance between the rhetoric of Trump and conventional fascism. It would be fair to say that if the institutional checks and balances were to be stripped away in the United States, Trump does indeed have tendencies of an autocrat. Whether that makes him one is a moral question. Which I am afraid I shall not address. But the past few years have shown that nationalist right-wing leaders like Trump and Orban have not denounced the democratic process. Instead, their definition of democracy is skewed; a democracy with majoritarian tendencies without checks and balances.
So, we need a new definition for them and there is one already one in the market—Populist. The point here is that categories do matter. And we need to analyse the current political landscape for what it is to fully grasp its potential. Both populists and fascists adore the masses. It is through the power derived from this direct connection, that they can claim to ‘drain the swamp.’ But populists have historically represented a backlash from the electors when politics is overtaken by elite interests. Which is the case across the world, with an increasing hold of cooperation over the political class, and the rising levels of inequality. In a way, the populism of today has the potential of a positive reaction. Fascism did not. When Mussolini said that he would too ‘drain the swamp,’ he meant the entire system, which he eventually did dismantle.
The simplistic use of fascist as a pejorative certainly hides the complexity of the issue. But this brings us to the second point of the essay. If we were to look beyond the far-right and organised groups with such dispensations (like the RSS in India), what views do common people hold regarding the atrocities of Nazis? Sir Isiah Berlin, one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century, once lamented that he was terribly worried about future historians not being able to denounce Hitler or Genghis Khan as “bad men.” Taking this statement rather simplistically, it reflects an insecurity of civilizations condoning genocides of the past. But what is important here is that a large majority of people do not have the luxury of being a historian. Much of the subjective interpretation that an individual makes comes through existing stereotypes. Taking the case of India, where Mein Kampf is again a bestseller.
A common association of Hitler in the country is somehow with authority. This coupled with surveys indicating a large percentage of the population accepting of authoritarian rule, produces fascination with the power Hitler wielded. Many are either unaware about the history of the holocaust, or because of the physical distance with Europe, is unable to fully feel its consequences on these societies.
In addition to this, many nationalist historical accounts unintentionally end up cheering the Axis powers, as India was under colonial rule during the war. All these factors feed into this common stereotype. This is one such example but there exist many more. What this represents is the falsification of historical memory, by focusing only on some particular traits of a person or an event, which the society priorities. In the end, there is an ever-increasing necessity to again popularise the history of fascist politics. By taking it away from solely university campuses to public discourse. This does not mean that each person has to read a book on the subject (though that would be the ideal case). How this will happen, I do not know.
Views expressed are solely those of the author.
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About the Author
Gurmat Singh Brar is studying Political Science and International Relations as an undergraduate at Ashoka University. He is also an Affiliated Researcher at the Trivedi Centre for Political Data. His interests within the field range from comparative study of institutions to analysing quantitative data on political parties in north India. He is also deeply interested in issues surrounding human rights and has previously worked in the state Human Rights Commission and the Information Commission. Currently, he is focusing on studying the rise of Populism internationally, so you can expect many articles on crucial elections across the world.