Home / reactionary populism / “Is Reactionary Populism a Form of Fascism?” The real answer is the bad arguments made along the way

“Is Reactionary Populism a Form of Fascism?” The real answer is the bad arguments made along the way

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 06: Pro-Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol following a rally with President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. Trump supporters gathered in the nation’s capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

My most recent Foreign Affairs article, co-authored with Justin Casey, landed yesterday. The article started out as an argument about how the normalization of the far right might affect national and international security. Those issues remain a major thread, but the true heart of the piece is a discussion of the dynamics of the transnational right during the 1920s and 1930s (that is, of interwar fascism) and how that relates to the present.

The article, among other things, warns against hindsight bias — which is a major problem in debates about reactionary populism is best understood as a form of fascism.

What do I mean? We know how things turned out for Interwar fasicsm. By the start of World War II, Nazi Germany had become the dominant force in international fascism, which helps explain why many Americans think of the National Socialist Workers’ Party — particularly in the form it took after Hitler eliminated his rivals in 1934 — as the apogee of fascist ideology. Because the allied victory in 1945 stigmatized fascism, western right-wing parties have either publicly disavowed fascism or consigned themselves to the electoral margins.

But from the vantage point of the later 1920s and (at least) the early 1930s, “fascism” was a heterogeneous, even rather amorphous, collection of different movements and sympathizers. The 1934 Montreaux Fascist International Congress, for example, highlighted divisions over “issues such as racism, anti-Semitism, corporatism, and state structure.” We should be very careful about explaining, let alone defining, fascism by reasoning backwards from, say, 1939, 1940, or 1946.

Given this, Justin and I are skeptical of claims that contemporary reactionary populism cannot possibly contain variants of fascism because, the arguments goes, none of its current manifestations closely resemble Italian Fascism or German National Socialism. As we write:

The diversity of interwar fascists has mostly disappeared from public memory. In retrospect, fascism seems much flatter, with Nazi Germany (or, occasionally, Mussolini’s Italy) presented as its archetypal case. But from the vantage point of 1930, it would have been difficult to define fascism or demarcate where its boundaries lay. Few anticipated Nazism’s emergence as the most successful, and most emulated, variant—let alone that the Nazis would plunge the world into a catastrophic war.

There are obvious problems with the standard “is it just like the Nazis or Mussolini’s Fascists?”. How closely do modern liberal parties, social-democratic parties, or conservative parties resemble their 1920s and 1930s forebears? If the Republican Fascist Party or the Nazi Party had persisted after World War II, how much would they have changed by now?

Italy does have fascist “successor parties” that carry the torch for Mussolini’s Republican Fascist Party. Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the Fratelli d’Italia and current Prime Minister of Italy, insists that her party has moved beyond its fascist roots; her campaign rhetoric borrowed heavily from reactionary populism. But it is also clear that the Fratelli retains crypto-fascist elements.

So in the Brothers of Italy we have a self-proclaimed post-fascist party that, in order to secure electoral victory, positioned itself as a reactionary populist movement. In France, the National Rally, another post-fascist party, also deploys the language of American right-wing culture warriors.

In key respects, our views on the “fascism or not fascism?” question track closely with those of John Ganz. Ganz argues that:

It seems to me that the Trumpist movement is at the very least proto- or semi-fascist: there is a concerted effort of a providential leader figure to use illegal means to overthrow the existing Constitution, as we saw on January 6th there is some degree of paramilitarism working towards this goal, even if it is not nearly as large or well-organized as interwar fascism. And beyond people who buy into the Trump personality cult, there is a broader tendency on the right to take seriously anti-liberal, ultranationalist, and reactionary ideas…. Without being overly alarmist, I think it’s worth keeping an eye on what shape emerges next from this proto-fascist ooze. And, if you are a conservative, you might ask yourself if you’ve already been sucked into the blob—Especially if you are already having trouble differentiating your own politics from fascism.

I therefore read Ganz’s dispute (from back in December) with Anton Jäger with much interest.

In brief, in the waning days of 2022, Ganz posted two longish essays on Jäger’s Jacobin article (“From Bowling Alone to Posting Alone“). Ganz’s attention is justified, in part, by the fact that Jäger advances some rather interesting criticisms of the “fascism frame” as applied to contemporary reactionary populism.

Jäger is a postdoctoral fellow at Research in Political Philosophy and Ethics Leuven. If you’re familiar with European academic naming conventions, you won’t be surprised to learn that the program goes by the acronym “RIPPLE.” Jäger wrote his dissertation on American populism, so it makes sense that he has much to say about… a lot of stuff.

I lack the energy to adequately summarize Jäger’s article, so YMMV, but his major claim is that we’re living through a period of increasing social atomization. As individuals shed their real-life interpersonal ties — as they, among other things, reduce their involvement in civic, political, sporting, and other association — it is becoming hard for political movements to sustain collective action.

Jäger argues that the parasocial, subsocial, and uniplex relations that predominate online provide a poor substitute — whether in terms of personal wellbeing or sustained participation in joint political action — for analog social networks. The replacement of face-to-face social ties for virtual ones has hit the left particularly hard, as it needs the former in order to effectively mobilize. To make matters worse, the collapse of unions has gutted the left’s most important infrastructure for political mobilization.

I should note that Marxist accounts of class mobilization permeate Jäger’s article; they underpin his claim that digital social media uniquely undercuts the ability of the left to engage in political mobilization.

Recall that in orthodox Marxism, the shared, collective experience of industrial capitalism produces class consciousness among the proletariat. Workers face the same exploitative conditions on the factory floor; they live in the same densely packed working-class neighborhoods and factory towns; their families face the same hardships.

For Jäger, at least as I understand his argument, digitally-mediated everyday life produces a very different sense of self. It encourages people to identify as autonomous individuals rather than members of interdependent groups. Social media favors viewing political participation as an act of consumer choice rather than of social solidarity. This facilitates the apparent paradox of contemporary American politics, which combines intense partisans polarization with weak political parties.

Radio and television produced an era of mass politics; joint action in the age of digital media looks more like spontaneous order, that is, collective political mobilization in the western democracies is more semi-coordinated than collective. Mass politics expressed and encouraged conformity; social-media politics is motley and encourages individualization.

As Ganz explains:

The intention of Jäger’s piece is two-fold: one is to consider the challenges that this weakened civic world poses has for left wing politics and to provide a possible interpretation of right wing politics, which Jäger points out has faired better under the same conditions. Jäger is rather dismissive of what he calls “the fascism frame” to describe Trump and related national-populist movements. This dismissal relies on a series of now-familiar arguments, drawn from Dylan Riley and Corey Robin, among others: Trump and the Republicans do not have a tightly-organized mass political party, they rely upon the most conservative, anti-majoritarian aspects of the constitutional order rather than revolutionary reorganization of the state, while paramilitaries exist they are politically insignificant and cannot be meaningfully compared to interwar groups, and, in general, the socio-economic conditions are so different from the massive upheaval of the post World War I environment that any comparison is going to be superficial at best: there is no social experience of total war and there is no threat of labor unrest or revolution to create the degree of reactionary backlash that qualifies as a fascism.

Jäger favors “Bonapartism” as an alternative. Ganz explains that:

As Riley suggests, a far more powerful precedent for our situation can be found in Karl Marx’s account of the 1848 revolution. At the revolution’s close, instead of giving in to this unrest, Napoleon III gathered an apathetic peasant population and ordered them to quell the revolution. Marx described these French peasants as a “sack of potatoes” for whom the “identity of their interests fosters no community spirit, no national association and no political organization.” And since the peasants could not represent themselves, “they must be represented” — in this case by a king.

Rather than a politics pitting workers against bosses, structured by the capital-labor opposition, Bonaparte’s was a politics of debtors and creditors — another shared feature with the 2010s, in which private debts transferred onto public accounts fueled the American and European debt crises. Bonaparte’s peasants focused on circulation and taxes rather than on production. Instead of peering aimlessly at the 1930s, we would have to look at a much older, primal age of democracy for suitable parallels with our populist era.

Ganz takes issue with both Jäger’s theoretical foundations and his empirical claims. I don’t want to go into any more detail about the specifics. If you’re interested in them, you can go ‘read the whole thing’: Jäger’s article, Ganz’s initial post, and Ganz’s second post, which includes Jäger’s dismissive reply.

NB: For what it’s worth, my understanding is that research on the effects of social media on political participation provide, at best, limited support for Jäger’s belief that it disempowers the left or cuts against collective action. I find it notable, as I wrote to Ganz via email, that Jäger does not even mention the 2020 protests kicked of the murder of George Floyd; these amounted to the largest wave of contentious mobilization in U.S. history, and even prompted a secondary, international wave of protest activity.

I also agree with Ganz that Jäger seems to misunderstand the organizational logic of groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers; indeed, my sense — which stems more from my background in the sociology of contentious politics than any detailed historical knowledge — is that Jäger is working with a fairly idealized understanding of what political mobilization actually looked like in the interwar period.

Instead, I want to talk about two chronic problems with the debate itself. Well, more like “rant about.”

There are usually no stakes

The typical right-wing politician rejects the label “fascist” because it still carries with it significant stigma, especially in North America and Europe. In mainstream political discourse, fascists are the baddies. The majority of voters take it for granted that you’re not supposed to support fascists. That’s why, as Justin and I note in our piece, since the end of World War II, ambitious fascist parties and politicians have usually tried to muddy their allegiances.

Keep in mind that #resistance wine moms aren’t the only ones to call MAGA fascist: plenty of people who are left of left-of-center consider reactionary populism a form of fascism. But others — including some internet-famous leftists — strongly disagree. They offer a number of substantive arguments for why reactionary populism isn’t fascism. But why do they care so much?

  • Most of the anti-anti-fascist left would rather focus on the ‘true’ threat: liberals and (neo)liberalism. As Jäger puts it, “Fascism implies a popular front and strategic alliances with liberalism, including no-strike pledges.” For Jäger, of course, the problem with “the fascist frame” is that it “will distract and confuse” the left “from the crisis of political engagement so typical of the twenty-first century.” But it’s hard to see how to avoid the implication that, sure, reactionary populism is really bad, but it doesn’t present the kind of emergency that requires support for those who uphold the political economy of late capitalism.
  • The red-brown contingent makes up a smaller group. It presents something of a mixed bag. Here we find some anti-anti-fascist extremists — who see reactionary populists as potential allies of convenience against (both left- and right-) neoliberalism. We also find people are are, or present themselves, as all aboard the red-brown train. Some of them are grifters who are just following the money. Others have purchased a no-return ticket.

So those who view reactionary populism as a form of fascism agree with their opponents about the political stakes; but where the anti-anti left see bugs, they see features. Centrists, liberals, and leftists should form a common front; we should stigmatize reactionary populists for their fascism.

Right about now readers may be thinking that these seem like pretty big stakes. Yes, they are. But they concern the implications that (supposedly) follow from successfully framing reactionary populism as “fascism.” That is, the relevant question is not whether reactionary populists are, in fact, fascists. Rather, the question is whether calling them fascists is a good idea.

NB: I should add that, as far as I’m concerned, there is nothing wrong with debating the political efficacy of referring to reactionary populists as “fascists” or “semi-fascists” — so long as one doesn’t conflate the political question with the analytic one. And, for the record, you can, in fact, be “semi-liberal” or “semi-populist.”

For what it’s worth, I think that participants in these debates tend to inflate the political stakes. Most members of the left who resist forming coalitions to stop reactionary populists won’t change their minds based on what label sticks. Most loyal Tucker watchers aren’t going to abandon those sweet, sweet dopamine hits because they start thinking of him as a fascist.

What about other implications? I can’t think of any.

Lessons about “how democracies die,” for example, don’t hinge on whether we define reactionary populism as a kind of fascism.

We also don’t gain much in the way of new knowledge about Vox or United Russia just because we decide that they qualify as fascist parties; determining that CPAC or the Oath Keepers are, in fact, fascists organization won’t reveal their hidden lairs where they keep secret plans for world domination.

The irony here is that the real stakes of the debate are less about how we make sense of reactionary populism than about how we understand fascism. If we decide that reactionary populism is, in fact, a contemporary variant of fascism, then that informs how we conceptualize fascism as an analytic category, how we make sense of fascism’s evolution over the last century, and how study the conditions that drive fascism’s rise and decline.

Theories of the causes of fascism are not definitions of fascism

Adam Tooze—whose knowledge of the Interwar period exceeds mine by many, many orders of magnitude—writes that:

… [I]f we aim for is a general historical understanding of fascism, I would argue that we have to see it as shaped by three framing conditions. (1) the experience of total war; (2) the active threat of class war and revolution; (3) the shadow of the end of history as defined by the rise of Anglo-American global hegemony.

All three contexts shaped both Mussolini and Hitler’s movements. We can relate to all three of these dimensions form the point of view of 2022, but in large part through difference and contrast rather than similarity of situation.

Mussolini and Hitler were both combat veterans whose politics were defined around that experience. The fact that we mercifully have no experience of total war, helps to make the 21st century in Europe and the US distinctly post-fascist.

A few paragraphs later, he adds that:

Given the odds stacked against them, the reason why it is ultimately fatuous to draw strong analogies between historic fascism and current right-wing movements is that the only true fascist is a dead fascist buried amidst the ruins of their regime. The survivors of the interwar period survived by moderating their position. Those that remained active in fascistoid politic after the epic defeat of 1945 are, by virtue of that fact properly described as post-fascist.

War fought against the odds for existential stakes is not an accidental aspect of fascism, it is a defining feature. The results were predictable. The mobilization of US power, including the Manhattan atomic bomb program, was launched to counter the challenge they posed. To gauge the scale of the joint reaction by the British Empire and the United States, remember that in the summer of 1940, after the fall of France and the rest of North Western Europe, the Nazi regime was allied not only with Fascist Italy but with the Soviet Union and Imperial Japan as well. It took the mobilization of gigantic forces to crush the Nazi block, but that destruction was comprehensive and definitive.

An illuminating contrast is offered in this respect by Franco or Salazar’s regimes – authoritarian but not fascist – in Spain and Portugal. They emerged from the same historic cauldron as Hitler’s and Mussolini’s. At times they cultivated the support of local fascist movements and flirted with fascist ideology. But they survived down to the 1970s, because at the critical moment in the 1940s they shrank from a confrontation with the Western powers. If he had chosen to stay out of the war in 1940 and not to chase his historic destiny, there little reason to doubt that Mussolini could have matched Franco’s longevity. Certainly, the violence of fascist colonial policy in Libya and the war against Ethiopia in the 1930s did not condemn his regime to extinction. Portugal’s authoritarian regime was still fighting its African colonial wars into the 1970s.

The idea that Franco’s regime was categorically “authoritarian but not fascist” is more testament to the Generalissimo’s post-war rebranding efforts than anything else.

Anyway, I think that it’s helpful to rearrange these arguments and put them in bullet-point form:

  • Mussolini was a fascist;
  • Fascist warfare, as practiced by Mussolini (at least until 1940), was not all that different from Portugal’s African colonial wars;
  • The defining feature of fascism is “war fought against existential odds”;
  • What would have happened to Mussolini if he had stayed out of World War II is a viable counterfactual (Mussolini only declared war after German forces crushed France in 1940); and
  • If Mussolini had stayed out of World War II he could have successfully distanced his ideology from that of the Nazis.

NB: earlier in the piece Tooze writes that: “…it is the name of Mussolini’s movement that echoes down to the present as a pejorative label” and it “is telling that the most commonly used label is fascist and not Nazi. Fascism serves to summon the specter of Hitler and the Holocaust without naming them explicitly, which would over-stretch credulity.”

I agree with a great deal of what Tooze argues; the stakes of the debate are political rather than explanatory! The points he makes in this section do a good job of underscoring that point! But as arguments about how to define fascism? They’re incoherent.

Perhaps we should not find this surprising. The fundamental analytical and methodological claim that underpins the essay is nonsense: the world is full of things — national-states, canoes, the English language — that have outlasted the historically specific conditions that produced them.

Ideologies always change over time. What people called “fascism” in 1929 looked different from what people called “fascism” in 1938. If we think that reactionary populists can’t be fascists because 1930 was a very different place than 2020, then it also follows that there are not “Christians” because the conditions that gave rise to Christianity no longer exist, or that no “liberals” because the conditions that gave rise to liberalism no longer exist.

Obviously, what we call “Christianity” today includes a wide range of different beliefs, all of which deviate from their prior iterations. But that does not mean comparisons are only useful for the purpose of highlighting discontinuities and that other kinds of comparisons reveal nothing of interest.

By the same token, older ideas also return in new configurations: consider the flexibility of antisemitic tropes, many of which persist in forms that are not overtly antisemitic.

It seems odd to argue that fascism is exceptional — that it, and it alone, is inextricably anchored to a specific moment in time.

* * *

I wrote the bulk of this in early January. The plan was to publish it before its companion piece appeared in Foreign Affairs. That’s why it engages with posts that are, by the standards of social media, already ancient.

I also mention this as a kind of apology (and explanation): the fact that I have posted this longish (by blogging standards) piece does not mean I expect to ramp up my social-media presence any time in the immediate future.

The fact is that I’ve spent the last few months slowly working through an extremely long list of overdue obligations. I’ve also begun my sabbatical, during which I have two (at least) substantial works to complete So until I have successfully entered into a viable writing regime — one that allows me to make progress on revisions for the (delayed) paperback edition of Exit from Hegemony and my three-authored book on power politics — I will need to continue to reduce my presence here and at my other blogs. Which for many of you, I imagine, is good news.

ETA: this was piece has been edited for clarity.

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