What is Fascism?
June 3, 2022
When Fascism came into power, most people were unprepared, both theoretically and practically. They were unable to believe that man could exhibit such propensities for evil, such lust for power, such disregard for the rights of the weak, or such yearning for submission. Only a few had been aware of the rumbling of the volcano preceding the outbreak.
The political right has always defied easy summation to a far greater extent than liberalism and socialism, the two great emancipatory doctrines that emerged from modernity and Enlightenment. This is in part a genetic issue. While liberalism and socialism were initially worked out as political and philosophical doctrines centered around universalistic principles, the political right began as a reaction attempting to defend the various ancien régimes of Europe and Latin America. This gave many of the early forms of conservatism and revanchism a startling diversity, as the forms of agitation and argument they developed were invariably stamped by the systems of power and hierarchy they sought to defend. But, more importantly, after the initial outrage and shock of the revolutions were absorbed, the political right displayed an astonishing capacity for evolution and even popular dynamism.
Firstly the political right learned, as Edmund Neill put it in his recent piece, Conservatism, that in order to successfully counter popular movements on the left it was insufficient to simply offer rote apologias for power and privilege. The most intelligent and creative reactionaries learned from the left, often developing “symbiotic opposites to progressive concepts in order to rebut them.” The arch-monarchist Joseph de Maistre, characterized as the intellectual godfather of fascism by Isaiah Berlin, was one of the first to describe monarchical power in populist terms. De Maistre described “monarchy” as “without contradiction, the form of government that gives the most distinction to the greatest number of persons” because ordinary people can participate in its splendor “as a portion of sovereignty.” In other words, the mass of people are invited to libidinally invest monarchy with an ideologically sublime quality in which they participate without enjoying significant political agency or power. This ideological move would have a long history on the political right, from the plebiscitary authoritarians of the nineteenth century through to the fascist demagogues of the twentieth (and twenty-first!).
Second, and most important of all, one saw the surprising emergence of the radical or far right. The germ of the far right can be found as far back as the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century when critics like De Maistre and Thomas Carlyle heaped contempt on conservative elites for their decadent inability to master the opposition. This often expressed itself as a deep discontent with the present and even the immediate past, which was seen as an archive of failure and decline. As Corey Robin expressed in his classic The Reactionary Mind:
...once the old regime is threatened or toppled, the conservative is forced to realize that it is human agency, the willed imposition of intellect and imagination upon the world, that generates and maintains inequality across time…From the revolution, the conservative develops a particular attitude toward political time, a belief in the power of men and women to shape history, to propel it forward or backwards; and by virtue of that belief, he comes to adopt the future as his preferred taste.
In its most extreme forms, this took shape as political movements that shared with moderate conservatives a belief in hierarchy and the danger of egalitarianism. But the far-right had little faith that conventional conservative elites were up to the task of confronting revolutionary liberalism and socialism and could even demand their replacement with a newer and more activist elite which alone could get the job done. This could even take on an anti-capitalist hue. By the late nineteenth century formidable intellectuals like Nietzsche were demanding that new kinds of “aristocratic radicals” confront the crass materialism of bourgeois society through bringing about rarefied and