Now the Fascists Can Shapeshift Too
The New Faces of Fascism by Enzo Traverso
To what extent are the resurgent populisms of Europe fascist? This is the question Enzo Traverso takes up in The New Faces in Fascism. And it doesn’t deliver.
Partly it’s because the terms involved are rather slippery. Traverso does a good job summarising the historiography of fascism – and there have been a staggering number of ways to understand it. Perhaps this is because of the relatively short-lived nature of the fascist regimes, or the tendency to employ the term well beyond its actual designation, either as a political pejorative or a moral condemnation.
Traverso follows the usual line in understanding populism as “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 mobilise the masses against the system.” (15-6).
Yet Traverso is careful to note that populism is often used in a pejorative sense. It has been applied to a wide range of figures: Nigel Farage, Jeremy Corbyn, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Marine Le Pen, Evo Morales, Bernie Sanders, Viktor Orbán. It’s hard to see what they all have in common. He cautions us against trying to do this too much; we should not limit populism to an “abstract category formalised in a set of general features.” (17).
He therefore zooms in on the far-right populisms and identitarian movements of Europe. He is particularly interested in France, Italy, and Germany, and the associated movements of the far right within them: Brothers of Italy, Lega Nord, National Rally (formerly the National Front), Pegida, Alternative for Germany, and others. It’s nice to see continental Europe given centre-stage in a scholarly work about populism. His analysis is sometimes very specific to a particular country though, and therefore lacks generality.
These populisms are not, on Traverso’s analysis, strictly fascist, because they do not continue the fascist project. Those kinds of parties exist, but they are not populist. They are parties like Jobbik in Hungary or Golden Dawn in Greece, which Traverso calls neofascist. The populists are best described as postfascist:
In most cases, it does indeed come from a classical fascist background, but it has now changed its forms... In trying to define them, we cannot ignore the fascist womb from which they emerged, insofar as these are their historical roots, but we should also cosnider their metamorphoses. They have transformed themselves, and they are moving in a direction whose ultimate outcome remains unpredictable. When they have settled as something else, with precise and stable political and ideological features, we will have to coin some new definition. Postfascism belongs to a particular regime of historicity—the beginning of the twenty-first century—which explains its erratic, unstable, and often contradictory ideological content, in which antinomic political philosophies mix together. (6-7).
Discussing these populisms in their historical moment rather than as a unified political ideology avoids some of the cruder comparisons that are drawn between populism and fascism. But it also dilutes the book’s thesis. While postfascism is understood as being, in some sense, a progression or succession of fascism, it’s not always clear how it is so. And about halfway in, the book loses sight of its original thesis and drowns you in historiography.
Traverso does make comparisons between fascism and populism, describing how a fascist ideal has mutated into a populist one. When there are counterexamples, he unconvincingly handwaves them away by appealing to the inherent vagueness of postfascism. Whether postfascism is vague as such because it’s an historical moment in flux, or because its pronouncements are by their nature incoherent or contradictory, it’s never really clear.
To take an example: homosexuality embodied moral and masculine weakness in fascist regimes. In Nazi Germany, homosexuals were arrested, imprisoned, castrated, and put in concentration camps. On the other hand, there are several prominent populists who are gay, or who “often claim to be defending women’s and gay rights against Islamism.” (31). Some examples include Alice Weidel, Pim Fortuyn, Geert Wilders, Florian Philippot, and Renaud Camus. Some of these politicians are also opposed to gay marriage and/or gay civil unions or partnerships (the possibility of being against gay marriage without being homophobic is never addressed).
Traverso believes that the populisms are like fascism in their view of homosexuality, even if they differ by degrees. Any pronouncement of gay rights is merely fascism “shedding its skin”, an example of a movement adopting social practices “which do not belong to its genetic code” in order to “stay relevant.” (32). It’s the same reason why Marie Le Pen has cleaned up her party and turned it into a more mainstream political vehicle. On Traverso’s account, there can be no genuine concern for gay rights or moderate politics among the populists; only shapeshifting fascists assuming a new guise in a different era.
Yet this is unconvincing. There is still a world of difference between opposition to gay marriage and throwing gay people into concentration camps. One can point to individual cases of political opportunism. Traverso may even be correct in his final judgement on the postfascist “defence” of gay rights. What he’s doing isn’t historical analysis though, but political bickering, the equivalent of telling someone else that they are lying instead of responding to what they are saying.
Too often Traverso weasels out of the discrepancies between fascism and populism by throwing up his hands and declaring that it is the populists who are being contradictory and that postfascism – the supposed bridge between them – is vague and shadowy. Postfascism is, of course, a term he invented in the first place. Shouldn’t the onus be on him to more firmly conceive the idea before writing a book about it?
In the case of racism, the anti-Semitism of the fascists has transmogrified into the Islamophobia of the populists. The historcial force sustaining both is colonialism, in particular the imperialism and white supremacy that drove the Scramble for Africa, as well as the cultural memories of the postcolonial wars, such as the Algerian War (veterans of whom founded National Rally). To understand the roots of the holocaust, we might look to such events as the Italian-Ethiopian war, in which chemical weapons were deployed on an “inferior” race, or the Herero genocide, in which tens to hundreds of thousands of Hereros and Namaquas died.
In a later chapter, Traverso examines the extent to which political Islamism and fascism have an affinity. The answer is: none, really. They may both have totalitarian aspects, but exercising absolute power over all spheres of life says nothing of the idelogical and historical currents driving a regime; their “internal logic” is different.
A good deal of this discussion is, for some reason, taken up with Israel and anti-Semitism. Traverso explains that Islamophobia is today institutional and endemic to Europe in a way that anti-Semitism no longer is. “The memory of the Holocaust has become a republican civic religion, while the memory of colonial crimes is still denied or repressed...” (81). Anti-Semitism is still around, but Traverso calls it – somewhat dismissively – “the new Judeophobia.” And while considering if the “nationalism” of ISIS has something to do with the fascist nationalisms, he concludes that it is actually far more similar to the nationalism of Israel.
This was all far too edgy for me to take very seriously. The comparison between Israel and ISIS is almost irrelevant to the wider point, poorly argued, and overall in bad taste. This chapter is not really an examination of Islam as fascism, but Israel as fascist.
That’s not the only vulgar comparison. In order to evaluate how useful the concept of totalitarianism is for historical understanding, Traverso compares the violence of the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany. While both were terrible, he concludes that the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany was qualitatively different, for its internal logic sought rational means for an irrational end – the extermination of “inferior” peoples (irrational here means lacking in military or economic utility).
On the other hand, Stalin’s modernization programme was “not irrational itself.” Gulags did not exist to kill their inhabitants, but to employ slave labour to build roads and mine metals. Contrast this with Auschwitz, where “death was not a by-product of forced labour, but the camp’s very purpose.” (166).
Of the purging of the kulaks, Traverso writes: “The ‘liquidation of the kulaks’ was the result of a ‘revolution from above’ conceived and realized with authoritarian and bureaucratic methods that were far more improvised than they were rigorously planned (and, indeed, had uncontrollable consequences).” (168). Of the Holodomor: “the death of civilians was not the purpose of military operations, but it was accepted as inevitable ‘collateral damage,’ like in Ukraine in 1930-33.” (168). The policies of collectivization should not be seen as genocidal attempts, but as famines, like the Irish potato famine or 1943 Bengal famine. Traverso is also quick to remind us that Churchill was more racist than Stalin.
His overall point is that totalitarianism is a politically loaded term, often unfit for precise historical analysis, but as it contains within itself all the moral lessons of the twentieth century, it’s not something we can dispense with. There were many differences in the internal logic of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, even though both were totalitarian.
Yet in all of this there is an obvious whiff of Stalinist apologia. The suggestion that the liquidation of the kulaks somehow “spiralled out of control” is really undercooking it. And the Holodomor does seem qualitatively different from the Potato famine and the Bengal famine. The potato famine’s proximate cause was potato blight. A variety of human factors caused the Bengal famine, but these were in response to a war being fought, not a purposeful re-ordering of domestic agriculture. Though aid to the Bengali people was insufficient and ineffective, it was not denied like in the Holodomor. And whether Churchill was more racist than Stalin is pure whataboutism.
Traverso’s argument here is very thin, and even if it were established beyond all doubt, it somehow makes little difference to say that the purpose of the Holodomor was to collectivise the land, not to starve the peasants. This is a psychological claim more than an historical analysis. To minimise the actions of the Soviet Union by saying there was some amount of foresight but not a sufficient degree of intent is to do nothing more than mitigate them and soften the moral culpability of the Soviet Union.
I just don’t see any value in making such comparisons between the Holodomor and the Holocaust. Whether the Holodomor was “better”, “about the same”, or “worse” is of little consolation to those who had to eat their children to survive. Genocide, horror, and tyranny are not events at the Olympics; it’s not a contest. To look at and compare historical tragedies in this way dehumanises and belittles their victims.
If these were inartful comparisons in the service of a well thought out point, I would perhaps have been easier on this book. They aren’t though. Traverso is ultimately more interested in telling you that Israel is worse than you think and the Soviet Union better than you think, in a book about neither.
Ultimately, The New Faces of Fascism does a poor job of explaining the connection between fascism and populism. This despite being packed with footnotes and citations, most of which fly past without much serious discussion. A good deal of this book could have been cut-out and the remainder fleshed out.
Yet the book does ultimately contain a bit of value, and that’s in the simple idea of populism being postfascist. Too often we want to view contemporary politics through the prism of 1945. Yet as Traverso points out, we have, quite simply, moved beyond those times. Populism may or may not be a kind of fascism. In the end, does it really matter? If it’s bad, we should say so on our own terms. Our study of the past should illuminate the present. Obsessing over which technical label applies to whom is, after a certain point, little more than a kind of pointless taxonomy, a way of endlessly naming and renaming things in the world without actually understanding them better. Postfascism is not a political ideology, but a new horizon of historical study, one we may need to take seriously if we ever truly want to grasp populism.