Fascism and Democracy
What Gramsci can tell us about the relationship between fascism and liberalism — and the rise of Donald Trump.
- Interview by
- George Souvlis
Fascism is back in fashion — at least if mainstream political commentators are to be believed. Many have been quick to seize upon the oft-misunderstood term to describe Donald Trump, presenting the Republican presidential candidate as a uniquely menacing figure along the lines of Franco or Mussolini.
But this careless use of the fascist label ignores the historical roots of fascism and sidesteps the vital work of carefully analyzing Trump’s political ascendance. It also undermines efforts to develop a serious understanding of the phenomenon of fascism itself.
Dylan Riley — a professor of sociology at the University of California-Berkeley and member of the New Left Review editorial board — has spent years developing an understanding of fascism that is rooted in the history of actual fascist movements.
His key insight has to do with the relationship between fascism and democracy — far from representing the ultimate rejection of democratic ideals, fascist movements have consistently presented themselves as the democratic alternative to liberalism.
In this interview — prepared for Jacobin by George Souvlis — Riley discusses his characterization of fascism as a form of “authoritarian democracy” and the challenges facing the international left today.
By way of introduction, can you describe your political and academic development?
I grew up in Louisville Kentucky, the home of Muhammad Ali, in the 1970s and 1980s.
My mother taught chemistry at an experimental public high school, which I also attended, called the Brown School. The school was a kind of institutional outgrowth of the local Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and it embodied much of earnestness and good will — but also the debilitating naiveté — of that movement. The school was integrated both in terms of race and class, which was unusual for that time and place.
I remember reading Mao’s “little red book” and Huey Newton in high school, but real politicization began when I attended Eugene Lang College at the New School for Social Research. I arrived there in 1989 just as the Soviet Union was unraveling. Everybody was reading Arendt and Foucault; so being a contrarian I was reading Marx, Althusser, and Lukács, and trying, but mostly failing, to understand Gramsci.
Politically speaking, there was a lot of activism at the time against the first Gulf War, and I was involved in that. But mostly the atmosphere was one of overwhelming political defeat.
I attended graduate school at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), which was a very exciting place for historical comparative research in the 1990s. There I was fortunate to be able to study with a brilliant group of scholars: Perry Anderson, Rebecca Emigh, Michael (Mick) Mann, and for a time Ivan Szelenyi.
At UCLA, there were intense debates among Weberians, Bourdieuseans, and Marxists.
At the same time, the “transitions” were underway in Eastern Europe, and as a result the whole issue of “transitions to capitalism” was on everybody’s agenda. So all in all it was quite an exciting time and place.
But politically, again, the late nineties were an incredibly depressing period. The historical conjuncture was one of overwhelming defeat and demobilization, and self-identifying as a “Marxist” was very difficult intellectually and politically.
I was fortunate in the early 2000s to be able to do research in Italy, where I met Emanuela Tallo, whom I later married. Much of my understanding of Italian politics comes from her. She taught me to really understand an Italian newspaper. Emanuela also played a big role in developing the basic thesis of my first book, which gradually emerged after numerous discussions we had about the character of fascism.
When I met her, Emanuela had recently written a thesis on the importance of the myth of the Risorgimento in the Repubblica di Salò, under the direction of Giuseppe Parlato, a historian of fascist syndicalism. Emanuela brought home to me the paradoxical incorporation of democratic themes into the fascist project, as well as constantly pushing me to concretize my abstract theoretical claims with historical documents.
You’ve drawn on Antonio Gramsci’s ideas to explain the rise of the fascist regimes in the interwar period. Can his analysis also explain the recent emergence of new far-right parties in Europe?
In my view, Gramsci’s most fundamental contribution to understanding modern authoritarianism is that he dislodged Marxist analysis from the framework of “revolution” and “reaction.”
I think Gramsci understood that fascism represented for Italy and Germany their belated and terribly distorted version of the French Revolution. There was an undeniably “modernizing” element to these regimes that was fused with their attack on the Left, and with their racist imperialism.
So yes, I do think that Gramsci’s work can help to understand some elements of the far right in Europe, as well as the Trump phenomenon in the United States.
Part of the strength of these movements, like interwar fascism itself, lies in their ability to articulate some basic democratic demands: the idea that political institutions need to be removed from the hands of a corrupt parliamentary clique and made responsible again to the people, and so on. In conditions where these sorts of demands cannot be satisfied by the Left, the far right will take them up.
However, I would like to emphasize that the situation in Europe and the United States today is vastly different from the 1930s, mostly because there is no Soviet Union. Facile uses of the term “fascism” often obscure this fundamental difference, and lead to a politics of hysterical lesser-evilism.
You’ve defined fascist regimes as “authoritarian democracies.” What do you mean by that? How is this type of democracy different from liberal democracy?
This is the most controversial argument in my book. It particularly irritates political scientists, but also offends certain leftists who want to claim democracy for their side.
But the point I’m making is really very simple. Democracy is fundamentally what Gaetano Mosca called a “political formula.” It is the claim that a certain type of political institution “represents” the people. Liberalism, in contrast, is a set of procedures (voting, parliamentary representation, and so on).
Now you cannot understand anything about fascist doctrine if you do not understand that their central claim was that liberalism is antidemocratic; in other words, the fascists claimed that liberal institutions cannot represent the will of the people. They further claimed that their typical institutions, particularly the party, were more effective means to represent the will of the people. So fascists were “authoritarian democrats.”
Unfortunately a lot of political scientists want to engage in the crypto-normative game of defining democracy. But it’s a fool’s errand, because no set of political institutions can actualize a “political formula.” Elected officials in our contemporary oligarchies no more represent the will of the people than did the absolutist monarchs represent the will of God.
Gramsci’s work has inspired many contradictory readings. How do you interpret his politics?
Gramsci was a Leninist. He did not think that socialism could be established without a transitional dictatorship. All those many interpretations that obscure this point are misguided.
However, what was distinctive about Gramsci is that he understood that a fully hegemonic class rules through liberal institutions; that is to say, it rules through multiparty elections and guarantees civil rights. In this, I believe, Gramsci was close to Kautsky, who argued in his critique of Lenin that the British dominant class ruled through its two political parties (at the time the Liberals and the Conservatives).
So I think that locating Gramsci is ultimately not all that difficult. He was Leninist liberal. He felt a transitional dictatorship would be necessary in order to establish a fully socialist liberal democracy.
Let’s move forward to the liberalism of today. Nowadays, the emergence of xenophobic far-right movements is a common political denominator in many European countries. At the same time, Tariq Ali and others have pointed to the emergence of an “extreme center,” as center-left and liberal parties increasingly embrace far-right policies.
Can we still speak about “political liberalism,” or do we need new analytical categories to grasp these transformations?
Regarding the resurgent far right, the most important general point is the profound crisis of hegemony that has set in across the advanced capitalist world since 2008.
Increasingly, profitability requires direct political support (bailouts, austerity programs, and so on). This undermines the operation of “liberal democracy,” which has been the central political and ideological cement of the capitalist class across the advanced world since 1945.
In my view, it is this underlying crisis that explains the rise of the extreme right. There are some similarities between what is happening now and the interwar period. In both periods, there was massive skepticism about the representativeness of the political class.
However there are three major differences.
First, and most obviously, there is no Soviet Union. The threat of a Communist revolution was a kind of pervasive background condition for the rise of fascist parties and regimes.
This sort of threat just does not exist today; mass immigration does not really work as a functional substitute for it. Precisely for this reason, today’s right lacks the ideological and organizational energy of the classic fascisms.
The second major difference is the absence of a mass of impoverished small agrarian producers. These were crucial to the success of all the historical fascisms, but this social stratum simply does not exist in Europe or the United States today.
The third difference is the absence of a huge mass of unemployed, recently demobilized military recruits. This was a crucial element for all fascist movements. It is very hard to see how you could really organize significant paramilitary squads in the absence of this element.
One of the central topics of your work is social democracy and welfare. Do you think that reforming capitalism is still possible?
The social-democratic moment is over in my view. It relied on capitalist economies that delivered mass employment and a rising standard of living for the majority of the population. On this basis, a “positive sum class compromise” was possible — capitalists could simultaneously pay higher wages and increase rates of return.
But as the problem of excess capacity became more and more severe in the late 1960s and early 1970s, this compromise became more and more difficult to sustain — until the rise of neoliberalism. Robert Brenner has masterfully laid this out.
The key point then is that the turnaround in the late 1970s and 1980s was not simply a matter of political will. There was an underlying economic process that has to be recognized here.
Now, if that is the case, we need to reimagine what a left political project might be in this period of capitalism. The idea of a new “New Deal” or something of the sort seems to me implausible. Unfortunately there is little else on offer in mainstream “progressive” circles, at least in the United States.
It is also a very misleading tendency to treat the rise of neoliberalism primarily as an ideological triumph. Of course, there is an element of truth to this, and radicals should take to heart the lesson of the Mont Pelerin Society — that it is important to hold on to one’s ideas.
However, the idea that the major political and economic problems of the advanced capitalist countries derive from bad policy ideas is an absurd fairy tale assiduously promoted by the likes of Paul Krugman in the United States.
The political scene in the United States has changed a great deal in the last year, with the rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Do you agree with the liberal media’s characterization of Trump as a fascist?
The characterization of Trump as “fascist” is erroneous both analytically and politically for reasons that I laid out above. It serves the obvious purpose of rallying the electorate behind the loathsome Hillary Clinton.
This is not to say that Trump poses no threat — personally, I think it is possible that his (mostly accurate) attacks on his rival as dishonest, self-serving, and incompetent will begin to stick, boosting his chances in the election. The painful question now is which of the two (Trump or Clinton) is the greatest danger.
In any case, little will change in the United States in a positive direction without a mass, extra-electoral movement of the Left. Pinning one’s hopes on an electoral insurgency is misguided, as the Sanders campaign has once again demonstrated.