Fascists Are Benefiting From World Crisis
A series of crises have shaken the liberal triumphalism of recent decades and produced new antidemocratic forces. Historian Geoff Eley tells Jacobin why it still makes sense to speak of "fascism" — and why the new forms of reaction aren't just a return to the past.
- Interview by
- Arjun Chaturvedi
The rise of far-right movements from the United States to Brazil and India has often prompted discussions of a “new fascism.” The September 25 Italian election victory for Giorgia Meloni, leader of a party with roots in historical fascism, has further polarized analyses between those focused on comparisons with the past and those who emphasize her conservative hues. Yet today’s crises are also producing new forms of reactionary politics that do not look like those of a hundred years ago.
Geoff Eley is Karl Pohrt Distinguished University Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He has written extensively on the history of the Left and the history of the Right. Currently he is writing a general history of Europe in the twentieth century and a new study of the German right, Genealogies of Nazism: Conservatives, Radical Nationalists, and Fascists in Germany, 1860–1945.
In this interview for Jacobin, Eley discusses how studies of fascism have changed in recent decades to address the rise of antidemocratic and authoritarian movements across the globe. Eley explains that “fascism” is a portable concept that has multiple origins and varied forms that scholars need to contextualize and interpret as part of a strategy for anti-fascism. He also discusses the future of the Left with the rise of neoliberal globalization and climate degradation in the twenty-first century.
How have studies of fascism changed over the course of your career? Were there specific political phenomena that spurred new approaches to the subject for you?
Aside from a few scattered Marxists, scholarly treatments of fascism during my student years (1967–1974) were shaped by the social sciences rather than by historians, who were mostly indifferent, if not directly hostile, to the concept. Typical for the time were two 1968 conference volumes edited by Stuart Woolf, titled European Fascism and The Nature of Fascism: if the first contained country-by-country chapters by national historians, each with a helpful but entirely untheorized empirical narrative, then the second convened political scientists and sociologists who developed typologies of rule and comparative political development, based in theories of totalitarianism and mass society. A few intellectual historians, like George Mosse, did write about fascism as an “anti-modernist” departure from norms of “the West.”
One interesting exception was Ernst Nolte’s 1963 Three Faces of Fascism, whose impact transcended its author’s obscurantist conservatism. By taking fascist ideas seriously and treating them comparatively (not just in Italy and Germany, but also in France), the book galvanized lots of interest from across the political spectrum. By and large, this was where studies long remained: on the one hand, massively accumulating monographic scholarship inside national historiographies on particular fascist movements, without much theorizing; on the other hand, sociologies and institutional typologies of comparative political development explaining why Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany were different from “the West.” During the 1970s, a bunch of big anthologies pulled all of this together. Biggest and best was a huge conference volume called Who Were the Fascists that put historically minded social scientists into conversation with the best historical research on a pan-European scale. During this period, few historians took fascist ideology very seriously.
My own interest was very straightforward: I grew up in the active aftermath of World War II and wanted to grasp where Nazism had come from. How could it have succeeded in a vibrantly democratic Weimar Republic, with one of the strongest lefts in Europe? Conversely, why had the Left failed? What kind of crisis opened the way for fascism, and how was that crisis produced? After my first book, Reshaping the German Right, which studied “conditions of possibility for fascism” between the 1890s and 1920s, I decided to sort out my own thinking on the subject with a 1983 article, “What Produces Fascism: Preindustrial Traditions or a Crisis of the Capitalist State.” I found the best help for this in Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, the response to Nicos Poulantzas’s Fascism and Dictatorship, the Marxist debates of the 1920s and ’30s (Bauer, Trotsky, Thalheimer, Togliatti), and above all Ernesto Laclau’s Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory, published in 1977.
There things stayed, as my main interest migrated to larger theoretical ground — questions of ideology and subjectivity, the usefulness of the concept of the public sphere, problems of nationalism, and everything we now call the “cultural turn.” In the scholarly world at large, renewed interest in fascism was kickstarted by Roger Griffin’s Nature of Fascism. But the main trend was now toward cultural and intellectual history, with an emphasis on the arts, aesthetics, and the spectacle, along with sexuality, popular culture, and everyday life, with literary and film scholars setting the pace, in a slow burn that eventually sparked historians’ attention too. That went with the grain of my own interests, helping me think further about questions of ideology and fascist subjectivity.
It was somewhat later, in the early 2000s, that I made fascism per se my priority again. Partly, I’d finished my history of the European left, Forging Democracy, but after 9/11, I started feeling a new political urgency that was only sharpened by the relentless pan-European growth of an anti-immigrant and xenophobic right. Debates about “states of exception” further focused my worries, especially around the spectacles of Guantanamo, Hurricane Katrina, and the Southwestern borderlands. I started thinking about the new conditions of possibility for fascism today. Then, a few months before Katrina, a dear friend suggested that a German historian’s best contribution these days would be some guidance for how to think about contemporary fascism. After Katrina, I got down to work, with an updating of my 1983 article as the initial result (whose first outing was a lecture in 2009). My 2013 book, Nazism as Fascism was then the follow-through. With Donald Trump’s advent, the consequences of the 2016 election, the ensuing presidency, and the events of January 2021, the urgency of reaching clarity about the past and present meanings of fascism became ever more acute. So I published another essay, completed in September 2020, to help with that task.
In your writings, you have argued for scholars to interpret fascism as a portable concept that has multiple origins and varied forms. Could you describe the main characteristics of fascism that appear in all historical contexts?
We have to isolate what distinguishes fascism as a type of politics from other forms of right-wing action and belief. Fascists are far more extreme in every way. But there’s also a qualitative break from the conservatisms that accept the necessity of operating inside the framework of liberal constitutionalism or constitutional democracy, whether on principle or for various kinds of pragmatics. At the core of that break — a breach from civility — is the turning to political violence. Rather than honestly debating issues on the speaker’s platform, by agreed protocols of behavior, fascists want to suppress, physically harm, and even kill their opponents.
Second, fascists prefer — unequivocally, vehemently — an authoritarian state over democracy. Third, they mobilize an aggressively exclusionary idea of the nation against a pluralism that recognizes and even prioritizes difference. We can further elaborate these criteria. Misogyny, aggressive sexuality, and an intrusive, armored masculinity are a rich field of attitudes and practices. Marching, uniforms, arms-bearing, belligerent collectivism, and an aesthetics of spectacle would be another. But for me these elements are primary — the kind of radical-right extremism that idealizes political violence, wields authoritarianism against juridical democracy, and trumpets exclusionary forms of patriotism and radical nationalism. They compose the most important differentia specifica. They carry across different settings of time and place — so not only in Europe’s early twentieth century but also in our own contemporary conjuncture.
The question then becomes, what kind of crisis calls that kind of politics onto the agenda? When do people begin to find it appealing, particularly the recourse to political violence? What makes them see it as necessary? What kind of crisis produces fascism? There are common features, once again, that recur structurally across different times.
Here my preferred approach remains very “Poulantzian”: fascism can flourish under the impress of an especially extreme dual crisis. First, the established political arrangements no longer enable the achievement of stable and effective governance; second, those governing arrangements malfunction so badly that they forfeit the consent of the people. When these twin crises happen together — crisis of representation, crisis of consent; government paralysis, democratic impasse — states of exception are created where a specifically fascist politics can start to gain traction.
You have also suggested that fascism of the classical kind of the 1920s and ’30s will not appear due to the structural crises in the world today. Within these contexts, what are the responsible ways for the Left to fight, contest, or resist fascism today?
If I’m right in the above, then the broadest possible political front of democratic defense has to be essential. That means the greatest possible breadth of coalitioning inside and across the bewildering array of multifarious progressive agencies currently active behind left agendas of one kind or another — from the progressive caucuses inside the Democratic Party itself and other progressive parties, movements, and general organizations (including African American, Latinx, Native American, Asian American, etc.), through the news sites, web-based platforms, left magazines and newspapers, and lobbying groups, to the proliferating vote-defending initiatives and seemingly ever-expanding plethora of single-issue campaign groups, including the multitudinous feminist, reproductive rights, LGBTQ, public health, environmentalist, poverty-related, civil liberties, anti-hate, human rights, trade union, and other bodies. It means building an urgent conversation across these usually discretely mounted mobilizations. Only then might the Democratic establishment be moved more decisively in the needed direction.
That will require: (a) intensive but patient behind-the-scenes coalitioning of the kind seldom practiced across the incorrigibly fragmented progressive political sector in this country; (b) sustained pressure from the grassroots of the kind effected so dramatically by Black Lives Matter, because the “committee room” will never be moved to the needed action without the “streets”; and (c) actually naming the danger of fascism for what it is. When exactly to do that will be a complicated strategic question, because to be used responsibly, that specific language of “fascism” and “anti-fascism” needs real clarity of meaning of the kind I’ve been suggesting above.
You have argued that Donald Trump may be antidemocratic and authoritarian but lacks a coherent ideology that is a crucial aspect of fascism. How should we interpret a figure such as Narendra Modi in this context, given that he adheres to the ideology of Hindutva. More generally, how can we interpret the links between religion and fascism?
First, I need to clarify how I see “ideology” per se. On the one hand, we have the common usage in ordinary language, usually referring to some familiar body of political ideas, a readily recognizable program, or a codified body of dominant values and beliefs (e.g., liberalism, conservatism, socialism, etc.). Trump shows little evidence of a coherent ideology in that more restrictive sense, except in the most debased, banalized, and undisciplined set of ways. On the other hand, he does see and read the world through a definite set of lenses, on the basis of assumptions, prejudices, bits and pieces of ideas and rhetoric, fragmentary citations, visceral impulses, and unconscious understandings, whose coherence is certainly available to be reconstructed — as an imaginary relation to his actual conditions of existence, in Louis Althusser’s famous phrase. Trump, of course, has an outlook whose coherence can be found. But this isn’t organized around, or even consciously derived from, any codified core of texts or ideas. It’s the opposite of any formal system of belief. It’s more a matrix of dispositions, a bunch of master tropes centered narcissistically around toxic masculinity, monstrously selfish desires, acquisitiveness and wealth, “America,” violence, success, dominance, loyalty, power, and so forth.
In grasping fascist specificities in any particular period or place, likewise, we need to separate what I’ve argued is the portable core — deadly political violence, heedless antidemocracy, and exclusionary nationalism, plus misogynist masculinity and a brazenly adversarial political aesthetic — from fascism’s particular discursive formations and ideological resources, such as Hindutva or white Christian nationalism. Fascists over the years have been very adept at appropriating, repurposing, and rearticulating ideas, images, and techniques from elsewhere, including from their direct opponents and bitterest enemies. The very coupling of “National” and “Socialism” occurred right at the inception, after all. Benito Mussolini learned his politics as a Socialist Party maximalist before 1914–15. During 1919–1923, the Left’s mass-based political forms proved one vital source for the fascists’ own political techniques and mass-celebrating aesthetic. So Modi is a really good example of that inventiveness and syncretism. Religion has always been a complicated but fertile field of ideas, practices, and associations for fascists, whether past or present. See, for instance, Richard Steigmann-Gall’s now classic The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945.
Given your interests in cinema and aesthetics, which films and works of art provide the best interpretations and critiques of fascism?
That’s a tough question, as the possibilities are so limitless. I’m always drawn to John Heartfield and photomontage, for example, and one contemporary equivalent would be figures like Banksy and graffiti artists, along with other forms of guerrilla art. For the visual arts, some major exhibition catalogs of the past few decades provide terrific guides — e.g., the Art and Power: Images of the 1930s exhibition or State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda. Julia Adeney Thomas and I recently published the anthology Visualizing Fascism: The Twentieth-Century Rise of the Global Right to explore things comparatively across different times and places. For the sake of brevity, and in the same spirit of moving between fascism in the early twentieth century and fascism today, I’d suggest juxtaposing Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist with Zack Snyder’s 300. Bertolucci’s 1900 would also be a candidate. For cinema of the 1920s and ’30s, I’d combine Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and M with Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Olympia. Films offer a terrific means of exploring how perceptions of fascism have changed. What can be said about the movement from Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog, through Marcel Ophuls’s The Sorrow and the Pity, to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah and Stephen Speilberg’s Schindler’s List, for example?
In your assessment, what is the future of left politics to combat the rise of authoritarianism, neoliberal globalization, and climate degradation, with the specter of fascism still at large?
Running implicitly through my earlier answer is a kind of “popular frontist” self-limitation. Given the Left’s historic defeats of the past four decades, the consequences of capitalist restructuring (whether globally or inside individual societies), the pervasive reach of neoliberal precepts and presumptions, and the present distribution of democratic capacities in the United States and other late-capitalist countries, any effective left politics now needs to pass through the hard school of modest expectations.
Second, the creation of a “borderless world” (in that now understood neoliberal sense), the collapse of state sovereignties in a huge expanse of territory from West Africa through the Middle East to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the unstoppable continuance of the crisis of global migrancy (these are obviously shorthand) are all generating the materials for virulent popular anxieties about boundaries and borders inside the societies of the advanced capitalist countries. And those conditions unleash dynamics that can only become more and more destabilizing as rivalries over resources grow more and more unpredictable and extreme beneath the unstoppable impact of climate change. It’s this overall syndrome, especially the anxieties about borders and boundaries and about “difference” and foreignness, that drive a great deal of contemporary right-wing nationalist vehemence.
Worsening rivalries over diminishing global resources (especially food, water, energy, and fuel), fortress mentalities, idioms of politics organized by anxiety, gatedness as the emergent social paradigm — these are what drive so many of the authoritarian and violent tendencies of contemporary social grievance and intrusive governmentality. If we put all of that together, we have the kind of crisis that can enable a politics that looks like fascism to coalesce. That’s where Trump and the associated political forces have prospered. This reemphasizes the importance of the greatest breadth of democratic coalitioning.