Russia Shows How Fascist Ideas Can Triumph Over an Atomized Society

Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s coup attempt demonstrated the conflicts within Russia’s elite — but also the great political passivity of the general population. In today’s Russia, a fascist cult of violence has taken root in an atomized, demobilized society.

Russian Defense Ministry officers seen during a meeting with officers of Russian army and secret services who prevented invasion of Wagner Group into the Kremlin, June 27, 2023 in Moscow, Russia. (Getty Images)

Since Donald Trump and then Jair Bolsonaro refused to accept electoral defeat, even supporting mobs that occupied the symbolic sites of power, a growing commentary has associated these and similar far-right leaders with fascism.

This is hardly a consensus position. Against such claims, Anton Jäger has argued that the defining sociological transformations of recent decades — rising social atomization and declining associational life — although fundamentally detrimental to democracy and benefitting capital, do not provide the conditions for fascist governments to emerge.

In the examples of the last century, a fascist interclass alliance between capital and part of the people crushed a strong organized left on the verge of power. In today’s atomized “hyperpolitics,” Jäger instead identifies something like the final victory of neoliberalism. In this view, politics have been substantially emptied of their possibility to question who owns and controls what. So, an analysis of today’s political developments should free its historical reference points from the omnipresent trauma of early-twentieth-century Europe.

For Jäger, today’s political struggles rather more resemble those of the mid-nineteenth century. In such a context, while there is a polarization between opposed social groups, each lack strong organizational bodies to transform individual perceptions of justice into common interests grounded in political objectives — even if there are still possibilities for the destabilization of the social order. Now as in Karl Marx’s time, in reaction to social unrest, the atomized mass of individual debtors abandons its sovereignty to a patriarchal, Caesarist regime.

Yet it is also true that all insight into modernity from historical analogy is necessarily partial. Jäger rightly describes why references to the history of the confrontation between fascism and left-wing social forces fail to account for the current disarray in which both sides find themselves. For instance, today’s Italian government — dominated by a party with an overt fascist genealogy but embedded in European ordoliberalism — differs but slightly from Emmanuel Macron’s ostensibly liberal government in France. Yet Jäger’s reference to nineteenth-century history fails to see the potential for fascism to rise out of and adapt to modern-day atomized societies.

Hence, historical analogies can be complemented with comparative ones. We can get more insight into today’s political and social transformations, and their possible future, by looking at countries with more advanced conditions of modernity — which, paradoxically, can be found in today’s Russia.

The failed coup in Russia this Saturday was billed, true to historical analogy, as a “March on Moscow” — a display of paramilitary strength that would force a change in the capital. Yet, also striking in these events was the lack of any kind of popular mobilization, whether for or against the Wagner Group leadership. In this sense, the weekend’s events exemplified the depoliticization of Russian society, compared to the active role the popular masses played in the coups of 1991 and 1993. Moreover, the swift rise of Wagner as a quasi-legal mercenary group — which was itself a creation of the Russian state, unlike the Blackshirts in Italy or the Sturmabteilung in Germany — illustrates the government’s embrace of violence committed by nonstate forces, even to the point that these paramilitaries threaten the state bureaucracy itself.

Russia surely embodies a highly atomized and depoliticized society and does not resemble the fascist regimes of the interwar period. Yet, its political order has come to reproduce the main ideological elements of the historical fascist regimes, including virilism, the justification of violence as the expression of social hierarchies, and the role of war in rejuvenating man and nation.

Advanced Modernity in Russia

The decline in associational life in Russia does not resemble that of liberal-corporatist Atlantic nations; rather, it is the result of the evolution of a previous Brezhnevite order in which organized social life was heavily bureaucratized while individualist and consumerist attitudes were criminalized as antisocial. The subsequent cooptation or destruction of such institutions under Russia’s liberal-criminal (1991–2002), neoliberal-consumerist (2002–2012), and ultranationalist-fascist (2012–) regimes has allowed some of them to continue in weaker form, while not allowing for new forms of associational life to emerge.

For an example of the modern reproduction of the bureaucratized Soviet-era institutions, we need only look to the trade unions. Unlike Poland, where Solidarność did, at some point, represent a genuine mass movement external to statist discipline and party rule, the combined forces of independent trade unionism in Russia — though officially permitted since the transition to capitalism — have never amounted to even 5 percent of the workforce.

Meanwhile the FNPR, the Russian trade union federation and formal successor to the Soviet All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions (ACCTU), today claims thirty-one million members, down from fifty-five million in 1990, and has lost most of its significance. Labor strikes had a crucial impact in the final years of the Soviet Union, but the FNPR leadership was replaced after the 1993 crisis, when Boris Yeltsin militarily suppressed the Russian congress’s opposition to his economic reforms.

In subsequent years, rather than opposing the government’s destruction of workers’ rights and establishment of an oligarchic regime through shock therapy, the FNPR bureaucracy preserved its enormous privileges (inherited from the Soviet ACCTU’s considerable empire of welfare provision for workers) by enabling the government to ward off any significant contestation at the national level.

For example, when the Russian government defaulted and stopped paying wages in August 1998, twenty-five million protesters gathered across the country. The FNPR then issued statements against “the perturbation of the government’s activity.” Similarly, party membership has declined steeply: in 1989, the Soviet Communist Party claimed twenty million members (around 10 percent of the adult population). A plethora of political parties have emerged in Russia since but none replaced the social structure of the former Communist Party with its para-state structures.

United Russia, the “big-tent” party today in power claims two million members, less than 2 percent of the adult population. Even though many parties claim significant numbers of members, somewhere in the tens of thousands, this is only an artifact of compliance with legal limitations that, until 2021, required parties to provide fifty thousand (lowered to forty thousand in 2011) signatures to register electoral lists. Since 2021, parties with elected members in Russian parliaments are exempted from this obligation — but others must provide a massive two hundred thousand signatures to register.

In general, the political transition in Russia can be described as having relied on mass contestation against the Gorbachev-era Soviet order, without mass support for what has replaced it. Rather than expressing support for the government, the high level of popularity of leaders in Russia, or even higher level of support for the invasion of Ukraine, indicate the profound political alienation and social atomization of Russian citizens. Certainly, pockets of high politicization exist, famously illustrated by the Telegram information channels amongst the Yabloko and liberal supporters of Alexei Navalny as well as between ultranationalists. Yet their influence over the masses remains marginal.

This atomization is clear from the latest statistics: almost a quarter of the population regularly feels lonely. Depoliticization can be seen in the fact that almost 80 percent of adults claim they are surrounded by like-minded people who share their views on events in the country and the world. Far from implying a division of society into sectarian groups without contact between them, this statistic illustrates the level of popular detachment from politics and world events.

Atomization and depoliticization can interact in reinforcing the social appeal of conformity. One example is the popularity of the Russian Orthodox Church. While the proportion of people attending church has remained marginal (6 percent of Orthodox adults), the proportion of adult Russians identifying with the Orthodox Church has more than doubled since 1991 (from 31 percent to 71 percent). Even such processes of disaffiliation can allow for highly moralized political approaches, including heightened anti-solidaristic perceptions of individual responsibility and higher tolerance for the social and economic oppression of nonconforming social groups.

Atomized masses (“bags of potatoes” in Marx’s terms) nevertheless can gather to vocalize opposition to the government’s electoral manipulations (for example, the protests against the fraudulent mayoral elections in Moscow in late 2011), planned pension cuts, or even, more locally, against anti-poor land and housing policies. But even without invoking the comparison to the size of the Russian population, the size of these protests is meager (between eighty thousand and one hundred fifty thousand protesters on Bolotnaya Square in 2011).

Rather, as for the French gilets jaunes or the early Maidan protesters in 2013 in Ukraine, the only — usually not so significant — political strength such protests can hope for depends on the sympathy they gather amongst the general atomized public, which lacks any other mechanism to express its will than spontaneous rebellion with the hope of a political collapse of the government (as in 1848 in France and in 2014 in Ukraine, unlike in 1848 in Vienna and in 2021 in Belarus).

Russian Fascism

Russia, much like wealthier Western countries, exemplifies the absence of mass political forces, both on the Left and on the Right. There’s nothing of the scale of “squadrismo,” the paramilitary force of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist party, in either the United States, Brazil, Italy, or Hungary. But both in Western countries as in Russia, the lack of organic resemblance between today’s political struggles and those of a hundred years ago does not imply the impossibility of a fascist regime emerging. Social atomization has made our politics similar to that which preceded the era of mass organizations, but — as in the 1920s and unlike in the mid-nineteenth century — liberalism, having suppressed its means of social democratic self-regulation, now reigns supreme, and thus once again stands on the brink of self-destruction.

Russia — the epitome of an atomized polity — illustrates the possibility of a modern fascism. Certainly, organically, the Russian government does not resemble that of Mussolini’s Italy, either in its rise to power, nor in the political structures that define it today.

Politically, however, it has come to reproduce core attributes of it: the current system has emerged out of a liberal-consumerist one, without any apparent political rupture. It has come to reject liberalism since 2012, accusing it of having allowed for the destruction of the “natural social order.” Ideologically, it also aims to resurrect this “natural order” in morality and geopolitics.

The current government has reproduced, if not strengthened, the most repressive aspects of Soviet morality, for example the persecution of homosexuality — although what was originally attacked as “antisocial” is now directly addressed as a perversion of morality and social order. The decriminalization of male domestic violence signals acceptance of violence, committed not only by the state but also by individuals, as the expression of the “natural order” and social hierarchy.

Virtually unreported in Western media, Vladimir Putin recently signed a new strategic orientation framing Russia’s ideological stance in relation to the outside world. Russia is called a “unique country-civilization” and a “civilizational community” that is endowed with a “historically unique mission aimed at maintaining the global balance of power” (deriving its philosophy from ultranationalist philosophers Aleksandr Dugin and Ivan Ilyin, whom Putin frequently cites). It maintains “spiritual and moral values,” which require proactive, preventive actions against the “external ideology and its destructive psychological impact.”

The “collective West” has morphed into a Schmittian enemy with conflicts being imagined within the realm of existential identity. The enemy always threatens the safety and integrity of the state and cannot be reasoned with because of its inherent Russophobia: it uses measures “aimed at weakening Russia in every possible way, including at undermining its constructive civilizational role.”

The enemy is never a single nation, but a shapeless, geographically amorphous ideological entity (a new law specifies an ever-growing list of “unfriendly” countries), manifested both in entire nations, their rulers, the bankers on Wall Street who preserve the economic hegemony of the United States, or the “Ukronazis” in the heart of the former Soviet Union. The enemy is defined less by its politics, but by the threat it provides to Russia’s position in the world hierarchy of nations. Thus, the attack on Ukraine is described in terms of the “protection of the [Russian] vital interests in the Ukrainian direction.”

The ideological link between the Great Patriotic War and the invasion of Ukraine is invoked frequently, from the stated objective of the “denazification of Ukraine,” to the ideological symbolism of the day of the invasion — the day after the national holiday of the “Defender of the Fatherland.” Russia once saved the world’s moral values, and now, they are under threat again, from the collective West. Yet, according to Putin’s speeches, the guilt for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine lies not in NATO expansion but in Russia’s Communist past. Misunderstood in the West as pro-Communist nostalgia, Putin’s regrets over the end of the USSR are a condemnation of Soviet-era nationalities policy, which formally recognized Ukraine’s statehood and thereby undermined the natural “great Russian” order.

The army itself has become a sacred masculine subject (last year Russia introduced a law that can send to penal colony, up to fifteen years, anyone who “discredits” it). The army and the police, the main instruments of violence of the fascist state (even though “spontaneous formations of street violence” had constituted the way to power for fascists in Italy and Germany, both regimes soon came to eradicate them in the case of the German SA or integrate them into bureaucratized state formations in the case of the Italian squadristi), are aestheticized and are ideologically linked to reproduced elements of the “glorious past.” The violence enacted by this sacred instrument incarnates the nation’s regained virility: bringing back the golden age of glory, exemplified by the enormous popularity of the phrase “we can do it again,” referring to marching to Berlin and the victory in the war.

While such discourse should not be taken too literally, it represents the possible crystallization of social atomization and highly moralized environments into a fascist ideology centered around the idea of violence. Surely, social atomization is not necessarily followed by a fascist ideology of violence. However, since the breakdown of associationalism left few avenues for individuals to regain a sense of connection and purpose, the idea of rejuvenated social order can endow individuals with such pseudo-senses of belonging and meaning.

The appeal of the cult of redemptive violence does not require actual embeddedness in a community; the justification of violence as the expression of national rejuvenation is also an expression of the virility and moral integrity of the individual man himself. Such ideological conditions allow for a pseudo-return of embeddedness (as in the case of belonging to the Orthodox Church) while leaving the conditions of atomization as they were.

Atomized Fascism, in Russia and Beyond

Classical fascism is linked to the structural features of the political system to which it gives rise: mass mobilization, powerful party structure, control of industry, a dictatorial/authoritarian power that tames organized labor’s capacity to threaten the domination of capital. There needs to be a mass-based party with militant ideology that violently pursues internal purity and external expansion for the government to be considered as fascist. Since Russia lacks these structural elements, it is said, it can hardly be described as fascist.

However, fascism is characterized not only by structural but also ideological features: the key feature of fascism is the ideological centrality of the ideas of violence and rejuvenation. The difference between Caesarism and fascism is that the former only contains the belief in the centralization of power against trouble. Fascism, however, emerges from and against liberalism as a violent reaction to what is conceived as liberalism’s self-destructive weakness: its tolerance of some forms of societal contestation, which enables socialists, trade unionists, feminists, and other “unworthy oppositions” (Ukrainian nationalists, independentists) to accumulate influence and threaten the supposedly “natural” social order.

What characterizes a fascist regime is its positive embrace of violence, not only as an instrument, but as an expression of virility, manifesting national rejuvenation through glorification/aestheticization of violence for its own sake. The legitimation of violence as an end in itself requires making it an integral part of how we read the world: existential enemies threaten each other, the enemy’s agent within the social body must be denounced, and distaste for violence is considered a weakness, causing chaos, unrest, and further violence.

Evidently, this does not mean that other ideological orders such as liberalism or socialism reject violence: they can embrace it — potentially up till enormous levels (colonialism, slavery, imperialism, patriarchy, etc.) as means to an end (primitive and profit accumulation). Additionally, because of naturalized inegalitarian practices, they can neglect even the reality of some forms of violence. Unlike fascists, however, they do not embrace violence as the welcome expression of such an order.

Jäger assumes that whereas fascist governments are built on mobilization, ensuring a deep ideological concordance between the public and the ruling power, amidst today’s social atomization there are no mass movements and few channels of political mobilization. Thus, the crucial features of fascism are said to be missing.

However, those phenomena have characterized Russian societal evolutions since the fall of the Soviet Union and an atomized fascism has nevertheless emerged as a political regime. Hence, fascism — understood here as an ideological order promoting violence as the expression of virility against social liberalism — can arise out of and adapt to the conditions of social atomization and depoliticization. Nor is it guaranteed that this will remain limited to Russia.