“The error of the Italian Communist Party lies mainly in the fact that it sees fascism only as a military-terrorist movement, not as a mass movement with deep social roots”, Clara Zetkin warned in 1923. She was referring to a passively materialist understanding of the political phenomenon in question: the abstract assimilation of fascism to a determinate stage of capitalism, springing from an over-evaluation of objective and infrastructural forces and a corresponding devaluation of subjective and superstructural factors - from an evolutionary, analytically predetermined as opposed to an authentically historical way of thinking.
Zetkin’s words are relevant even today. Instead of analyzing the rise of the Right as a mass movement, vast swathes of progressive forces have been content to facilely frame it as an aberration to liberal democracy or reductively recognize it as a mere tool for the ruling class. While the former does not acknowledge the fascistic character of the contemporary Right (using terms like “populism” or “authoritarianism”), the latter reduces the dynamics of the political sphere to an epiphenomenon of the economic base. We need to go beyond these knee-jerk and moralistic responses and comprehend how the fascist onslaught is both culturally rooted and economically anchored in the wider arena of socio-historic forces.
In every country, the bourgeoisie rules only so long as decisive sectors of the citizenry identify with their favored politico-economic system, are ready to work for them, to vote for them, to shoot others on their behalf, all in the conviction that their own interests demand the preservation of the capitalist order. When the ruling class fails to stitch this national-popular hegemonic will, a legitimacy crisis sets in. In the 20th century, this kind of crisis was resolved by jettisoning the architecture of liberalism and paving the way for fascism. This was due to four broad conditions: the experience of the First World War, the victory of the Bolshevik Revolution, the rise of mass socialist parties, and the emergence of a repertoire of cultural themes exalting the values of race, community or nation over those of the individual and of reason.
As is evident, fascism is always an open possibility as long as capitalism exists. It is a modern form of the (preemptive) capitalist counter-revolution wearing a popular mask. Now, the question is: what lends popularity to fascism? By posing this question, we are already negating the mechanically materialist conception of fascism: fascism percolates away in the mass of the population long before it is institutionalized. The attitudes, the practices, the micro-fascisms, the molecules of fascism that eventually bond into a molar fascist dictatorship, pre-date its formal establishment.
The main reason behind fascism’s appeal lies in its emotional viscerality. In 1909, Trotsky wrote the following about the pogrom-mobilizations of October 1905 by the monarchist Black Hundreds: “Now this man without shoes has become king. An hour ago he was a trembling slave hounded by the police and by hunger. Now he feels like an absolute despot, he can do anything he likes, everything will pass, he is master of life and death. If he feels the urge to do so, he throws an old woman from the window of the third floor to the pavements below, he smashes the skull of a baby with a chair, he rapes a small girl in front of a crowd of people. He shrinks from none of the tortures which only a brain driven mad with liquor and frenzy could contrive. For he can do anything he likes, everything will pass. God bless the Tsar!” As members of fascist bands, the obscure subaltern is suddenly wrenched from being non-entity to becoming a powerful actor in whose hands lies the fate of his/her fellow human beings.
The labeling of the current conjuncture as “fascist” derives from a dynamic theorization of the term. Fascism is a non-programmatic style of politics. Liberalism, socialism and conservatism are in principle all based on cognitively assessable claims and universal truths about the present state of the world and its future possibilities. With them it is natural to speak of a relationship between means and ends, tactics or strategy and the goals at which these aim. Fascist ideology does not possess this structure.
It primarily relies upon emotional mobilization behind the charisma of its leaders, and the call to destiny of the race or nation. It tends to combine a certain number of democratic appeals - the people, the nation, participation, community, and the masses - with a species of aristocratic elitism, condensed in the decisive heroism of some mythical figures or groups. Thus, fascism merges the will of the people with charismatic authoritarianism.
The rightness of fascism does not depend on the truth of any of the propositions advanced in its name. It is rather an immanent form of political thinking, in which tactics - above all violence - act as enacted values, instead of intermediate steps within an overarching, normatively positive project. Fascism is not a philosophy that elaborately defines itself; it is a philosophy that vigorously acts itself, and therefore a philosophy that announces and affirms itself not with formulae, but with concrete action. Unlike any other ideological strand, fascism does not claim to convert objective historical possibilities into a political programme. It takes action itself as the immediate realization of its doctrine.
In sum, fascism is best understood not as a fixed set of institutions, but a fluid matrix of a distinct governmental rationality, rife with contradictions, in which stable patterns of interaction are very hard to discern. However, this does not imply that it is purely pragmatic. It includes a number of shifting ideals: the veneration of war, anti-intellectualism; dehumanization; a crude celebration of ultra-nationalism and racial purity; the suppression of freedom and dissent; a culture of lies; a politics of hierarchy, the spectacularization of emotion over reason; a discourse of decline, and state violence in heterogeneous forms.
From a brief discussion of fascism, it is evident that its present-day modes of appearance need to be seriously conceptualized. This entails a careful attention to the economic context as well the social muck from which the Right’s regressive ideas emerge. These analytical endeavors are ultimately tied to the urgency of defeating fascism. The drive for political autonomy and the space for exclusivist welfarism within historic fascism are unavailable today, and contemporary fascist variations are intensely superstructural - that is, they are overwhelmingly psychoanalytic rather than political or sociological phenomena. This means their toxicity - visible in the targeting of manufactured enemies - is extremely forceful. The need for a socialist struggle for the defeat of fascism cannot be overstated.
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries of Latin America.