[A slightly shorter version of the full paper will appear in French and English from France in January]
Original fascism (revised)
The preceding uncharitable exercise was needed to point out that, even with this rather gory record of human political systems, the events between the two world wars stand out as unique in human history. In particular, even though the notion of fascism was first applied to the dictatorial rule of Benito Mussolini in Italy, what transpired in Germany after the first world war continues to be the most significant example of fascism in world history. Put differently, the concept of fascism as a socio-political order gets its primary salience from its original exemplar: the Nazi rule in Germany under the supreme command of Adolf Hitler. Once the Nazi rule is taken to be the core phenomenon of fascism, certain conceptual and political consequences follow.
There were several distinguishing features to the Nazi rule. Germany was a leading center of European thought and culture during the 19th and the early decades of 20th century, what Martin Heidegger characterised as the ‘most metaphysical of nations’ (cited in Chomsky 2005). Its catastrophic defeat in the first world war brought the entire nation to its knees. The humiliating Treaty of Versailles compelled the German state to disarm and pay astronomical reparations. The value of mark, the German currency, plummeted to several million marks per american dollar, much of the famed German industry became non-functional leading to widespread hunger and destitution of the people. With the defeat of Russian monarchy and the emergence of Soviet Union almost next door, there was a real possibility of either a disintegration or communist takeover of Germany which no traditional bourgeois political forum was capable of preventing.
It was of utmost importance for the remnants of German capital and aristocracy to find a popular alternative to the existing political order for the rehabilitation of Germany. The charismatic, working-class image of Adolf Hitler with his committed band of stormtroopers fit the bill almost to the last detail. While the communist and the working class movements were rapidly smashed, the major mainstream political parties capitulated to Hitler. Eventually, after rousing electoral victories by Hitler’s party, the parliament was shut down, and a single-party Nazi rule under the supreme command of Hitler was installed.
The entire big business vigorously supported Hitler’s agenda of not paying the reparations, defying the Versaille treaty, and introducing large-scale forced labour to gear Germany towards a war economy. In addition, massive forced labour of Jews, followed by their mass extermination, helped sustain the most aggressive form of German nationalism preparing itself for global war. The resulting slaughter of millions of people across the world, and the scale of destruction that turned much of Europe and parts of Asia and Africa into ruins, were unprecedented even in the dismal political history of the world.
Needless to say, such a catastrophic historical phenomenon carried a large number of distinguishing features, as listed above, which peaked individually and then coalesced into one organic form after the collapse of the Weimar republic. Many of the critical features—failed economy with mass unemployment, collapse of the democratic order, and popularity of aggressive cultural nationalism—were present in Italy as well, explaining the fascist rule under Benito Mussolini. Thus, despite the difference in scale in these features and the absence of some of the other features in Italy, such as nation-wide racism and xenophobia, it is appropriate to use the generic notion of fascism to cover both the German and the Italian cases, albeit somewhat tentatively in the latter case as Umberto Eco (1995) also pointed out (see below).
For the same reason, it is not advisable to use the notion beyond its unique historical application unless most of the critical features cluster again in an unlikely grim repeat of history. It is ‘unlikely’ because, with the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other instruments of mass destruction, and colossal and irreversible damage to the ecology of the planet already, the species might well become extinct before fascism-inducing conditions get a chance to mature (Mukherji 2016).
The extreme specificity of the original fascism in Germany and Italy casts doubt on Georgi Dimitrov’s well-known observation:
No general characterization of fascism, however correct in itself, can relieve us of the need to study and take into account the special features of the development of fascism and the various forms of fascist dictatorship in the individual countries and at its various stages. It is necessary in each country to investigate, study and ascertain the national peculiar ties, the specific national features of fascism and to map out accordingly effective methods and forms of struggle against fascism (Dimitrov 1935/1972).
Dimitrov is suggesting that fascism can take different forms in different countries depending on ‘peculiar ties’ and ‘national features.’ In a sense, the suggestion is valid for countries falling within a very specific historical space and time such as Germany and Italy as we saw, but not beyond. It is hard to see the original form of fascism reappearing in a distant space and time. However, to be fair, Dimitrov’s concern seems eminently valid for the period under review by him in the cited lecture. He was speaking to his comrades in 1935 when original fascism had already manifested itself in parts of Western Europe, as noted. To illustrate his thesis, Dimitrov reported on the situation in adjacent France in some detail because, even without the glaring forms of German xenophobia and Italian nationalism, a new menacing form of authoritarianism was rapidly developing in France.
Recall the core features for the rise of fascism: proximity of Russian revolution, economic collapse due to WW1 followed by the great global depression, massive social unrest and fragmentation of democratic polity. Although the response to these core features resulted in the most aggressive form of fascism in Germany and Italy, its presence was clearly visible in the adjacent territories in that dark phase in history. Thus, Dimitrov directed the attention of his colleagues to the conditions in France where ‘the economic crisis, which began later than in other capitalist countries, continues to become deeper and more acute, and that this greatly encourages the orgy of fascist demagogy.’ Moreover, ‘the development of fascism is furthered by the French bourgeoisie's keen fear of losing its political and military hegemony in Europe.’ In this connection, he also mentioned the rise of fascistic features in Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Finland.
However, in agreement with Rajani Palme Dutt, he warned against ‘erroneously classifying all reactionary measures of the bourgeoisie as fascism and going so far as calling the entire non-Communist camp fascist.’ I emphasise that Dimitrov strongly opposed the tendency of erroneous classification even during the turbulent period in Europe when conditions were ripe for fascism to spread like wildfire. In this important sense, even though Dimitrov warned against restricting attention too narrowly only to the German form of fascism, his caution about erroneous classification also sets a severe limit to the historical boundary of fascism.
Ever since its origin in Europe in the 1930s, the specter of fascism has haunted political thinking across the world even though the original form of fascism was decisively defeated within a decade. The mention of fascism has almost become routine political vocabulary in recent years. In this light, let us consider some recent remarks of some influential scholars.(To be continued)