Fascism was not defeated with the collapse of Mussolini’s regime in Italy and the crushing of Nazi Germany, but is alive and well in our own time and rearing its head in surprising places. So argues a new book entitled “Fascism – A Warning.” The author is Madeleine Albright, academic, diplomat, Secretary of State in President Clinton’s administration. That is to make you sit up and take note: a woman at the pinnacle of America’s élite establishment thinks it is time to warn against a return of Fascism, even in her own country.
She knows what she is talking about and draws on her own experience in top level politics, and also on her family’s experience of having twice become refugees. In 1939, they fled their home country of Czechoslovakia when it was invaded by Hitler’s Germany, and, having returned after the war, again in 1948 when the restored democracy was defeated by a Stalinist dictatorship.
The scholars have been unable to settle on any single authoritative definition of Fascism. Indeed, there is no straight and single doctrine, says Albright. Instead of working from a definition, she identifies Fascism a set of ideas and practices. The main ideas are nationalism, prejudice, enmity, anger, aggression, fear of the other and cult of violence and war. The practices in which Fascism is visible are aggression and thuggery-bullying in language and behaviour.
Her book, written with Bill Woodward, is a brief history of world politics from Mussolini’s coup in Italy in 1922 up to the present, all the while looking for the emergence of Fascist ideas and practices. She sees much of it in recent times and today: in the Balkans after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, there following through to warfare and genocide, in Peron’s Argentina and Chávez’s Venezuela, in Erdoǧan’s Turkey, in Putin’s Russia, in Orbán’s Hungary and in other countries in Central Europe who are following Orbán’s lead towards “illiberal democracy,” in the Kims’ North Korea, in Duterte’s Philippines, and elsewhere. She also sees it at home in America. There were significant Mussolini and Hitler inspired Fascist movements in America before the Second World War. McCarthyism in the 1950s was an outgrowth: “his temperament was that of a Fascist bully.”
And she paints President Trump in Fascistoid colours. Through her survey, she pays close attention to ideas, inclinations and language. She identifies what has been characteristic of acknowledged Fascist leaders. Placing Trump against that matrix, he is shown to be a leader who in speech and demeanour leans to the Fascist.
Could American democracy succumb? The historical experience is clear: when a leader of autocratic inclination comes to power by democratic means, the democracy is in danger. Madelaine Albright joins other political scientists who, while not predicting the end of democracy in America, warn that it could happen. Democracy is under pressure. It is not impossible that it could break.
To that she adds a second warning. When an American president displays autocratic tendencies, he gives crypto-Fascists elsewhere licence and encouragement. There is a decline in democratic health worldwide that is being cheered on from where free world leadership should have been forthcoming.
This analysis of Fascism’s lingering influence, even in the democratic heartland, is forcefully presented and persuasively argued. But it is not entirely complete. It is evasive on the meaning of Fascism. There is more to it than some scattered ideas and bullying behaviour.
Fascism is an ideology, which is to say an edifice of mutually coherent ideas that add up to a belief system of commanding force. The core idea is nation – Hitler called it das Volk. This is where destiny and purpose reside. It is the destiny of the nation to advance and the purpose of government to nurture that destiny. A second idea is unity. All institutions – government, courts, police, military, associations, businesses – are components of the nation. They have no autonomy outside of being building blocks of the national body. In Hitler’s language: ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fürer. And a third idea is the subservience of the person to the nation and its custodians. Persons are wiped out as individuals and have no independent rights or interests that strand in the way of the good of the nation and the actions of its custodians. The dictatorship that comes from national unity is for the good of the people. Ultimately, if war and conquest is in the national interest, it is for the good of the people. Nation and people are one, personal happiness comes from progress towards the nation’s destiny.
If we thus were more demanding with the term Fascism, two consequences might follow. We might slightly back off from “Trump the Fascist.” Slightly. He satisfies the criteria of bullying language and behaviour, but he hardly possesses a coherent ideology to give legitimacy to a non-democratic America. Fortunately not, at least not yet.
We might also visit a setting of neo-Fascism that Albright evades, the China of Xi Jinping. This regime does not present itself to the world as a bully, in the way for example Putin’s Russia does. It is a bullying state. Ask democracy activists, who routinely get beaten up. Ask human rights lawyers, who are now pretty much forbidden from practicing. Ask the people of Xinjiang, now a horrific police state, complete with a vast network of concentration camps. Ask international corporations that are forced to humiliate themselves and pay tribute if they want to do business, or governments in smaller countries if they want collaboration. Or ask neighbouring countries around the South China Sea. But it is also a state with the clout and skill to disguise its bullying side and make itself look sophisticatedly elegant.
What should, however, get alarm bells ringing on the Xi regime is ideology. It has been thought that Deng Xiaoping, the master of “reform and opening up,” freed The People’s Republic from the burden of ideology. But Xi has orchestrated an ideological restoration. Not Marxist ideology (although he has recently started flirting with that again, too), but the hallmark of Fascism: nationalism and unity.
Early on after having come to power, Xi launched his “China Dream” of “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” That satisfies the Fascist bill of nation being purpose; it is the nation that is dreaming and being dreamt about. And he went further and added that “each person’s future and destiny is closely linked to the future and destiny of the country and nation.” That satisfies the Fascist bill if unity and of subservience of person to nation. This “dream” is now the official and omnipresent Chinese ideology.
I follow Madeleine Albright in being deeply concerned over the flirtation with Fascist ways in democratic countries. I agree that her warning is timely. But what even more gets the chill down my spine is a powerful, dictatorial and assertive state that gives itself the ideological certificate that nation is everything and person nothing, and that uses this certificate to tighten repression at home and pursue domination abroad.