WHY IT MATTERS
by George Salamon
“All one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.” —George Orwell, “What is Fascism?” Tribune (UK), 1944
ORWELL’S SUGGESTION survives unheeded today, as “fascist” and “fascism” are tossed about with youthful abandon. At an anti-Israel rally on August 5 at the University of Illinois, students shouted, “No Zionists, no KKK, resisting fascists all the way.” One speaker condemned Israel as “the epitome of fascism.”
Orwell’s question remains unanswered for and by America’s “fascist” marchers and their “anti-fascist” counter-protestors, for the vast majority of American citizens and by the media. All this despite the plethora of scholarship published on the origins and nature of 20th-century fascism.
If asked, both those denounced as fascists and those denouncing them do what Orwell actually experienced: point to the German and Italian regimes in the 1930s and 1940s, the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini. The fascism of both is characterized by a warlike nature, bent on foreign conquests, and by an economy solving its problems by preparations for war. Its politics thrive in an air of hysteria and conspiracy, exemplified by the Nazi “stab-in-the-back” myth and scapegoating Jews as “our misfortune.” Does the characterization, he asked, fit the “fascist” dictatorships in South America or Portugal? It didn’t in 1944 or in decades after, and it rarely, if ever, sheds light on a “fascist” regime’s internal politics or about “fascism” as a form of capitalism.
Orwell nevertheless saw “fascist” applied, quite seriously, to such a variety of bodies of people as conservatives, Socialists, Communists, Catholics, supporters and resisters of war, and many shapes of nationalists. A great many people in his time and since have been called “fascists,” including Rudyard Kipling, Gandhi, the Pope, Chiang Kai-shek, Sigmund Freud, Polish marshals, and French generals, Greek kings and, now, American politicians and Zionist sympathizers.
Orwell also observed that the emotional significance attached to the word “fascist,” which people use to mean cruel, unscrupulous, anti-liberal, and arrogant, could simply be conveyed by the word “bully.”
WHAT DO WE FIND when we look at the rise of fascism in the country where it earned its bully reputation in the most spectacular and beastly fashion: Nazi Germany? During the grave economic crises and waves of mass unemployment in Germany’s Weimar Republic, its politicians only halfheartedly addressed them and drove those without political affiliation, those from the nationalist right and others from the disillusioned left, into the arms of Hitler’s National Socialist movement.
All three groups, via Hitler’s “fascism,” sought a total solution to their nation’s problems, a solution that was more salvation than solution, a single, total thing more like an object of faith. In his messianic role as leader, Hitler was seen as provider not of an unworldly substitute for their material concerns and aspirations — but as a validation of such concerns and aspirations. That was National Socialism’s allure and promise.
In this promise, and the manner of its fulfillment, there resides a drive for “transcendence,” a going beyond towards a goal above the humdrum economic and political messes and messiness that “democratic” politics create but cannot correct.
Such a goal was posed by Europe’s three forms of fascism: the Action française, Italian fascism, and German National Socialism. In Germany, National Socialism went far beyond any moral and political safeguards which could prevent that “going beyond” from turning the country into a negative utopia, a utopia of evil.
What Orwell recognized and fought in European fascism was something defined by one of Hitler’s favorite words: “fanatical.” Orwell heard it in the demands Hitler made on his followers, in the uncompromising calls for warlike obedience, hardness and self-sacrifice. Those were the virtues required to get into the mission authentic and God-given authority.
Germans were willing to follow because, in the late 1920s, they lived in a life of spiritual chaos and material deprivation. To transcend the situation, Hitler created a creed — National Socialism — anachronistic and simultaneously backward-looking and utopian.
As the war wore on, the more his messianic image became an object of faith and, eventually, a force for social integration. When the war began to look lost, the same faith and the virtues it called forth were unleashed as its dark underside and destructive power. The totality of the utopian vision became Goebbels’ “total war” of destruction and self-destruction.
THE SO-CALLED “fascists” on the American right, except the swastika-wearing SA wannabes, floated before Americans the return to a comfortable, soft, consumerist world ruled by the faith of Norman Rockwell’s good (white) Christian citizens. Trump and his Wall Street flunkies want a return to nationalism, as do many who voted for him, because that post-war nationalism put its faith in the rich and powerful who, they were told, made the good life possible. There is some truth to that. But there is also much deception, and America’s right wing cannot disguise it very well any longer.
But rightwing politics in America are market-driven, not vision-directed. In fascism, the market is subsidiary to the faith and totality of fascist society and the virtues that it requires to transcend the felicities and fluctuations of the market. There is contempt and derision for grassroots democracy and the “lower classes.”
Still, the essence of fascism goes against the grain of the American experience and history. We need to make sure it stays that way.