The global rise of the far right

Image: Henry & Co.


More than ever, we need to call and classify the far-right bacillus by its real name: fascism

“I am the spirit that always denies! / And rightly so: because everything that is born / Of total extermination is only worthy; / Therefore, there would be nothing better” (Goethe).

What should we call the far-right movements that continue to grow around the world, with Argentina as the latest victim?

Populism, in itself, is insufficient. Fascisms are necessarily populist, although the reverse is not true. Calling the extreme right just “populist” is comfortable for them, which ends up not being fought with the vehemence that is necessary.

Fascism did not die in 1945 with Hitler's suicide, limiting it hermetically to a historical period is denying that any concept and idea adapts and evolves over time. So much more: Benito Mussolini gave his name to this fusion of populism, reactionism, nationalism and authoritarianism, but although his fascist movement is the most famous, others similar to it existed at the same time and even preceded it. In Italy itself, Gabriele d'Annunzio mobilized a nationalist campaign through the border city of Fiume (at the time, with Yugoslavia) that can, at the very least, be seen as a predecessor of Fascism.

Any fascism distinct from the Italian will be different, just as fascism itself changed internally during the twentieth. Nazism is the clearest example. Often taken as a kind of radicalized version of fascism, its agenda of racial purification is alien to its Italian counterpart. Umberto Eco (2018, p. 43) remembers, for example, that Ezra Pund posited an extreme anti-capitalism, while Julios Evola recreated the myth of the Grail, elements also foreign to Mussolini's fascism. For Roger Griffin (2015, p. 26), “Fascism is a genre of political ideology whose mythical core, in its permutations, is a palingenetic form of populist ultranationalism”.

Some points are essential and remain the same in all manifestations. Fascism, for example, is often confused as a kind of conservative movement. Just look at how contemporary far-right movements are treated by the strange prefix “ultra”. Ultraconservatism, in practice, is fascism, or at least reactionaryism. Conservatism can – and often does – ally itself with fascism, but they are not confused.

This is more of a convenience connection than an organic association. Because of its speech about returning to a past seen as glorious, rescuing a degenerate nation guided by messianism (only the Messiah can promote this return), fascism is necessarily reactionary, not conservative. It is no surprise that it is guided by an unapologetically anti-Enlightenment irrationalism. Dehumanization, paranoia and conspiracism towards a specific group also follow the same path: fascism chooses a target because it is seen as responsible for this supposed degeneration – in the past, before “them”, the nation was glorious. It is not a conservation, but a reaction.

These enemies, no matter how fragile, are seen as far superior political and economic forces. It is an inversion: the much stronger fascist group blames and accuses a minority group of doing exactly what they themselves do. When there is a crisis – economic, political, social –, fascism spreads beyond half a dozen and finds support in the population, which catalyzes its frustration around this dehumanized group. It is, therefore, a movement that directly absorbs crises and works with a melancholic resentment.

Conservatism and reactionism may have the same origin – opposition to the French Revolution – but they are not confused. Burke is not against any revolution, but he is against what he sees as disrespect for the traditions of the French people. In other words, he stands against a rupture based on abstractionism, he rejects the notion of freedom being absolute to justify a revolution. He does not deny the imperfections of the Old Regime, but highlights its order and morals, and says that true freedom comes from stability: “Ten years ago, I could have, in good conscience, congratulated France for having a government (as she had a ) […] Can I congratulate this nation today on its freedom?”

Although more secularized than Joseph de Maistre, his reactionary counterpart, he does not deny that religion is one of the pillars of good government, although it does not exclude other essentials such as public power, discipline, good distribution of taxes, morality, prosperity and peace. True freedom comes from the harmonious relationship between these pillars, along with respect for traditions and ancestors. Without them, freedom is an irrelevant abstraction. It is an approach, therefore, rational and quite distinct from fascist fanaticism.

Conservatism focuses on the present, reactionism and fascism on the past. The reactionary wants to rescue this idealized past, and fascism uses a mass base to take this reactionism to the limit. Conservatism rejects that the present must be sacrificed for the future, but it does not desire a return, nor is it opposed to slow and gradual changes. He just understands that the present is the result of a generational construction that, even imperfect, should not be sacrificed. In short, do not exchange the right, with all its defects, for the dubious.

De Maistre already perceived the present immersed in a crisis of moral values, inhabited by fragile and self-destructive individuals, who had distanced themselves from the divine. It is worth mentioning that reactionism emerged as a direct response to the French Revolution and, in a broader scope, to the Enlightenment movement. The contemporary movement called neoreactionism, not without reason, also calls itself “dark enlightenment” (dark lighting).

But fascism is not just reactionary. There is another concept that is equally or more inherent to it: authoritarianism. However, fascism differs greatly from other forms of authoritarianism, such as military dictatorship. While a dictatorship, in general, imposes itself from the top down and is characterized by a sudden rupture, fascism permeates all social sectors and launches its tentacles of authoritarianism little by little, corroding democracy from the inside out until there is nothing left of it. than a hollow shell. Remnants of a democratic appearance, which are of no use.

A clear example is the Weimar Constitution, which remained practically intact during Nazism, giving a facade of democratic normality to the regime, even with all its violence. As it grows in strength, classic authoritarian mechanisms such as censorship and attacks on the press and academia (anti-intellectualism), persecution of minority groups and rejection of agonistic democracy begin to be employed. Interestingly, fascisms often do not say they are ending democracy, but rather claim to be reformulating it, removing its supposed imperfections.

However, all these elements converge on the most basic pillar of fascism: the myth of the nation. For this political current, national greatness is the supreme ideal, equal to the importance of freedom and equality for liberalism and socialism, respectively. Mussolini (2020) emphasized: “Our ideal is the nation. Our ideal is the greatness of the nation, and everything else is subordinate to that.”

Nationalism constitutes the fundamental pillar, from which all other concepts unfold into fascism. Reactionism arises as a consequence of the desire to restore the greatness of the nation, and authoritarianism, together with the massive support of the masses, become the methods for achieving this goal. This dynamic helps explain why fascism only emerged in the 1990th century. Not only did nationalism intensify with the French Revolution, as highlighted by Eric Hobsbawm (XNUMX), but there was also a need for a mass base that sought an alternative to both liberalism and socialism.

Umberto Eco (2018) highlights that fascism creates a sect within the nation itself, where the only exceptional characteristic of individuals is the simple fact that they were born in that region. From this myth of the nation, secondary characteristics emerge that permeate fascism. The figure of the Messiah, the charismatic leader capable of restoring lost glory, gains prominence. Furthermore, warmongering and the dehumanization of minority groups, particularly foreigners or those considered “insiders” – that is, groups that are part of the region but are not assimilated into the dominant culture – are a direct consequence of this national myth.

The very notion of nationalism is disputed and is not easy to understand. Benedict Anderson's (1993) definition, expanded by Eric Hobsbawm (1990), prevails of nationalism as an “imagined community”, an identity amalgam that mixes elements such as language, region, culture and religion. Ancestral identification, but intensified and with new meaning after the French Revolution. Nationalism, by extension, is a feeling of belonging and dedication to this imagined community, uniting citizens around shared values ​​and goals.

If before 1884 the Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy defined nation as “the aggregate of inhabitants of a province, a country or a kingdom”, after which he expanded the definition to “a State or political body that recognizes a supreme center of common government” and “the territory constituted by that State and its inhabitants, considered as a whole” (HOBSBAWM, 1990, p. 27). The greater complexity of the notion of nation is directly reflected in its centrality to fascism.

Populism is also not left out. We have already talked about appealing to the masses through mechanisms such as resentment and the construction of the objective enemy. But fascism needs a mass base. This is its biggest difference in relation to traditional authoritarianism: it needs power to be dispersed in a circular way and penetrate all sectors and social segments. Of course, this is a paradoxical and localized support – receiving support from marginal parts of society does not prevent it from being elitist and hierarchical, on the contrary.

In the speech, the mass is referred to as the driving force for national greatness. In practice, fascisms are hierarchical and the masses are nothing more than a mechanism to legitimize themselves. For Paxton (2007, p. 76), “Fascisms seek in each national culture the themes most capable of mobilizing a mass movement of regeneration, unification and purity, directed against liberal individualism and constitutionalism and against the class struggle of the left. ”.

Finally, it is an essentially authoritarian movement/regime/ideology. Although it differs from authoritarianism per se by several characteristics, one of the fundamental differences is that fascism arises from democracy to devour it from within. There is no fascism in history that did not come to power through democratic and legal means, and this involves both Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy. It is only after gaining power that the movement gradually undermines the democratic process and rigs the institutions, until, finally, it carries out a coup.

This does not mean stating that fascism is democratic, as a hasty reading might assume, but only that it tends to emerge in mass democracies when the feeling of crisis and anti-politics arises. However, it violates the basic principles of any democratic identity, such as the possibility of dissent, conflict, and divergence, because, as Umberto Eco (2018, p. 49) reminds us, consensus can only exist in fascism, authoritarianism or totalitarianism.

Considering that agonistic democracy is based on respect for superimposed consensus and, therefore, on the very essence of democracy, fascism, undeniably, can never be considered democratic. It is antithetical to the very notion of democracy, given the essentiality it shifts to the dehumanization of specific groups. Fascism rejects any existence outside its sect, any slightest scratch must be condemned and fought.

These are just some of the most prominent and discernible characteristics of what we can understand as fascism, based largely on Paxton's interpretation. It is crucial to highlight that, as fascism spreads, it absorbs specific idiosyncrasies. Likewise, it is important to highlight that these concepts exist independently and their simultaneous manifestation, even when it occurs in accordance with more than one concept, does not necessarily imply the presence of fascism. However, as more characteristics and concepts from this list appear, the greater the chances that we are facing a fascist phenomenon.

Even though Anatomy of fascism, by Paxton, was written almost 20 years ago, remains essential in understanding this current phenomenon. More than ever, we need to call and classify the far-right bacillus by its true name: fascism.

*Sergio Scargel is a professor of political science at the Federal University of São João del Rei.


ANDERSON, Benedict. imagined communities🇧🇷 São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2008.

Eco, Umberto. the eternal fascism. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2018.

GRIFFIN, Roger. The nature of fascism. Abingdon: Routledge, 2015.

HOBSBAWM, Eric J. Nations and nationalism since 1780. Rio de Janeiro: Peace and Land, 1990.MUSSOLINI, Benito. Mussolini as revealed in his political speeches. 2020. Available at:

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