Fascism did not die in 1945

Image: Mohamed Abdelsadig


There is a close connection between fascism and liberal democracy. The problem is interpreting them as synonyms

The piece Heroes' Square, by Thomas Bernhard, opens with Josef Schuster throwing himself from his window into Heldenplatz (Heroes' Square), where Hitler announced the annexation of Austria. The motives are absurd and deliberately exaggerated: Schuster would have killed himself because Austria in 1988 would be more Nazi and anti-Semitic than Austria in 1938. It is obvious that Thomas Bernhard exaggerates on purpose, to shock – as is typical of satire, by the way. – but to pick up on a wound: Fascism did not die in 1945.

As one character says: “he did not count on it / that the Austrians after the war / would be much more hostile and much more anti-Semitic”. Exaggeration allows Thomas Bernhard to criticize Austrian revisionism, which saw the nation as a victim and Germany as the sole perpetrator of Nazism.

Em The cockroach, by Ian McEwan, not only a satire but also a pastiche of To metamorphose, English parliamentaryism is dominated by cockroaches dressed as men. The disguise allows them to undertake an absurd movement: inverting the economy, turning consumption into work, and work into consumption. People are paid to consume, and they pay to work. Before ridiculed, little by little the idea began to gain penetration and the “Reversalists” became a majority current within the Conservative Party. Once again the satire's exaggeration functions as an attack against the resurgence of nationalism, this time with the Brexit.

Like history, political fiction teaches us about contemporary politics. Especially about this phenomenon of denial about the dangers of extreme right movements. There is extensive conceptual discussion about fascism, with disparate currents that have been fighting each other for at least a hundred years. The Third Communist International was devoted to the issue of fascism, in an attempt to understand that mass reactionary movement, which escaped the teleological view of history and had not been foreseen by any of the Marxist prophets. In an attempt to frame it without hurting the canon, it was preached that fascism was nothing more than an extreme liberalism – ignoring its anti-liberalism – and a defense mechanism of moribund capitalism. In other words, fascism was the last sign of life from bourgeois democracy about to die and give way to the dictatorship of the proletariat, like a cornered animal showing its claws. Worse: they classified social democrats as social fascists, an infamous epithet that did the concept a disservice, turning it into a kind of curse word, a synonym for troglodyte, as George Orwell described it in 1944.

As Evgeni Pachukanis said, “the fascist state is the same state as big capital, as are France, England and the United States, and, in that sense, Mussolini fulfills the same task that [Raymond] Poincaré, [Stanley] are fulfilling. Baldwin and [Calvin] Coolidge.” A considerable portion (although not all) of the Marxists of the time equated fascism and liberalism, proving themselves almost indifferent to them. As Robert Paxton put it: “Even before Mussolini had fully consolidated his power, Marxists already had their definition ready for fascism, 'the instrument of the big bourgeoisie in its struggle against the proletariat'”.

It is necessary, however, to emphasize some elements that the Marxists of the time noticed about fascism, and that remain relevant. They were the first, for example, to perceive the association between fascism and economic, social and political crisis. They also realized its intrinsic and symbiotic connection with liberal democracy – even if, obviously, they are not synonymous, as some have interpreted.

We are aware of the historical irony in having believed that fascism represented the inevitability of the death of capitalism, but we emphasize the perception that they had that fascist leaders tend to come to power not through an institutional rupture, but through democratic and legal ways. It was like that with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. So it is with contemporary analogues. The phenomenon so commonly described as unprecedented in the contemporary crisis of liberal democracies, their slow erosion from within, is a typical trait of fascism. There is, therefore, a close connection between fascism and liberal democracy. The problem is interpreting them as synonyms.

As noted by some anthropologists, many myths reappear in different guises in different communities and mythologies, but follow a common structure. Among them is the myth of doppelganger. As discussed in other articles, focused on the field of comparative literature, the doppelganger, despite having only received this name in the XNUMXth century, reappears in German, Egyptian, Scandinavian and Finnish folklore narratives, among others. With some differences, they all converge on the same point: the double is a kind of negative, a double, another self, but with opposite psychological characteristics. In other words, the complete opposite. Due to the inability of the “I” to exist at the same time as another “I”, who is also an other, his myth converges to drama: invariably, when the doppelgangers meet, they tend to eliminate each other. The figure moved from mythology to Literature, popularized in william wilson, by Edgar Allan Poe, and, from then on, appeared in several other works.

This small digression is necessary to understand what is meant when fascism is called here as doppelganger of mass liberal democracy: it emerges from this one to become its distorted version. That is, it divides itself from the mass democracy, to oppose everything it defends. It is no coincidence that this is an openly anti-liberal and anti-democratic movement, even though it comes to power through democratic means and relying on liberal allies. Liberals are seen as the “fathers” of Marxists, as apathetic figures blamed for socialism. It is obvious that being anti-liberal does not mean being anti-capitalist, as some revisionist analyses, mainly by liberals or the extreme right, suggest.

But what can the mistakes of Marxist analysis in the 1920s teach us today? Why discuss these issues in 2022? Because they are often repeated. Although elements such as fascism as a defense of moribund capitalism are in fact no longer defended by (almost) anyone, other traits remain. Some segments of the left still insist on the synonym between (neo)liberalism and fascism.

But the biggest of all questions, because, in practice, it makes it difficult to understand and the consequent reaction against the extreme right: the myth that fascism is a dictatorship of big capital, as a reaction of the high bourgeoisie. Being a mass movement, fascism conquered (and conquers) support from the most diverse social segments, from the high bourgeoisie to considerable fragments of the proletariat. As Madeleine Albright says, “Fascism depends as much on the rich and powerful as it does on the man or woman on the corner—those with much to lose and those with nothing.”

Among the haute bourgeoisie, between liberals, conservatives and fascists, there was more a kind of society in permanent tension than an organic connection. Fascism was seen as a “very difficult choice”, a preferable alternative to the left, even if it was not an ideal one. It did not represent social and economic stability, with the volatility promoted by the circulation of elites and an uncomfortable messianic personalism.

This is what we need to take into account, and what remains relevant in the political scenario in 2022: the danger of these groups coming together, not out of desire, but because of what they see as a need. A danger that was a turning point in the victory of fascism in 1920 and 1930, and which remains a specter in our 2022 elections. And remember that fascism did not disappear in 1945, as Thomas Bernhard's play does not fail to remind us.

*Sergio Scargel is a doctoral candidate in political science at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF).

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