Enzo Traverso notes in the opening of this book that, in 2018, eight countries of the EU have governments led by far right, nationalist and xenophobic parties. Add to this National Rally in France, the AfD in Germany, the presidency of Trump in the US and the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and the scope of problems posed by this development are far reaching. The question of the revival of fascism and the right is a real one.
He makes a very good case for arguing that the politics of the new fascist forces cross national borders and exist in the present as well as in the past. Traverso sees in this rise not a simple repetition of the past — there are many different circumstances today — but that a central lesson of fascism is that threats to social and democratic ways of living do not come exclusively from some external enemy but also from within the system itself.
Traverso labels much of the far right as post-fascist. He does so in order to distinguish the present from the past, the circumstances today from those of the 1930s, and the right consequently acts and looks different in some respects. But the parallels and similarities are important. There is both change and continuity. Furthermore it is central to Traverso’s argument that the forces of the right are still coalescing and the old ideas in the new material circumstances are undergoing development. Fascism does not at the moment have an overarching model but is an explosive mixture of its various strands such as xenophobia, racism, identitarianism and reactionary anti-globalism. Nor is there a totally sharp differentiation between right wing populists and the fascists. But Traverso recognises the threat and his analysis is a serious attempt to engage with what is happening.
Benito Mussolini said that fascism was a “revolution against revolutions”. In the current period it is precisely this element that is absent. The working class does not present as an existential threat to capitalism. But according to Traverso a catastrophic collapse of the EU is not outwith the bounds of possibility. The collapse of the Euro is one scenario in which, in the resulting chaos, the ruling class could look to a fascist solution.
Traverso points out that in much of Europe and Latin America democratic forms of governance did not arise spontaneously out of the system but were the product of resistance to dictatorship or, as in Italy, to the anti-fascist struggle during and following the Second World War. The maintenance of democracy is not a given of the market.
Crucially though, he notes that today this post-fascism does not have a coherent project. There is no new Reich, no new modern man forged in the furnace of fascist revolution. Instead, “The logic of post-fascism is rather that of ‘cultural pessimism’: defence of traditional values and ‘threatened’ national identities; claims for national sovereignty against globalisation, and the search for a scapegoat in immigrants, refugees, and Muslims.” All these things, of course, were present in the Nazis’ ideological thrust for power but were combined with an appeal to the future, in order to counter the appeal of the Russian Revolution.
Traverso believes that it is the present day failure of the left to have a coherent vision of a future and an answer to neoliberalism that is responsible for the right’s ability to move on to this terrain. He thinks that in Greece, for instance, where a strong left has opposed neoliberalism, the right has had to maintain a classic fascist stance in Golden Dawn. In Italy, however, Matteo Salvini and Lega are able to pose as anti-establishment.
In the same way he claims that National Rally is hoovering up former communist voting areas in northern France. This, in his view, goes alongside a historical revisionism that seeks to rehabilitate the historic fascists of France, Spain and Italy into the general histories of their nations.
It is not always clear, however, where Traverso thinks the coalescing forces of the right are heading. He cites the move of the Front National in France from classic fascism to its present concentration on elections as National Rally and contrasts this with Hitler and Mussolini’s putschist attempts to overthrow existing governments. He does note that both came to power within the legal system but maintains that they were bent on getting rid of democracy. It is not clear if he thinks that National Rally is now a right wing but democratic organisation.
Here I would question Traverso’s analysis. In his view fascism arose as an antidote to Communism. Undoubtedly there is truth in this but perhaps he overemphasises ideological factors. Fascism was a response of the middle classes to the crisis of the system in the 1930s. The inability of the ruling class to finally settle with the workers’ movement following the Russian and German revolutions was the reason that they invited the fascists into power. In this sense classes and their struggles form the basis out of which ideas are formed within the economic system. One gets the impression that Traverso thinks workers no longer have the power on their own to create an ideological opposition to the right.
This book is an important contribution to the discussion of how the left tackles the rise of the right and of reinvigorated fascism. It has much to offer and we should engage with it. The murders in Christchurch show that the task is urgent.