www.sacw.net - September 2002

The Political Culture of Fascism

by Jairus Banaji

[Talk delivered at a Gujarat Seminar organised by the Vikas Adhyan Kendra in Bombay, September 2002]

I called this talk the political culture of Fascism because I wanted to draw attention away from the conventional emphasis in left theories of fascism to aspects that are much less emphasised or not even seen, precisely because they are so widespread. I want to do this by starting with the most doctrinaire and, unfortunately, still the most widespread of the left's theories of fascism, which is the line the Comintern officially endorsed and repeated, endlessly, throughout the late twenties and 1930s, while the tragedy of fascism was being played out in Europe. This was the Comintern's conception of fascism as what it called the "open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinist and most imperialist elements of finance capital". This was the Comintern's official understanding. It further states that fascism "tries to secure a mass basis (I lay emphasis on the word 'tries') for monopolist capital among the petty bourgeoisie, appealing to the peasantry, artisans, office employees and civil servants who have been thrown out of their normal course of life, particularly to the declassed elements in the big cities, also trying to penetrate into the working class" (cited Roger Griffin, Fascism, p. 262). In short, in the Comintern's line, fascism is the dictatorship of the most reactionary elements of finance capital. Now, the Nazi party described itself, formally at least, as a "workers' party". The Nazis saw themselves, at some superficial level, in terms of rhetoric anyway, as appealing for the support of workers. This suggests that there is something slightly specious about trying to explain the rise of Nazism in the twenties simply in terms of the dictatorship of capital.

Much of the Left still subscribes to the view that fascism is primarily a product of the manipulations of capital or big business. There are several things wrong with this view. It ignores the political culture of fascism and fails to explain how and why fascist movements attract a mass following. It embodies a crude instrumentalism that conflates the financing of fascist movements by sections of business with the dynamics of fascism itself. It also views fascism in overtly pathological terms, as abnormality, thus breaking the more interesting and challenging links between fascism and 'normality'. Finally, it contains a catastrophist vision: it sees fascism as a kind of cataclysm, like some volcanic eruption or earthquake, a seismic shift in the political landscape. So far as the situation in India is concerned, this has surely demonstrated that that is not how fascism grows. In India the growth of fascism has been a gradual, step by step process where the fascist elements penetrate all sectors of society and emerge having built up that groundwork. So, if we in India have anything to contribute to a theory of fascism, part of the contribution lies in disproving the catastrophist element. This still leaves the other two perspectives, which I called 'instrumentalist' and 'pathological' respectively. Both are dangerously wrong and part of the reason why the left has failed to establish a culture of successful political resistance to fascism.

Now in contrast to the 'official' view, there is another group of theories of fascism which also emanated from the left, although a more disorganized left, a left outside the Comintern, driven out of Germany by Nazism, and not collectively represented by any school. I have in mind two rather brilliant analyses that were developed in the 1930s against the background of German fascism; one by Wilhelm Reich who was a practising psychoanalyst. In his clinical work in Berlin in the early thirties, Reich would have come across literally hundreds of active supporters of Nazism. He was a committed socialist who fled Germany when it became impossible to live there, and died, ironically, in a US jail in 1957.

Then there is Arthur Rosenberg, who is not very well known. He was a Communist deputy in the Reichstag in the mid twenties and would later become an important influence on Chomsky. He was a historian who wrote a brilliant essay on fascism in 1934, which we translated for the first time, in the seventies, in Bombay. That particular essay is called Fascism as a Mass Movement. Reich's book was called The Mass Psychology of Fascism and first published in 1933. Already the titles of these two works suggest to us a very different view of fascism.

Earlier I had emphasised the term"tries to secure mass support" in the Comintern definition. This was said in 1933, after Hitler had come to power in Germany. Imagine the Comintern trying to tell the rest of the world that the fascists are "trying" to secure a mass base! There is a way of characterising this. It is called living in denial, bad faith, because if fascism has a mass base of any sort then we have to try and understand the issue in different terms. How is this mass base constructed? What allows for the construction of a mass base by radical right-wing parties? These are the questions that we need to confront, particularly if we want to confront our problems in India. To answer these questions it is not enough to have merely conjectural views on fascism, to say, 'fascism necessarily presupposes a worldwide economic crisis'; or 'fascism is a product of economic crisis'. This does not answer the question why people turn to fascism, because equally they could have turned to the left. Or why don't they become liberals instead? In short, why do they support fascism?

The second group of theories of fascism is unified by a common focus on the mass basis of fascism. 'Fascism differs from other reactionary parties inasmuch as it is borne and championed by masses of people', wrote Reich in the book I referred to. The difference between Reich and Rosenberg is that Reich is interested in the psychic structures that explain why individuals and particular classes of individuals (e.g., the lower middle class) gravitate to fascism, and explores the susceptiblity to fascism in terms of a cultural logic, whereas Arthur Rosenberg tries to explain the construction of a mass base in historical terms. These are complementary perspectives, they certainly do not contradict each other. Reich is interested in the cultural background/politics and 'character structures' that sustain fascism, the repressions that fascism presupposes and draws upon, whereas Rosenberg looks at the broad sweep of European history against whose background right-wing ideologies flourished and conservative élites found it possible to mobilise mass support. These perspectives clearly support each other.

Rosenberg classified fascism in the most general terms as a species of "anti-liberal mass movement". The emphasis here is on a secular political liberalism that asserted the rights of the individual against state authority and religious superstition, and on the defeat of that liberalism in the latter part of the 19th century.

When I began to work on fascism in the 1970s, it became increasingly apparent that German fascism was not the creation of the Nazi Party. Rather, the Nazi party was, arguably, the creation of German fascism. The whole groundwork of German society prepared the way for the rise of the Nazi party.

German society in large parts had been 'fascisized', if one can call it that; the preparatory groundwork was ready for some charismatic leader or party to come along and 'retotalise'/incarnate those legacies to create the kind of political catastrophe that was created in the 1930s. The groundwork had been intensively prepared, though in an un-coordinated, non-centralised and dispersed fashion by, for instance, the völkisch 'Action groups' that were active in the twenties, organising pogroms and spreading hatred against the Jews; by the numerous organisations of demobilized veterans who experienced Germany's defeat in the war as a terrible national humiliation, a blow to the pride of all Germans. There were within the top ranks of the German army which had suffered defeat many who were implacably opposed to democracy, to the November revolution and its overthrow of the monarchy. There were numerous radical right-wing organizations prior to the Nazi party that prepared the ground for the success of the Nazis.

However, the strength of Rosenberg's essay was an analysis which showed that fascism largely reiterated ideas that were widespread in European society well before the first war. He saw the conservative élites of 19th cent. Europe adjusting to the era of parliamentary democracy and mass politics with an aggressive nationalism divested of its liberal overtones, canvassing active support for strong states wedded to expansion abroad and containment of the labour movement at home, and unashamedly willing to use anti-Semitism 'as a way of preventing middle-class voters from moving to the left' (Weiss, Conservatism in Europe 1770-1945, p. 89). The more traditionalist elements in Europe's ruling élites succeeded in defeating the liberalism of 1848 with a populist conservatism that could garner parliamentary majorities with xenophobic appeals and patriotic agendas.

What replaced the discredited liberalism of the 19th cent. were new ideologies of the Right, and it is against the background of these ideologies (racism, militarism, imperialism, and the cult of authority) that we need to situate the emergence of fascism in Europe. I'd like to suggest that fascism has to be deconstructed "culturally" at three levels. The first among these, the level that Rosenberg's work points to, is nationalism. The rational core of every fascist ideology is nationalism. Fascist movements deify the nation, so that fascism can even be seen as projecting itself as a sort of 'secular religion', and does this all the more effectively insofar as the vocabulary (artefacts, myths, rituals, symbols) of that deification is borrowed from religion itself. So when people ask themselves how we fight fascism, one way of fighting it is by confronting nationalism and beginning to build an opposition to it.

The second level of deconstructing fascism and offering elements of a framework is cultures of authoritarianism and repression, be it social repression, family repression, or sexual repression. For instance, the emergence of a feminist movement in the postwar era of the 1960s and 70s represented a significant advance, because for the first time sexual politics arrives on the center stage. The emergence of sexual politics in the shape of feminism does contribute to the fight against fascism as an ideology. I strongly believe that had feminism not been on the scene, neo-nazism would be much stronger in Europe than it is today.

The third and final level has to do with the fascist use of what Sartre (following Riesman) calls 'other-direction', and with violence as common praxis, that is, organised action or the 'common action' of organised groups. Rosenberg himself saw the peculiarity of fascism not in its ideology, which he thought was widespread by the turn of the century, but in its use of the 'stormtrooper tactic'. A form of genocide or ethnic cleansing is implicit in the programme of every fascist movement, as it is in that of the RSS, whose longest-serving sarsangch,lak even glorified 'German race pride' and the extermination of the Jews. But the holocaust is only possible as the culmination of a permanent mobilisation 'of'/'for' violence. Fascist violence works through serial reactions which are retotalised at the level of a common undertaking, that is to say, 'reshaped and forged like inorganic matter' (Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, 649-50). Thus fascism works best in a milieu of alterity (in our case, communalism), where the oppression of blacks or Jews or Muslims produces itself as a determination of the language of their oppressors in the form of racism, where the inert execration of oppressed minorities betrays countless symbolic murders (Sartre, Réflexions sur la question juive, 58), and organised groups (criminal organisations) fabricate religious mythologies to spur campaigns of genocide. Mobilisation 'of' violence: in the savage campaigns of hate propaganda directed against Muslims in India, genocide becomes 'virtual'; "totalising" propaganda creates an enemy whose extermination it posits as possible, alludes to, suggests, justifies, or advocates openly. Hate propaganda clears the ground for physical attacks and mass killings by producing a "climate" of violence where communal 'riots' (i.e. pogroms) can 'flare up' (be organised) at any time. The "climate" is worked matter, the object of a concerted praxis.

Scapegoating, racism, and virtual genocide thus form the third level: all of these require detailed, intricate, elaborate organisation, and point to fascism as the concerted action of organised groups working on serialities. Fascist spontaneity is manipulated spontaneity, organised spontaneity. No explosion of violence happens spontaneously. It presumes massive organizational inputs, as Gujarat clearly shows. At one extreme the organised group is the sovereign group itself, the state using the resources of its machinery to aid and abet the work of other organised groups. At the other extreme are the non-organised series ("masses") who are the permanent objects of 'other-direction'. Between them lie the organised groups that make up the fascist movement itself and function as pressure groups on both the sovereign and the series, exerting powerful networks of control over both, and directing the violence. The reports filed by Teesta Setalvad in the worst phase of the violence suggest that the genocide was perpetrated by 'mobs' of 5000 to 15,000 that 'collected swiftly' to execute the carnage 'with precision'. 'It is not easy to collect such large mobs even in a city like Mumbai, let alone Ahmedabad' ('A trained saffron militia at work?', 7/3/02). In other words, these ghastly mobs comprised both directing groups and directed serialities, bound together in dispersive acts of murder and destruction orchestrated by activists of the VHP and Bajrang Dal, who formed an organised element extracting organic actions from inert non-organised series. A democracy that cannot disarm these stormtoopers is a democracy well on the way to its own destruction by fascism.

Thus the framework that I want to suggest to you consists of these three levels. Nationalism as the rational core of fascist ideology, with the "Nation" conceived as some living entity afflicted by democracy, infected by minorities, in desperate need of renewal or "rebirth" (what Sartre calls 'hyperorganicism', that is, the simulation of organic individuality at the level of a constituted dialectic); the level of male violence and male authority, of repressive family cultures that indoctrinate women and youth in a 'passive and servile attitude towards the führer figure' (Reich), and root out of children everything that contributes to their humanity, to a sense of who they are as individuals (the capacity to think critically, to resist domination, to have friendships of their choice). In India, of course, we not only have gender repression, we have caste repression at work, the oppression of minorities, the appalling indifference towards children, etc. Thus as a culture we are replete with examples of subterranean repressive cultures in our society. I call them 'subterranean' because they are invisible in their commonness, subtend the whole of our existence, and only become visible in times of resistance. Finally, organised brutality or violence as (common) praxis ñ the fabrication of religious and racial mythologies and campaigns of genocide as concerted praxes of organised groups acting on/conditioning serialities, 'other-direction'.

When all this is put together in terms of an agenda for opposing fascism, we need to ask, have we seriously been pursuing an agenda on any of these levels? Do we have an agenda for fighting fascism in India? And wouldn't such an agenda have to go to the heart of mainstream culture to break the stranglehold of an oppressive seriality where millions of people must feel helpless and confused by their inert complicity in the politics of a movement that perpetrates violence in the name of 'all' 'Hindus'.

One way of addressing some of this is by breaking the culture of silence. By talking about these issues, by debating them publicly and at home. Whenever we get the chance, we must ensure that all these issues are not swept under the carpet. For instance, one of my friends wanted to discuss Gujarat with members of his union. They were journalists, yet some of them felt quite uncomfortable and asked, "why should Gujarat be raked up once again?" "What's happened is done and forgotten, so let's forget about it". This attitude of "let's forget about it" is precisely what the Sangh Parivar thrives on. The great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish was actually living in Beirut in August 1982 when it was intensively bombed by the Israeli airforce and navy. The bombardment was spread over two months, and almost every day about two to three hundred Lebanese and Palestinian civilians were killed. To come to terms with that experience, he wrote a diary which he called DhÇkirah li-l-nisyÇn, 'Memory for forgetfulness'. It's worth reflecting on what this title might mean.

Going back to a more specific characterisation of each of these levels, let me start with nationalism. As you know, nationalism constitutes a terrain which is common to both the Right and the Left in this country. This is partly the reason why the Left is forced to conclude that really the Right wing is not serious about 'Swadeshi'. Actually the left sees itself as the defender of 'national' independence, which it interprets primarily in economic terms. The left's nationalism is isolationist, it views world economy as a collection of relatively autonomous national economies and is unwilling to accept that capitalism undermines national self-sufficiency for ever, so that any attempt to go back to it (rather than forward to further integration and rational collective management of the world's resources) is doomed to failure. The nationalism of the fascist right is also deeply isolationist and its rhetoric against 'international capital' even more xenophobic. But there is another aspect to its nationalism which is not apparent in other political currents. Fascist movements subscribe to a particular kind of nationalism based on a promise of renewal or 'palingenesis', a term that comes from this book by Griffin, which is a collection of readings by fascist writers (Griffin, Fascism, Oxford 1995). 'Palingenesis' means regeneration. The idea is that there is some living practical community, the 'Nation', which is in a terminal state of decline, suffering a kind of incurable disease, and fascism projects itself as the panacea that will cure the 'Nation' so that 'it' is healed and regenerated. This is a common thread that unites all the classical fascist and neo-nazi writings. Thus in We or Our Nationhood Defined Golwalkar speaks of 'revitalising' the 'Hindu Nation' and of 'National Regeneration'. The programme he defines for the RSS is one of transforming India into an ethnocratic state based on the utopia of a fantasised Hindu community that recovers its pristine identity. He also has a racial idea of the nation, since the entire nation is identified with a particular 'race', similar to other Nazi race theories.

So far as the cultures of authority and oppression are concerned, I think identification with authority is the crucial thing that we need to tackle. It is a matter of the school, the workplace, the family, communities, etc., all of which are factories of 'reactionary ideology', producing serial individuals (conformists) in staggering numbers, because in each of these sites of learning or socialisation 'everyone learns to be the expression of all the Others', to 'feel' like the Others, 'think' like the Others, etc., so that what emerges is a total suppression of the human, an annihilation of organic individuality, and eventually the kind of externally unified, regimented mass that images of fascist Europe depict as emblematic of fascist power. But Reich's point is that the roots of authority lie deep within the institutionalised repression of sexuality and manipulation of desires which through the family, pedagogy, etc., create an 'artificial interest' which 'actively supports the authoritarian order'.

But we still require a totalising conception of how authority operates in Indian society, and how that interlaces with political strategies, with the increasing strength of the Right wing in this country. Sexual politics is equally important because it is in the interests of conservative, right-wing establishment forces to mould individuals, to control and manipulate their desires, and make the young in particular feel guilty and repressed about their sexuality. This suppression of sexuality is a powerful factor in the reinforcement of authoritarianism and the rise of fascist movements, and there is no way we can respond to such movements without encouraging reciprocity (that is, a free relationship between individuals) and an active stake in freedom.

These three levels are so closely interlaced with each other that it is difficult to separate them because violence and aggression run as the common thread though all of them. If you look at nationalism in its contemporary forms, for example in the Balkans, it is no longer separable from the most horrific violence. The Serb nationalism of Milosevic, as we all know, took the form of ethnic cleansing. At the second level, of cultures of authority and repression, there is always violence. The assertions of authority are petrified violence and we have to be able to challenge them in their institutionalised forms. At the third level - violence as praxis - the issue is, can the 'other-direction' of organised (fascist) groups be combatted by anything short of the political action of other organised groups? In which case, which groups are these, and where are they?

A final point relates to the fascist use of the spectacle. Fascism is a politics of spectacles. The spectacle is a display of the power of the organised group over the series. As such, it belongs to the repertoire of forms of manipulation through which all authoritarian movements seek to reinforce their hold over the 'masses', the serial impotence of the latter, and their conditioning through the hypnotic spell of symbols and images that resonate with serial meanings (the spectacle as a Mass of alterity). Mussolini's theatrical style was strongly influenced by the theories of Gustave Le Bon who believed in the intrinsic irrationalism of the 'crowd' and whose prescriptions to politicians on how to control the crowd relied heavily 'on the French research on hypnotism of the late 1800s'. Le Bon argued that the creation of myths would become the leader's means to excite and subordinate the 'masses', and encouraged politicians to play on the power of representation and to adopt theatrical modes. (Falasca-Zamponi, Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini's Italy, 20). Religious processions and the artefacts and iconographies of religion occupy a major place in the repertoire of Hindutva precisely because spectacles play such an important role in the political culture of fascism.

To conclude, therefore, I would point out that at each of these levels we have to define our theatres of resistance. Spaces for intervention have to exist at all these levels, but that requires the articulation of a powerful, anti-authoritarian politics that encourages individuals to think critically, fosters relationships based on reciprocity, and promotes a social and political culture which values freedom sufficiently to resist and undermine the hypnotic spells of nationalism, hierarchy, and serial domination.

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