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The Latent Fascism Of Today’s Anti-Fascists

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by Tyler Durden
Sunday, May 12, 2024 - 03:10 AM

Authored by Aaron Kheriaty via the Brownstone Institute,

"Nothing can have as its destination anything other than its origin. The contrary idea, the idea of progress, is poison." -Simone Weil

The terms “fascist” and “fascism” are continuously bandied about today. But those who use these words most seem to understand them least, such that many of today’s self-styled anti-fascists paradoxically take on the central features of fascism to an extraordinary degree.

We can see contemporary fascist tendencies manifesting on both ends of the political spectrum — not only among white supremacists but also in the character types described by Eugene Rivers as “trust fund Becky with the good hair revolutionary communist” or “white boy Carl the anarchist from the Upper East Side who is a junior at Sarah Lawrence.”

Fascism is obviously worth opposing, but to be truly anti-fascist requires an understanding of how this ideology manifests in history and what the word actually designates. Already by the end of World War II, George Orwell noted that the term “fascist” was used so indiscriminately that it had become degraded to the level of a swearword synonymous with “bully.”

Contrary to popular belief, fascism does not represent counterrevolutionary or reactionary opposition to progressive ideas in the name of tradition. Many thinkers advanced this mistaken interpretation during the postwar period, including, among others, Umberto Eco’s list of “Ur-Fascist” features published in the New York Review of Books in 1995, Theodore Adorno’s concept of the “authoritarian personality” described in his influential 1950 book of that title, Wilhelm Reich (1946) and Eric Fromm’s (1973) psychoanalytic interpretations of repressive systems, and Antonio Gramsci’s (1929) widely accepted myth that fascism was a counterrevolutionary movement of the “petit bourgeois.”

The common mistake of all these interpretations involves generalizing the idea of fascism to include any movement that is either authoritarian or inclined to defend the past. This interpretation stems from an axiological faith (that is precisely the right word) in the value of modernity in the wake of the French Revolution.

Modernity is taken to be an inevitable and irreversible process of secularization and human progress, in which the question of transcendence — whether broadly Platonic or Christian — has entirely vanished, and in which novelty is synonymous with positivity. Progress rests upon the ongoing expansion of technology and individual autonomy. Everything, including knowledge, becomes a tool to pursue affluence, comfort, and well-being.

According to this faith in modernity, to be good is to embrace the progressive direction of history; to be evil is to resist it. Since fascism is clearly evil, it cannot be a development of modernity itself but must be “reactionary.” On this view fascism includes all those who fear worldly progress, have a psychological need for a strong social order to protect them, venerate and idealize a past historical moment, and so endow a leader with immense power to instantiate this.

According to this interpretation,” Augusto Del Noce wrote, “Fascism is a sin against the progressive movement of history;” indeed, “every sin boils down to a sin against the direction of history.”

This characterization of fascism is almost entirely mistaken and misses its central features. Giovanni Gentile, the Italian “philosopher of fascism” and Benito Mussolini’s ghostwriter, penned an early book on the philosophy of Karl Marx. Gentile attempted to extract from Marxism the dialectic core of revolutionary socialism while rejecting Marxist materialism. As the authentic interpreter of Marxist thought, Lenin naturally rejected this heretical move, reaffirming the unbreakable unity between radical materialism and revolutionary action.

Like Gentile, Mussolini himself spoke of “what is alive and what is dead in Marx” in his speech on May 1, 1911. He affirmed Marx’s core revolutionary doctrine — the liberation of man through the replacement of religion by politics — even while he rejected Marxist utopianism, which was the aspect of Marxism that made it a kind of secular religion. In fascism, the revolutionary spirit separated from materialism becomes a mystique of action for its own sake.

Scholars of fascism have noted both a “mysterious proximity and distance between Mussolini and Lenin.” In the 1920s Mussolini was constantly glancing in the rearview mirror at Lenin as a rival revolutionary in a kind of mimetic dance. In his will to dominate, Mussolini spontaneously identified himself with the Fatherland and with his own people; however, there was no trace in this of any tradition that he affirmed and defended.

In its origins and aims fascism is thus not so much a reactionary-traditionalist phenomenon, but a secondary and degenerative development of Marxist revolutionary thought. It represents a stage in the modern process of political secularization that started with Lenin. This claim may occasion controversy, but a philosophical and historical examination of fascism reveals it to be accurate.

We easily miss these features if we focus exclusively on the obvious political opposition between fascism and communism during the Spanish Civil War and World War II. The fact that their philosophies share common genealogical roots and revolutionary ideals means neither that Lenin was a fascist (he was not) nor that fascism and communism are the same thing (they are not and fought to the death to prove it). Keep in mind, however, that an enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.

Fascism understands itself to be a revolutionary and progressive manifestation of power. As in communism, fascism replaces traditional religious principles with a secular religion in which the future — rather than an idealized past or meta-historical ideals — becomes an idol. Politics replaces religion in the quest to liberate humankind. Contrary to popular characterizations, fascism makes no attempt to preserve a heritage of traditional values against the advance of progress (one only has to look at fascist architecture for confirmation of this). Instead, it proceeds as the unfolding in history of a wholly novel and unprecedented power.

Nazism was not so much an extreme form of fascism but the mirror image inversion of communism (the revolution in reverse). It added to fascism’s features its own origin myth, which necessarily had to reach back to pre-history. Its odious blood-and-soil socialist nationalism inverted Marxist universalism, but likewise resulted in the most extreme expression of colonialism. As with fascism and communism, Nazism was always ahistorical and entirely uninterested in preserving anything meaningful from the past.

Rather than looking back to history or to trans-historical values, fascism strains forward and advances by means of a “creative destruction” that feels entitled to overturn everything standing in its way. Action for its own sake takes on a particular aura and mystique. The fascist unflinchingly appropriates and commandeers various sources of energy — whether human, cultural, religious, or technical — to remake and transform reality. As this ideology presses its advance, it makes no attempt to conform to any higher truth or moral order. Reality is simply that which must be overcome.

Like the postwar interpreters of fascism mentioned above, many today mistakenly believe that fascism is grounded in strong metaphysical truth claims — that fascist authoritarian personalities somehow believe they possess a monopoly on the truth. On the contrary, as Mussolini himself explained with absolute clarity, fascism is entirely grounded in relativism:

If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and for those who claim to be the bearers of objective immortal truth, then there is nothing more relativistic than fascist attitudes and activity. From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, we fascists conclude that we have the right to create our own ideology and to enforce it with all the energy of which we are capable.

The horrors of World War II were misdiagnosed by the postwar intellectuals’ mistaken interpretation of fascism and Nazism: these ideologies, and the bloodbath they unleashed, represented not the failure of the European tradition but the crisis of modernity — the outcome of the age of secularization.

What are the ethical consequences of fascism? Once value is attributed to pure action, other people cease to be ends in themselves and become mere instruments, or obstacles, to the fascist political program. The logic of the fascist’s “creative” activism leads him to deny other people’s personhood and individuality, to reduce persons to mere objects. Once individuals are instrumentalized, it no longer makes sense to speak of moral duties towards them. Others are either useful and deployed or they are useless and discarded.

This accounts for the extraordinary narcissism and solipsism characteristic of fascist leaders and functionaries: anyone who embraces this ideology acts as though he is the only person who really exists. The fascist lacks any sense of the purpose of law, or any reverence for a binding moral order. He embraces instead his own raw will to power: laws and other social institutions are mere tools deployed in the service of this power. Because the fascist’s action requires no ultimate end, and conforms to no transcendent ethical norm or spiritual authority, various tactics can be embraced or discarded at whim — propaganda, violence, coercion, desecration, erasure, etc.

Although fascists fancy themselves creative, their actions can only destroy. Taboos are torn down indiscriminately and at will. Symbols rich with meaning — moral, historical, religious, cultural — are ripped from their context and weaponized. The past is nothing but an ideological tool or cipher: one can rummage around in history for useful images or slogans to deploy in service of expansive power; but wherever it is not useful for this purpose, history is discarded, defaced, toppled, or simply ignored as though it never existed.

What are fascism’s stated ideals — what is it supposedly for? By design, this is never made entirely clear, except to say that novelty for its own sake assumes a positive value. If anything is held sacred it is violence. As in Marxism, the word “revolution” takes on an almost magical, mystical significance. But as I explained in Part II of this series, the ideology of total revolution only ends up strengthening the present order and the stronghold of the elites, by burning away those residual elements of tradition that make possible a moral critique of this order.

The result is nihilism. Fascism celebrates an optimistic (but empty) cult of victory through force. In a reactionary backlash, neo-fascist “anti-fascists” mirror this spirit by a pessimistic passion for the defeated. In both cases, the same spirit of negation prevails.

With this description in mind, we can understand why the word “fascism” logically boomerangs back on many of today’s self-styled anti-fascists. The practical upshot for our culture wars is not merely that the cure might be worse than the disease, but that the most radical “cure” in this case just is the disease. The danger is that a thinly veiled fascism — marching mendaciously under an anti-fascist banner — will overtake and absorb legitimate attempts to cure our ills, including ethically valid attempts to cure the cancer of racism or address other societal injustices.

The same faith in modernity that led to mistaken interpretations of fascism after World War II also forces contemporary history and politics into unhelpful categories. If we question this axiological faith in the idea of modernity, we can establish a clearer view of 20th-century ideologies and their current manifestations. This entails neither automatically identifying the modernist or progressive view as anti-fascist, nor equating all forms of traditionalism (at least potentially) with fascism.

In fact, the distinction between traditionalists (if I must use this unsatisfying term) and progressives is apparent in the different ways they oppose fascism. By tradition I don’t mean reverence for a static repository of fixed forms or a desire to return to an idealized period of the past; rather, I refer to the etymological meaning of that which we “hand on” (tradere) and thereby make new. A culture that has nothing of value to bequeath is a culture that has already perished. This understanding of tradition leads to a critique of modernity’s premise of inevitable progress — a groundless myth we should discard precisely to avoid repeating the horrors of the 20th century.

This critique of modernity, and the rejection of ethics as “the direction of history,” leads to other insights regarding our present crisis. Rather than the standard left-right, liberal-conservative, progressive-reactionary categories of interpretation, we can see instead that the real political divide today is between perfectists and anti-perfectists. The former believe in the possibility of complete liberation of humanity through politics, whereas the latter regard this as a perennial error grounded in a denial of inherent human limitations. The acceptance of such limitations is elegantly expressed in Solzhenitsyn’s insight that the line between good and evil passes first neither through classes, nor nations, nor political parties, but right through the center of every human heart.

We are all aware of the horrifying consequences that follow when fascism slides, as it readily does, into totalitarianism. But consider that the defining feature of all totalitarianisms is not concentration camps or secret police or constant surveillance — though these are all bad enough. The common feature, as Del Noce pointed out, is the denial of the universality of reason. With this denial, all truth claims are interpreted as historically or materially determined, and thus, as ideology. This leads to the assertion that there is no rationality as such — only bourgeois reason and proletariat reason, or Jewish reason and Aryan reason, or black reason and white reason, or progressive reason and reactionary reason, and so forth.

One’s rational arguments are then taken to be mere mystifications or justifications and are summarily dismissed: “You think such-and-such only because you are [fill in the blank with various markers of identity, class, nationality, race, political persuasion, etc.].” This marks the death of dialogue and reasoned debate. It also accounts for the literally “loopy” closed-loop epistemology of contemporary social justice advocates of the critical theory school: anyone who denies being a [fill-in-the-blank epithet] only further confirms that the label applies, so one’s only option is to accept the label. Heads-I-win; tails-you-lose.

In such a society there can be no shared deliberation rooted in our participation in a higher Logos (word, reason, plan, order) that transcends each individual. As happened historically with all forms of fascism, culture — the realm of ideas and shared ideals — is absorbed into politics, and politics becomes total war. From within this framework, one can no longer admit any conception of legitimate authority, in the enriching etymological sense of “to make grow,” where we also derive the word “author.” All authority is instead conflated with power, and power is nothing but brute force.

Since persuasion through shared reasoning and deliberation is pointless, lying becomes the norm. Language is not capable of revealing truth, which compels assent without negating our freedom. Instead, words are mere symbols to be manipulated. A fascist does not attempt to persuade his interlocutor, he merely overpowers him — using words when these serve to silence the enemy or deploying other means when words will not do the trick.

This is always how things begin, and as the internal logic unfolds, the rest of the totalitarian apparatus inevitably follows. Once we grasp fascism’s deep roots and central features, one essential consequence becomes clear. Anti-fascist efforts can succeed only by starting from the premise of a universal shared rationality. Authentic anti-fascism will therefore always seek to employ nonviolent means of persuasion, appealing to evidence and to the conscience of one’s interlocutor. The problem is not just that other methods of opposing fascism will be pragmatically ineffective, but that they will unwittingly but inevitably come to resemble the enemy they claim to oppose.

We can look to Simone Weil as an authentic and exemplary anti-fascist figure. Weil always wanted to be on the side of the oppressed. She lived this conviction with exceptional single-mindedness and purity. As she relentlessly pursued the idea of justice inscribed in the human heart, she passed through a revolutionary phase, followed by a gnostic phase, before she finally rediscovered the Platonic tradition — the perennial philosophy of our shared participation in the Logos — with its universal criterion of truth and the primacy of the good. She arrived here precisely through her anti-fascist commitments, which entailed a rebellion against every delusional deification of man. Weil emerged from the modern world and its contradictions the way a prisoner emerges from Plato’s cave.

After volunteering to fight with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, Weil broke with the illusory anti-fascism of Marxist revolutionary thought. Recognizing that, in the end, “evil produces only evil and good produces only good,” and “the future is made of the same stuff as the present,” she discovered a more enduring anti-fascist position. This led her to call the destruction of the past “perhaps the greatest of all crimes.”

In her last book, written a few months before she died in 1943, Weil elaborated on the limits of both fascist vitalism and Marxist materialism: “Either we must perceive at work in the universe, alongside force, a principle of a different kind, or else we must recognize force as being the unique and sovereign ruler over human relations also.”

Weil was thoroughly secular prior to her philosophical conversion and her subsequent mystical experiences: her rediscovery of classical philosophy occurred not through any sort of traditionalism, but by living the ethical question of justice with full intellectual honesty and total personal commitment. In pursuing this question to the end, she came to see that human self-redemption — fascism’s ideal — is actually an idol. Those who want to be truly anti-fascist would do well to explore Weil’s writings. I will give her the last word, which contains the seeds of the way out of our crisis. In one of her last essays, she offers us not a counsel of facile optimism, but a beautiful thought about our unconquerable receptivity to grace:

At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this above all that is sacred in every human being.

Republished from The Simone Weil Center

Aaron Kheriaty, Senior Brownstone Institute Counselor, is a Scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, DC. He is a former Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California at Irvine School of Medicine, where he was the director of Medical Ethics.

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