Fascism is not dead. The revelations now coming out of Iraq about Baathist atrocities lend this observation particular point; Saddam Hussein was able to successfully imitate Hitler for three decades. Baathists using similar methods still run Syria, and elsewhere in the Islamic world there are militarist/authoritarian tendencies that run uncomfortably close to fascism.
Recent events — including the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime and Glenn Reynolds blogging on Pio Moa’s The Myths of the Civil War have inspired me to dust off some research and writing I did a while back on the history of fascism. Some of the following essay is about the Spanish Civil War annd Francisco Franco, but much of it is about the history and structure of fascism.
Pio Moa’s thesis is that the Spanish Civil War was not a usurping revolt against a functioning government, but a belated attempt to restore order to a country that had already collapsed into violent chaos five years before the Fascists landed in 1936.
I’ve studied the history of the Spanish Civil War enough to know that Moa’s contrarian interpretation is not obviously crazy. I had an unusual angle; I’m an anarchist, and wanted to grasp the ideas and role of the Spanish anarchist communes. My conclusions were not pleasant. In short, there were no good guys in the Spanish Civil War.
First, the non-anarchist Left in Spain really was pretty completely Stalin’s creature. The volunteers of the International Brigade were (in Lenin’s timeless phrase) useful idiots, an exact analogue of the foreign Arabs who fought on in Baghdad after Iraqi resistance collapsed (and were despised for it by the Iraqis). They deserve neither our pity nor our respect. Insofar as Moa’s thesis is that most scholarship about the war is severely distorted by a desire to make heroes out of these idiots, he is correct.
Second, the Spanish anarchists were by and large an exceedingly nasty bunch, all resentment and nihilism with no idea how to rebuild after destroying. Wiping them out (via his Communist proxies) may have been one of Stalin’s few good deeds.
Third, the Fascists were a pretty nasty bunch too. But, on the whole, probably not as nasty as their opponents. Perceptions of them tend to be distorted by the casual equation of Fascist with Nazi — but this is not appropriate. Spanish Fascism was unlike Communism or Italian and German Fascism in that it was genuinely a conservative movement, rather than a attempt to reinvent society in the image of a revolutionary doctrine about the perfected State.
Historians and political scientists use the terms “fascist” and “fascism” quite precisely, for a group of political movements that were active between about 1890 and about 1975. The original and prototypical example was Italian fascism, the best-known and most virulent strain was Naziism, and the longest-lasting was the Spanish nationalist fascism of Francisco Franco. The militarist nationalism of Japan is often also described as “fascist” .
The shared label reflects the fact that these four ideologies influenced each other; Naziism began as a German imitation of Italian fascism, only to remake Italian (and to some extent Spanish) fascism in its own image during WWII. The militarist Japanese fascists took their cues from European fascists as well as an indigenous tradition of absolutism with very similar structural and psychological features
The shared label also reflects substantially similar theories of political economics, power, governance, and national purpose. Also similar histories and symbolisms. Here are some of the commonalities especially relevant to the all too common abuse of the term.
Fascist political economics is a corrupt form of Leninist socialism. In fascist theory (as in Communism) the State owns all; in practice, fascists are willing to co-opt and use big capitalists rather than immediately killing them.
Fascism mythologizes the professional military, but never trusts it. (And rightly so; consider the Von Stauffenberg plot…) One of the signatures of the fascist state is the formation of elite units (the SA and SS in Germany, the Guardia Civil in Spain, the Republican Guard and Fedayeen in Iraq) loyal to the fascist party and outside the military chain of command.
Fascism is not (as the example of Franco’s Spain shows) necessarily aggressive or expansionist per se. In all but one case, fascist wars were triggered not by ideologically-motivated aggression but by revanchist nationalism (that is, the nation’s claims on areas lost to the victors of previous wars, or inhabited by members of the nationality agitating for annexation). No, the one exception was not Nazi Germany; it was Japan (the rape of Manchuria). The Nazi wars of aggression and Hussein’s grab at Kuwait were both revanchist in origin.
Fascism is generally born by revolution out of the collapse of monarchism. Fascism’s theory of power is organized around the `Fuehrerprinzip’, the absolute leader regarded as the incarnation of the national will.
But…and this is a big but…there were important difference between revolutionary Fascism (the Italo/German/Baathist variety) and the more reactionary sort native to Spain and Japan.
The Italo/German/Baathist varieties were radical, modernist ideologies and not (as commonly assumed) conservative or traditionalist ones; in fact, all three of these examples faced serious early threats from cultural-conservative monarchists (or in Baathism’s case, from theocrats).
But Japanese and Spanish Fascism were a bit different; they were actually pro-monarchist, conservative in essence, aimed at reasserting the power relationships of premodern Spain and Japan. In fact, Spanish Fascism was mostly about Francisco Franco’s reactionary instincts.
After the fall of the Second Republic in 1931 Francisco Franco had rather better reason than Hitler ever did to regard the Communist-inspired left as a mortal threat to his country; a wave of `revolutionary’ expropriations, massacres, and chaos (unlike the opera-bouffe capitulation of the Italian monarchy or the relatively bloodless collapse of Germany’s Weimar Republic) followed. Obedient to what remained of central authority, Franco sat out the undeclared civil war for five years before invading from Morocco with Italian and German help. His belief that he was acting to restore a pre-1931 order of which he was the last legitimate representative appears to have been genuine — perhaps even justified.
The declared portion of the Spanish Civil War lasted from 1936 to 1939. It has passed into legend among Western leftists as a heroic struggle between the Communist-backed Republican government and Nazi-backed Franco, one that the good guys lost. The truth seems rather darker; the war was fought by two collections of squabbling, atrocity-prone factions, each backed by one of the two most evil totalitarianisms in human history. They intrigued, massacred, wrecked, and looted fairly indiscriminately until one side collapsed from exhaustion. Franco was the last man left standing.
Franco had no aspirations to conquer or reinvent the world, or to found a dynasty. His greatest achievements were the things that didn’t happen. He prevented the Stalinist coup that would certainly have followed a Republican victory. He then kept Spain out of World War II against heavy German pressure to join the Axis.
Domestically, Spain could have suffered worse. Spanish Fascism was quite brutal against its direct political enemies, but never developed the expansionism or racist doctrines of the Italian or German model. In fact it had almost no ideology beyond freezing the power relationships of pre-Republican Spain in place. Thus, there were no massacres even remotely comparable to Hussein’s nerve-gassing of Kurds and Shi’as, Hitler’s Final Solution or Stalin’s far bloodier though less-known liquidation of the kulaks.
Francisco Franco remained a monarchist all his life, and named the heir to the Spanish throne as his successor. The later `fascist’ regimes of South and Central America resembled the Francoite, conservative model more than they did the Italo/German/Baathist revolutionary variety.
One historian put it well. “Hitler was a fascist pretending to be a conservative. Franco was a conservative pretending to be a fascist.” (One might add that Hussein was not really pretending to be about anything but the raw will to power; perhaps this is progress, of a sort.) On those terms Franco was rather successful. If he had died shortly after WWII, rather than lingering for thirty years while presiding over an increasingly stultified and backward Spain, he might even have been remembered as a hero of his country.
As it is, the best that can be said is that (unlike the truly major tyrants of his day, or Saddam Hussein in ours) Franco was not a particularly evil man, and was probably less bad for his country than his opponents would have been.