“Fascism,” the subject of my first 15 years’ professional study, is used so often as a term of general opprobrium that it has been gutted of all serious content in popular usage. More’s the pity, since fascism is back, big-time, and it would be worthwhile to try to understand it in order to drive it back under the slimy rocks where it was hidden for much of the last half-century.
It’s hard to see fascism plain, because many of its essential features are obscured by its most infamous variation: German National Socialism. Hardly anybody knows that fascism had already been in power in Italy for more than a decade when Hitler seized Germany, and fewer still are aware that, in the late Twenties and early Thirties, there were so many fascist movements–from Latin America to Western, Central and Eastern Europe, from Great Britain to the Middle East–that Mussolini could realistically dream of organizing a fascist “international.” Most of the fascist leaders who looked to Rome for inspiration were not racists, and did not share the Nazis’ vision of a great empire ruled by a single führer. They were intensely nationalistic, and believed that each national unit would develop its own unique form of fascism, which they saw as a “third way” between capitalism and bolshevism, both of which they despised.
They shared a wildly optimistic vision of human potential and a common political style. Above all, fascism foresaw a transformation of man from a supine servant of modern bourgeois society to a creative warrior who would transform the world in his new image. The fascists believed that the prototype of the “new fascist man” had been forged in the trenches of the first world war–above all, the willingness to risk all, and sacrifice all, for the cause–and that only such men were worthy of positions of power and prestige (there were no female fascist leaders, although Mussolini’s mistress, Margherita Sarfatti, was apparently the creator of the myth of “Romanness” that inspired the second decade of Italian fascism). The values of fascism were the values of war, and fascist societies and movements were invariably led by military veterans with great charismatic appeal (we’ve all seen the crowd scenes, at least). And the interplay between leader and the faithful was ritualized to the point where many came to believe that fascism was a form of civic religion, and the interplay of ritual chants in response to standardized phrases by the leader was a sort of political mass.
Finally, fascism sought to engage its followers and enlist them in great spectacles of political and national enthusiasm. The best-known example is the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will, which portrayed Hitler as a kind of superman, dominating the frenzied German crowds below him. These spectacles helped overcome one of fascism’s most vexing paradoxes, namely that while the political doctrine emphasized individual creativity, the actual practice of fascist regimes imposed a monotonous conformity, enforced in the name of the collective, whether it be nation, race, or people. Communism, for example, never went in for political enthusiasm; it was (and is) didactic. No fascist leader would have dreamt of delivering endless speeches of the sort heard from Stalin, Castro, or Mao. Fascist speeches were much shorter, much more colorful, and far more emotionally intense.
Thankfully we never got to see what fascism’s second generation would look like (although I have suggested that the People’s Republic of China is the world’s first mature fascist state). But we know enough about fascism’s first wave to recognize it today among the terrorists we are currently fighting. Two of the most important terrorist leaders are classic examples of the genre: Osama bin Laden and the Ayatollah Khomeini. Osama’s speeches and sermons are (were?) remarkably short, melodramatic, and invariably couched in the language of war (jihad). Just as fascist heroes were often men who had fallen in battle, for Osama and his ilk the greatest act for a Muslim warrior is sacrifice, and Khomeini too extolled martyrs over all others, even creating a fountain in central Tehran from which red waters bubbled. Khomeini’s speeches were typically dramatic, and the exchanges between him–the Supreme Leader, a typically fascist construct–and the faithful were as carefully programmed as any between Mussolini and the Roman in Piazza Venezia.
In one important respect, the current jihad is more like the German variation: The notion that all believers are part of a greater whole, transcending national boundaries. Hitler had his Reich, Osama wants his Caliphate, and Khomeini foresaw a global Islamic state in which all believers would be brought together in an irresistible unity.
I think I was the first to call Khomeini a clerical fascist, back in the days when one could still use “fascism” with a certain degree of specificity rather than as a pure epithet. That analysis has stood up for a quarter century, and I think also helps define the magnitude of our task. Fascism was not driven from power by internal discontent, or by freedom fighters within the fascist domain. There was precious little in the way of internal resistance, whether in Germany or Italy. Resistance in both of fascism’s core states only emerged once the regimes were seen to be losing in war. Ditto for the global appeal of fascism: So long as Mussolini’s trains ran on time, and both the Third Reich and the Italian fascist empire were expanding, their popularity increased.
But once the regimes were revealed to be vulnerable, once the leaders were seen to be as corrupt and as fallible as any others, the tide began to turn. In Iran, resistance ironically grew out of war, the long and bloody conflict with Iraq. With so many dead young men, and the visible presence of enormous numbers of handicapped and mutilated veterans, the appeal of Khomeini’s fascism began to wane.
A similar phenomenon is under way following the humiliating defeat of Saddam, and it cannot be accidental that within months of the liberation of Iraq, there are pro-freedom demonstrations in the heartland of the Wahhabi fanatics, Saudi Arabia. In like manner, the unforeseen divisions within the Palestinian ranks flow directly from the stunning American victory. Remember that, in good fascist style, the jihadists proclaimed that only they were capable of the real military virtues. The West could only bomb from a distance, not triumph in hand-to-hand combat. But in Iraq, tens of thousands of Iraqis and foreign terrorists were cut down man to man. American fighters were superior, and that reality undermined the entire jihadist vision.
The clerical fascists of the Middle East are now vulnerable, terribly vulnerable, and they know it. That is why they are seeking at all costs to distract us from the war against terror, which surely means above all the liberation of Iran. Whether you call it a roadmap or Saudi peace plan, it is a snare, a distraction from the main order of business, the defeat of the latest version of fascism and the spread of freedom to the region. Amazingly, our unschooled president has intuitively understood this, while many of his colleagues have not. He knows, as any good student of fascism learned half a century ago, that fascism has to be defeated on the battlefield from which it emerged. We have shown our ability to do it militarily. We need now press our advantage and drive the stake of freedom through the hearts of the fascist tyrants.