The Verso blog has an interview with Italian historian Enzo Traverso, author of books such as The Origins of Nazi Violence (2003) and Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory (2017). Traverso adds some valuable nuance and historical perspective to ongoing discussions about the re-emergence of fascism in Europe, the US, and elsewhere. He uses the term “post-fascist” rather than “neo-fascist” to describe parties like the Front National in France. “Post-fascist,” he suggests, captures the link these parties have to the historical “fascist matrix,” while also recognizing their divergences from historical fascism. For example, the Front National positions itself as a defender of democracy, whereas twentieth-century fascist parties in Italy and German denigrated democracy. Check out an excerpt from the interview below:
Why call these parties “from the fascist matrix” post-fascists and not neo-fascists? How do you characterise this post-fascism?
It is a transitional category. Post-fascism is a concept that attempts to grasp a mutation process that is still underway; the Front National is no longer a fascist movement, but it is still far-Right and xenophobic, and it has still not broken the umbilical cord that links it to its fascist matrix. We do not know what that will produce. This could end up — if the European Union were to break apart and the economic crisis were to deepen — transforming into a clearly fascist alternative. That has happened in the past. Or it could take on new characteristics and integrate into the system, like the Movimento Sociale Italiano did in the 1990s, becoming a component of the traditional Right. This is an open process, for within the tendency I call “post-fascist” there are also political movements born in recent years that are not fascist in origin, for instance UKIP in England or the Lega Nord in Italy, which are converging together with this current; indeed, Matteo Salvini and Nigel Farage have good relations with the Front National. This notion does not seek either to play down the danger or to make it more acceptable, but to understand it, the better to combat it more effectively.
Islamophobia has replaced anti-Semitism as the major preoccupation of the far Right — especially in France — even if militant anti-Semitism has not gone away.
In the FN there are still nostalgists for l’Algérie française and old-guard anti-Semites. But anti-Semitism has disappeared from political discourse. Or better, Marine Le Pen presents herself as a rampart against the new anti-Semitism of the youths in the banlieue and against jihadist “Islamo-fascism.” Like other European far-Right parties the FN is trying to establish good relations with the State of Israel. From this point of view there is an evident break with the old fascisms. Even so, there is an analogy with the 1930s. Just as Jews then appeared as a minority rotting away at France from within, infiltrating the state and the circles of power, so too are Muslims in France presented as a body foreign to the nation yet eating away at it: the enemy within. That is how the Jew was presented in the 1930s, working in concert with the Bolshevik attacking the nation from the outside. Today, they say, the Muslim works away from within, while Islamic states — rich foreign powers like Qatar — try to gain a monopoly hold on France with their money. From the 1930s to today, the far Right has needed to set up a threat that it can oppose.
Does populism — in which we can also sometimes note left-wing hues — make up part of this same dynamic?
The rise of these movements poses semantic problems. How should we characterise them? How should we define them? The notion of “populism” is used for convenience’s sake, but we should be wary of it, too. “Populist” is an adjective that defines an often-demagogic political style, in its both left-wing and right-wing variants deploying the rhetorical tool of the people against the élites. But the notion of populism does not define the political nature of a party or a movement. When it is used to equate Sanders with Trump or Mélenchon with Le Pen it is a mere mystification, because instead of helping us understand reality, it deforms it.
Image: A bunch of fascists.