Right-wing populism and historical fascism: Traverso’s new book on postfascism

By Seiya Morita

July 18, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Enzo Traverso's new book, The New Faces of Fascism: Populism and the Far Right,[1] which examines various theories of European fascism historically, is the second part (History in the Present) in a series. It is more interesting than the first (The Present as History), which analyzes the phenomenon of right-wing populism in contemporary Europe (which Traverso calls “postfascism”). Traverso is a historian, and so his knowledge and background as a historian are expertly applied to an analysis of fascism as a historical phenomenon. In contrast, his analysis of the phenomenon of right-wing populism in contemporary Europe is in the realm of the mediocre radical or liberal leftists.

The essential nature of historical fascism

The crucial difference between fascism of the 1920s-30s (which we call historical fascism) and the right-wing populism of today is not quite clear from Traverso's discussion. The key to analyzing this difference can be found not in the text of Traverso, but in a long afterword by Katsumi Nakamura, a Japanese researcher of the history of Italian thought, in the Japanese edition of this book.[2] In comparison to the current situation, Nakamura refers to the arguments of several theorists who analyzed fascism in the 1920s and 1930s.

The progress of globalization has greatly reorganized the industrial structure of each country. As a result, various communities in the civil society sphere have been dismantled, downsized, and deconstructed. What was common to the Jewish German theorists who analyzed the mechanisms of the rise of fascism in Western Europe in the 1920s and 1930s was their observation that fundamental changes in the economic and social spheres promoted the dismantling and reorganization of civil society, and that the resulting disparate individuals sought authoritarian powers. [3]

He continues to introduce the arguments of economist Emil Lederer, social psychologist Erich Fromm, and political scientist Hannah Arendt, famous for her theory of totalitarianism. I will just quote a paragraph where he refers to Fromm's argument.

Erich Fromm (1900-80), a social psychologist who was a member of the Frankfurt School, wrote in his book The Flight from Freedom (1941) that the ‘primary bonds’ that bind people together were dismantled in modern history, from the Reformation to the first half of the 20th century, and that people who could no longer endure freedom and loneliness tried to escape into a new bondage that would replace the broken ‘primary bond’. This was the fascism of the 20th century. [4]

Based on these arguments, Nakamura writes,

the common analytical framework of these German Jewish exile scholars is that, although there are different views on the causes of the disintegration of social bonds, they believe that social bonds were disintegrated around the latter half of the 19th century (during the establishment of mass society), and that fascism was established by violently reorganizing them, whether from below or above. This framework is useful in understanding the recent neoliberalism. Applying this framework to the recent neoliberal globalization, we can explain why populism was established by re-organizing, even pseudo-organizing, the social bonds that were dismantled by the progress of globalization, whether through the media from above or through movements from below. [5]

Reading this alone, it seems that he is pointing out the similarities and resemblance between right-wing populism today and fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, and indeed he is. This is a kind of hint, I suggest, because the similarity argument is fundamentally wrong. Rather, there were some fundamental differences between historical fascism and current right-wing populism, which is my key point here.

In the 1920s and 1930s, it was not that the masses were discrete individuals. Absolutely not. On the contrary, it was a historical period of mass organizing, when far more masses were organized into social democratic parties, communist parties, trade unions, peasant groups, and cultural and sports groups than today.[6] What was omitted from such organizing was the petty bourgeoisie, which was precisely one of the class forces that historical fascism politically mobilized against organized workers. However, this petty bourgeoisie also found a ready-made form of organization, the army, through World War I. And that is an important point in Gramsci's theory of fascism.[7]

Thus, fascism in the 1920s and 1930s did not bring together disparate individuals, but rather used the organization of the army and returning soldiers, and other fascist organizations as a nucleus to dismantle existing socialist, communist, workers’ and peasants’ organizations through violent campaigning from below. Fascism was an organized counterrevolutionary movement that built its own fascist groups and militias through the molecular destruction of existing organizations. So, Gramsci was quite right to understand fascism not as a movement of ‘war of maneuver’ but as a movement of ‘war of position’ from below.[8]

And Trotsky, as if to echo Gramsci's theory of fascism, grasped the essence of fascism as a movement to atomize workers by thoroughly destroying all workers' organizations.[9] It is not that atomization of the masses existed before fascism emerged, but on the contrary, the existence of strong workers’ and peasants’ organizations and their networks necessitated violent fascism as a movement to dismantle them through a civil war from below. And when fascists seized state power, they systematically launched a civil war from above through the exercise of coercive power on a national scale, and materially destroyed the workers’ and peasants’ organizations. After that. the fascist regime reintegrated the atomized workers into their own fascist organizations. It was precisely because of this organized and systematic ‘war pf position’ from below that the movement took on such a fully totalitarian character.

From this point of view, we can see that the Nazis’ extraordinary hatred of Jewish people was not just an irrational impulse born of racist delusions. There was a much higher than average percentage of socialists, communists, dissident intellectuals, and union activists among the Jews. The Jews, who were one of the constant organic sources of these class and progressive dissents, were for the Nazis a hotbed of Bolshevism that had to be eradicated. Therefore, it must be understood that behind the genocide of the Jews, there was not only the issue of race but also the issue of class.

Also, in the Nazi view, the Jews were a homogeneous ethnic group with its own strong network. This is a half fantasy, but also a half truth. The reason is that oppressed minorities need to have their own networks to survive. Therefore, these organized entities had to be uprooted and dismantled for the Nazis to gain a totalitarian rule in German.

Therefore, fascism started its counterrevolutionary ‘war of position’ during such a strongly organized web of class and civil society. This is why it had to be so violent. A superficial mobilization of the already atomized individuals through charismatic leaders and media propaganda would not have had the strength and thoroughness that historical fascism had.

The crucial differences between historical fascism and the right-wing populism of today

From above-mentioned things, it should be clear what the crucial difference is between historical fascism that existed in the 1920s and 1930s and the right-wing populism of today. The argument of Fromm et al. above cannot apply to historical fascism at all, but neatly fits the current situation. It is not only the changes in industrial structure and globalization that Nakamura points out, but above all the decades of neoliberalism as a capitalist movement to restore its class power since the 1980s (the main goal of which was to dismantle the organized militant labor movement), the collapse of workers states in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe around 1990, and the resulting dissolution of the old class antagonism between the left and the right literally made the working masses into disparate individuals (which means a historic defeat of the global class struggle). This is especially true in Italy, where the Communist Party has collapsed, and in Germany, France and Britain, where the socialist or labour parties has turned right. And the right-wing populist parties or groups sprung up through charismatic leaders (in the Third World and post-communist countries, some different circumstances must be considered, though).

This crucial difference includes at the same time the difference between the strength of the class-based leftists in their powerful historical ascendancy in the 1920s and 1930s and historical decline of the class-based leftists today. In the 1920s and 1930s, all these class-based and left-wing forces, whether social democrats, communists, syndicalists or anarchists, were historically in an upward trajectory. Against these powerful forces, the most extreme and violent means was necessary to save imperialist capitalism in continental Europe from its historical crisis, and that was fascism.

But no matter how many hundreds of thousands of communists, socialists and union activists Fascism massacred, it was completely unable to eradicate the class-based leftists, because they were on a historical upward curve. On the contrary, in Italy, France, and Yugoslavia, resistance movements arose in numbers many times greater than those killed by the fascists, and as soon as fascist rules were overthrown, they even assumed positions of political hegemony. This point was also completely different from today. We are now on a political horizon where we are at the mercy of even flimsy and fragile movements such as right-wing populist parties.

Traverso states that what Judeophobia did for fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, Islamophobia does for right-wing populism today. Such an analogy is inaccurate, and the difference in their historical positions is also indicative of the difference between historical fascism and today's right-wing populism.

Jews have belonged to the European world since ancient times and have produced many intellectuals, scientists, literary figures, revolutionaries, financiers, and businesspeople, particularly in urban areas. In other words, they included some of the elite of society, despite the discrimination against them. Some of them were almost assimilated into the European world and even embodied European civilization, rather excessively.

Muslims, on the other hand, have spread to the European world relatively recently through mass immigration, and their assimilation is still in slow progress. While the fascism of the 1920s and 1930s capitalized on the anti-communist feelings of the conservative masses and the 'ressentiment' of the general populace against the Jews, who included the elite and revolutionaries, the current right-wing populism capitalizes on the general public's disdain and prejudice against Muslims, who largely constitute the lower classes of people whose culture is different from their own. Islamophobia of today is more similar to the discrimination against Asian immigrants in early 20th century America than to the anti-Semitism in historical fascism.

So, while civil war methods were necessary to systematically eliminate ethnic groups who included a part of the elite and the revolutionary socialists, ordinary police forces are sufficient to exclude and marginalize ethnic groups that constituted the bottom or peripheral strata. In this respect, too, the current right-wing populism contrasts with historical fascism.

Is right-wing populism postfascism?

Traverso certainly suggested some differences between the historical fascism of the 1920s and 1930s and the right-wing populism of today, but, for him, they are partial “differences”. Because there are differences but also many similarities, Traverso ends up using the term “postfascism”. In fact, this means that even though they are "different" in some points, he considers right-wing populism to be quite close to “fascism in the historical sense” (not “fascism as a term of abuse”). However, it would be inappropriate to use the same word “fascism” to describe two quite different historical phenomena, which have different historical contexts and are based on completely different social conditions, even if the word “post” is added to one of them.

Even though both are reactionary, both are right-wing, both are racist, both are anti-socialist, etc., they should be seen as not only different but also contrasting. Whereas one tried to save imperialist capitalism in its historical crisis in the face of the very strong class forces and organized left, the other tries to gain political power due to the flourishing neoliberal capitalism in a situation where the class-based leftists have largely been dismantled. Whereas one aimed at strong arming of their own states and unlimited expansion of their national territories, the other is less concerned with arming their states and more concerned with retreating within their existing boundaries. Whereas one aimed to eliminate the Jews, socialists and trade unionists who had long existed and prospered in the heart of the European world, and to create a racially and class homogenized “new Europe” (hence, as Traverso emphasizes, they were in a sense "revolutionary"), the other tries to somehow preserve the “good old Europe” by limiting immigration of Muslims who they think are alien and external to Europe.

This contrast with historical fascism is the core feature of current right-wing populism, and the key to understanding this historical phenomenon. Traverso makes out this point partially and vaguely, but does not capture the whole picture, which is why the first part of the book sounds like being out of focus.

Therefore, the existing expression "right-wing populism" seems more appropriate than the term “post-fascism” proposed by Traverso. He worries about the abuse of the term “populism” just because some people use it uncritically on both the right and the left. But this is not a reason why the term should not be used at all. No word is more abused than the word "fascism". A useful and fertile word that is widely used by many people is destined to be abused. It is inevitable. For example, the word “hate speech” is now so abused that any opinion that is not to one's liking is labeled as “hate speech”.

The same can be said for the term “totalitarianism”, which is another word he doesn’t want to use. Traverso tells us that the concept of "totalitarianism" is also too abused, but I think that is not a reason not to use the word. In fact, Trotsky also used the term to characterize the Stalinist regime. Rather, it is a historically and socially valuable question to ask why the two regimes, fascism and Stalinism, which were supposed to have been established on very different class bases, both developed similar political phenomena that can be called totalitarian.

And this question is also important in the case of populism today. The objective basis of populism today is the dismantling or weakening of the old class organizations and class-based parties, and the atomization of civil society by the dominance of neoliberal globalization, which has led to the development of populist politics on both the left and the right. In the case of right populism, it is narrow-minded holistic nationalism that binds together disparate individuals. On the left, it is equally narrow-minded subjective identities of atomized individuals that connects them. Both are political pathologies resulting from the dismantling of class politics, and in neither case can healthy social development be expected. Herein lies the root of the political crisis of our time, but unfortunately Traverso's work does not offer any hint for resolution of this crisis.

Despite my harsh comments, I have no doubt that Traverso's book will stimulate this kind of critical thinking. A good work is not one that makes the reader an uncritical believer, but one that allows for critical thinking and open discussion.


[1] Enzo Traverso, translated by David Broder, The New Faces of Fascism: Populism and the Far Right, Verso, 2019.

[2] Enzo Traverso, translated by Nobuo Yukawa, Popyulizumu to Fashizumu, Sakuhin-sha, 2021.

[3] Ibid., pp. 261-262.

[4] Ibid., p. 262.

[5] Ibid., pp. 262-263.

[6] See the following excellent work by Mike Davis on how socialists and communists had organized the masses in large and diverse ways at the time. Mike Davis, Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory, Verso, 2018.

[7] “The characteristic feature of fascism consists in the fact that it has succeeded in creating a mass organization of the petty bourgeoisie. It is the first time in history that this has happened. The originality of fascism consists in having found the right form of organization for a social class which has always been incapable of having any cohesion or unitary ideology: this form of organization is the army in the field. The militia is thus the fulcrum of the national Fascist Part.” (Antonio Gramsci, Selection from Political Writings (1921-1926), Lawrence and Wishart, 1978, p. 260).

[8] “In Europe from 1789 to 1870 there was a (political) war of movement in the French Revolution and a long war of position from 1815 to 1870. In the present epoch, the war of movement took place politically from March 1917 to March 1921; this was followed by a war of position whose representative ― both practical (for Italy) and ideological (for Europe) ― is fascism.” (David Forgacs ed., The Antonio Gramsci Reader, New York University Press, 2000, p. 267).

[9] “The class of exploiters would have preferred to disarm and atomize the proletariat with the least possible expense, without civil war, with the aid of the military and police of the Weimar Republic. But it is afraid, and with good reason, that "legal" means by themselves would prove to be insufficient to drive the workers back into a position where they will no longer have any rights. For this, it requires fascism as a supplementary force. But Hitler's party, fattened by monopoly capital, wants to become not a supplementary force, but the sole governing force in Germany. This situation occasions incessant conflicts between the governmental allies, conflicts which at times take on an acute character.” (Leon Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, Pathfinder Press, 1975, p. 350). Ernest Mandel understood precisely this basic feature of Trotsky's theory of fascism. See, Ernest Mandel, ‘Introduction,’ ibid., pp.18-20.