Fascism as Modern Anti-Modernism
In popular parlance, the word “fascism” is often used in a way that is both pejorative and ambiguous. If there is a term that the everyday use of the word indicates, then that of authoritarianism; the “Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary” defines fascism as follows: “Any program for setting up and centralising an autocratic regime with severely authoritarian politics exercising regulation of industry, commerce and finance, rigid censorship, and forcible oppression of opposition”. The equation fascism = authoritarianism ultimately enables right-wing forces to speak of so-called “left-wing fascism”. The group Association for the Design of History, in opposition to this, wants to use a precisely defined, ideology-critical concept of fascism that allows a clear distinction between “only” authoritarian and decidedly fascist systems and world views. On the basis of socio-psychological and intellectual-historical theories, fascism is to describe a form of thought that is characterised firstly by its radical rejection of modernity and the Enlightenment, and secondly relies on the means of mass mobilisation in politics.
Modernity and Anti-Modernity
In the course of the mercantile and industrial revolutions1of the 18th and 19th centuries, a new type of society emerged. It was networked to an unprecedented degree and produced an unprecedented degree of interdependence2 throughout society. More than all previous forms of social life, the bourgeois-capitalist world is based on abstract-impersonal forces that are visible and effective in people’s “private lives”. Industrialisation always also means urbanisation, and thus causes a radical and extensive anonymising of social interactions. In this way, the objectively existing mechanisms of the social are partly robbed of their ideological concealment and consequently made visible for what they are. Two examples: instead of the personal friendly interaction between the farmer and the owner of the village shop, the abstract social act of buying goods in the supermarket takes place. Instead of the farmer’s wife’s personal labor towards her liege lord, the anonymous and abstract wage labor is performed by the worker in any factory. The degree of socialisation has therefore increased massively in the course of the industrial revolution, while the importance of the immediate community has decreased.
The rapid economic changes of the 18th and 19th centuries were only made possible by technical innovations. This was also the age of the “scientific revolutions”, a heyday of philosophy and the birth of modern science. For the first time in the history of humankind, technical innovations ensured that every new European generation grew up in a completely different world than the previous one. Steam engine, railway, electricity, nuclear power, internet: in 200 years, more happened in the areas of technology and social development than in the thousand years before.
These radical social and life-world changes had a lasting influence on people’s philosophical and political coordinate system. Referencing the “long 19th century” of Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, the beginning of “Classical Modernism” is identified as 1789, the year of the French Revolution. This major event in world history was the result of a new way of thinking; the so-called Enlightenment. Reason should take the place of tradition and religion as the final authority for the justification of scientific theories and the establishment of moral norms. A multitude of traditional certainties and cultural norms were questioned, the legitimacy of nobility and ecclesiastical dominance were questioned with the help of philosophical arguments. The French Revolution, based on these ideas, was nothing more than the historic moment in which bourgeoisie and Enlightenment philosophy forcibly prevailed over the old world of traditional aristocratic rule. During the revolution there were different forces, some of whose goals differed considerably from each other. This reveals a fundamental underdeterminacy of modern thought: scientific rationalism and ethical universalism3 have already inspired people in revolutionary France to develop feminist, radical-democratic, early socialist and anti-racist approaches, which were further formulated in the course of classical modernity. Slavery, for example, was abolished by the Jacobins, the idea of inalienable human rights was formulated and codified shortly before. On the other hand, the same modernist ideas were used to “scientifically” legitimise the oppression of women and non-whites and to designate the hierarchical structure of bourgeois society as ethical and expedient. Modernism ushered in an “era of extremes” (Hobsbawm), in which greater freedom, but also greater crimes were possible than ever before.
Despite their serious differences, socialism and liberalism are political programs of modernity because they claim to realise people’s happiness on the basis of science and rational ethics. In a broader sense, all political programs are conceivable only as consequences of modernity, because the emergence of the political field is the result of thought and materiality of 1789. The technical innovations of the 19th century have helped to further increase modernist optimism about the future. It is typically modern to believe in progress and change and to have associated confidence in the human capacity to understand complex facts, and to change the world on the basis of this knowledge for the benefit of all. But also, the recognition of the boundaries of science and language are anchored as self-critical elements in modernity; especially in “late modernity”, starting in 1914 this constructive self-questioning played an important role in art and philosophy. These thoughts were already fully developed on theoretical level by Hume and Kant.
Modernity is not necessarily identical with the universal social emancipation of humanity (communism), but it has created the political field in which this emancipation is conceivable and possible in the first place. In concrete terms, it has produced, in the form of science, industrial society and the working class, the tools needed to build a free society that meets human needs. Not every modernism is communist, but every (serious) communism is modernist.
To the extent that the project of modernity becomes recognisable and visible as a (meta-)ideological program, it can be identified and rejected as a concept of an enemy. Antimodernism only occurs within the coordinate system of modernity, since it reacts to it and, at least in form, appears as a political or philosophical worldview of a modern type. In terms of content, however, it is a thinking that describes the core elements of modernism, faith in reason and universalism, as corrupting evils and instead demands a return to an idyllically transfigured past.
Characteristics of Fascism
The main characteristic of fascism is the rejection of rationalism4. In the German-speaking media, the term “post-factual society” has established itself for this tendency. Fascists deny reason, any authority and accuse modernity of excessive overestimation of itself: What the modernist regards as objective truth or objective morality is only one of many. So, behind fascism there is a fundamental doubt about a human’s ability to recognise the world correctly and objectively, and to change it in a planned way.
The rejection of the “cold rationality” of modernity is accompanied by an emphasis on the emotional. It is no longer arguments and empirical data that should determine right and wrong, but “healthy public sentiment”. Since an objective truth does not exist in the fascist world view and thinking itself is discredited, the subjective perception of people is given extreme weight. For fascism, the scientific method, which looks at its object from a distance and from the outside, misses the “essence”, the subjective experience of people and their world of emotions. The embedding, or “rooting”, of people in cultural environments is brought into position against the ethical and civic abstractions of the thinking of the Enlightenment.5 From this position, for example, the persecution of homosexuals is demanded, since homosexuality contradicts the de facto feeling of the majority, which does not require any argumentative legitimation.
“Our faith in Germany is unshakable, our will irrepressible! Will and faith are so fervently united, heaven cannot deny its approval. And I expect every German who has decency and character to march in this column!” – Adolf Hitler in 1936
Fascism, unlike modern political theories, cannot claim that its aims are objectively moral and reasonable, so it must justify itself in other ways. Instead of a scientific rational justification, an “existentialist” emphasis on will is placed on Nietzsche’s philosophy: among hypothetically equivalent alternatives, the fascist has opted for certain values and goals and then tries to impose these with full vehemence in society. There is no reasonable reason to believe that German culture is the superior one, or that Salafist Islam is the right religion, but nevertheless the NS and the “Islamic State” propagate the use of extreme force in an attempt to realise their “utopias”. This is fully compatible with the fundamental relativism of fascist ideology. The denial of an objective truth6 in no way entails a duty of tolerance for foreign positions and cultures. On the contrary, tolerance itself is a moral value and therefore cannot claim any objective, transcultural validity. It is not for nothing that one of the most famous Nazi propaganda films is called, „Triumph des Willens” (“Triumph of the Will”).
Fascism, in many cases, propagates the superiority of the organically grown over the consciously planned, and sees the “living traditions”, as well as the identity of the people threatened by the universalism of modernity (“egalitarianism”). While this universalism seeks to formulate universally valid answers to ethical and political questions, fascism refers to the particularity of “one’s own” culture or religion. The rejection of civilisation and society in favour of culture and community is typical of offensive anti-modernism.
What distinguishes fascism from other forms of anti-modern thinking, such as postmodernism, is the central role of mass mobilisation as a political tool. This also clearly reveals a fundamental difference between fascist and authoritarian regimes: while the authoritarian dictatorship is interested in demobilising the population politically, fascism relies on mass mobilisation in the name of collective identity. Aesthetics plays a prominent role here, precisely because fascist ideologies, unlike communism and liberalism, cannot score with arguments of content. A mytho-poetic approach to the world, characterised by grandiose rhetoric, romantic ideals of sacrifice and collective experience, is the psychosocial basis of every fascist mass movement.
At the end of our remarks on the characteristics of fascism, let us also recall a quotation by Benito Mussolini, which deserves our attention because of its honesty and clarity and confirms what has been said above:
“All I have done and said in these last few years is relativism based on intuition. If relativism means contempt for fixed categories and those who claim to be the carriers of objective and immortal truth, […] then there is nothing more relativistic than the fascist attitude and […] Starting from the fact that all ideologies have equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist comes to the realisation that everyone has the right to create his own ideology and to try enforcing it with all the energy at his disposal” – Benito Mussolini
The Concept of the Enemy
Fascist movements, such as National Socialism or the “Islamic State”, construct not only a collective identity for their followers (Germans, orthodox Muslims), but also various counter identities. Other ethnic groups or religions are stylised as enemy figures and should be fought with all means. The creation of one’s own collective identity is bought by the exclusion of others. These become non-humans, to whom any treatment is legitimate. At this point only the enslavement of “Slavic sub-humans” and “Hasidic devil worshipper” by the Nazi or Islamic State are to be reminded.
However, the real main enemy of fascism is a completely different matter. It is the irrepressible hatred of modernism that drives the fascist. In certain groups of people (Jews, the urban population, liberals, socialists, and today also the “millennials” generation) this initially abstract image of the enemy is personified. They are accused in a projective and conspiracy-theoretical way of wanting to undermine the unity of the nation or religion through their immoral lifestyle. In this sense, Putinism and European right-wing populism, for example, speak of Europe’s “indebtedness”. The “decadent cosmopolitans” are accused of being in league with the powerful and of wanting to attack all traditional social conditions that are important for the “little man”: Gender relations, national culture, religious norms, etc. Fascism is therefore directly directed against the forces of emancipation, against the urban population, against the left-wing intelligentsia, against universalism, against feminism and “the foreign”.
Causes: Introductory Remarks
A closer look at the characteristics of fascism reveals that it has a certain appeal to the normal population of Western nations. An example of this is James Cameron’s blockbuster, “Avatar”, a film whose message is fascist in many ways; people who rely on its technology are portrayed as coldhearted and profit-seeking antagonists, while the nature-loving “Na’vi”, rooted in their traditional culture, serve as a positive counterexample. This unmistakably anti-modern narrative has hardly provoked any criticism, because it is shared by large sections of the population, at least on a semiconscious, affective level. The consequence of this thinking is that the only forward-looking political project, the realisation of modernity’s promises of happiness by communism, is thrown overboard in favour of identitarian paricularism.
If we want to fight a particular ideology, we must not only contradict it in terms of content, but also determine how it arises. This understanding is in no way a legitimation of the ideology concerned, but rather an intellectual weapon from which a technology of targeted social intervention can be derived. Therefore, we will look at the causes of the fascist way of thinking below.
Political and Intellectual-Historical Causes: Disappointment and Injury
The in many respects naive belief in progress of modernity was massively challenged by various historical events and developments. Where there was talk of universal human rights, the interests of men, whites and bourgeois were de facto at stake – and where the project of modernity was really taken seriously, it failed because of material power relations and local peculiarities. Some examples of the dark sides of modernity are colonialism, which subjugated countless people under the guise of Enlightenment ideas, the industrial mass extinction during the First World War, the failure of the hopeful experiment “October Revolution”, and the pollution of the environment by modern technology. Liberalism and socialism could not keep their promises and thus discredited the basic idea of modernity; the belief in rational planning in politics. These disappointments, with regard to the politics of modernism are already having a massive effect in the form of learned historical knowledge, which is even more pronounced in relation to people who have experienced them directly or live in a state in whose recent history they have taken place. On the basis of this hypothesis it can be explained why fascist forces were or are so successful, especially in Eastern Europe and the former GDR: The populations of the countries of the former “Eastern Bloc” initially witnessed the failure of real socialism and were soon disappointed by the liberal-democratic system, which brought with it a worsening of social problems instead of freedom and prosperity.
The phenomenon of disappointment is not only effective on the historical level, but also exists in relation to art, social science and philosophy. The consistent and rationalistic thinking of modernity has brought to light epistemological and linguistic-philosophical problems that acted as intellectual-historical injuries. The knowledge of theoretical philosophy, according to which no certain knowledge (but justified judgements) is possible, as well as doubts about the possibilities of linguistic communication are two examples of this. Psychological theories also took the character of insults, implying that man is not “master in his own house” and so determined by forces that often cannot be described as rational. This applies both to Freud’s psychoanalysis and to large parts of contemporary academic psychology. Confronted with such injuries, the counter-reaction of many people is to develop a fundamental skepticism towards science and modernity.
Psychological Causes: The need for Identity
While the reasons for the popularity of fascism that have been investigated so far are based on the social level, we now want to deal with the individual psyche. First, it should be mentioned that fascism can effectively serve the need for identity. It may be a universal human need, but at the same time it quickly becomes clear after closer examination that this need is massively reinforced by certain social circumstances. Especially in times of crisis and uncertainty, the need for stable identities increases; but these are bought at the price of reason and humanity.
Socio-Material Causes: Space and Class
It is one of his more well-known quotations: “It is not the consciousness of people that determines their being, but conversely their social being that determines their consciousness.” Marx points out that people’s thinking is massively dependent on the material conditions within which they live and are active. Each environment imposes certain behaviours on its inhabitants, encourages certain ways of thinking and specific social interactions, while discouraging some other ones. This is what is meant by the term socio-materiality.
Waves of technical and social development, for example in the course of industrialisation, or, to take more recent examples, digitalisation and robotisation, do not cover all regions of the earth and milieus simultaneously and with the same intensity. Instead, in the vast majority of cases, there are centres of progress that are confronted with underdeveloped zones, although these roles often change throughout history. In any case, the world is not homogeneous; it can be roughly divided into the centre and periphery (environment, surrounding area). The centre, which produces technical and/or social innovations, can process the resulting changes in the living world well, while the social spaces of the periphery, i.e. the underdeveloped zones, are more destabilised by the same innovations. In principle, there are two reasons for this: first, the residents of the centre can observe the development and gradual introduction of innovations in real time, which makes the innovations appear less alien, while the same innovations are perceived by the residents of the periphery as external forces that virtually “come over them” without anyone asking for them. Second, the character of innovations, whether technical or social, is often at least partially tailored to the specific needs, lifestyles and problems of the inhabitants of the centre, so that people living in the periphery can benefit less. Silicon Valley innovations are tailored to the real life of educated and wealthy Californians, not farmers in the Midwest or Andalusian cattle drover. In view of the problematic relationship of the periphery to innovation and technology, it is not surprising that anti-modern thinking often develops there. Since the centre is currently located in the “Western industrial nations”, fascism expresses itself in the form of a criticism of “Western cultural imperialism”; a prominent example of this are the statements of the confessing Heideggerian and Kremlin philosopher Alexander Dugin.
Of particular importance are the differences between town and country. The town is an ideal type of modern space. It is characterised by a high degree of socialisation and by the greatest possible anonymity of many social interactions. Life in the town ensures access to a large number of educational institutions, and at the same time allows its inhabitants to form their own social circle on the basis of their own interests and preferences. In rural areas, on the other hand, access to theatres, universities, libraries and event venues is severely restricted, while the pressure for social conformity is much more intense; there are too few people living in a village for individuals to be particularly selective with regard to their social contacts. The rural environment is simply less modern; therefore the defensive reactions against the idea of modernity in rural areas are generally much stronger than in urban areas. This can be confirmed empirically in many places. Almost all fascist parties achieve better results in rural areas than in towns, whereby small towns are still more susceptible to fascism than metropolises.
Finally, it can be said that, from a socio-material point of view, the class of the petty bourgeoisie tends more to fascist thinking than other classes. The individual form of economic activity practiced by the petty bourgeoisie contrasts with the much more abstract processes with which the factory worker and the CEO, for example, are confronted. In addition, the petty-bourgeois class is threatened from two sides: on the one hand by the proletariat, from which it wants to distinguish itself elitically, and on the other by the bourgeoisie, whose large enterprises could undermine the economic basis of the petty bourgeoisie. These characteristics explain a certain affinity of the classical petty bourgeoisie to fascism.
If a polarised social situation prevails in which both the radical left and fascism can convince significant sections of the population, then support for fascism by the higher bourgeoisie is likely; in most historically documented cases of fascist seizures of power, fascist organisations enjoyed the active support of certain parts of the bourgeoisie, which primarily hoped for the dismantling of the organised workers’ movement and a wage policy in their sense. One example is the financial support of the NSDAP by leading major banks and industrialists in the Weimar Republic.
We position ourselves clearly against anti-modernism and fascism and commit ourselves to a neo-modernism that consistently demands rationality and universalism.
Fascism can be fought in the medium term above all by rehabilitating the ideas of the Enlightenment and modernity. This process must be driven forward by theory and public relations work, but ultimately depends on emancipatory forces achieving practical success and noticeably improving people’s living conditions. Only in this way could the comprehensibility and positive changeability of the world be demonstrated and thus the attraction of fascism be reduced. If the majority of people notice in everyday life that abstraction, science and technology can also be used to their advantage, that complexity does not always mean a loss of control, but also enables rational self-determination, then fascism on a mass basis is no longer possible.
It should be considered whether an aggravation of the situation and an increase in mass militancy under the current conditions would not primarily provide the fascist camp with support. If the steady increase in the global surplus population cannot be stopped, the fate of mankind will not prosper. From the point of view of the left, it would therefore be advantageous to reduce the burden of the capitalist crisis if this were somehow possible – in so doing we gain time for building our structures.
1. Eric Hobsbawm’s work Age of Capital 1848-1875 sheds light on this topic.
2. Interdependence is the term used to describe a mutual reliance.
3. Ethical universalism is the idea that certain moral values are valid everywhere and with regard to everyone.
4. A relativist believes that there is no truth.
5. Furthermore, categorial thinking in itself can come into the focus of criticism, because the term subsumes the concrete object from the point of view of its (necessarily general) definition and thus makes its special characteristics disappear or cuts them away. The antimodernist is no longer interested in the fact that this is a necessary condition of thinking. See also Derrida’s concept of “différance.”
6. Objective truth unequals definite knowledge. We can uphold the idea of objective truth as opposed to the fascists and still be modest enough to realize that we could always be wrong.