What kind of political movement does Donald Trump represent? How did we get here? And what will be needed to defeat this divisive and anti-democratic political agenda?

There is a tendency to see Trump as a bolt out of the blue, an anomaly — an extraordinary showman who somehow conned just enough voters to gain him the Republican nomination and then to prevail as a minority vote getter with an electoral college majority. But now that we’ve had a few months to reflect on the election, it seems a little more clear that Trump represents something different and even more worrisome. His presidency is more like an American version of a global phenomenon — a populist ultra-rightist who has come to power on the strength of a political program of xenophobia, hatred of immigrants, and racism.

The extreme right has made sizable gains in Europe in the past forty years. Pippa Norris provides a summary statistic on the rise of the radical right in Western Europe:

This graph documents the substantial increase in the electoral strength of the extreme right, more than tripling as a share of the total electorate since 1980. (It is interesting to note that the share of the extreme right declined after 2000.) Populist extreme right parties have become powerful in almost every European country.

The parallels between Trump’s most outlandish political messages as an unorthodox campaigner and the political ideology of the European extreme right parties are exact and uncanny. Take first his right-wing populism. Cas Mudde attempted to distill the “populist zeitgeist” of the European extreme right in a 2004 article (link), based on his long study of the extreme right parties of Europe. The match with the Trump campaign is exact. Populism is anti-elitist, and its leaders marshal resentment against “corrupt elites”. Mudde writes:

I define populism as an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people. Populism, so defined, has two opposites: elitism and pluralism. (543)

Moreover, populism is fundamentally divisive between “us” and “them”:

Opponents are not just people with different priorities and values, they are evil! Consequently, compromise is impossible, as it ‘corrupts’ the purity. (544)

The visceral antagonism whipped up against the Clintons during the Trump campaign illustrate this theme.

So who are the “people” of the populist right? They are the people of the imaginary “heartland”:

The concept of the heartland helps to emphasize that the people in the populist propaganda are neither real nor all-inclusive, but are in fact a mythical and constructed sub-set of the whole population. In other words, the people of the populists are an ‘imagined community’, much like the nation of the nationalists. (546)

Further, as Mudde documents for European far-right parties, populist politicians are frequently antagonistic to the media — with the right-wing populist view that the media serves the interests of the elites, not the heartland. This line of thought has an extensive research literature as well — for example, Mazzoleni et al, The Media and Neo-Populism: A Contemporary Comparative Analysis. “In the populist mind, the elite are the henchmen of ‘special interests'” (561) — a line of heartland thinking that plays into dark conspiratorial theories and anti-Semitism. (Recall the closing political ad sponsored by the Trump campaign with its strong implications of anti-Semitic innuendo; link.)

Piero Ignazi offered a detailed analysis of extreme right parties based on their core ideologies in 1995 (link). He refers to the summary offered by H.G. Betz:

Betz (1993) has introduced the category of “populist extreme right” on the basis of four elements: a) radical opposition to the cultural and socio-political system, without an overt attack to the system as such; b) the refusal of individual and social equality; c) the defence of the “common man”; d) the emphasis on “common sense”; all these populist parties share racist, authoritarian, anti-women and law and order attitudes. (3) 

These are parties “which appeal to resentments, prejudices and traditional values and offer simplistic and unrealistic solutions to the socio-political problems” (4).

And, as Ignazi observes for European extreme right politicians, much of their rhetoric is directed against traditional political parties themselves (recalling Trump’s own war with the GOP establishment during the campaign).

Dissatisfaction towards institutions, parties, the way in which democracy works, the traditional channels of participation and the output of the system in relation to identity and security tend inevitably to feed opposition and/or anti-system parties and, in particular, the extreme right. In fact, only ERPs indicate, while quite vaguely, a new way of channelling of the demands based on populist style. Only ERPs distrust parties as such (even if they build up strong organizations for their own) because they divide the “people” and they pervert the “general will”. Only ERPs offer the electorate a right wing radical alternative to the establishment’s political discourse. (8)

Here again it is impossible to miss the strong parallels that exist between these currents and the rhetoric of the Trump machine.

And, of course, there is racism, xenophobia, and bigotry. Thomas Greven emphasizes the central role played in right-wing populism in Europe in his Friedrich Ebert Stiftung study (link). (Here is a summary of research on the racism underlying the European right; link.) The rise of the extreme right parties in Europe has been driven by nationalism and antagonism to minority groups and immigrants; and the rhetoric of these parties has in turn increased the volume and intensity of popular racism. Racism is normalized.

Group-focused enmity is widespread in Europe. It is weakest in the Netherlands, and strongest in Poland and Hungary. With respect to anti-immigrant attitudes, anti-Muslim attitudes and racism there are only minor differences between the countries, while differences in the extent of anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia are much more marked. (Intolerance, Prejudice and Discrimination: A European Report; link)

These themes are all too evident in the Trump political agenda, most recently with this week’s stunning restrictions on Muslim visitors and refugees and the deliberate choice not to refer to Jewish victims in the annual White House statement commemorating the Holocaust (link).

So we might say that Trumpism is a familiar kind of political movement after all. It is right-wing populism, mobilizing its constituents around racism and bigotry combined with resentment of immigrants, with a pounding message of antagonism towards the institutions and personages of the status quo, including especially the media and government. The white nationalism of Steve Bannon and his intimate role within the Trump administration makes perfect sense.

Grand Hotel Abyss

Georg Lukács in 1962 used the colorful image of a fictional “Grand Hotel Abyss” to express his disappointment in the theorists of the Frankfurt School. Here is a passage in which the idea is described in “Preface to the Theory of the Novel” (link):

A considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia, including Adorno, have taken up residence in the ‘Grand Hotel Abyss’ which I described in connection with my critique of Schopenhauer as ‘a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.’ (The fact that Ernst Bloch continued undeterred to cling to his synthesis of ‘left’ ethics and ‘right’ epistemology (e.g. cf. Frankfurt 1961) does honour to his strength of character but cannot modify the outdated nature of his theoretical position. To the extent that an authentic, fruitful and progressive opposition is really stirring in the Western world (including the Federal Republic), this opposition no longer has anything to do with the coupling of ‘left’ ethics with ‘right’ epistemology.)

The thinkers of the Frankfurt School — Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas, Benjamin, Wellmer, Marcuse — were for Lukács too much devoted to theorizing capitalism and barbarism and too little about changing it. They were like imagined world-weary residents in the Grand Hotel Abyss, observing the unfolding catastrophe but doing nothing to intervene to stop it. They were about theory, not praxis.

Stuart Jeffries uses this trope as the organizing theme of his group biography of these figures in Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, and, in a word, he finds that Lukács’s critique is unfounded.

Jeffries emphasizes the common social origins of these boundary-breaking critics of capitalism. The book is detailed and insightful. Jeffries emphasizes the common social and cultural origins of almost all these men — German, Jewish, bourgeois, affluent — and the common threads of their criticism of the capitalism and consumerism that surrounded them in the early and middle twentieth century. The central question of how it came to pass that ordinary people in cultured, philosophically rich Germany came to support the Nazi rise to power was of vital concern to all of them. But consumerism, authoritarianism, and the suffering both created by and hidden by capitalism are also in the center stage.

The book is primarily about ideas and debates, not the particulars of personal biography. Jeffries does an impressive job of walking readers through the debates that swirled within and across the Frankfurt School — is capitalism doomed? Are workers inherently revolutionary? Is art part of the support system for capitalism? Is Marxism scientific or dialectical? Jeffries does an exceptional and fascinating job of telling this complex story of intellectual history and social criticism.

A particularly important innovation within the intellectual tradition of critical theory was the pointed critique these theorists offered of mass culture. Unlike orthodox Marxists who gave primary emphasis to the workings of the forces and relations of production — economics — the critical theorists took very seriously the powerful role played within advanced capitalism by mass culture, film, media, and television. (The publication in 1927 of Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 appears to have been an important impetus to much of the theorizing of the Frankfurt School.) Here is one example of the social criticism of Hollywood offered by Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment:

Consider, for instance, Donald Duck. Once, such cartoon characters were ‘exponents of fantasy as opposed to rationalism’, wrote Adorno and Horkheimer. Now they had become instruments of social domination. ‘They hammer into every brain the old lesson that continuous friction, the breaking down of all individual resistance, is the condition of life in this society. Donald Duck in the cartoons and the unfortunate in real life get their thrashing so that the audience can learn to take their own punishment.’ (225)

So what is a more progressive role for works of art and culture to play in a society embodying serious social exploitation and domination? One work that was important point of consideration for several theorists was the Brecht and Weill opera, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany. Adorno and others regarded this work as one that gave appropriate and unblinking attention to the suffering of the modern social order.

Brecht’s libretto, too, sought to make it clear that the bourgeois world was absurd and anarchic. ‘In order to represent this convincingly’, wrote Adorno of the dramatisation of the bourgeois world as absurd and anarchic, ‘it is necessary to transcend the closed world of bourgeois consciousness which considers bourgeois social reality to be immutable. Outside of this framework, however, there is no position to take – at least for the German consciousness, there is no site which is non-capitalist.’ This was to become one great theme of critical theory: there is no outside, not in today’s utterly rationalised, totally reified, commodity-fetishising world. When Marx wrote Capital in the mid nineteenth century, the more primitive capitalist system he was diagnosing made commodity fetishism merely episodic; now it was everywhere, poisoning everything. ‘Paradoxically, therefore’, Adorno added, ‘transcendence must take place within the framework of that which is.’ Brecht’s assault on capitalist society in Mahoganny was then paradoxically both from within and from without at the same time, both immanent and transcendent. (132)

Jeffries also provides a fascinating and extended discussion of the deep interactions that occurred between Thomas Mann and Adorno in Los Angeles as Mann worked at completing Doctor Faustus. Mann wanted Adorno’s expert advice about modern music, and Adorno obliged. Jeffries argues that Adorno had a substantive effect on the novel:

Arguably, the finished novel reflects Adorno’s melancholic philosophy more profoundly than Mann’s. This is not to suggest plagiarism: as Adorno wrote in 1957, the insinuation that Mann made illegitimate use of his ‘intellectual property’ is absurd. The underlying aesthetic philosophy of the novel goes beyond the binary opposition between the Apollonian and Dionysian, between the orderly and the ecstatic, that Nietzsche set out in The Birth of Tragedy and to which Mann repeatedly appealed in his fiction… During the collaboration with Adorno, however, Mann set aside his original, Dionysian conception of the composer and as a result Leverkühn became something much more interesting –a figure who dramatised something of the Frankfurt School’s, and in particular Adorno’s, distinctive contribution to the philosophy of art. (243)

And what about fascism? This was a central thrust of Frankfurt School research, and opinion was divided about the causes of the rise of Nazism in Germany among the Frankfurt School theorists. But here is an interpretation that seems particularly relevant in 2016 in the United States, given the pageantry of political rallies and the slogans about making America great again:

Fascism was, as a result, a paradox, being both ancient and modern: more precisely it was a system that used a tradition hostile to capitalism for the preservation of capitalism. For Bloch, as for Walter Benjamin, fascism was a cultural synthesis that contained both anti-capitalist and utopian aspects. The Frankfurt School failed to emphasise in its analysis of fascism what Benjamin called the ‘aestheticisation of politics’. It fell to Benjamin, Bloch and Siegfried Kracauer to reflect on the Nazi deployment of myths, symbols, parades and demonstrations to command support. (250)

The chapter on Habermas is also very good and can be read separately as an introduction to Habermas’s leading ideas (chapter 17). It is significant that this final voice of the Frankfurt School should be one that provides a basis for greater optimism about the prospects for modern democracy than what emerges from the Dialectic of Enlightenment.

The perspectives of the Frankfurt School were developed in the context of crises of capitalism, fascism, and anti-semitism in the 1930s. But these theories are once again deeply relevant in the context of the politics of 2016. A xenophobic, divisive candidate and party have assumed the reins of power in a populous democracy. The issues of propaganda and unapologetic political lies are before us once again. The politics of hate and intolerance have taken center stage. And the role of culture, media, and now the internet needs to be examined carefully for its dependence upon the corporate order as well as its possible potency as a mechanism of resistance. The Frankfurt School thinkers had important insights into virtually all these questions. Jeffries’ very interesting intellectual history of the movement is timely.

Jeffries quotes from a letter from Adorno to Mann on the aftermath of Nazism in Germany with observations that may be relevant to us today as well:

The inarticulate character of apolitical conviction, the readiness to submit to every manifestation of actual powers, the instant accommodation to whatever new situation emerges, all this is merely an aspect of the same regression. If it is true that the manipulative control of the masses always brings about a regressive formation of humanity, and if Hitler’s drive for power essentially involved the relationship of this development ‘at a single stroke’, we can only say that he, and the collapse that followed, has succeeded in producing the required infantilisation. (273)

These are words that may be important in the coming years, if the incoming government succeeds in carrying out many of its hateful promises. And how will the institutions of media and culture respond? Let us not be infantilized in the years to come when it comes to the fundamental values of democracy.

The rise of Austrofascism


Several recent posts have commented on the rise of a nationalistic, nativist politics in numerous contemporary democracies around the world. The implications of this political process are deeply challenging to the values of liberal democracy. We need to try to understand these developments. (Peter Merkl’s research on European right-wing extremism is very helpful here; Right-wing Extremism in the Twenty-first Century.)

One plausible approach to trying to understand the dynamics of this turn to the far right is to consider relevantly similar historical examples. A very interesting study on the history of Austria’s right-wing extremism between the wars was published recently by Janek Wasserman, Black Vienna: The Radical Right in the Red City, 1918-1938

Wasserman emphasizes the importance of ideas and culture within the rise of Austrofascism, and he makes use of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony as a way of understanding the link between philosophy and politics. The pro-fascist right held a dominant role within major Viennese cultural and educational institutions. Here is how Wasserman describes the content of ultra-conservative philosophy and ideology in inter-war Vienna:

The ideas represented within its institutions ran a broad spectrum, yet its discourse centered on radical anti-Semitism, German nationalism, völkisch authoritarianism, anti-Enlightenment (and antimodernist) thinking, and corporatism. The potential for collaboration between Catholic conservatives and German nationalists has only in recent years begun to attract scholarly attention. (6)

This climate was highly inhospitable towards ideas and values from progressive thinkers. Wasserman describes the intellectual and cultural climate of Vienna in these terms:

At the turn of the century, Austria was one of the most culturally conservative nations in Europe. The advocacy of avant-garde scientific theories therefore put the First Vienna Circle— and its intellectual forbears— under pressure. Ultimately, it left them in marginal positions until several years after the Great War. In the wake of the Wahrmund affair, discussed in chapter 1, intellectuals advocating secularist, rationalist, or liberal views faced a hostile academic landscape. Ernst Mach, for example, was an intellectual outsider at the University of Vienna from 1895 until his death in 1916. Always supportive of socialist causes, he left a portion of his estate to the Social Democrats in his last will and testament. His theories of sensationalism and radical empiricism were challenged on all sides, most notably by his successor Ludwig Boltzmann. His students, among them David Josef Bach and Friedrich Adler, either had to leave the country to find appointments or give up academics altogether. Unable to find positions in Vienna, Frank moved to Prague and Neurath to Heidelberg. Hahn did not receive a position until after the war. The First Vienna Circle disbanded because of a lack of opportunity at home. (110-111)

Philosophy played an important role in the politics of inter-war Vienna, on both the right and the left. Othmar Spann was a highly influential conservative thinker who openly defended the values of National Socialism. On the left were Enlightenment-inspired philosophers who were proponents for reason and science. The pioneering analytic philosopher and guiding light of the Vienna Circle was Moritz Schlick. In 1934 Schlick was required to report to the Viennese police to demonstrate that the Vienna Circle was not a political organization (Black Vienna, 106). Schlick responded with three letters intended to demonstrate factually that the Circle was “absolutely unpolitical”. He defended a conception of value-free science, and maintained that the debates considered by the Vienna Circle were entirely within the scope of value-free science. But, as Wasserman points out, the doctrines of positivism and modern scientific rationality that were at the core of Vienna Circle philosophy were themselves politically contentious in the conservative intellectual climate of inter-war Vienna. It is also true that some members of the circle were in fact active progressive thinkers and actors. The most overtly political member of the Vienna Circle was Otto Neurath, who had been imprisoned for his participation in the Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1918.

Intellectual influence depends on the ability of an intellectual movement to gain positions in universities and other cultural institutions. The effort to win positions of influence in Austrian universities and other leading cultural institutions was strongly weighted towards the conservatives and nationalists:

A comparison of placement success with the Vienna Circle of logical empiricists is telling. Spann managed to place four students into full professorships in Austria during the interwar period; Moritz Schlick did not manage to place a single one. Likewise, the psychologists Karl and Charlotte Bühler could not place anyone in German or Austrian universities. Although members of Schlick’s and Bühler’s respective circles attracted international recognition for their work in philosophy and science, they could not find institutional security in interwar Austria. The converse was true for the members of Spannkreis: they dominated the Austrian intellectual landscape yet enjoyed little international success. (91)

The rise of fascism in Austria was a violent history, including the 1927 police killing of 89 demonstrators (2) as well as the assassination of Moritz Schlick in 1936. Right-wing individuals and organizations were unleashed in attacks on progressives and socialists in Vienna, and the Austrofascist state (1933-38) was more than willing to use force against its enemies.

The assassination of Moritz Schlick was a single tragic moment in this large historical canvas. Schlick was shot to death in the main building of the university by a right-wing student, Johann Nelböck, in 1936. The background of the assassination appears to have involved politics as well as personal grievances, according to a document titled “Philosophie der Untat”, drafted by Professor Eckehart Köhler in 1968 and made publicly available in the 2000s through Reddit (link). Köhler’s document is well worth reading. It was drafted in 1968 and printed by the Union of Socialist Students of Austria for distribution at a philosophy of science conference in Vienna; but the student organization then got cold feet about the claims made and dumped 2000 copies into the Danube River. The document was rediscovered in the 1990s. According to Köhler, Nelböck was influenced by reactionary Vienna philosopher Leo Gabriel. It is apparent that the scientific philosophy of the Vienna Circle was at odds with the conservative thought that dominated Vienna; in fact, after his pardon by the Nazi government after the Anschluss, Nelböck proposed to create an alternative to positivism that he named “negativism”. It is ironic that the violence against Schlick had to do with the philosophy of positivism rather than the political program of socialism.

The University of Vienna had a shameful history during the Nazi period. Following the Anschluss the university expelled more than 2,700 faculty and students, most of whom were Jewish, according to Professor Katharina Kniefacz’s short history of these issues in the university (link). “Anti-Semitic tendencies culminated in the complete and systematic expulsion of Jewish teachers and students from the University of Vienna after Austria’s ‘Anschluss’ to the National Socialist German Reich in 1938” (6). Few were invited to return, and public contrition for these expulsions only began to occur in the 1990s. According to Kniefacz, anti-semitism within the university persisted for decades after the end of Nazi rule. And two rectors of the university who served without objection during the Nazi period are memorialized in the Main Building of the University (10).

This history is still of great relevance in Austria today. The Austrian far right came within a handful of votes of winning the presidency in May 2016, based on a virulent anti-immigrant platform. And the country’s high court has now invalidated that election, preparing the ground for a second election later this year. It is a very good question to wonder how widespread attitudes of racism, nativism, and anti-semitism are in the Austrian population today — the very climate of racism and intolerance mentioned in the Schlick memorial above.

Survey research on right-wing extremism in Europe

European research and policy organizations have devoted a fair amount of attention to the rise of extremist movements and intolerance in European countries in the past ten years. Attention has been directed towards both aspects of the problem that have been mentioned in earlier posts — rising public attitudes of intolerance, and the mobilization and spread of hate-based right-wing organizations. (The topic has also received a great deal of attention in the press — for example, in the Guardian (link), the New York Times (link), and Spiegel (link).)

One useful report is Intolerance, Prejudice and Discrimination: A European Report (link), authored by Andreas Zick, Beate Kupper, and Andreas Hovermann (Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2011). The study is based on survey research in eight countries (Germany, Britain, France, Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, Poland, and Hungary). Particularly interesting are the results on anti-semitism, anti-muslimism, and homophobia (56 ff.). Here are the opening paragraphs of the authors’ foreword:

Intolerance threatens the social cohesion of plural and democratic societies. It reflects the extent to which we respect or reject social, ethnic, cultural and religious minorities. It marks out those who are “strange”, “other” or “out- siders”, who are not equal, less worthy. The most visible expression of intolerance and discrimination is prejudice. Indicators of intolerance such as prejudice, anti-democratic attitudes and the prevalence of discrimination consequently represent sensitive measures of social cohesion.

Investigating intolerance, prejudice and discrimination is an important process of self-reflection for society and crucial to the protection of groups and minorities. We should also remember that intolerance towards one group is usually associated with negativity towards others. The European Union acknowledged this when it declared 1997 the European Year against Racism. In the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam the European Union called for joint efforts to combat prejudice and discrimination experienced by groups and individuals on the basis of their ethnic features, cultural background, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability. (11)

And here are a few of their central findings, based on survey research in these eight countries:

Group-focused enmity is widespread in Europe. It is weakest in the Netherlands, and strongest in Poland and Hungary. With respect to anti-immigrant attitudes, anti-Muslim attitudes and racism there are only minor differences between the countries, while differences in the extent of anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia are much more marked. 

About half of all European respondents believe there are too many immi- grants in their country. Between 17 percent in the Netherlands and more than 70 percent in Poland believe that Jews seek to benefit from their forebears’ suffering during the Nazi era. About one third of respondents believe there is a natural hierarchy of ethnicity. Half or more condemn Islam as “a religion of intolerance”. A majority in Europe also subscribe to sexist attitudes rooted in traditional gender roles and demand that: “Women should take their role as wives and mothers more seriously.” With a figure of about one third, Dutch respondents are least likely to affirm sexist attitudes. The proportion opposing equal rights for homosexuals ranges between 17 percent in the Netherlands and 88 percent in Poland; they believe it is not good “to allow marriages between two men or two women”. (13)

These researchers find three underlying “ideological orientations” associated with these patterns of intolerance and discrimination: authoritarianism, “social dominance orientation”, and the rejection of diversity. And the factors that work against intolerance include “trust in others, the ability to forge firm friendships, contact with immigrants, and above all a positive basic attitude towards diversity” (14).

The topic of the incidence of intolerance in European countries is also the subject of research in the Eurobarometer project. Here are two Eurobarometer reports from 2008 and 2012 that attempt to measure changes in levels of discrimination and prejudice (Discrimination in the European Union, 2008; link; 2012; link). 

Also from the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung is the report Is Europe on the “Right” Path?: Right-wing extremism and right-wing populism in Europe (link). This report provides country studies of the radical right in Germany, France, Britain, Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Here is how Britta Schellenberg undertakes to synthesize these wide-ranging findings:

Taken as a whole, the contributions in the present volume clearly illustrate the common features and differences within the radical right in Europe. Analyses of the current phenomenon of the various radical-right movements and a differentiated analysis of their origins are fundamental for considering counter-strategies. Obviously, there is no single, generally valid strategy that guarantees an optimal way of combating the radical right. In fact, strategies can be successful only if they match up to the specific political and social context and if the maximum possible number of players from politics, the legal system, the media, educational institutions and civil society are agreed upon them.

However, we can identify general requirements for strategies against right-wing extremism and xenophobia that form a framework broad enough to allow a European perspective. For concrete work in a particular place, this framework must be filled out with individual measures and activities specific to the situation and location. But for now, we shall now proceed to take a bird’s eye view and answer the basic questions as to what preconditions have to be created for maximum success in combating radical-right-wing attacks, parties and attitudes. (309)

Each country study is detailed and interesting. The France study focuses on the Front National and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s success (and later Marine Le Pen’s success) since the 1984 European election in gaining visible support and electoral success with 10% to 15% of the vote (84). The Mouvement pour la France (MPF) and its leader Philippe de Villiers also receive attention in the report. And the resurgence of skinheads and direct action neo-fascists like the “violence-prone street brawlers of the Groupe Union Defense” are discussed (89-90).

The essay develops a handful of strategies for combatting right-wing movements:

  1. A comprehensive approach: Identifying and naming problems and strategically combating the radical right
  2. Political involvement: Confront, don’t cooperate
  3. Determining the focus: Protection against discrimination, and diversity and equality
  4. Allowing civil society to develop, and strengthening civic commitment
  5. Education for democracy and human rights

The Heinrich Boll Stiftung report authored by sixteen representatives from EU countries, “How to Counter Right Wing Populism and Extremism in Europe”, summarizes current progressive thinking about how best to resist the rise of right-wing extremism (link). This document was the result of a conference held in Brussels and Antwerp in October 2015. Here are some key findings and recommendations:

  • The EU is being degraded into an enforcer of austerity measures across the continent. It is essential to restore the idea of the EU as a regional network of states that stand together in solidarity in order to promote mutual wellbeing, good living standards, tolerant societies, and democratic values that are shared by all. 
  • Furthermore it is vital to explain the local benefits of EU membership to ordinary people with a clear and understandable message. 
  • There need to be more efficient and accessible training and exchange programmes in order to decrease the distance between EU institutions and citizens. 
  • Diversity must be increased and a greater inclusiveness within EU institutions is required, with mechanisms to enable a much more accurate representation of the European population in EU institutions.
  • Progressives should be strident in defending greater global and European integration against the often empty criticisms of right-wing populists and extremists.
  • We recommend that different stakeholders collaborate with each other in a knowledge exchange in order to provide public officials with EU-wide training.
  • Establishing quotas for those who are elected as candidates, by increasing leadership in minority groups, and via private-public partnerships to help promote equality in business as well as the public sector.
  • Hate speech has to be monitored in the European Parliament by an independent body and the existing sanctions regarding hate speech need to be reviewed.
  • Social media should be used in this effort to confront the advocacy of hatred and that a dialogue should be promoted between internet providers and social media companies, examining among others the possibility of creating a new platform for non-governmental organizations and the civil society. (5-6)

Another FES study addresses the “massive challenges” faced by the EU in the context of citizens’ expectations (link). Richard Himler’s public opinion survey (2016) considers eight countries (Netherlands, Sweden, France, Germany, Slovak Republic, Spain, Italy, and the Czech Republic).

Here is a summary table based on results from all eight countries ranking the relative weight of EU priorities for EU citizens. Solving the refugee crisis dwarfs concern about other issues, though unemployment comes in as a substantial second.

Given Brexit, it is interesting to see the relative levels of dissatisfaction with EU membership in other countries as well. An average of 34% of respondents found that “disadvantages exceed advantages” in EU membership for their country, with the Czech Republic at 44% on this question and Spain at only 22%.

These are interesting survey results describing the growth of right-wing extremism in Europe. But these studies are limited in their explanatory reach. They are largely descriptive; they give a basis for assessing the dimensions of the problem in terms of population attitudes and right-wing extremist organizations. But there is little by the way of sociological analysis of the mechanisms through which these extremist attitudes and processes of activism proliferate and grow. In an upcoming post I will review some recent work on the ethnography of right-wing movements that will allow a somewhat deeper understanding of the dynamics of these movements.

The politics of cultural despair


The last century gave us far too many examples of the rise of extremism in mass societies — both democratic and authoritarian.  Some of the political mechanisms of extremist seizure of power are well known — paramilitary force, extremist organizations, demogogic leaders, hyper-heated rhetoric, appeals to nationalism and racism, and inflammatory mass media.  But it’s also worth asking — what is the cultural basis for the rise of various extremisms?  What factors in the ideas, thoughts, and emotions of a population have sometimes led to the rise of extremist states — fascism, ethnic cleansing, murderous nationalism, or deranged communism such as the killing fields of Cambodia?  Does philosophy play a role in the rise of extremism?

For observers born since 1930 a natural place to raise this question is the rise of National Socialism in Germany.  How could a party dedicated to an explicit programme of racism, repression, and murder have gained mass support and control of the state in Germany?

A particularly important early effort to answer this question was Fritz Stern’s pathbreaking The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology (1961), now fifty years old.  The book is a careful intellectual history; but it is more than that.  It is an effort to link a set of philosophical ideas to a series of political developments that involved increasingly wide circles of German citizens.  So it serves as one example of how we might think about the relationship between large cultural ideas and currents, and more specific developments in politics.

Stern opens the book with these words:

This is a study in the pathology of cultural criticism.  By analyzing the thought and influence of three leading critics of modern Germany, this study will demonstrate the dangers and dilemmas of a particular type of cultural despair.  Lagarde, Langbehn, and Moeller van den Bruck–their active lives spanning the years from the middle of the past century to the threshold of Hitler’s Third Reich–attacked, often incisively and justly, the deficiencies of German culture and the German spirit.  But they were more than critics of Germany’s cultural crisis; they were its symptoms and victims as well.  Unable to endure the ills which they diagnosed and which they had experienced in their own lives, they sought to become prophets who would point the way to a national rebirth.  Hence, they propounded all manner of reforms, ruthless and idealistic, nationalistic and utopian.  It was this leap from despair to utopia across all existing reality that gave their thought its fantastic quality. (1)

These three figures were important cultural voices in Germany, even though they were undistinguished within the academic world.  Paul de Lagarde (1827-1891), Julius Langbehn (1851-1907), and Arthur Moeller van den Bruck (1876-1925) were intellectual and cultural precursors for the ideology of National Socialism.  They were harsh, vitriolic critics of modern German social life; they were anti-Semites; and they were wedded to a discourse of passion and hatred as devices for influencing their readers.

The central focus of this cultural criticism was the fact of modernity — liberalism, secularism, Manchesterism, consumptionism, and individualism.  These were conservative critics; they favored an earlier time that was more traditional, moral, hierarchical, and religious.  They preferred villages and towns to cities; they preferred cultivated thinkers to merchants and professionals, and they feared the rise of the proletariat.

By liberalism they meant to encompass several ideas: individualism, self-interest, parliamentary government, and glorification of commerce and the market.  And their criticisms were unswerving: they hoped to turn back all of the liberal democratic and industrial transformations that modern Europe was undergoing.

The movement did embody a paradox: its followers sought to destroy the despised present in order to recapture an idealized past in an imaginary future. They were disinherited conservatives, who had nothing to conserve, because the spiritual values of the past had largely been buried and the material remnants of conservative power did not interest them.  They sought a breakthrough to the past, and they longed for a new community in which old ideas and institutions would once again command universal allegiance. (7)

The conservative revolutionaries denounced every aspect of the capitalistic society and its putative materialism.  They railed against the spiritual emptiness of life in an urban, commercial civilization, and lamented the decline of intellect and virtue in a mass society.  They attacked the press as corrupt, the political parties as the agents of national dissension, and the new rulers as ineffectual mediocrities.  The bleaker their picture of the present, the more attractive seemed the past, and they indulged in nostalgic recollections of the uncorrupted life of earlier rural communities, when men were pesants and kings true rulers. (9-10)

In addition to their critique of a rising liberalism in Germany (and Europe more generally), these critics were also united in a virulent anti-Semitism.  Their denunciations of the Jews became a common thread in Nazi propaganda in the 1920s and 1930s.

Stern makes the important point that these three writers depended on the emotions and the passions rather than reason and argument to express themselves.  “All three wrote with great fervor and passion.  They condemned or prophesied, rather than exposited or argued, and all their writings showed that they despised the discourse of intellectuals, denied reason, and exalted intuition” (4).  Here is a particularly important observation of the nature of this cultural criticism that appears to be relevant in our own time as well.  Julien Benda, a liberal thinker, noted that political discourse “began to play the game of political passions…. Our age is indeed the age of the intellectual organization of political hatreds” (6).

Stern has two fundamental aims in this study.  First, he hopes that the study of these three cultural critics will illuminate an important current of history: Germany’s drift towards extremism and anti-Semitism.

This study, then, takes up the origins, content, and impact of an ideology which not only resembles national socialism, but which the National Socialists themselves acknowledged as an essential part of their legacy.  But it will also point to another link, admittedly less tangible–to wit, that the Germanic critics in the peculiar tension between their lives and their ideological aspirations anticipate the type of malcontent who, in the 1920’s, found a haven in the idealism of the Hitler movement.  … We may not have sufficiently reckoned with the politically exploitable discontent which for so long has been embedded in German culture. (5)

But second, the book is interested in popular culture as well.  How did ordinary Germans fall prey to mobilization and propaganda based on nationalism, violence, and anti-Semitism?  Stern tries to show through a detailed study of the cultural framework expressed by these thinkers, that we can also attempt to reconstruct the modes of popular consciousness that percolated through German society in these decades.  These ultra-conservative currents helped to make even ordinary people susceptible to the efforts at mobilization that were directed towards them by the National Socialists.

Are there parallels in twentieth-century America?  Stern thought there were, in 1961.

Cultural pessimism has a strong appeal in America today.  As political conditions appear stable at home or irremediable abroad, American intellectuals have become concerned with the cultural problems of our society, and have substituted sociological or cultural analyses for political criticism. …  There is a discontent in the Western world that does not stem from economic want or from the threat of war; rather it springs from dissatisfaction with life in an urban and industrialized culture — a dissatisfaction that the three critics discussed in this book felt and fostered. (13, 14-15)

Two elements seem especially relevant in today’s political culture: the willingness of some voices in the political sphere to engage in the emotional hyperbole and hatred that were the stock-in-trade of these German critics; and the extremist language surrounding the rejection of “liberalism” that is to be found in the airwaves today.  Today too we are confronted with a virulent rejection of many aspects of a “liberal” world, and an apparent yearning for an earlier (mythical) time when there was one defining moral-religious framework to which all of society subscribed.

One of the greatest failures of German liberals and academics in the 1920s and 1930s was their inability — perhaps even their unwillingness — to make the positive case for a modern, liberal society.  The values of justice, equality, citizenship, and mutual respect embodied through decent economic and political institutions need to be defended; and German thinkers fell short in this historical task in the early twentieth century.  It is certainly important for Americans in the early twenty-first century to be more successful in making this case.


Fascist movements

Image: resistance to Spanish fascism, Abraham Lincoln Brigade

The crimes of fascist governments in Spain, Italy, and Germany are among the most terrible pages of twentieth-century history.  And these governments commonly came to power by long mass-based mobilization by right-wing nationalist parties rather than by seizure of power by a strategically located minority.  How was it possible for parties based on hatred and violence to be able to gain support from large parts of the populations of these states?  And how should the social sciences proceed in efforts to diagnose and explain these processes?

In Fascists Michael Mann offers a thorough and nuanced account of the rise of fascist movements in many countries in Europe in the early part of the twentieth century.  And in The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing he looks at the processes that have led to genocidal violence by a range of modern states.  These are important books by a particularly acute historical sociologist of political power and the state.  It is particularly interesting to examine Mann’s research strategy — the empirical research he brings to bear to his research questions and the assumptions he makes about what is needed in order to arrive at an explanation of various aspects of fascism.  (Another important sociological contribution to the study of fascism is Juan Linz, Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes.)

Mann’s approach is through the people, ideologies, and social movements that led to the establishment of fascist regimes:

This book seeks to explain fascism by understanding fascists — who they were, where they came from, what their motivations were, how they rose to power.  I focus here on the rise of fascist movements rather than on established fascist regimes.  I investigate fascists at their flood tide, in their major redoubts in interwar Europe, that is, in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Romania, and Spain.  To understand fascists will require understanding fascist movements.  We can understand little of individual fascists and their deeds unless we appreciate that they were joined together into distinctive power organizations.  (9)

Here is Mann’s definition of fascism:

I define fascism in terms of the key values, actions, and power organizations of fascists. Most concisely, fascism is the pursuit of a transcendent and cleansing nation-statism through paramilitarism. (13)

Mann disputes the common dichotomy between “idealist” and “materialist” theories of large movements and structures such as fascism.  Instead, he brings forward his own long-developed analysis of the four major sources of power in complex societies:

But my own approach to fascism derives from a more general model of human societies that rejects the idealism-versus-materialism dualism. My earlier work identified four primary “sources of social power” in human societies: ideological, economic, military, and political. … To attain their goals, social movements wield combinations of control over ultimate meaning systems (ideological), control over means of production and exchange (economic), control over organized physical violence (military), and control over centralized and territorial institutions of regulation (political). (5)

His analysis of the fascisms of Europe attempts to assess each of them in terms of these sources of power.  This analysis also plays into his account of the failure of fascism in countries such as France or Sweden.  Mann makes an important point when he observes that fascism never prevailed in countries where parliamentary democracy had developed a secure base.  There were fascist parties and leaders in France, Great Britain, and Sweden; but democratic institutions held, and fascism did not prevail in these countries.

Mann makes a very important point when he emphasizes that fascism was not an historical anomaly; rather, it was the expression of forces and crises that can recur in the twenty-first century as well.  “Fascists have been at the heart of modernity….  Fascists only embraced more fervently than anyone else the central political icon of our time, the nation-state, together with its ideologies and pathologies” (9).

The largest single topic in each of the country studies is Mann’s effort to understand the motivations of the fascist followers themselves.  Who were the committed followers?  Who were the sympathetic but less-engaged followers?

As in all my case studies I examine in some detail the social backgrounds of the fascists. They offer the best evidence regarding ordinary fascists. Yet social movements are not mere aggregations of individuals, each of whom can be counted equally and statically. Movements contain particular social structures and processes. This fascist movement greatly respected order and hierarchy, and the attainment of substantial power within the movement was an important part of the “career” of fascists. Moreover, paramilitary violence conferred distinctive powers on a “mass” (though less than “majority”) movement committed to violence.  (100)

Mann uses a variety of empirical sources to answer simple questions: what were the occupational backgrounds of the members?  What can we infer about their values and motivations?

Which particular social groups within these countries were most attracted to fascism? I spend many pages over several chapters examining the social backgrounds of fascist leaders, militants, members, fellow-travelers, coconspirators and voters – compared (wherever possible) with their counterparts in other political movements. How old were fascists, were they men or women, military or civilian, urban or rural, religious or secular, economic winners or losers, and from which regions, economic sectors, and social classes did they come? (25-26)

He goes to some effort to refute the Marxist interpretation of fascist movements: that they were led and supported by the lesser bourgeoisie.  Instead, he finds that there was significant support for fascist ideology and movements across a wide range of social-class locations.

Ideology and values play a large role in Mann’s interpretation and explanation of the program of fascism.  He rejects the view that fascism was wholly opportunistic and succeeded solely through its adeptness with propaganda; rather, he takes fascist social and political theory seriously, judging that fascist parties offered plausible solutions to perceived social problems (p. 2).  These parties attracted followers because they persuaded large numbers of Italians, Germans, or Spaniards that they had the ability to solve the problems their societies faced.  Key ideological themes were nationalism (the aggressive values and emotions of ethnicity and the nation) and “state-ism” (the legitimacy and necessity of a strong state with few limits on its power as an institution for solving “modern” problems).  “Fascists were motivated by a highly emotional struggle to cleanse their nation of “enemies,” and so they indulged in reckless aggression and terrible evil” (22).

Another key characteristic of fascist movements in the 1930s was the role played by paramilitary organizations as tools of intimidation, coercion, and mobilization.

Paramilitarism also conferred a concrete and enveloping social identity. The returning soldiers were young, mostly unmarried with little labor market experience, poorly integrated into local communities centered on family, occupation, and religion, prone to identify with the nation as a whole – which the mass army had claimed to “represent” (104).

Mann also spends some time assessing the role that “crisis” played in the rise of fascism: war, defeat, economic crisis.  He does not believe that crisis was the primary cause of the rise of fascism; rather, it was a contributing condition that helped to accelerate processes that were underway already.  And Mann notes that there is a pronounced geographical dimension to fascism and authoritarianism, as indicated in the following map representing the state of affairs in 1929.

So what does Mann’s explanatory scheme amount to?  It comes down to something like this: fascist parties and leaders articulated a vision of the current problems and their solutions.  A significant proportion of the young adults (18-35) were receptive to these messages, including the call for radical change and the use of street violence.  War, financial crisis, class conflict, and insecure parliamentary institutions created an environment in which the ideology of fascism could flourish and fascist mobilization was feasible.  In several countries demobilized and defeated veterans represented a population of prospective recruits to fascist groups.  Paramilitary violence could not defeat the military arm of the state; but it could intimidate other parties and pressure governments.  The experience of a fascist organization was itself a reinforcing one; young people who found their way into a fascist group were reinforced in the attitudes that had brought them there in the first place.  State and military organizations varied in effectiveness across the map of Europe, and those states whose governments were weak and unstable were less able to repress the rising fascist challenge.

There is a deep question implicated in the effort to provide a definition of fascism.  Is the definition Mann offers a stipulative statement about how Mann will use the word “fascism”?  Or is it a condensed empirical theory, abstracted from the small number of clear cases — Italy, Austria, Germany?  Is it an inductive discovery that “fascism is the extreme version of nation-ism and state-ism”; or is it a purely conventional stipulation?  Put it another way; does it make a difference that Mann finds that Spain is not “fascist” by this definition?  Does such a finding provide any genuine sociological/empirical insight?  Does it allow us to judge that “Spain’s regime was likely to have other important behavioral differences relative to Italy”?  I am tempted to think that Weber’s conception of the ideal type is relevant here; the definition offered above is a description of the ideal type of fascism, and each of the existing fascisms differ in various ways from this description.  The empirical issue is one level lower: not at the level of “fascism”, but rather at the cluster of characteristics that are invoked in the ideal-type theory (paramilitary organizations, ideology of nationalism, authoritarian theory of the state, anti-democratic rhetoric).

It is interesting to think back to Fritz Ringer’s analysis of the intellectual climate of the German mandarins (link) and relate his interpretation to Mann’s treatment of the conservative-authoritarian ideologies of central Europe. Ringer’s treatment singles out many of the same ideological themes and dissatisfactions that Mann identifies — hostility to class conflict and mass democracy and the main elements of liberal modernity.  Ringer’s narrative serves as something like a snapshot of the educated elites going through the intellectual-ideological progressions Mann describes.

These crises were exacerbated by an ideological crisis. On the right, though only in one half of Europe, this became a sense that modernity was desirable but dangerous, that liberalism was corrupt or disorderly, that socialism meant chaos, that secularism threatened moral absolutes – and so cumulatively that civilization needed rescuing before modernization could proceed further. So there emerged a more authoritarian rightist view of modernity, emphasizing a more top-down populist nationalism, developmental statism, order, and hierarchy. (355)

The book also suggests something else about the present: that there are good reasons to pay close attention to the claims, complaints, values, and resentments of the American right today. As Mann discovered a coherent worldview and programme for the future in the rightist authoritarian movements he discusses, so we may find there is greater coherence, greater popular appeal, and greater danger in the rightist movements today. Conservative Christian values, hostility to government and to social welfare provisioning, hostility to unions, antipathy to immigrants, and hateful, inflammatory rhetoric give talk radio and cable television a worrisome coherence.

Here is a sobering and tragic video (in Spanish) documenting the Spanish Nationalist government’s expulsion of thousands of Republican veterans to the Austrian concentration camp Mathausen, where most of them were murdered.  There is a Facebook group, Plataforma Memoria Histórica – Guerra Civil Español (link), which is collecting materials on the Civil War.  This is a great collective effort to remember and to make sense of that struggle with fascism.

Koestler’s nightmares

Image: book burning by National Socialist paramilitaries, 1933

Image: Ukraine peasants fleeing famine

Image: street battle, Spanish Civil War

Arthur Koestler was an articulate witness of the atrocities of the twentieth century; and much of what he witnessed was terrible.  Reading his books gives one an intense and personal vision of fascism, dictatorship, mass murder, starvation, and cruelty on a monstrous scale.  As George Orwell wrote of Koestler’s books in 1944, “The subject-matter of all of them is similar, and none of them ever escapes for more than a few pages from the atmosphere of nightmare” (link).  Koestler worked as a Communist journalist in Berlin in the early 1930s during the rise of the brown shirts; he was the first European journalist to travel through the Ukraine to witness the results of famine in Stalin’s war against the Kulaks (Lynne Viola, The War Against the Peasantry, 1927-1930: The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside); and he observed the Spanish Civil War, where he was arrested after the fall of Malaga, imprisoned, and sentenced to death as a Red.  (Here is an earlier post on Koestler.)

These experiences are described in his autobiography, The Invisible Writing, and the narrative of his experiences in Spain is presented in Dialogue With Death.  But Koestler’s best known book is a novel, Darkness at Noon, which is the story of the final weeks of life of the fictional Soviet revolutionary Rubashov in Stalin’s purges of the 1930s and the Moscow show trials.  After a life as leader, theorist, and agent in service of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party, Rubashov is arrested for fictitious crimes of conspiracy and betrayal against the State.  He is arrested before dawn; it takes him quite a while to find his pince-nez.  He is thrown into a Soviet political prison — it is reminiscent to him of the fascist prisons in which he had suffered beatings and torture years earlier.  He is brought to confess to these crimes and others under interrogation by his former comrade-in-arms, Ivanov, and the new Soviet thug, Gletkin.  Ivanov is psychologically manipulative; Gletkin is brutal; but both strive to break Rubashov and compel his confession.  They are successful; Rubashov confesses to betraying the Revolution; and like Bukharin, he is convicted and summarily shot in the back of the neck.  Along the way there is quite a bit of debate about history, the individual, the Party, and the Future of Humanity.  The key question of the novel is the puzzle: why did Rubashov confess rather than following the secret advice of the prison barber — “die in silence!”?

Koestler himself was a committed Communist agent in Berlin in the 1930s; so his descriptions of Rubashov’s activities in eastern Europe have the ring of truth — including Rubashov’s betrayals of Richard and Little Loewy in the name of socialism.  The novel recreates the Moscow show trials of 1937 with uncanny insight.  Rubashov is loosely based on Nikolai Bukharin, one of the intellectual and political leaders of the Russian Revolution.  Koestler’s novel was written only two years after the trial and execution of these leaders of the Russian Revolution at the hands of Stalin’s functionaries.  Here is what he says about the central character:

The characters in this book are fictitious.  The historical circumstances which determined their actions are real.  The life of the man N. S. Rubashov is a synthesis of the lives of a number of men who were victims of the so-called Moscow Trials.  Several of them were personally known to the author.  This book is dedicated to their memory.  Paris, October, 1938-April, 1940

But here is what I find fascinating.  Koestler’s fictional recreation of the arrest and trial of the top Party officials, in the person of Rubashov, and the background assumptions and rationalizations assumed by the prosecutors and interrogators, is remarkably close to the historical reality.  Here is Koestler’s description of his own arrest and arrival in a Spanish fascist prison in Malaga:

It is a unique sound.  A cell door has no handle, either outside or inside; it cannot be shut except by being slammed to.  It is made of massive steel and concrete, about four inches thick, and every time it falls to there is a resounding crash just as though a shot has been fired.  But this report dies away without an echo.  Prison sounds are echo-less and bleak.

When the door has been slammed behind him for the first time, the prisoner stands in the middle of the cell and looks round. I fancy that everyone must behave in more or less the same way.

First of all he gives a fleeting look round the walls and takes a mental inventory of all the objects in what is now to be his domain:

  • the iron bedstead,
  • the wash-basin,
  • the W.C.,
  • the barred window.

His next action is invariably to try to pull himself up by the iron bars of the window and look out.  He fails, and his suit is covered with white from the plaster on the wall against which he has pressed himself. (Dialogue with Death, 59)

And now turn to Rubashov’s first few minutes in Stalin’s jail cell:

Rubashov walked up and down in the cell, from the door to the window and back, between bunk, wash-basin and bucket, six and a half steps there, six and a half steps back.  At the door he turned to the right, at the window to the left.  It was an old prison habit; if one did not change the direction of the turn one rapidly became dizzy. ….  Rubashov stood hesitantly in the middle of the cell, then put his pince-nez on again and propped himself at the window. (Darkness at Noon, 14, 18)

Much of the drama of Darkness at Noon is the series of interrogations Rubashov undergoes, and the mental transformation that they bring about in this courageous man to bring him to confess to the most farfetched and unbelievable crimes.  The transcripts of Bukharin’s prosecution exist; Robert Tucker and Stephen Cohen’s THE GREAT PURGE TRIAL provides extensive transcripts of the interrogation of Bukharin and other show trial victims.  It is striking to compare the interrogation of Bukharin with the interrogation of Rubashov.  Consider this bit of interrogation of Rubashov, beginning with the voice of prosecutor Ivanov:

“To return to more tangible things: you mean, therefore, that ‘we’ — namely, Party and State — no longer represent the interests of the Revolution, of the masses or, if you like, the progress of humanity.”

“This time you have grasped it,” said Rubashov smiling.  Ivanov did not answer his smile.
“When did you develop this opinion?”

“Fairly gradually: during the last few years,” said Rubashov.

“Can’t you tell me more exactly? One year? Two? Three years?”

“That’s a stupid question,” said Rubashov. “At what age did you become adult? At seventeen? At eighteen and a half? At nineteen?”

“It’s you who are pretending to be stupid,” said Ivanov.  “Each step in one’s spiritual development is the result of definite experiences.  If you really want to know: I became a man at seventeen, when I was sent into exile for the first time.” (69)

And now a similar moment in the actual transcripts of the interrogation of Bukharin.

Vyshinsky: Allow me to begin the interrogation of the accused Bukharin. Formulate briefly what exactly it is you plead guilty to.

Bukharin: Firstly, to belonging to the counter-revolutionary “Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites.”

Vyshinsky: Since what year?

 Bukharin: Roughly since 1928. I plead guilty to being one of the outstanding leaders of this “Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites.” Consequently I plead guilty to what directly follows from this, the sum total of crimes committed by this counter-revolutionary organization, irrespective of whether or not I knew of, whether or not I took a direct part, in any particular act.  Because I am responsible as one of the leaders and not as a cog in this counter-revolutionary organization.

Vyshinsky: What aims were pursued by this counter-revolutionary organization?
Bukharin: This counter-revolutionary organization, to formulate it briefly …

Vyshinsky: Yes, briefly for the present.

Bukharin: The principal aim it pursued, although, so to speak, it did not fully realize it, and did not dot all the “i’s” — was essentially the aim of restoring capitalist relations in the U.S.S.R. (Tucker, 328)

And now, back to Darkness at Noon and Rubashov; the porter’s daughter reads aloud the newspaper account of the last minutes of Rubashov’s testimony:

“Asked whether he pleaded guilty, the accused Rubashov answered ‘Yes’ in a clear voice.  To a further question of the Public Prosecutor as to whether the accused had acted as an agent of the counter-revolution, he again answered ‘Yes’ in a lower voice ….”

Here seems to be Koestler’s own explanation of the puzzle of the confessions:

Some were silenced by physical fear, like Hare-lip; some hoped to save their heads; others at least to save their wives or sons from the clutches of the Gletkins.  The best of them kept silent in order to do a last service to the Party, by letting themselves be sacrificed as scapegoats — and, besides, even the best had each an Arlova on his conscience.  They were too deeply entangled in their own past, caught in the web they had spun themselves, according to the laws of their own twisted ethics and twisted logic; they were all guilty, although not of those deeds of which they accused themselves.  There was no way back for them.  Their exit from the stage happened strictly according to the rules of their strange game.  The public expected no swan-songs of them.  They had to act according to the text-book, and their part was the howling of wolves in the night…. (DN, 105)

Fiction and reality are deeply intertwined here.  I don’t believe that Koestler had access to transcripts of the show trials at the time he wrote Darkness at Noon in 1940, though he had read accounts of the trials.  So the convergence of the fictional Rubashov and the historical Bukharin is remarkable.  And the transformation of Koestler’s own experiences — in Communist activism and in fascist prison under sentence of death — into the fiction of Rubashov is very striking.

The state prosecutor who conducted the show trial of Bukharin was Andrei Vyshinsky.  Following his success in the show trials, Vyshinsky became a prominent diplomat under Stalin.  And after World War II he served as permanent representative to the United Nations during the period that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was drafted and adopted.  He led the Soviet Bloc nations in abstention from the vote adopting the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.  Here is a fragment of the outrageous speech he gave on this occasion:

Human rights could not be conceived outside the State; the very concept of right and law was connected with that of the State. (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent, 21-22)

I am drawn to Koestler’s writings — both his fiction and his autobiographical writings —  in part because he provides such a powerful example of an engaged mind attempting to make sense of the history around him. Much of his work is a first-person effort to “understand society” — to make sense of the social forces and individual behavior that the twentieth century presented.  George Orwell is another of my favorites in this aspect of literature, including especially Homage to Catalonia and A Collection of Essays; so it is very interesting to me that Orwell wrote the short essay about Koestler mentioned above.  It is also interesting that they were both published in England by Victor Gollancz, along with E. P. Thompson.

(Louis Menand has an interesting profile of Koestler in the New Yorker this month.)

Koestler’s twentieth century

Arthur Koestler is most celebrated for his historical novel about the Moscow show trials, Darkness at Noon. And the book is indeed a deeply revealing look at the heart of totalitarianism in the twentieth century — the more so if you do a side-by-side reading of the trial of the fictional Rubashov and the transcripts of the trial of the historical Bukharin (Report of Court Proceedings in the Case of the Anti-Soviet Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites: Heard Before the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court). Koestler caught the psychology and history of the period exactly right — and he did it more or less as a contemporary observer, not an archival historian with leisurely access to the archives after the fact.

But in some ways I find his autobiographical books even more gripping, and none more so than The invisible writing; An autobiography, published in 1954.

The Invisible Writing is an amazing window onto some of the most important events of the twentieth century: the rise of Hitler, the struggles between Communists and Nazis in the streets of Berlin, the gradual decapitation of all forces of the left in Germany in the 1930s, the great famine in the Ukraine, and the cruelty of the Spanish Civil War. Here is a telling description of a moment in time: “With the constant dismissals at Ullstein’s [the publisher], and the shadow of Hitler lying across the country like a monster-shaped cloud, our motley little crowd of intellectuals was too scared to be capable of any clear thought. It was easy to win their sympathy for Russia, but almost impossible to make them take a determined stand for their own interests in Germany. The liberals in Germany — and elsewhere — have rarely understood that there are situations in which caution amounts to suicide.”

Koestler was situated in such a way as to be a participant-eyewitness in these world-historical events. A few snapshots from this period — street fighting in Berlin in 1932 between Communist workers and Nazi thugs; a train journey through the Ukraine during the worst of the deliberate war of famine that Stalin waged against the peasantry; Koestler’s own denunciation of a loved one for a trivial suspicion; and a series of narrow escapes in fascist Spain (including a period of three months in a Franco prison under a sentence of death).

Koestler’s political adulthood witnessed his own movement from Communist journalist and activist in Berlin in the 1930s to a committed anti-Communist in the 1950s. And his anti-Communism derived from his own honest willingness to confront the terrible truths of Stalinism — Comintern’s betrayal of the Spanish republicans, the Moscow show trials, the deliberate policy of famine as a tool of social war, and the repression and brutality of the Soviet state against its own citizens.

The book provides absorbing, valuable reading. And it offers deep lessons for us today — about politics, about personal integrity, about the relationship between individuals and the state, and about the terrible power that ideology has wielded over humanity.

What Koestler learned from his part of the twentieth century, and was able to express so evocatively in his writings, was a series of brutal facts about power: the power of a fascist state to destroy all organizations that might challenge its grip on society, the power of propaganda to conceal and falsify evident social realities, and the power of ideology to blind intellectuals to the meaning of the events unfolding around them. Lies and coercion were the central realities of the state and the party — both in Germany and in the Soviet Union.

Koestler describes the central paradox of the Moscow show trials in these terms:

To the western mind, unacquainted with the system and the rules, the confessions in the Trials appeared as one of the great enigmas of our time. Why had the Old Bolsheviks, heroes and leaders of the revolution, who had so often braved death that they called themselves ‘dead men on furlough’, confessed to these absurd and hair-raising lies? If one discounted those who were merely trying to save their necks, like Radek; and those who were mentally broken like Zinoviev; or trying to shield their families like Kameniev, who was said to be particularly devoted to his son–then there still remained a hard core of men like Bukharin, Piatakov, Mrachkovsky, Smirnov, and at least a score of other with a revolutionary past of thirty, forty years behind them, the veterans of Czarist prisons and Siberian exile, whose total and gleeful self-abasement remained inexplicable. It was this ‘hard core’ that Rubashov was meant to represent.

Here is a final, amazing twentieth century irony. The lead prosecutor in the Moscow show trials (1936-38) — the person who established the jurisprudence of coercion, intimidation, and the crushing subordination of the individual to the overwhelming power of the state, was Andrei Vyshinsky. It was he who stage-managed the shameful miscarriage of justice that led to the executions of Zinoviev, Bukharin, Kamenev, and other leading Bolsheviks. And it was the very same Andrei Vyshinsky who was the Soviet Union’s chief delegate in 1949 in the drafting of … the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Here, surely, we find a person with a fine understanding of human rights.

Structure, psychology, power

Political and social power involves the exercise of social resources to compel various kinds of unwilling behavior by others. What creates power in society? What are the sorts of social and structural factors that permit individuals to exercise power? And what features of personality lead a given individual to choose to use the instruments of power to achieve his/her will? In short — how does power pertain to “structure” and “agency”?

This is one of the categories in social analysis that requires that we bring together both agency and structure. Individuals wield power; but they only do so on the basis of resources and advantages that are conferred upon them by existing social relations. The enduring social relations that exist in a society — for example, property relations, administrative and political relations, or the legal system — constitute a structure within which agents act, and they determine the distribution of crucial social resources that become the raw materials on the basis of which agents exercise power over other individuals and groups. So the particular details of a social structure are crucial in determining the forms of power that exist in the society. For example, a privileged position within the property system — the possession of significant income and wealth — confers a resource advantage on people in that position. They can use their wealth to solicit powerful allies; they can purchase media outlets; they can influence politicians — all with an eye to achieving their goals in spite of the contrary wishes or interests of others.

Likewise, a privileged position in the communications system — a television news producer or newspaper publisher, for example — can use his/her position to alter the way in which stories are presented in such a way as to change the way the public thinks about the issues; and these changes in thought can lead to changes in behavior. And an elected official can exercise power by setting the agenda for others — by including or excluding various options from consideration.

So one’s position within these various social structures — systems of social relations — determines the volume of social resources upon which one can call in the effort to constrain or compel the actions of others. Position determines one’s capacity for power. But it does not determine the exercise of power. To be said to exercise power, it is necessary to have the goal of compelling people to do things they don’t want to do. This is where agency or the “will to power” comes in. It is possible for a person with access to great power resources to nonetheless behave in ways that do not make use of power but rather depend on building consent and consensus. We might contrast Churchill with Stalin in mobilizing society for war; Churchill persuaded the British people to sacrifice in support of the war effort, whereas Stalin used the coercive power of the state to achieve his war mobilization goals.

This fact suggests that we need to consider something of the psychology of power. This is a topic that Adorno and other critical theorists invoked through the concept of the “authoritarian personality” — an idea invoked largely in an effort to understand fascism. Others might attempt to assimilate the willingness to use power under the category of “opportunistic” or “instrumentalist” decision-making: coercion is considered as simply one out a menu of feasible strategies for achieving one’s will. (This is perhaps the foundation of Hobbes’s understanding of the pursuit and use of power.) And here we might speculate that the “democratic personality” is a set of dispositions to behavior that lead the agent to seek out persuasion and consensus rather than force, deception, and coercion as instruments through which to achieve one’s goals. (Taken to the limit, we might say that a proper democracy creates an environment in which there is neither opportunity nor impulse towards the exercise of power.)

On this way of laying out the landscape of power, there are several dimensions to be considered: the social arrangements that make it possible for some individuals to pressure, coerce, and compel other individuals to do their bidding; the social arrangements that create profound conflicts of interest in the context of which the incentive to wield power naturally arises; and the circumstances of social psychology and personality that lead some individuals to choose to make use of resources of power to coerce, while others choose strategies that depend on willing consent to achieve collective purposes.

Explaining large social formations: fascism

In a previous post I discussed the problem of explaining fascism. Let’s return to this issue as a topic for historical and social inquiry.

There are clearly a number of different explanatory questions we might have in mind: why did fascist movements emerge and gain popular support in the first three decades of the twentieth century? Why did these movements prevail in several countries and not in others? (This version parallels Skocpol’s question about revolutions.) Why did fascist states develop the political institutions they did in Germany, Italy, and Spain? How did fascist states and leaders exercise power? What prevented the rise of powerful fascist movements on France and Britain — in spite of the presence of ultra-nationalist leaders and organizations?

These are all different questions — even if there are relations among them. A particularly central question concerns the factors that were conducive to the emergence of extremist beliefs and organizations in certain periods and what factors favored the growth and power of some of these movements. This is a bundle of questions about the conditions that favor collective mobilization and ideological formation on a mass society. It is the sort of research question that Chuck Tilly and other scholars of popular mobilization have been concerned with.

Another set of questions about the course of fascism has more to do with institution building and state formation. Given the goal of creating powerful stare institutions within the general framework of fascist ideas and goals, what institutional and organizational possibilities existed? Here we might refer to the repertoire of mass organization that fascist “revolutionaries” brought to their movement, as well as the historical and practical options that existed. This area of inquiry may provide a basis for answering questions about the
particular nature of fascist political institutions.

Finally, the distinct question of why it was that fascist movements and leaders were able to defeat democratic movements and states requires that we identify some of the circumstances that weakened democratic regimes. This may be a wide range of factors: challenges of war, ideological conflict with communists and other critics of the state, and the economic circumstances of the great depression. (These fall in the same category as the circumstances that Skocpol brings forward as being relevant to the success or failure of revolutions.)

It would appear that social scientists and historians have better tools for addressing the issue of successful mobilization than the institutional or causal conditions surrounding seizure of power and state building. Schematically, we might consider a causal narrative along these lines: Conditions that favor fascism include the presence of a marginalized group of young people who are subject to great economic insecurity; an ideology that combines nationalism, ethnic
suspicion, and disaffection from established social institutions and values, and a compelling narrative of how and why this group ought to wield power. To this we might add a few propitious international conditions: the threat of war, a widening economic crisis, and a broad
view that the modern state isn’t up to handling these challenges.

This approach sketches out a view of what might be a basis for an explanation of the rise of fascist social movements. Here we have singled out several causal-social factors that facilitate popular mobilization and the politicization of social movements. What it doesn’t yet explain is why and in what circumstances these movements are likely to grow powerful enough to challenge the existing state structure; this remains for another discussion.

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