Philosophies of the far right

image: Joseph de Maistre

The ideologies of the far right have a particularly strong grip on a segment of democratic society in the current epoch. This is evident in the extremism of the current leadership of the GOP, and it is evident as well in the growth of hate-based groups in the United States (link). What are the ideas, values, and emotions that possess these anti-liberal, anti-democratic persons and parties?

There is a fairly simple set of answers that resonate with journalistic coverage of the far right in the US and other countries: nativism, anti-immigrant activism, white supremacy, anti-government activism, class resentment, and willingness to appeal to violence against one’s political or cultural “enemies”. These are the items mentioned in the hypothetical “far-right index” proposed in a recent post (link). Many of these attitudes and values can be bundled together into “right-wing populism” (link).

Do these attitudes amount to a political philosophy? Or are they more akin to a smorgasbord of separate attitudes of intolerance, mostly unified by hatred and mistrust of other groups, resentment of one’s own governing classes, and a crass willfulness that refuses any sense of collective democratic obligation? 

One way of thinking about this question is provided by Mark Sedgwick’s very interesting 2019 volume, Key Thinkers of the Radical Right: Behind the New Threat to Liberal Democracy. The contributors are drawn from a range of European and North American research institutes, and their essays reflect some of the diversity that exists across right-wing extremist thought in western democracies today.

In his informative introduction Sedgwick highlights a number of political ideas in these waves of far-right thinkers: from Spengler, a theme of “apocalypticism”; from Schmitt, a “suspicion of the global universal elite”, emphasis on “friend and enemy” in politics, and legitimation of authoritarian rule; from Evola, the elevation of tradition, hierarchy, and the transcendent; from de Benoist, a rejection of egalitarianism in favor of “ethnopluralism”; from Buchanan the “white European” roots of US history and heritage, as well as a deep suspicion of “global liberal elites” and antagonism towards Mexican immigration into the United States; from Taylor and Dugin a race-specific ideal of US culture; and from Bat Ye’or a fundamental antagonism towards Muslim states and immigration. There is a broad family resemblance across these conservative visions of civilization, but they by no means add up to a coherent philosophical system.

The volume also treats “emerging” thinkers on the far right: Mencius Moldbug, Greg Johnson, Richard Spencer, Jack Donovan, and Daniel Friberg. The political and cultural radicalism of this most recent group are the most extreme and alarming — and the most influential on current hate-based organizations:

Moldbug and Johnson are both former libertarians. Moldbug draws on Gramsci’s analysis of hegemonic intellectual elites, and Johnson draws directly on the French New Right and on the idea of metapolitics (as well as on Heidegger and Traditionalism). Moldbug, like many other key thinkers, warns against progressive elites and their universalism, the egalitarian rhetoric that conceals their rule, and the “feedback loop” of which they are part, which he labels “the Cathedral.” He goes farther than most on the radical Right in directly and explicitly condemning democracy as a mask for the Cathedral, preferring hierarchy (like Evola) to democracy. Johnson, who runs the important website Counter-Currents, is perhaps the most radical of the contemporary thinkers of the radical Right, certainly in ethnic and racial terms. He is unusual in being distinctly anti-Semitic, a position held otherwise only by Schmitt, and then really only during the Third Reich. As well as subscribing to the Traditionalist narrative of inevitable decline, Johnson sees an apocalyptic risk of “demographic Armageddon,” and calls explicitly for forced population transfer and the nonlethal ethnic cleansing of both Jewish and black Americans to allow a white “ethnostate,” with blacks getting their own ethnostate in the American South, and Jews moving to Israel. It is Johnson who, alone among modern and contemporary key thinkers of the radical right, expresses sympathy for Nazism. In a typical month in 2017, his Counter-Currents website attracted two hundred thousand visitors who viewed 1.5 million pages of content. (kl 337)

Significantly, Sedgwick observes that the most politically potent of these far-right themes in the US are the themes of racial and cultural antagonism. “Race, Islam, and elites are especially important issues today because, more than the other themes common to the key thinkers of the radical Right, they have easy resonance at the street level, and in electoral politics” (introduction, kl 405).

The non-profit organization Counter Extremism Project monitors the activities of extremist and white-supremacist groups in numerous countries. Here is an extensive report on the current activities of white supremacist groups in the US; link. The report provides extensive evidence of the themes of racism, anti-semitism, anti-Muslim bigotry, and nativist political identities that are highlighted in the current wave of “Alt-Right” writers. Many of the groups documented in this report are neo-Nazi groups with explicit messages of anti-Semitism, racism, and violence.

So here is the hard question. Does the tradition of radical-right philosophy drive modern far-right extremism? Or are the philosophies expressed by this tradition just an epiphenomenon, with the real drivers of extremism coming from currents of racism, hatred, and antagonism that are present in segments of the populations of various countries of Europe and North America? Does a Patrick Buchanan or a Richard Spencer wield political influence because of his apocalyptic ideas, or rather simply because his ideas serve as a basis for potent mobilization speeches on Youtube and TikTok for individuals and groups already inclined towards hate and violence?

The answer seems evident. The extremist right as an activist movement is not driven by a coherent political philosophy. Rather, it is propelled by demagoguery, another ancient Greek invention; the use of simple tropes to win the emotions of masses of followers and energize them to action. And the tropes that have driven extremism in the US are painfully evident: white supremacy, nativism, resentment, and fear of the black helicopters.

An extremism index for elected officials

Senator Mike Braun (R-Indiana) made news in the past few days by questioning whether the Supreme Court was right to rule in 1967 that state bans on interracial marriage were unconstitutional. Here is the exchange (link):

“So you would be OK with the Supreme Court leaving the question of interracial marriage to the states?” a reporter asked.

“Yes,” Braun answered. “I think that that’s something that if you’re not wanting the Supreme Court to weigh in on issues like that, you’re not going to be able to have your cake and eat it too. I think that’s hypocritical.”

Braun now says that he misunderstood the question; but the video makes that hard to believe.

Braun’s statement is just the most recent in a long series of appalling statements, screeds, and complaints by elected officials that place them in the range of what would have been called unacceptable right-wing extremism only a few decades ago. US senators and representatives have made statements with extremely ominous implications on a range of topics:

  • justifying or encouraging political violence
  • condoning racism and white supremacy
  • vilifying their political opponents
  • aligning themselves with openly insurrectionary organizations
  • expressing admiration for authoritarian leaders in other countries
  • calling for extreme voter suppression legislation in their home states
  • defending the January 6 rioters as “peaceful protesters”

Reading the newspapers everyday provides the interested reader with an impression that these kinds of statements are increasing in frequency and boldness, but that is just an impression. Would it be possible to attempt a more systematic study of the extent and depth of anti-democratic rhetoric among our elected officials based on their public speeches and comments?

This sounds like a big-data kind of project, in which the research team would collect speeches, interviews, and quotes through newspaper reports, press releases, social media items, and other sources. Then a systematic content analysis could be performed, identifying recurring themes and phrases for each politician. The work would need to be done according to clear criteria so that it would be possible to provide a profile of the themes advocated by each politician, and a measure of each politician’s score with respect to a few large themes: white supremacy/racism; condoning of political violence; support for voter suppression; support for the rule of law; support for neutral and equal political institutions; affiliation with extremist groups; ….

An ongoing project like this could be conducted by a news organization like Talking Points Memo (link), the Atlantic Monthly, or the Guardian, or it could be conducted by a non-profit organization.Much as the Americans for Democratic Action (link) constructs a “liberalism index” for elected officials based on their voting records on a selected group of pieces of legislation, we might imagine a multi-dimensional index of elected officials measuring their affiliation with right-wing extremism through statements contained in their public utterances. 

It would be very interesting to see a list of current elected officials who have explicitly supported racist or white supremacist ideas; a list of officials who have endorsed or encouraged political violence; a list of officials who cast doubt on the validity of voting and electoral processes; and officials who have publicly associated themselves with hate-based groups. Presumably there would be a good degree of association among the lists, and as citizens we would be in a much better position to understand the depth and breadth of the threat to democracy that we currently face. And it is likely that many of us would be jolted and alarmed at how long those lists are.

The graphic for this kind of research project might look like a weird spike protein for each individual, with spikes for the handful of themes and values used to aggregate the content analysis of their speeches. A politician given to racist utterances, support for political violence, and support for voter suppression would show a preponderance of elongated spikes on these themes, and negligible spikes on the pro-democracy, pro-voting rights, anti-racism themes.

The research team might go further and consider constructing a “rightwing extremism” index, as a weighted combination of several of these factors.

It would be very interesting to see how many members of the Senate and the House would emerge with high scores on the “rightwing extremism” index. In the current environment it seems as though the number would be a large one. And it would also be very interesting to see how the distribution of ratings on this index changes over time. Will these politicians become even more extreme in the near future? Will they begin to moderate their words and actions? Will the impulse towards anti-democratic extremism abate in the United States, or will it continue to intensify? And most importantly, what do these trends suggest for the health and prospects for our democracy?

It is possible that there is research along these lines currently underway. If so, I’d like to hear about it.

Telling the truth about genocide and totalitarian terror

A central question in the past year or so in Understanding Society is how historians and philosophers should confront the evils of the twentieth century. It seems clear that studying these processes fully and honestly is a key part of the answer, both for scholars and for ordinary citizens. We need to confront the truth about ugly facts about our history. In his documentary article “Treblinka as Hell” Vasily Grossman tries to express why it is important to speak honestly about the facts of mass murder and genocide.

It is the duty of a writer to tell the truth however gruelling, and the duty of the reader to learn the truth. To turn aside, or to close one’s eyes to the truth is to insult the memory of the dead. The person who does not learn the whole truth will never understand what kind of enemy, what sort of monster, our great Red Army is waging battle against to the death. (399)

But telling the truth about acts of genocide, atrocities, and state crimes is not easy. This is partly true for reasons of psychology and identity — as LaCapra has argued, the horrors of the Holocaust are locations of trauma, and trauma is difficult to confront (link). But there is a more material barrier to truth-telling when it comes to genocide and state repression: the states and groups that commit or collaborate in these atrocities are very interested in preventing knowledge of their crimes to become public. And they are generally very willing to use coercion, violence, and massive deception against those who attempt to learn the truth and make it public. Truth-telling, therefore, can be career-ending or life-ending.

This situation was especially acute during the years of Soviet dictatorship in the USSR and its dependent states in Eastern Europe, and most pointedly for writers. Anyone who lived in these countries in the 1930s through the 1980s knew a great deal about the facts of dictatorship, arbitrary arrest, state lies, and the prison camps in the Gulag. But writing openly and honestly about these facts — or even whispering about them to trusted friends — could lead to arrest and imprisonment or death. So how could gifted and principled authors deal with this contradiction during Soviet times? 

A substantial number of writers during the Soviet era became willing accomplices in the ideology, propaganda, and crimes of Stalinism (and the Leninist regime that preceded). But some did not. And many who did not, did not survive the purges of 1938 and later years. 

There were a few noteworthy exceptions — writers who maintained a degree of independence and honesty, but whom good fortune permitted to survive. Consider for example Mikhail Sholokhov, a highly prominent writer from the Cossack region of the Ukraine whose Don novels became among the most popular fiction throughout the period; who became a close confidant of Stalin; and yet who persisted in expressing the suffering of the peasants of the Ukraine (his neighbors) during the 1930s collectivization and the war of starvation that Stalin waged against them. Sholokhov maintained a degree of independence and integrity, even as he navigated censorship and the NKVD. (Brian Boeck’s biography of Sholokhov, Stalin’s Scribe: Literature, Ambition, and Survival: The Life of Mikhail Sholokhov, is an excellent source on Sholokhov’s life and writing. Sholokhov won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965.) Sholokhov was not entirely admirable — he is accused of sharing the anti-Semitism of the Stalinist period more generally (including sometimes his comments about Vasily Grossman). And he never wrote or spoke publicly against the genocide of the Jews during World War II, the mass exterminations that occurred across the Ukraine, or the resurgence of Soviet anti-Semitism following the end of the war. For example, his 1943 short story about Nazis at war, “The Science of Hatred,” does not mention atrocities against the Jews and other innocent people; link. But he was willing to speak some of the truth of the failures and criminality of Soviet persecution of the peasants of the Ukraine — and that was a considerable political risk. 

But consider another singular and important case in point: the life and writings of Vasily Grossman (link). (Alexandra Popoff’s biography of Grossman, Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, is an excellent treatment of his life and work.) Grossman was born as a Jew in the Ukraine in 1905 (the same year as Sholokhov), and in early adulthood he became a writer. He gained a degree in chemistry and worked for several years in a coal mine and a factory. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 he attempted to volunteer for military service, but was rejected for health reasons. He was accepted as a war journalist, and he traveled with the Red Army through its most desperate fighting, culminating in the siege of Stalingrad. His journalism from the front was among the most highly respected in the Soviet Union. It was honest, penetrating, and very sensitive to the conditions of life for the average Soviet soldier in combat. 

Grossman was personally aware of the program of extermination that the invading German army was waging in the western territories of the Soviet Union, Ukraine, and the Baltic countries through his active combat experience with the Red Army. Grossman’s mother had remained in their home city, Berdichev, and in 1941 the Jews of Berdichev were rounded up and massacred. Here is Grossman’s account from about 1944 about the massacre of Berdichev (link), included in The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry. In a period of only two days over 20,000 Jewish children, women, and men were killed by gunfire, rifle butt, and brutal beatings — including Grossman’s mother. (Estimates range from 20,000 to 38,536 Jewish victims during the summer of 1941.) The Communist Party and the Stalinist government of the USSR were unwilling to provide an honest account of the campaign of murder and extermination against the Jews of Eastern Europe during 1941 and subsequent years, and Grossman’s directness and honesty in his journalism and in Life and Fate are exceptional. As noted in the earlier post, Grossman was the first journalist to provide extensive details about the workings of any Nazi death camp, as a result of his arrival at the site of Treblinka with the Soviet 62nd Army in 1944. His essay, “Ukraine without Jews,” is an enormously important contribution to the effort to understand the true significance of the extermination of Europe’s Jews. Grossman’s experience in the Ukraine before the war and with the Red Army gave him a dramatic view of the crimes committed by the Soviet state. He witnessed the forced collectivization of agriculture and campaign of starvation in the Ukraine in the early 1930s, the crushing terror of the late 1930s, and the creation of the Gulag in the 1940s. He thus witnessed the massive totalitarian atrocities committed by Stalin’s apparatus in the name of communism and the total power of the Communist Party, resulting in the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens and hundreds of thousands of writers, engineers, functionaries, and other “enemies of the people”.

During his years as a war correspondent Grossman continued to have great respect and admiration for ordinary Red Army soldiers, but the command staff and political officers soon became contemptible to him.

Grossman wrote two important novels based on his experience at Stalingrad. Both were massively long — well over 1,000 pages. The first, Stalingrad, was published in the USSR under the title For a Just Cause in 1943 but was quickly withdrawn from the public by Soviet censors. The second, a masterpiece of world literature, was Life and Fate, and had a much more grim view of the Soviet state and of Stalinism. In 1961 the manuscript was seized (“arrested”) and Grossman was told that it could not be published for 250 years. He was expelled from the Writers Union — his primary source of income — and his health began to decline. He wrote several other novels, but died of stomach cancer in 1964 at the age of 59.

There were several themes which drew Grossman into conflict with the Stalinist censors, and with Stalin himself. First was the fact that Grossman understood very well that Hitler’s genocidal plans of extermination were directed primarily against the Jews of Europe — not random victims of war. But the Soviet party line was to refrain completely from “separating” Jewish victims from other “Soviet citizens” who died at the hands of the Nazis. This was an ideological principle, but it also derived from resurgent anti-Semitism in the USSR as well. This accounts for the Soviet, and later Ukrainian, refusal to place a memorial at Babi Yar in honor of the tens of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children killed there in 1941.

Second, Grossman wrote honestly about ordinary workers and soldiers, including their shortcomings. He was not primarily interested in making heroes of coal miners or infantrymen, and was very explicit about alcohol and other forms of “anti-socialist behavior” among workers. The censors, in contrast, wanted to see novels and stories in which workers were portrayed heroically.

The third line of conflict had to do with the totalitarian and murderous grip of Soviet rule itself. Grossman was especially aware of the massive harms created by Stalin’s decimation of the Red Army officer corps through purges before the war and his pig-headed interference with military strategy in the conduct of the war, leading to several million unnecessary casualties and prisoners of war. Grossman was revolted at the behavior and abuses of the state and its functionaries during the conduct of World War II, and he found ways of expressing these views in his writings — most clearly in Life and Fate. Grossman was a critic of Stalinism before it was either fashionable or safe to do so. Here is a passage from Life and Fate on the Gulag and the political prisons:

In other times, before the war, Krimov often walked past the Lubyanka at night and wondered what was happening behind the windows of that sleepless building. Those arrested were locked up in prison for eight months, a year, a year and a half, while the investigation was ongoing. Then his relatives received letters from the fields, they discovered new names: Komi, Salekhard. Norilsk, Kotlas, Magadan, Vorkutá, Kolymá, Kuznetsk, Krasnoyarsk, Karaganda, Nagayevo Bay … But thousands of people who were imprisoned in the inner Lubyanka prison disappeared forever. The prosecution informed the relatives that they had been sentenced to “ten years without the right to correspondence”, but there were no such sentences in the camps. Ten years without the right to correspond almost certainly meant that they had been shot. (853)

Consider finally the case of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago exposed in great detail the horrendous crimes and scope of suffering created by Stalin’s reign of terror through secret police and prison camps. Born in 1918 near Stavropol in the North Caucasus, Solzhenitsyn’s experience of the Soviet Union came a decade or more later than that of Grossman and Sholokhov. He served in the Red Army as an artillery captain, and was arrested by Stalin’s NKVD in 1945 for critical comments about Stalin that he had included in a private letter to a friend. Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years of labor in the Gulag. He was cleared of charges in 1956. 

Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag is a massive documentation of the experience of life in a labor camp in the extreme north, the tundra and the forest, of the USSR. It begins with the arrest and progresses through the many hardships and deprivations created for the prisoners by the state. The aftermath of the arrest:

For those left behind after the arrest there is the long tail end of a wrecked and devastated life. And the attempts to go and deliver food parcels. But from all the windows the answer comes in barking voices: “Nobody here by that name!” “Never heard of him!” Yes, and in the worst days in Leningrad it took five days of standing in crowded lines just to get to that window. And it may be only after half a year or a year that the arrested person responds at all. Or else the answer is tossed out: “Deprived of the right to correspond.” And that means once and for all. “No right to correspondence”—and that almost for certain means: “Has been shot.”

And the helpless desire that it might have been possible to resist:

And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?… The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If…if…We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation…. We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward. (Gulag Archipelago)

Telling the truth — as Grossman and Solzhenitsyn did remarkably well throughout their careers, and Sholokhov did in a partial way — is enormously hard in a totalitarian society. When the state is willing to send its critics to deadly labor camps, or to shoot them out of hand, it is virtually impossible to imagine many writers striving to tell the truths that they know. And in any case, since the state controls the means of publication, the critical writer cannot publish his or her work in any case. During the Soviet period, many writers wrote “for the desk drawer” — manuscripts that could only be published in the distant future. And, knowing the likelihood of hidden manuscripts, the NKVD was very careful in its searches of the apartments of suspected critics and its other victims; correspondence, files, and unpublished manuscripts were routinely burned. In the somewhat less repressive period of post-Stalinist USSR there was a period of Samizdat (self-publishing) — writings that were distributed as typescripts, hand-written documents, mimeographed documents, and eventually photocopies. Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was published as Samizdat to a limited readership. But truthful description, diagnosis, and criticism — these forms of expression were almost entirely impossible within the Stalinist regime. And yet it is impossible for a society to repair its most dehumanizing features if it is impossible to speak openly about those crimes.

United States after the failure of democracy

Democracy is at risk in the United States. Why do leading political observers like Steven Levitsky and  Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die) fear for the fate of our democracy? Because anti-democratic forces have taken over one of America’s primary political parties — the GOP; because GOP officials, governors, and legislators openly conspire to subvert future elections; because GOP activists and officials work intensively in state legislatures to restrict voting rights for non-Republican voters, including people of color and city dwellers; and because the Supreme Court no longer protects the Constitution and the rights that it embodies. 

Here is how Levitsky and Ziblatt summarize their urgent concerns about the future of our democracy in a recent Atlantic article (link):

From November 2020 to January 2021, then, a significant portion of the Republican Party refused to unambiguously accept electoral defeat, eschew violence, or break with extremist groups—the three principles that define prodemocracy parties. Because of that behavior, as well as its behavior over the past six months, we are convinced that the Republican Party leadership is willing to overturn an election. Moreover, we are concerned that it will be able to do so—legally. That’s why we serve on the board of advisers to Protect Democracy, a nonprofit working to prevent democratic decline in the United States. We wrote this essay as part of “The Democracy Endgame,” the group’s symposium on the long-term strategy to fight authoritarianism.

Any reader of the morning newspaper understands how deadly serious this threat is. Many residents of Michigan find it absolutely chilling that the most recently appointed GOP canvasser for Wayne County has said publicly that he would not have certified the election results for the county in 2020 — with no factual basis whatsoever (link). With GOP officials in many states indicating their corrupt willingness to subvert future elections, how can one have a lot of hope for the future of our democracy?

So, tragically, it is very timely to consider this difficult question: what might an anti-democratic authoritarian system look like in the United States? Sinclair Lewis considered this question in 1935, and his portrait in It Can’t Happen Here was gloomy. Here is a snippet of Lewis’s vision of a fascist dictatorship in America following the election of the unscrupulous populist candidate Berzelius Windrip and his paramilitary followers, the Minute Men:

At the time of Windrip’s election, there had been more than 80,000 relief administrators employed by the federal and local governments in America. With the labor camps absorbing most people on relief, this army of social workers, both amateurs and long-trained professional uplifters, was stranded.

The Minute Men controlling the labor camps were generous: they offered the charitarians the same dollar a day that the proletarians received, with special low rates for board and lodging. But the cleverer social workers received a much better offer: to help list every family and every unmarried person in the country, with his or her finances, professional ability, military training and, most important and most tactfully to be ascertained, his or her secret opinion of the M.M.’s and of the Corpos in general.

A good many of the social workers indignantly said that this was asking them to be spies, stool pigeons for the American OGPU. These were, on various unimportant charges, sent to jail or, later, to concentration camps—which were also jails, but the private jails of the M.M.’s, unshackled by any old-fashioned, nonsensical prison regulations.

In the confusion of the summer and early autumn of 1937, local M.M. officers had a splendid time making their own laws, and such congenital traitors and bellyachers as Jewish doctors, Jewish musicians, Negro journalists, socialistic college professors, young men who preferred reading or chemical research to manly service with the M.M.’s, women who complained when their men had been taken away by the M.M.’s and had disappeared, were increasingly beaten in the streets, or arrested on charges that would not have been very familiar to pre-Corpo jurists. (ch xvii)

But perhaps this is extreme. Foretelling the future is impossible, but here are several features that seem likely enough given the current drift of US politics, if anti-democratic authoritarian politicians seize control of our legislative and executive offices.

Undermining of constitutional liberties

  • weakening of freedom of the press through additional libel-law restrictions, bonds, and other “chilling” legal mechanisms
  • weakening of freedom of thought and speech through legislation and bullying concerning critical / unpopular doctrines — “Critical Race Theory”, “Queer Studies”, “Communist/anarchist thought”, …
  • weakening of freedom of association through extension of police surveillance, police violence, “anti-riot” legislation limiting demonstrations, vilification by leaders, trolls, and social media of outspoken advocates of unpopular positions

Further restrictions on voting rights and voter access to elections

  • extreme gerrymandering to ensure one-party dominance
  • unreasonable voter ID requirements
  • limitations on absentee voting
  • voter intimidation at the polls

The imposition of laws and mandates that are distinctly opposed by the majority of citizens by minority-party-dominated legislatures 

  • repressive and unconstitutional anti-abortion legislation
  • open-carry firearms legislation

Implementation of an anti-regulation agenda that gives a free hand to big business and other powerful stakeholders

  • weakening of regulatory agencies through reduction of legal mandate and budget

Intimidation of dissenters through violent threats, paramilitary demonstrations, and the occasional murder

  • encouragement of social violence by followers of the authoritarian leader
  • persecution through informal and sometimes formal channels of racial and social minorities — immigrants, people of color, Asians, LGBTQ and transgender people, …
  • threats of violence and murder against public officials, journalists, and dissidents

These are terrible outcomes, and taken together they represent the extinction of liberal democracy: the integrity of constitutionally-defined equal rights for all individuals, and the principle of majoritarian public decision-making. But what about the extremes that authoritarian states have often reached in the past century — wholesale persecution of “enemies of the state”, imprisonment of dissidents, forcible dissolution of opposition political organizations, political murder, and wholesale use of paramilitary organizations to achieve the political goals of the authoritarian rules? What about the secret police, the Gulag, and the concentration camps? What are the prospects for these horrific outcomes in the United States? How likely is the descent imagined by Sinclair Lewis into wholesale fascist dictatorship?

One would like to say these extremes are unlikely in the US — that US authoritarianism would be “soft dictatorship” like that of Orban rather than the hard dictatorship of a Putin involving rule by fear, violence, imprisonment, and intimidation. But actually, history is not encouraging. We have seen the decline of one after another of the “guard rails of democracy” in just the past five years, and we have seen the actions of a president who clearly cared only about his own power and will. So where exactly should we find optimism for the idea that an American Mussolini or Windrip would never commit the crimes of the dictators of the twentieth century? Isn’t there a great deal of truth in Acton’s maxim, “power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely”? Here is Acton’s quote in its more extended context; and it is very specific in its advice that we should not trust “great leaders” to refrain from great crimes:

If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

Would any of us want to trust our fate as free, equal, and dignified persons to the kindness and democratic values of a Greg Abbott, Ron DeSantis, or Donald Trump? 

The best remedy against these terrible outcomes is to struggle for our democracy now. We must give full and deep support to politicians and candidates who demonstrate a commitment to democratic values, and we must reject the very large number of GOP politicians who countenance the subversion of our democracy through their adherence to the lies of the Trump years. This is not a struggle between “liberals” and “conservatives”; it is a struggle between those who value our liberal democracy and those who cynically undermine and disparage it. And perhaps we will need to take the example and the courage of men and women in Belarus, Myanmar, Thailand, and Hong Kong in their willingness to stand up against the usurpation of their democratic rights through massive peaceful demonstrations.

Fascist populism and the threat to democracy

What features of a political regime contribute to political loyalty and commitment on the part of its citizens? Can a fascist dictatorship inspire political loyalty and commitment from the mass of society? And what about liberal democracy; can a liberal democratic regime maintain mass support?

We have the makings of an answer to the first question. A fascist dictatorship like that of Mussolini can indeed maintain passionate support through a powerful (often mendacious) ideology and value scheme — fatherland, church, family, scapegoating of “enemies of the people”; a social program that finds support (repression of immigrants and ethnic minorities); and a demonstration of competent governance (“the trains run on time”). This story identifies several factors — ideology and values, scapegoating, implementation of popular policies of repression, and efficient adminstration of government (economic growth. jobs, stable prices, …).

So what about liberal democracy: a maximal, extensive, and equal system of rights; and a legislative process implementing equal democratic rights to set law and policy. Does this system provide a basis for eliciting loyalty and commitment from all or most citizens? In particular, does it support a compelling value statement, a real principle of tolerance, and the capacity for achieving “good government” (efficient management of the public good)? Can the values of equal worth, tolerance of difference, and majoritarian decision-making lead to loyalty and commitment? Can a Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton create an inspiring vision of the future that mobilizes most citizens in support?

The prospects don’t appear to be very good. Anti-liberal political opportunists can always create a counter-narrative that directly or tacitly rejects equality and tolerance and seeks to create a basis for minority rule. Right-wing populism has shown itself to be insidious and virulent — very capable of winning support from large groups of anti-liberal activists and followers. The politics of division and hate are indeed powerful. Fascist ideology, values, and programs have great strength in the space of contemporary mass politics. The currents of hate, fear, racism, xenophobia, and the political maneuver of “group supremacy” have shown themselves to be highly potent bases for political mobilization.

There seem to be two levels of support for a regime that are in question. First is “rational/reasonable consideration” of which regime best suits my longterm interests. The second is “emotional/passionate mobilization” around the call to action by a highly persuasive leader — a Tucker Carlson or Mussolini. The first is a deliberative “all things considered” choice of a regime; the other is political marketing and propaganda.

What then are the prospects for continuing stable support for liberal democracy? First, it is clear that this kind of support is not automatic. There are powerful and compelling anti-liberal voices in the space of liberal democracy. Liberal democrats must compete vigorously or they will lose. They must articulate the value of liberal democracy and the very real dangers of the rise of populist extremism.

Second, liberal democracy needs to make credible the belief that liberal democratic government can succeed in creating laws and policies that genuinely enhance justice, equality, and opportunity.

And third, defenders of liberal democracy need to ensure that the institutions of the state continue to guarantee the rights of all citizens. The willingness of the far-right to use violent threats and actions against our institutions must be rebutted. January 6 is a dangerous and sobering precedent; so are the kidnapping plot against Michigan Governor Whitmer, the brandishing of semi-automatic weapons in state houses around the country, and the intimidation of public health officials during the pandemic. Violence and intimidation are inherently toxic to liberal democracy.

It seems very clear: Citizens must actively assert themselves in support of our liberal democracy, or we will go the way of Hungary.

The Holocaust “comparability” debate

The question of how to understand the Holocaust has troubled historians since the first knowledge of the war of extermination against the Jews of Europe became widespread in the 1940s. Is the Holocaust unique in human history? Can the crimes of the Holocaust be compared to other periods of genocide in the twentieth century? Is there a connection between Hitler’s war on the Jews and German character, German colonialism, or German philosophy?

The most recent iteration of the debate is taking place through a spate of articles, books, and internet contributions by talented scholars like Neil Gregor, Michael Rothberg, Jurgen Zimmerer, Achille Mbembe, Dirk Moses, and others, and the debate has been intense. A. Dirk Moses, author of The Problems of Genocide, frames the debate in a contribution to Geschichte der gegenwert (History of the presentlink) that has stimulated a series of excellent responses in the New Fascism Syllabus (link). Moses’ article is short and polemical, provocatively titled “The German Catechism” (link). Moses believes that the politics of the Federal Republic of Germany over the past several decades have led to a dogmatic and limiting set of assumptions about how scholars and the public should understand and remember the Holocaust. And he believes this set of strictures makes it difficult to bring forward the facts of genocide and atrocity that were part of the European colonial practice in Africa and other parts of the world. Moses puts his view in these terms:

For many, the memory of the Holocaust as a break with civilization is the moral foundation of the Federal Republic. To compare it with other genocides is therefore considered a heresy, an apostasy from the right faith. It is time to abandon this catechism. (link)

Moses describes the debate as revolving around a “catechism” of beliefs about the Holocaust which, according to some, should never be questioned:

  1. The Holocaust is unique in that it involves the unrestricted annihilation of Jews for the sake of their annihilation.In contrast to the pragmatic and limited goals for which other genocides were undertaken, a state here tried for the first time in history to wipe out a people solely for ideological reasons.
  2. Since it destroyed interpersonal solidarity in an unprecedented manner, the memory of the Holocaust as a breach of civilization forms the moral foundation of the German nation, often even of European civilization.
  3. Germany bears a special responsibility for the Jews in Germany and is obliged to show particular loyalty to Israel: “Israel’s security is part of the raison d’être of our country.”
  4. Anti-Semitism is a prejudice and ideologem sui generis and it was a specifically German phenomenon. It should not be confused with racism.
  5. Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. (link)

The discussion of Moses’ polemical piece has alternated between general support for Moses’ ideas in broad strokes and criticisms of the sharper edges of his piece. On the “support” side is a very thoughtful piece by Neil Gregor (link), including this general remark about the importance of understanding the Holocaust in a broader historical context: “For a long time, the history of National Socialism has made much greater sense to me when understood as European history as well as German history, and I have always thought it important to locate it within wider histories of European colonialism and racial science, to read its ideological drives within the contexts of more generic nationalism, militarism and anti-democratic thought, and to see it as having been incubated by powerful tendencies in not just German, but European histories from the nineteenth century onwards.” Gregor also offers a series of thoughtful hesitations about Moses’ article, mostly having to do with its categorical and polemical tone.

The heart of the debate has to do with the status of the Holocaust in world history. Is the Shoah historically unique and incomparable to other terrible events? Does it represent a “civilizational break”? Do historians diminish the moral importance of the Holocaust by discussing it in the context of broader historical circumstances and actions in Europe and the world? Is a concern for colonial violence and European racism in Africa, Palestine, or other parts of the colonized world a tacit diminishment of the importance of the Holocaust? Is it possible — as historians do in the nature of their work — to analyze the Holocaust in a comparative mode, considering regimes of killings in other parts of the world as well?

A very basic thread of this debate is the relationship between the crimes of the Holocaust by the Nazi regime and the crimes of colonial powers in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. From outside the debate — and outside Germany — it seems clear that it is necessary to be able to consider the historical causes of multiple human catastrophes — as Timothy Snyder does in treating the Holocaust and the Holodomor in the same book (Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin). This effort at placing large events in a historical context and considering their dynamics in comparison to other historical processes is at the heart of the historian’s craft. This does not imply one evil is the same as another; it simply reflects a very ordinary moral conviction that it is crucial to honestly recognize the crimes of the past, whoever the perpetrators and whoever the victims.

The fifth item in the catechism is especially politically charged in the context of today’s geopolitical realities. It implies that criticisms of the military and governmental policies of the state of Israel are inherently anti-Semitic. And yet this position is plainly fundamentally unacceptable from a moral point of view. It is evident that scholars and citizens alike must be free to express their disapproval and alarm about official actions of the government of Israel in its treatment of Palestinians in Gaza, the occupied territories, and Israel itself. The equation of criticisms of state policies by Israel with anti-Semitism connects directly with international disagreements about the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS), as well as efforts in Germany and the United States to limit support for BDS. Again, whatever the justice of the demands associated with BDS, it seems evident on its face that a liberal state cannot enact legislation prohibiting support for the BDS movement.

A recent eruption in the controversy about memory and the Holocaust is a debate that arose in Germany in 2020 concerning the writings of Achille Mbembe (link). Mbembe is a noted Cameroonian scholar on post-colonial history, with a long record of highly-regarded scholarship. He has been an outspoken critic of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. “The occupation of Palestine is the biggest moral scandal of our times, one of the most dehumanizing ordeals of the century we have just entered, and the biggest act of cowardice of the last half-century” (foreword to Apartheid Israel: The Politics of an Analogy). He has expressed support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS) as a response to policies and military / police actions of the state of Israel against Palestinian citizens. The controversy was taken up officially in Germany by Felix Klein, the first Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism. Mbembe was accused of anti-Semitism for his position on BDS, and he was accused of relativizing the Holocaust, apparently because of his use of the concept of apartheid in application to Israel. Mbembe has vigorously denied the charge of anti-Semitism at all levels.

One of the historians whose work has been at the center of the debate about comparability is Michael Rothberg. His Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization makes the effort to draw own the relationships that exist at multiple levels — structural and moral — between the extermination campaign against Europe’s Jewish population and the systematic violence and murder that occurred through colonial governance in Africa and elsewhere. The idea of the “multidirectionality” of memory plays a key role in his treatment; instead of comparison, we are invited to consider a range of facts and causes of the evils of genocide, slavery, and mass violence. Here is how he formulates the basic issue in Multidirectional Memory (discussing Walter Benn Michaels’ treatment of the parallel facts of US slavery and the Holocaust):

In this passage Michaels takes up one of the most agonizing problems of contemporary multicultural societies: how to think about the relationship between different social groups’ histories of victimization. This problem, as Michaels recognizes, also fundamentally concerns collective memory, the relationship that such groups establish between their past and their present circumstances. A series of questions central to this book emerges at this point: What happens when different histories confront each other in the public sphere? Does the remembrance of one history erase others from view? When memories of slavery and colonialism bump up against memories of the Holocaust in contemporary multicultural societies, must a competition of victims ensue? (kl 154)

Rothberg is a participant is the current debate about historical memory, and his interpretation of the Mbembe affair is especially helpful for readers trying to understand the terms of the debate (link). Here is Rothberg’s summary of the circumstances of the affair in Germany:

Mbembe, one of the world’s most prominent theorists of race, colonialism, violence, and human possibility, was slated to speak in August 2020 at a cultural festival in Germany, the Ruhr Triennial. A regional politician, Lorenz Deutsch, decided to try and block Mbembe’s appearance by issuing an open letter that presented a handful of citations from Mbembe’s work mentioning the Holocaust, apartheid, and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. On the basis of these short and decontextualized excerpts, Deutsch accused Mbembe of “anti-Semitic ‘Israel critique,’ Holocaust relativization, and extremist disinformation.” Deutsch’s interpretation of Mbembe’s work—which I consider tendentious, partial, and misleading—was taken up and affirmed by a more prominent voice, that of Felix Klein, the German Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and for the Fight against Antisemitism. Although the Ruhr Triennial was canceled because of the coronavirus, Deutsch and Klein nevertheless wanted its director censured and Mbembe disinvited because the latter had allegedly profaned the Holocaust, demonized Israel, and offered support to BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions). BDS, a non-violent campaign that calls for the end of the occupation, the return of refugees, and equal rights for Palestinians, was deemed intrinsically antisemitic in a controversial 2019 Bundestag declaration, despite protests by intellectuals and activists, including many Jewish ones. Mbembe stated that he was not a member of the BDS movement, but even a tangential association with BDS has proven enough to tarnish reputations in contemporary Germany—as the director of the Jewish Museum Berlin, Peter Schäfer, also learned last year. (link)

Rothberg suggests that we would be well advised to reconceive the issues by recognizing that comparison is not the most fundamental issue; instead, the subtext of both historians’ debates has to do with responsibility and the denial of responsibility.

The juxtaposition of Historikerstreit versions 1.0 and 2.0—as well as the wide-ranging discussions about Holocaust memory, colonialism, slavery, and Israel/Palestine that continue in Germany and elsewhere—clarifies the need to link memory to solidarity and historical responsibility: that is, to the ethical and political commitments that subtend public forms of remembrance. Beyond comparison lies the implication of the intellectuals who debate comparisons in the histories they dispute. In the simplest terms, we can say that the original Historikerstreit involved a clash among Germans over Germany’s particular responsibility for the Holocaust. In the new discussions, the participants are not all Germans and the histories at stake are more than European. Far from diluting the participants’ implication in historical and contemporary injustices, however, this enlargement of the field of comparison sharpens the question of responsibility. The new Historikerstreit is not a controversy only for Germans and Europeans, but it is not one they can evade either.

Dirk Moses offers a very extensive reply, rebuttal, and reinforcement of his views in a concluding post in the series (link). There is a great deal of developed argumentation in his closing article, and it is worth reading carefully. However, it doesn’t become less polemical. If anything, Moses raises the stakes in his polemics, making German white supremacy the key to the German catechism that he attacks. But as numerous contributors to the debate have already shown, the motivations and moral positions of the scholars and thinkers whose work led to what Moses describes as “the catechism” were anything but reactionary and racist.

Plainly these debates are complicated and intertwined with academic, political, and emotional allegiances. Johannes von Moltke’s contribution to the New Fascism colloquium is an especially thoughtful effort to disentangle the many threads of the debate (link). Here is a very concise statement of Moltke’s position from the end of his article in the New Fascism colloquium:

However, especially in view of the analogy that Moses admittedly furnished by his choice of imagery, it is worth noting that the parallels end right there. For where Moses critiques the catechism in the name of greater differentiation, where Rothberg and Zimmerer call for more multidirectionality and comparison, the far-right advocates for its outright abolition as the only way to free the Germans from the burden of guilt. To them, the problem lies, neither in the singularity thesis nor in the ritualization of Holocaust memory per se, but in their “psychological and political effects on the German Volk.” The purpose of critique, consequently, is not inclusiveness, recognition, or solidarity across multiple identity groups but ethnonationalist retrenchment. Agreeing at first blush with the thesis of a catechism that rules Germans lives, Sellner winds his way to conclusions diametrically opposed to both the letter and the spirit of Moses’s intervention. If for the former the catechism demands to be countered by “inclusive thinking,” the latter sees it only in terms of its “inescapable consequences”: “the exchange of the population through replacement migration as well as the routine, targeted traumatization of indigenous youth.” By which he presumably means “bio-Germans.” Moses, Rothberg, and Zimmerer want a different culture of memory; Sieferle and Sellner want none.

The contributions to the extended series in New Fascism Syllabus are deep and provocative. The series is an important contribution to the large topic of how to make sense of the atrocities of the twentieth century, and a collection of the articles would make an excellent short book. These contributions by leading scholars of genocide and the Holocaust provide a great deal of insight into the difficult question of how to confront evil in history. 

Is “totalitarianism” a thing?

Hannah Arendt’s most important contribution to political theory was her book on totalitarianism, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Her models were Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union; in fact, she writes that “up to now we know only two authentic forms of totalitarian domination: the dictatorship of National Socialism after 1938, and the dictatorship of Bolshevism since 1930” (420). She wanted to understand how these regimes came to be, whether there were large historical forces that favored their emergence in the twentieth century, and the role that ideology, leadership, and power played in their execution. Her central idea was that totalitarianism is fundamentally an ideological system of thought adopted by a Leader and a network of “elite totalitarian organizations” who work single-mindedly to carry out the prescriptions of the ideology. In Nazi Germany the ideology was spelled out in Mein Kampf; in the Soviet Union it was Stalin’s version of Bolshevism — “socialism in one country” and the idea that every sacrifice is justified for the sake of future communist utopia. But Arendt remains surprisingly indefinite about how she conceptualizes totalitarianism. Here is the most succinct description that she offers of totalitarianism, and it occurs in the final chapter:

In the preceding chapters we emphasized repeatedly that the means of total domination are not only more drastic but that totalitarianism differs essentially from other forms of political oppression known to us such as despotism, tyranny and dictatorship. Wherever it rose to power, it developed entirely new political institutions and destroyed all social, legal and political traditions of the country. No matter what the specifically national tradition or the particular spiritual source of its ideology, totalitarian government always transformed classes into masses, supplanted the party system, not by one-party dictatorships, but by a mass movement, shifted the center of power from the army to the police, and established a foreign policy openly directed toward world domination. (460)

The features mentioned here are total domination, distinctness from other forms of despotism, entirely new political institutions, destruction of social, legal, and political traditions of the country, mass movement, power in the hands of the secret police, and a foreign policy aimed at world domination. The Nazi and Soviet regimes are the central cases, so the reader is invited to understand that “totalitarianism is what regimes like these twentieth-century disasters share in common”. Racism, terror, propaganda, mass-politics, and ambitions of global conquest are mentioned by Arendt in the course of her narrative, but this falls short of a definition, and gives no idea about the political structure and mechanisms of the political systems she intends to study. Arendt doesn’t provide a clear, diagrammatic definition or discussion of totalitarianism as a functional political system. 

So what does “total domination” come down to? It involves the idea of erasing all individual differences and creating a new form of human nature — SS man, Communist man — in which the individual’s creativity and spontaneity — freedom — are erased, and the individual becomes the embodiment of the ideology. It involves the idea of fully implementing the details of a worldview, perhaps mythological, that can be impressed upon every human being. What is maximal about totalitarian regimes is their complete effort to quench human freedom and independence of mind and action.

How does this domination take place? Through regulation, indoctrination, surveillance, terror, coercion, and extermination. Arendt gives extended treatments of three features of Nazi and Soviet regimes: the prominence of party and “front” organizations; the prominence and ubiquity of the organs of the secret police; and the extermination and concentration camps which serve, beyond their function of extermination, to extinguish the humanity of their inmates. 

Is this enough to constitute a theory of totalitarianism as a form of government? It is not. Absolutist monarchy in France in the sixteenth century too asserted unfettered power and authority over its subjects, but of course this was a charade. The French crown lacked the tools of control and repression that would permit it to exercise unlimited dominion, and French society embodied social groups that possessed enough social and political power to insulate themselves from the unwelcome demands of the king. The Catholic Church, the aristocracy and landed classes, the merchants, even the emerging urban population and their cousins in the countryside possessed meaningful mechanisms for securing themselves against capricious or ruinous demands from the monarch. This isn’t to say that the French monarchs had little power, but it is to say they lacked the ability to completely dominate the rest of society. 

The aspirations of the National Socialist state in Germany and the Soviet state went vastly beyond these limits. Each state built the apparatus of surveillance and coercion that was needed in order to exercise total control over society. And each state likewise built powerful and effective mechanisms of propaganda and thought control of their populations that made the challenges of social control easier to surmount. The cult of the leader and the ideologies of nationalism, anti-Semitism, and Communist utopianism were designed to secure some measure of willing acceptance from their populations, just as the marches, music, and images of fascist Italy were designed to elicit support for the fascist government and Mussolini. The elaboration of the apparatus of the bureaucracies of the secret police, the gathering of secret files, and the terrifying knock in the night rounded out the picture of the bureaucracy of total control. Orwell captured some aspects of this emerging system and Koestler articulated others (link).

There is another perspective along which these questions might be posed that focuses not on “totalitarianism” but considers the wider range of authoritarian states that were involved in the conflicts of the twentieth century, including fascism, military dictatorship, and authoritarian rule. Mussolini, Franco, and Tōjō Hideki all created authoritarian state apparatuses, each of which had both similarities with the Nazi German state and important differences. And, significantly, Spanish Fascism under Franco maintained a shaky neutrality in World War II. Arendt is quite definite that totalitarianism is different from authoritarian single-party rule, and it is distinct from fascism. Totalitarianism involves a radical upturning of society and politics that goes vastly beyond anything imagined by other tyrannies. 

After the first World War, a deeply antidemocratic, pro-dictatorial wave of semi-totalitarian and totalitarian movements swept Europe; Fascist movements spread from Italy to nearly all Central and Eastern European countries (the Czech part of Czechoslovakia was one of the notable exceptions); yet even Mussolini, who was so fond of the term “totalitarian state,” did not attempt to establish a full-fledged totalitarian regime and contented himself with dictatorship and one-party rule. Similar non-totalitarian dictatorships sprang up in prewar Rumania, Poland, the Baltic states, Hungary, Portugal and Franco Spain. (310)

How are these political forms distinct from totalitarianism? Here is Arendt’s way of distinguishing them: 

Once a party dictatorship has come to power, it leaves the original power relationship between state and party intact; the government and the army exercise the same power as before, and the “revolution” consists only in the fact that all government positions are now occupied by party members. (420) 

A totalitarian regime, by contrast, refuses to merge with the apparatus of the state; instead, all real power is retained within the organizations of the movement (Nazi Party or Communist Party in the USSR). 

All real power is vested in the institutions of the movement, and outside the state and military apparatuses. It is inside the movement, which remains the center of action of the country, that all decisions are made; the official civil services are often not even informed of what is going on, and party members with the ambition to rise to the rank of ministers have in all cases paid for such “bourgeois” wishes with the loss of their influence on the movement and of the confidence of its leaders. (420)

An important expert on totalitarianism in the past half century is Juan Linz, author of Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes (1974; republished with a new introduction 2000). An earlier paper, “An Authoritarian Regime: Spain” (1964) is a highly interesting and informative presentation of Linz’s analytical framework (link). Referring to C. J. Friedrich’s analysis of totalitarianism, Linz defines the concept of totalitarianism in terms of five key features:

an official ideology … , a single mass party unquestioningly dedicated to the ideology, near complete control of mass media, complete political control of the armed forces, and a system of terroristic police control not directed against demonstrable enemies only. In another version central control and direction of the economy is added. (296-297)

In a review of Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes Ronald Francesco (link) suggests an additional set of questions to be posed about how authoritarian (or totalitarian) regimes actually work: 

What would we want to know about non-democratic regimes if we were completely ignorant of past research? One would argue that we would like to know how these regime sustain themselves, particularly in the presence of dissent. How much repression is enough to stifle dissent? Where is the point at which members and supporters of the state defect from it? What are the vulnerabilities of these regimes? How do they collapse? (186)

These are the right questions to ask, and Arendt’s book does not pose them at all. (Here is a prior post from 2008 that attempts to pose these kinds of questions about authoritarian power today.)

So — is totalitarianism a thing? It seems fairly clear that Arendt’s concept of totalitarianism does not really serve as a theory of the political and governmental realities of authoritarianism in the twentieth century. It is more akin to an extended case study of two horrific examples. Linz is right in the article mentioned above, that we need to have a more developed treatment of authoritarianism as a regime type. So we might answer the guiding question here by stating that “totalitarianism is not a social kind”, a recurring political regime type. But it is also evident that Arendt’s book serves well to capture what was distinctive and singular about both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union — the single-minded prominence of the political ideology of the party in power, and the efforts by that party and its leader to impose the prescriptions of the ideology on the population and the world through the most murderous means imaginable. One might hope to incorporate Arendt’s insights into a more general theory of authoritarian politics by paying attention to her insights into some of the specifics of the regimes she studies — the ambition of promulgating a totalizing ideology throughout the whole population, the techniques of ideological propaganda, the use of mass terror, the creation of vast systems of secret-police surveillance and repression, and the creation of parallel systems of power between party and state apparatus. 

(Readers who want a more extensive discussion will find Peter Baehr’s entry on “Totalitarianism” in the New Dictionary of the History of Ideas to be a detailed and highly useful resource (link).)

Orwell on revolutionary Spain

Barcelona barricade, 1937

Spanish Civil War poster (UC San Diego Library)

It is very interesting to reread George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938) after a gap of about forty years or more. I remember reading the book in the 1970s with a sense of great admiration for Orwell’s moral and personal commitment to the Republican and anti-fascist cause. I read it primarily as an anti-fascist book, by a writer who eventually gained fame for novels about totalitarianism. Like several thousands of American leftists who volunteered to fight against fascism in Spain in the Abraham Lincoln brigades, Orwell made the choice to travel to Spain and to join a POUM militia unit near Barcelona. I did not pay a lot of attention to Orwell’s detailed descriptions of the “political lines” taken by the various factions of anarchists, socialists, Trotskyists, Stalinists, and syndicalists whose militias constituted the primary opposition to Franco’s forces — POUM, CNT, … But now those passages seem perhaps more interesting than the description of day-to-day life on the line in Catalonia and street fighting in Barcelona. And they are interesting in part because they demonstrate a more “revolutionary” Orwell than we have generally come to expect.

The issue dividing the factions was what to do about social revolution in Spain. The anarchists, syndicalists, and Trotskyists believed that the struggle must involve war against the fascist opposition and consolidation of revolution in Spain. The Communists (Stalinists) held for a common front with many groups in Spain — including the bourgeoisie and liberal landed classes. They advocated for a united front, and attempted to restrain or roll back revolutionary actions like land seizures and collectivized factories, and flew the flag of “War against Fascism first, revolution later”.

What comes across from Orwell’s comments about the Communists, the anarchists, and the POUM activists is that Orwell is more radical than expected. He appears to believe — along with the Spanish anarchists — that fundamental social revolution is necessary in Spain, and that any other outcome will be one form or another of class dictatorship. He faults the Soviet-backed Spanish Communists for many things, but most fundamentally for their willingness to compromise with landlords and the bourgeoisie against dispossessed peasants and workers.

Orwell had joined a militia group affiliated with POUM; but he had no special allegiance to POUM. “I had only joined the P.O.U.M. militia rather than any other because I happened to arrive in Barcelona with I.L.P. papers, but I did not realize that there were serious differences between the political parties” (kl 698). The Spanish civil war might have been perceived abroad as an anti-fascist struggle between defenders of the republic and a rogue fascist general; but Orwell perceived it as a revolutionary struggle between peasants and workers, on the one hand, and the landlords and owners of wealth who dominated them, on the other. The Church, as defender of the system of property that constituted this system of domination, was the natural antagonist of the peasants and workers.

The Spanish working class did not, as we might conceivably do in England, resist Franco in the name of ‘democracy’ and the status quo’, their resistance was accompanied by — one might almost say it consisted of — a definite revolutionary outbreak. (kl 719)

The men and women who rose up in anarchist militias to fight Franco’s troops did not do so on behalf of “liberal capitalist democracy,” but on behalf of revolution. The Spanish Communist Party’s “United Front” strategy (foisted upon them by the Soviet Communist Party and the military assistance offered by the USSR) was antithetical to the project of consolidating and furthering the gains that peasants and workers had already achieved through land seizures, workers’ control of factories, and parallel military and police systems. “Outside Spain few people grasped that there was a revolution; inside Spain nobody doubted it. Even the P.S.U.C. newspapers, Communist-controlled and more or less committed to an anti-revolutionary policy, talked about ‘our glorious revolution’.” (kl 762)

The Spanish Communists and their Soviet masters strove to eliminate their rivals, including the major anarchist parties (and their arms) and the POUM. POUM was denounced as a Trotskyist organization and a pro-fascist “fifth-column” seeking to undermine the defense of the Spanish state against Franco’s uprising. Orwell goes into great and convincing detail about the mendacity of the Communist press during those struggles, including especially the lies told during the May 1937 street fighting in Barcelona. Meanwhile, the revolutionary goals of the anarchists’ struggles were extinguished:

A general ‘bourgeoisification’, a deliberate destruction of the equalitarian spirit of the first few months of the revolution, was taking place. All happened so swiftly that people making successive visits to Spain at intervals of a few months have declared that they seemed scarcely to be visiting the same country; what had seemed on the surface and for a brief instant to be a workers’ State was changing before one’s eyes into an ordinary bourgeois republic with the normal division into rich and poor. (kl 821)

Here is how Orwell encapsulated the POUM “line” on revolution, for which he plainly had deep sympathy:

‘It is nonsense to talk of opposing Fascism by bourgeois “democracy”. Bourgeois “democracy” is only another name for capitalism, and so is Fascism; to fight against Fascism on behalf of “democracy” is to fight against one form of capitalism on behalf of a second which is liable to turn into the first at any moment. The only real alternative to Fascism is workers’ control. If you set up any less goal than this, you will either hand the victory to Franco, or, at best, let in Fascism by the back door. Meanwhile the workers must cling to every scrap of what they have won; if they yield anything to the semi — bourgeois Government they can depend upon being cheated. The workers’ militias and police-forces must be preserved in their present form and every effort to “bourgeoisify” them must be resisted. If the workers do not control the armed forces, the armed forces will control the workers. The war and the revolution are inseparable.’ (kl 895)

This is what I mean above that Orwell is more of a revolutionary at this period in his life than he is normally thought to be: he appears to believe that this assessment of the social situation in Spain is largely correct, and that retreating on these convictions means subordinating Spain’s peasants and workers once again to the chains of property, poverty, and repression that they have suffered for centuries. True, he also concedes the point that the Communist United Front line was a more practical way of pursuing the war against Franco; but he seems to believe that the result will be some form of class-based dictatorship. Orwell’s disgust with Communism seems to derive most deeply from its profound dishonesty and willingness to lie and murder in pursuit of Stalin’s wishes rather than its revolutionary or anti-democratic “line”. In this respect it is difficult to classify Orwell as a kind of democratic socialist.

It is also apparent from the book that Orwell was deeply affected by the ordinary men and women (as well as children) whom he met in Catalonia who were throwing everything in their lives into the flames of civil war in order to better their lives and support their revolutionary gains. His sympathies throughout his life were in favor of equality and for the ordinary men and women who must make do in a class-ordered society, and he had great contempt for the “bosses” and elites who profited from the exploitation of these ordinary people and exercised unconstrained power over them.

The dramatic end of Orwell’s time in Spain and the Civil War comes quickly. Within days of his return to the front lines with his militia unit after leave in Barcelona during the street-fighting in May 1937, he was shot through the throat by a sniper’s bullet, a wound that was thought to be inevitably fatal. He survived and spent weeks recuperating in hospitals, eventually making his way back to Barcelona in June 1937. During June the government, under the direction of the Soviet Communists, undertook a major repression of the POUM and its militia and supporters, with arrests throughout the city and the arrest and execution of its leader, Andreu Nin Pérez. Orwell himself was under danger of arrest and returned to England only hours ahead of Spanish secret police intent upon arresting him as a POUM spy. Orwell regarded the repression of POUM leaders and ordinary followers that subsequently occurred in Catalonia as a continuation of the purge trials that were underway in the Soviet Union itself. Here are an evocative few sentences by Orwell about the atmosphere in Barcelona in June 1937:

It is not easy to convey the nightmare atmosphere of that time — the peculiar uneasiness produced by rumours that were always changing, by censored newspapers, and the constant presence of armed men. It is not easy to convey it because, at the moment, the thing essential to such an atmosphere does not exist in England. In England political intolerance is not yet taken for granted. There is political persecution in a petty way; if I were a coal-miner I would not care to be known to the boss as a Communist; but the ‘good party man’, the gangster-gramophone of continental politics, is still a rarity, and the notion of ‘liquidating’ or ‘eliminating’ everyone who happens to disagree with you does not yet seem natural. It seemed only too natural in Barcelona. The ‘Stalinists’ were in the saddle, and therefore it was a matter of course that every ‘Trotskyist’ was in danger. The thing everyone feared was a thing which, after all, did not happen — a fresh outbreak of street-fighting, which, as before, would be blamed on the P.O.U.M. and the Anarchists. There were times when I caught my ears listening for the first shots. It was as though some huge evil intelligence were brooding over the town. Everyone noticed it and remarked upon it. And it was queer how everyone expressed it in almost the same words: ‘The atmosphere of this place — it’s horrible. Like being in a lunatic asylum.’ But perhaps I ought not to say everyone. Some of the English visitors who flitted briefly through Spain, from hotel to hotel, seem not to have noticed that there was anything wrong with the general atmosphere. The Duchess of Atholl writes, I notice (Sunday Express, 17 October 1937): “I was in Valencia, Madrid, and Barcelona . . . perfect order prevailed in all three towns without any display of force. All the hotels in which I stayed were not only ‘normal’ and ‘decent’, but extremely comfortable, in spite of the shortage of butter and coffee.” It is a peculiarity of English travellers that they do not really believe in the existence of anything outside the smart hotels. I hope they found some butter for the Duchess of Atholl. (kl 2800)

The worst of being wanted by the police in a town like Barcelona is that everything opens so late. When you sleep out of doors you always wake about dawn, and none of the Barcelona cafes opens much before nine. It was hours before I could get a cup of coffee or a shave. It seemed queer, in the barber’s shop, to see the Anarchist notice still on the wall, explaining that tips were prohibited. ‘The Revolution has struck off our chains,’ the notice said. I felt like telling the barbers that their chains would soon be back again if they didn’t look out. I wandered back to the centre of the town. Over the P.O.U.M. buildings the red flags had been torn down, Republican flags were floating in their place, and knots of armed Civil Guards were lounging in the doorways. At the Red Aid centre on the corner of the Plaza de Gataluna the police had amused themselves by smashing most of the windows. The P.O.U.M. book-stalls had been emptied of books and the notice-board farther down the Ramblas had been plastered with an anti-P.O.U.M. cartoon — the one representing the mask and the Fascist face beneath. Down at the bottom of the Ramblas, near the quay, I came upon a queer sight; a row of militiamen, still ragged and muddy from the front, sprawling exhaustedly on the chairs placed there for the bootblacks. I knew who they were — indeed, I recognized one of them. They were P.O.U.M. militiamen who had come down the line on the previous day to find that the P.O.U.M. had been suppressed, and had had to spend the night in the streets because their homes had been raided. Any P.O.U.M. militiaman who returned to Barcelona at this time had the choice of going straight into hiding or into jail — not a pleasant reception after three or four months in the line. It was a queer situation that we were in. At night one was a hunted fugitive, but in the daytime one could live an almost normal life. (kl 3019)

It seems evident that much of Orwell’s understanding of — and loathing of — the methods of totalitarianism, with its lies, violence, and betrayal, was much deepened by his experiences in Spain and especially in Barcelona in May and June 1937. Orwell died in 1950 at the age of 46.

Also interesting in this context is Franz Borkenau’s The Spanish Cockpit (1937), which was published a year earlier than Homage to Catalonia. Orwell had read The Spanish Cockpit before completing Homage to Catalonia and describes it as “the ablest book that has yet appeared on the Spanish war”. Borkenau himself is an interesting leftist intellectual of the 1930s and 1940s. Born in Austria and educated in Leipzig, Borkenau became a member of the German Communist Party in 1921 and worked as a Comintern agent through 1929. He left the party in 1929 out of disgust for the activities of Soviet secret police. He was a tireless anti-Nazi and also anti-Stalinist, and he was a vigorous critic of various intellectuals of the left whom he regarded as apologists for the Soviet regime, including Isaac Deutscher. In many respects his evolution and political position resembled that of Arthur Koestler, though Koestler’s disillusionment with Soviet Communism came a decade later. Borkenau visited Spain for several months, beginning in September 1936 and again in 1937, and wrote a penetrating analysis of the politics and revolutionary struggles that were underway in Spain at that time. One of the more interesting aspects of The Spanish Cockpit is Borkenau’s effort to explain the social and ideational basis of the power of anarchist ideas in Spain rather than Britain, France, or Germany. He attributes this willingness of Spanish peasants and workers to accept the political theories of anarchism to their clear and unmistakeable recognition of the need for a revolution in the relations of power and property that governed their lives. “Bakunin, for his part, regarded social revolution and socialism as the result of the revolutionary action of people prompted by the moral conviction of the immorality, the hideousness, the human inacceptability of the capitalist world.” Marxist socialism, by arguing for the slow historical inevitability of capitalist development, counseled patience in waiting for the crises that would allow the radical working class to seize power. Borkenau argues that the appeal of anarchism is its voluntarism: “The [anarchists] saw socialism as possible at any moment, provided there was revolutionary conviction and decision. But this conviction and decision, according to Bakunin’s idea, could not be put at the disposal of the masses simply by a small group of professional revolutionaries; they must emerge from a revolutionary spirit in the people itself.”

Revolutionaries by heart and instinct, according to Bakunin, were first and foremost those nations who did not admire the blessings of civilization; who were not in love with material progress; where the masses were not yet imbued with religious respect for the property of the individual bourgeois; revolutionary were the countries where the people held freedom higher than wealth, where they were not yet imbued with the capitalist spirit; and particularly his own people, the Russians, and, to a still higher degree, the Spaniards.

Here is how Borkenau describes the political power of the Communists with Republican Spain in 1936 and 1937:

Communist influence [in Spain], after all, works neither through a dominating organization nor through dominating personalities, but through a policy which is welcome to the republicans and the Right-wing socialists and which has the backing of such supremely important factors as the international brigades, the command of General Kleber in Madrid, and Russian help in general. Neither the republicans nor the Right-wing socialists are strong political forces in themselves. In fine, increasing communist influence today is a symptom of the shifting of the movement from the political to the military and from the social to the organizational factor. It is military and organizing, not political, influence which gives the communists their strength, and indirectly makes them the politically dominant factor. (kl 3718)

Borkenau himself was arrested and jailed by Communist-backed secret police in Valencia for the thought-crime of being critical of communist policies and of suspected Trotskyist sympathies. 

The inferences from which they drew this conclusion were twofold: first, I had been highly critical of the type of bureaucratic tyranny towards which the communists are driving in Spain, and have achieved in Russia, as others have achieved it in Germany and Italy. Second, among many friends and acquaintances, I had some who were Trotskyist. What else but a Trotskyist could a man be, if he is opposed to the totalitarian state and talks to Trotskyists? (kl 4469)

Once again — Borkenau’s account provides a clear portrayal of a Stalinist police state as it was manifest in Spain in 1937. 

The parties and militias

FAI         Federación Anarquista Ibérica (anarchist party)
CNT       Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (anarcho-syndicalist trade union)
POUM   Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification)
UGT      Unión General de Trabajadores (General Union of Workers) i
JCI         Juventud Comunista Ibérica (Iberian Communist Youth) (youth wing of POUM
JSU        Juventudes Socialistas Unificadas (Unified Socialist Youth)
AIT        Asociación Internacional de Trabajadores (International Laborers’ Association)
PSUC     Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia
PCE        Partido Comunista de España (Communist Party of Spain)
PSOE     Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party)

(Philip Bounds has written a very interesting book, Orwell and Marxism: The Political and Cultural Thinking of George Orwell, on Orwell’s relationship to English Marxism. Bounds is primarily interested in the question of cultural studies, but he offers a great deal of information about the English Communist intellectuals whom Orwell studied and with whom he sometimes interacted in print.)

Tony Judt on memory and myth in the twentieth century

One of the historians whose work I greatly appreciate is Tony Judt. I’ve posted about his seminal book about Europe after World War II (Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (linklink)) and his history of the French left in Marxism and the French Left: Studies on Labour and Politics in France, 1830-1981) (link). Some of his most penetrating reflections about twentieth century European history are developed in his essay, “The Past is Another Country: Myth and Memory in Postwar Europe”, published in Deák, Gross, and Judt, The Politics of Retribution in Europe (lightly revised from original publication in Daedalus in 1992). Judt’s premise is that postwar “Europe” as a complex of values and common identities cultivated since World War II is founded on a grave self-deception and amnesia in the representation upon which it depends concerning issues of responsibility for atrocity, genocide, and collaboration. And Judt believes that these comfortable “mis-tellings” of the story of the 1930s-1950s unavoidably lead to future contradictions in European politics and harmony.

The new Europe is thus being built upon historical sands at least as shifty in nature as those on which the postwar edifice was mounted. To the extent that collective identities—whether ethnic, national, or continental—are always complex compositions of myth, memory, and political convenience, this need not surprise us. From Spain to Lithuania the transition from past to present is being recalibrated in the name of a “European” idea that is itself a historical and illusory product, with different meanings in different places. In the Western and Central regions of the continent (including Poland, the Czech lands, Hungary, and Slovenia but not their eastern neighbors), the dream of economic unity may or may not be achieved in due course. (317) 

Further, Judt believes that the self-deceptions and false memories created during and especially after the Second World War are a key part of this instability.

I shall suggest that the ways in which the official versions of the war and postwar era have unraveled in recent years are indicative of unresolved problems that lie at the center of the present continental crisis—an observation true of both Western and Eastern Europe, though in distinctive ways. Finally I shall note some of the new myths and mismemories attendant upon the collapse of Communism and the ways in which these, too, are already shaping, and misshaping the new European “order.” (294) 

 Memories matter, and false memories matter a great deal. Consider the matter of “resistance to Nazi oppression”. Judt finds that the romantic stories of resistance are greatly overstated; they are largely false.

Another way of putting this is to say that most of occupied Europe either collaborated with the occupying forces (a minority) or accepted with resignation and equanimity the presence and activities of the German forces (a majority). The Nazis could certainly never have sustained their hegemony over most of the continent for as long as they did had it been otherwise: Norway and France were run by active partners in ideological collaboration with the occupier; the Baltic nations, Ukraine, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, and Flemish-speaking Belgium all took enthusiastic advantage of the opportunity afforded them to settle ethnic and territorial scores under benevolent German oversight. Active resistance was confined, until the final months, to a restricted and in some measure self-restricting set of persons: socialists, communists (after June 1941), nationalists, and ultramonarchists, together with those, like Jews, who had little to lose given the nature and purposes of the Nazi project. (295)

 Judt believes that the grand myths of the Second World War must be confronted honestly:

At this point we leave the history of the Second World War and begin to encounter the myth of that war, a myth whose construction was undertaken almost before the war itself was over. (296)

Here are the exculpatory myths that Judt believes to be most pervasive:
There is space here to note only briefly the factors that contributed to the official version of the wartime experience that was common European currency by 1948. Of these I shall list just the most salient. The first was the universally acknowledged claim that responsibility for the war, its sufferings, and its crimes lay with the Germans. “They” did it. There was a certain intuitive logic to this comforting projection of guilt and blame. After all, had it not been for the German occupations and depredations from 1938 to 1945, there would have been no war, no death camps, no occupations—and thus no occasion for the civil conflicts, denunciations, and other shadows that hung over Europe in 1945. Moreover, the decision to blame everything on Germany was one of the few matters on which all sides, within each country and among the Allied powers, could readily agree. The presence of concentration camps in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and even France could thus readily be forgotten, or simply ascribed to the occupying power, with attention diverted from the fact that many of these camps were staffed by non-Germans and (as in the French case) had been established and in operation before the German occupation began. (296)So everyone is innocent; everyone is a victim.

Italy’s experience with fascism was left largely unrecorded in public discussion, part of a double myth: that Mussolini had been an idiotic oaf propped into power by a brutal and unrepresentative clique, and that the nation had been purged of its fascist impurities and taken an active and enthusiastic part in its own liberation. Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium were accorded full victim status for their wartime experience, and the active and enthusiastic collaboration and worse of some Flemings and Dutch stricken from the public record. (304)

This deliberate forgetting of national and citizen culpability all across Europe seems to be a part of contemporary Polish politics, coming to a head in the abortive 2018 Holocaust law (link). But Poland is not alone. Judt makes it clear that a very similar process of myth-making and forgetting has been a deep part of the narrative-making in the collapsed Communist states of eastern and central Europe.

The mismemory of communism is also contributing, in its turn, to a mismemory of anticommunism. Marshal Antonescu, the wartime Romanian leader who was executed in June 1945, defended himself at his trial with the claim that he had sought to protect his country from the Soviet Union. He is now being rewritten into Romanian popular history as a hero, his part in the massacre of Jews and others in wartime Romania weighing little in the balance against his anti-Russian credentials. Anti-communist clerics throughout the region; nationalists who fought along- side the Nazis in Estonia, Lithuania, and Hungary; right-wing partisans who indiscriminately murdered Jews, communists, and liberals in the vicious score settling of the immediate postwar years before the communists took effective control are all candidates for rehabilitation as men of moderate and laudable convictions; their strongest suit, of course, is the obloquy heaped upon them by the former regime. (309-310)

If I were to distill Judt’s points into a few key ideas, it is that “history matters”; that oppressors and tyrants are invariably interested in concealing their culpability, while “innocent citizens” are likewise inclined to minimize their own involvement in the crimes of their governments; and that bad myths give rise eventually to bad politics — more conflict, more tyranny, more violence. So the work of honest history is crucial to humanity’s ability to achieve a better future.

Is there a lesson for us in the United States? There is indeed. We must confront the difficult realities of racism, nationalism, bigotry, and authoritarianism that have simmered throughout the decades and centuries in the United States, and that have broken into a boil under the Trump presidency. Tony Judt is right here: the myths of one decade become the action principles of the next.

Fascist attacks on democracy

The hate-based murders of at least nine young people in Hanau, Germany this week brought the world’s attention once again to right-wing extremism in Germany and elsewhere. The prevalence of right-wing extremist violence in Germany today is shocking, and it presents a deadly challenge to democratic institutions in modern Germany. Here is the German justice minister, quoted in the New York Times (link):

“Far-right terror is the biggest threat to our democracy right now,” Christine Lambrecht, the justice minister, told reporters on Friday, a day after joining the country’s president at a vigil for the victims. “This is visible in the number and intensity of attacks.”

Extremist political parties like the Alternative for Germany and the National Democratic Party (linklink) have moved from fringe extremism to powerful political organizations in Germany, and it is not clear that the German government has strategies that will work in reducing their power and influence. Most important, these parties, and many other lesser organizations, spread a message of populist hate, division, and distrust that motivates some Germans to turn to violence against immigrants and other targeted minorities. These political messages can rightly be blamed for cultivating an atmosphere of hate and resentment that provokes violence. Right-wing populist extremism is a fertile ground for political and social violence; hate-based activism leads to violence. (Here is an excellent report from the BBC on the political messages and growing political influence of AfD in Germany (link).)

Especially disturbing for the fate of democracy in Germany is the fact that there is a rising level of violence and threat against local elected officials in Germany over their support for refugee integration. (Here is a story in the New York Times (2/21/20) that documents this aspect of the crisis; link.) The story opens with an account of the near-fatal attack in 2015 on Henriette Reker, candidate for mayor of Cologne. She survived the attack and won the election, but has been subject to horrendous death threats ever since. And she is not alone; local officials in many towns and municipalities have been subjected to similar persistent threats. According to the story, there were 1,240 politically motivated attacks against politicians and elected officials (link). Of these attacks, about 33% are attributed to right-wing extremists, about double the number attributed to left-wing extremists. Here is a summary from the Times story:

The acrimony is felt in town halls and village streets, where mayors now find themselves the targets of threats and intimidation. The effect has been chilling. 

Some have stopped speaking out. Many have quit, tried to arm themselves or taken on police protection. The risks have mounted to such an extent that some German towns are unable to field candidates for leadership at all. 

“Our democracy is under attack at the grass-roots level,” Ms. Reker said in a recent interview in Cologne’s City Hall. “This is the foundation of our democracy, and it is vulnerable.” 

This is particularly toxic for the institutions of democratic governance, because the direct and obvious goal is to intimidate government officials from carrying out their duties. This is fascism.

What strategies exist that will help to reduce the appeal of right-wing extremism and the currents of hatred and resentment that these forms of populism thrive on? In practical terms, how can liberal democracies (e.g. Germany, Britain, or the United States) reduce the appeal of white supremacy, nationalism, racism, and xenophobia while enhancing citizens’ commitment to the civic values of equality and rule of law?

One strategy involves strengthening the institutions of democracy and the trust and confidence that citizens have in those institutions. This is the approach developed in an important 2013 issue of Daedalus (link) devoted to civility and the common good. This approach includes efforts at improving civic education for young people. It also includes reforming political and electoral institutions in such a way as to address the obvious sources of inequality of voice that they currently involve. In the United States, for example, the prevalence of extreme and politicized practices of gerrymandering has the obvious effect of reducing citizens’ confidence in their electoral institutions. Their elected officials have deliberately taken policy steps to reduce citizens’ ability to affect electoral outcomes. Likewise, the erosion of voting rights in the United States through racially aimed changes to voter registration procedures, polling hours and locations, and other aspects of the institutions of voting provokes cynicism and detachment from the institutions of government. (McAdam and Kloos make these arguments in Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America.)

Second, much of the appeal of right-wing extremism turns on lies about minorities (including immigrants). Mainstream and progressive parties should do a much better job of communicating the advantages to the whole of society that flow from diversity, talented immigrants, and an inclusive community. Mainstream parties need to expose and de-legitimize the lies that right-wing politicians use to stir up anger, resentment, and hatred against various other groups in society, and they need to convey a powerful and positive narrative of their own.

Another strategy to enhance civility and commitment to core democratic values is to reduce the economic inequalities that all too often provoke resentment and distrust across groups within society. Justin Gest illustrates this dynamic in The New Minority; the dis-employed workers in East London and Youngstown, Ohio have good reason to think their lives and concerns have been discarded by the economies in which they live. As John Rawls believed, a stable democracy depends upon the shared conviction that the basic institutions of society are working to the advantage of all citizens, not just the few (Justice as Fairness: A Restatement).

Finally, there is the police response. Every government has a responsibility to protect its citizens from violence. When groups actively conspire to commit violence against others — whether it is Baader-Meinhof, radical spinoffs of AfD, or the KKK — the state has a responsibility to uncover, punish, and disband those groups. Germany’s anti-terrorist police forces are now placing higher priority on right-wing terrorism than they apparently have done in the past, and this is a clear responsibility for a government with duty for ensuring the safety of the public (link). (It is worrisome to find that members of the police and military are themselves sometimes implicated in right-wing extremist groups in Germany.) Here are a few paragraphs from a recent Times article on arrests of right-wing terrorists:

BERLIN — Twelve men — one a police employee — were arrested Friday on charges of forming and supporting a far-right terrorism network planning wide-ranging attacks on politicians, asylum seekers and Muslims, the authorities said.

The arrests come as Germany confronts both an increase in violence and an infiltration of its security services by far-right extremists. After focusing for years on the risks from Islamic extremists and foreign groups, officials are recalibrating their counterterrorism strategy to address threats from within.

The arrests are the latest in a series of episodes that Christine Lambrecht, the justice minister, called a “very worrying right-wing extremist and right-wing terrorist threat in our country.”

“We need to be particularly vigilant and act decisively against this threat,” she said on Twitter. (link)

The German political system is not well prepared for the onslaught of radical right-wing populism and violence. But much the same can be said in the United States, with a president who espouses many of the same hate-based doctrines that fuel the rise of radical populism in other countries, and in a national climate where hate-based crimes have accelerated in the past several years. (Here is a recent review of hate-based groups and crimes in the United States provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center; link.) And, like Germany, the FBI has been slow to place appropriate priority on the threat of right-wing terrorism in the United States.

(This opinion piece in the New York Times by Anna Sauerbrey (link) describes one tool available to the German government that is not available in the United States — strong legal prohibitions of neo-Nazi propaganda and incitement to hatred:

“There is the legal concept of Volksverhetzung,” the incitement to hatred: Anybody who denigrates an individual or a group based on their ethnicity or religion, or anybody who tries to rouse hatred or promotes violence against such a group or an individual, could face a sentence of up to five years in prison.

Because of virtually unlimited protection of freedom of speech and association guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, these prohibitions do not exist in the United States. Here is an earlier discussion of this topic (link).)

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