The New Faces of Fascism: A conversation betimes profound and banal
Author sees new right as post-fascist rather than fascist in traditional sense of the term
Far-right activists attend a rally marking the anniversary of the death of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the fascist Spanish Falange party. File photograph: Oscar del Pozo/AFP/Getty
The New Faces of Fascism : Populism and the Far Right
Have you ever stumbled into a conversation between strangers mid-stream? The interlocutors are engaged and enthusiastic. The parameters of the conversation are interesting and relevant. But after a while you are not quite sure whether something profound or banal is taking place.
That’s how I felt on reading Enda Traverso’s latest book The New Faces of Fascism. Currently the Susan and Barton Winokur professor in the humanities at Cornell University, this Italian-born and French-educated historian of ideas has published a significant body of original works, 13 titles in French and seven translated into English.
His writings take place at the intersection of Marxism, Jewish studies, histories of the Holocaust and world wars, Nazi violence and totalitarianism.
His latest book is less of an original piece of research and more of a conversation. Indeed, its original French publication was in the form of a series of interviews on fascism, historiography of fascism and totalitarianism, and contemporary far-right politics.
For the English-language edition, the interviews were edited into a small book but retain the feel of a conversation, less structured, with illuminating moments but at times a little meandering.
Divided into three parts, The New Faces of Fascism offers a reading of related themes from three separate vantage points.
The opening section, The Present as History, looks at the way in which the rise of the new right in Europe plays on yet departs from traditional fascist politics. For Traverso the new right are post-fascist rather than fascist in the traditional sense of the term. While clearly xenophobic and located within the history of fascism, these new movements, still in transition, no longer want to overthrow the rule of law and wipe out democracy.
Traverso the Marxist seeks to differentiate the essentially totalitarian nature of fascist politics from the at times brutal behaviour of regimes described as communist
Traverso lays part of the blame for the rise of this post-fascist phenomena at the the door of EU elites and several decades of policy and institutional failures. He warns against the idea that ever greater levels of neoliberal EU integration, a la French president Emmanuel Macron, is the antidote to the dangers posed by the far right.
The author also explores the way in which Islamophobia has replaced anti-Semitism and anti-communist as the “other” of post-fascism, while interrogating whether Islamofascism is a concept with any utility in understanding Islamist movements such as Islamic State.
The middle section, History in the Present, discusses the historical debate around fascism and anti-fascism. Traverso is particularly concerned with revisionist histories that seek to deny the historical realities of Nazi violence, including the Holocaust, while at the same time playing down the significant role played by left-wing anti-fascists in the restoration of democracy after the second World War.
This blurring of the lines between fascism and anti-fascism is the subject of the final section, The Uses of Totalitarianism, as Traverso the Marxist seeks to differentiate the essentially totalitarian nature of fascist politics from the at times brutal behaviour of regimes described as communist. His argument is not to downplay the violence of the latter, but to demand of historians that they place each in their historical context rather than broadening the meaning of totalitarianism to such an extent that it loses all meaning.
The New Faces of Fascism is probably a book for the serious student of the history of fascism and totalitarianism rather than the general reader interested in understanding the politics of the new right in Europe.
It contains a lot of general discussion on a wide range of historical sources which, if not familiar, leave the reader a bit outside of the debate.
The book also suffers from a bad choice of title. With the exception of a small section at the start of the book on the contemporary far right, the conversation is much more about the history of ideas and writings of various philosophers and historians of fascism and totalitarianism.
Also contrary to the book’s subtitle, Populism and the Far Right, the book has little to say about populism. But I suspect that the vogue for books on populism was too much of a temptation for the editors in Verso to resist.
Although The New Faces of Fascism is unlikely to appeal to the general reader, it nonetheless makes an important contribution to our understanding of the history of and current manifestations of far-right politics.
– Eoin Ó Broin is a Sinn Féin TD