Some seven years ago, I spoke to a conservative gathering on the dangers of Putin’s fascism. (http://www.alexanderboot.com/russian-fascists-and-british-conservatives/)
My point was then, as it is now, that the word ‘fascist’ shouldn’t be used as a desemanticised term of abuse. It’s something concrete and identifiable.
The same people who may use the word loosely often confuse cause and effect. They scan a country’s landscape, find no concentration camps and mass graves of freshly murdered thousands, and conclude that the country under investigation isn’t fascist.
On that criterion, Mussolini’s Italy wasn’t fascist, even though the term was coined to describe his political movement. Yet no network of death camps existed there, political prosecutions were few, and there were no mass executions (until the Germans took over, that is).
Fascism is an ideology; it’s a cause producing a whole panoply of effects. If we focus on effects rather than causes, we may find that Abraham Lincoln was more fascist than Il Duce. He imprisoned 13,535 Northerners for political crimes in just over three years. Mussolini, on the other hand, only managed 1,624 political convictions in two decades.
In that talk I mentioned a few essential characteristics of fascism, making the point that Putin’s Russia matches each one. My listeners were largely unconvinced, and from what I’ve heard, some of them still are. But then those diehards would probably praise Putin’s strong leadership even if Russian missiles rained on London.
Since then I’ve come across Umberto Eco’s exegesis of fascism. He identified twice as many telltale signs as I did, 14 in all. So I applied them to Putin’s Russia and what do you know: the fit was again perfect. Judge for yourself:
The cult of tradition. “One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements.”
The key word there isn’t ‘tradition’ but ‘cult’. Conservatives cherish tradition, but they don’t turn it into a pagan cult. In Russia that cult does exist, and has existed since the 16th century, when the country began to describe itself as The Third Rome.
The rejection of modernism. “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”
Since Eco was a man of the Left, the rejection of post-Enlightenment modernism was to him an ipso facto sign of fascism, not of conservatism, as it is to me.
The Age of Reason was indeed the beginning of modern depravity. But conservative rejection of it proceeds from a rational premise, free of occult undertones. Fascist opposition to modernism is indeed irrational, appealing to dark instincts, rather than minds.
Putin’s propaganda is a prime example. It doesn’t even attempt to construct sequential arguments. Pavlovian rather than Cartesian, it subsists on slogans, sound bites and shibboleths, not logic or factual analysis.
The cult of action for action’s sake. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.”
Putin’s Russia is a prime example of this. Serious reflection has been expunged from its mass media, and it’s actively discouraged in the population.
Disagreement is treason. “The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge.”
Eco is woefully wrong about discernment being a characteristic of modernism. Quite the opposite: modernism actively promotes, encourages and rewards uniformity.
But treating “disagreement as treason” is indeed a sign of fascism, and Putin’s Russia puts a big fat tick into that box. It recently passed a law equating any criticism of the ‘special military operation’ with treason, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Fear of difference. “The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.”
Russia is easily the most racist country I’ve ever known. The affectionate term ‘blackarse’ is applied — to their faces — not just to black people, but to everyone born to the south of old Muscovy.
As to the blacks proper, they are routinely attacked in the streets. People swear and sometimes spit at a Russian girl walking with an African. Russian supremacism is rapidly becoming the Kremlin’s principal ideology, with Ukrainians held up as sub-human, or at least sub-Russian.
Appeal to social frustration. “One of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”
Russia doesn’t have much of a middle class but, other than that, Eco’s description fits it like a glove. Russians are taught from their early days that, whatever deprivation they may be suffering is the fault of some externalised evil: Nato, America, the EU, capitalism, globalism and so forth.
The obsession with a plot. “Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged.”
This could have been written about Putin’s Russia. It presents the world as a constantly expanding conspiracy against saintly Russia.
The enemy is both strong and weak. “By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.”
Another perfect fit. On the one hand, the West is depicted as a decadent, rotting organism unable to defend itself. On the other hand, enfeebled though it is, the West presents a deadly threat to Russia.
Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. “For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.”
In today’s Russia, anyone displaying a ‘down with war’ sign can be arrested and possibly charged with treason.
Contempt for the weak. “Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology.”
Again, this is a left-winger talking. ‘Elitism’ is modern slang for any attachment to hierarchies of birth, status, expertise, intellect. Respect for these is conservatism, not fascism. But contempt for the weak (it’s more like yawning indifference in Russia) is indeed fascism. Since Western conservatism is rooted in Christianity, such contempt is impossible.
Everybody is educated to become a hero. “In Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.”
Burying the enemy under an avalanche of Russian corpses is a time-honoured strategy of Russian warfare. This is faithfully pursued in the ongoing conflict.
As to the cult of heroism, this Russian and then Soviet tradition is lovingly maintained today. Every Russian pupil, even if unable to name the four Evangelists, will instantly name dozens of heroes from the Second World War. I was such a pupil myself, and today’s lot are no different.
Machismo and weaponry. “Machismo implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality.”
Conservatives aren’t crazy about “nonstandard sexual habits” either, but they don’t go around beating up homosexuals, a standard and tacitly encouraged practice in Putin’s Russia. Hate the sin, love the sinner, is the guiding conservative principle. As to machismo and weaponry, just look at a selection of Putin’s photographs over the years.
Selective populism. “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.”
In Russia, this is a feature of the present, not the future. Putin’s stormtroopers prance about wearing T-shirts decorated with truncated swastikas. This is passed as vox populi, which is a self-fulfilling prophecy – the more it’s touted, the wider it spreads.
Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”
This is definitely a characteristic of Putin’s Russia, although, lamentably, not its exclusive property. Modernity in general creates its own half-witted cant, but, since fascism is an extreme wing of modernity, it pushes that tendency to a nauseating extreme.
As you can see, Eco and I proceed from different starting points, but still reach similar conclusions. And all our conclusions apply to Putin’s Russia in spades. His country is the flag-bearer of European fascism. Or quasi-European, to be exact.