[OPE-L:8408] Political Culture of Fascism (Banaji)

From: rakeshb@stanford.edu
Date: Thu Jan 30 2003 - 04:54:47 EST

The Political Culture of Fascism

Jairus Banaji

[Talk delivered at a Gujarat Seminar organised by the Vikas 
Adhyan Kendra in Bombay, September 2002]

I called this talk the political culture of Fascism because I wanted 
to draw attention away from the conventional emphasis in left 
theories of fascism to aspects that are much less emphasised or 
not even seen, precisely because they are so widespread. I want 
to do this by starting with the most doctrinaire and, unfortunately, 
still the most widespread of the left’s theories of fascism, which is 
the line the Comintern officially endorsed and repeated, endlessly, 
throughout the late twenties and 1930s, while the tragedy of 
fascism was being played out in Europe. This was the 
Comintern’s conception of fascism as what it called the "open 
terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinist and 
most imperialist elements of finance capital". This was the 
Comintern’s official understanding. It further states that fascism 
"tries to secure a mass basis (I lay emphasis on the word ‘tries’) 
for monopolist capital among the petty bourgeoisie, appealing to 
the peasantry, artisans, office employees and civil servants who 
have been thrown out of their normal course of life, particularly to 
the declassed elements in the big cities, also trying to penetrate 
into the working class" (cited Roger Griffin, Fascism, p. 262). In 
short, in the Comintern’s line, fascism is the dictatorship of the 
most reactionary elements of finance capital. Now, the Nazi party 
described itself, formally at least, as a "workers’ party". The Nazis 
saw themselves, at some superficial level, in terms of rhetoric 
anyway, as appealing for the support of workers. This suggests 
that there is something slightly specious about trying to explain the 
rise of Nazism in the twenties simply in terms of the dictatorship of 

Much of the Left still subscribes to the view that fascism is 
primarily a product of the manipulations of capital or big business. 
There are several things wrong with this view. It ignores the 
political culture of fascism and fails to explain how and why fascist 
movements attract a mass following. It embodies a crude 
instrumentalism that conflates the financing of fascist movements 
by sections of business with the dynamics of fascism itself. It also 
views fascism in overtly pathological terms, as abnormality, thus 
breaking the more interesting and challenging links between 
fascism and ‘normality’. Finally, it contains a catastrophist vision: it 
sees fascism as a kind of cataclysm, like some volcanic eruption 
or earthquake, a seismic shift in the political landscape. So far as 
the situation in India is concerned, this has surely demonstrated 
that that is not how fascism grows. In India the growth of fascism 
has been a gradual, step by step process where the fascist 
elements penetrate all sectors of society and emerge having built 
up that groundwork. So, if we in India have anything to contribute to 
a theory of fascism, part of the contribution lies in disproving the 
catastrophist element. This still leaves the other two perspectives, 
which I called ‘instrumentalist’ and ‘pathological’ respectively. Both 
are dangerously wrong and part of the reason why the left has 
failed to establish a culture of successful political resistance to 

Now in contrast to the ‘official’ view, there is another group of 
theories of fascism which also emanated from the left, although a 
more disorganized left, a left outside the Comintern, driven out of 
Germany by Nazism, and not collectively represented by any 
school. I have in mind two rather brilliant analyses that were 
developed in the 1930s against the background of German 
fascism; one by Wilhelm Reich who was a practising 
psychoanalyst. In his clinical work in Berlin in the early thirties, 
Reich would have come across literally hundreds of active 
supporters of Nazism. He was a committed socialist who fled 
Germany when it became impossible to live there, and died, 
ironically, in a US jail in 1957. 

Then there is Arthur Rosenberg, who is not very well known. He 
was a Communist deputy in the Reichstag in the mid twenties and 
would later become an important influence on Chomsky. He was a 
historian who wrote a brilliant essay on fascism in 1934, which we 
translated for the first time, in the seventies, in Bombay. That 
particular essay is called Fascism as a Mass Movement. Reich’s 
book was called The Mass Psychology of Fascism and first 
published in 1933. Already the titles of these two works suggest to 
us a very different view of fascism. 

Earlier I had emphasised the term"tries to secure mass support" 
in the Comintern definition. This was said in 1933, after Hitler had 
come to power in Germany. Imagine the Comintern trying to tell the 
rest of the world that the fascists are "trying" to secure a mass 
base! There is a way of characterising this. It is called living in 
denial, bad faith, because if fascism has a mass base of any sort 
then we have to try and understand the issue in different terms. 
How is this mass base constructed? What allows for the 
construction of a mass base by radical right-wing parties? These 
are the questions that we need to confront, particularly if we want 
to confront our problems in India. To answer these questions it is 
not enough to have merely conjectural views on fascism, to say, 
‘fascism necessarily presupposes a worldwide economic crisis’; 
or ‘fascism is a product of economic crisis’. This does not answer 
the question why people turn to fascism, because equally they 
could have turned to the left. Or why don’t they become liberals 
instead? In short, why do they support fascism? 

The second group of theories of fascism is unified by a common 
focus on the mass basis of fascism. ‘Fascism differs from other 
reactionary parties inasmuch as it is borne and championed by 
masses of people’, wrote Reich in the book I referred to. The 
difference between Reich and Rosenberg is that Reich is 
interested in the psychic structures that explain why individuals 
and particular classes of individuals (e.g., the lower middle class) 
gravitate to fascism, and explores the susceptiblity to fascism in 
terms of a cultural logic, whereas Arthur Rosenberg tries to explain 
the construction of a mass base in historical terms. These are 
complementary perspectives, they certainly do not contradict each 
other. Reich is interested in the cultural background/politics and 
‘character structures’ that sustain fascism, the repressions that 
fascism presupposes and draws upon, whereas Rosenberg 
looks at the broad sweep of European history against whose 
background right-wing ideologies flourished and conservative 
élites found it possible to mobilise mass support. These 
perspectives clearly support each other.

Rosenberg classified fascism in the most general terms as a 
species of "anti-liberal mass movement". The emphasis here is 
on a secular political liberalism that asserted the rights of the 
individual against state authority and religious superstition, and on 
the defeat of that liberalism in the latter part of the 19th century.

When I began to work on fascism in the 1970s, it became 
increasingly apparent that German fascism was not the creation of 
the Nazi Party. Rather, the Nazi party was, arguably, the creation of 
German fascism. The whole groundwork of German society 
prepared the way for the rise of the Nazi party. 

German society in large parts had been ‘fascisized’, if one can call 
it that; the preparatory groundwork was ready for some charismatic 
leader or party to come along and ‘retotalise’/incarnate those 
legacies to create the kind of political catastrophe that was created 
in the 1930s. The groundwork had been intensively prepared, 
though in an un-coordinated, non-centralised and dispersed 
fashion by, for instance, the völkisch ‘Action groups’ that were 
active in the twenties, organising pogroms and spreading hatred 
against the Jews; by the numerous organisations of demobilized 
veterans who experienced Germany’s defeat in the war as a 
terrible national humiliation, a blow to the pride of all Germans. 
There were within the top ranks of the German army which had 
suffered defeat many who were implacably opposed to 
democracy, to the November revolution and its overthrow of the 
monarchy. There were numerous radical right-wing organizations 
prior to the Nazi party that prepared the ground for the success of 
the Nazis.

However, the strength of Rosenberg’s essay was an analysis 
which showed that fascism largely reiterated ideas that were 
widespread in European society well before the first war. He saw 
the conservative élites of 19th cent. Europe adjusting to the era of 
parliamentary democracy and mass politics with an aggressive 
nationalism divested of its liberal overtones, canvassing active 
support for strong states wedded to expansion abroad and 
containment of the labour movement at home, and unashamedly 
willing to use anti-Semitism ‘as a way of preventing middle-class 
voters from moving to the left’ (Weiss, Conservatism in Europe 
1770-1945, p. 89). The more traditionalist elements in Europe’s 
ruling élites succeeded in defeating the liberalism of 1848 with a 
populist conservatism that could garner parliamentary majorities 
with xenophobic appeals and patriotic agendas.

What replaced the discredited liberalism of the 19th cent. were 
new ideologies of the Right, and it is against the background of 
these ideologies (racism, militarism, imperialism, and the cult of 
authority) that we need to situate the emergence of fascism in 
Europe. I’d like to suggest that fascism has to be deconstructed 
"culturally" at three levels. The first among these, the level that 
Rosenberg’s work points to, is nationalism. The rational core of 
every fascist ideology is nationalism. Fascist movements deify the 
nation, so that fascism can even be seen as projecting itself as a 
sort of ‘secular religion’, and does this all the more effectively 
insofar as the vocabulary (artefacts, myths, rituals, symbols) of that 
deification is borrowed from religion itself. So when people ask 
themselves how we fight fascism, one way of fighting it is by 
confronting nationalism and beginning to build an opposition to it.

The second level of deconstructing fascism and offering elements 
of a framework is cultures of authoritarianism and repression, be it 
social repression, family repression, or sexual repression. For 
instance, the emergence of a feminist movement in the postwar 
era of the 1960s and 70s represented a significant advance, 
because for the first time sexual politics arrives on the center 
stage. The emergence of sexual politics in the shape of feminism 
does contribute to the fight against fascism as an ideology. I 
strongly believe that had feminism not been on the scene, 
neo-nazism would be much stronger in Europe than it is today. 

The third and final level has to do with the fascist use of what 
Sartre (following Riesman) calls ‘other-direction’, and with 
violence as common praxis, that is, organised action or the 
‘common action’ of organised groups. Rosenberg himself saw the 
peculiarity of fascism not in its ideology, which he thought was 
widespread by the turn of the century, but in its use of the 
‘stormtrooper tactic’. A form of genocide or ethnic cleansing is 
implicit in the programme of every fascist movement, as it is in that 
of the RSS, whose longest-serving sarsangch‚lak even glorified 
‘German race pride’ and the extermination of the Jews. But the 
holocaust is only possible as the culmination of a permanent 
mobilisation ‘of’/‘for’ violence. Fascist violence works through 
serial reactions which are retotalised at the level of a common 
undertaking, that is to say, ‘reshaped and forged like inorganic 
matter’ (Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, 649-50). Thus 
fascism works best in a milieu of alterity (in our case, 
communalism), where the oppression of blacks or Jews or 
Muslims produces itself as a determination of the language of 
their oppressors in the form of racism, where the inert execration 
of oppressed minorities betrays countless symbolic murders 
(Sartre, Réflexions sur la question juive, 58), and organised 
groups (criminal organisations) fabricate religious mythologies to 
spur campaigns of genocide. Mobilisation ‘of’ violence: in the 
savage campaigns of hate propaganda directed against Muslims 
in India, genocide becomes ‘virtual’; "totalising" propaganda 
creates an enemy whose extermination it posits as possible, 
alludes to, suggests, justifies, or advocates openly. Hate 
propaganda clears the ground for physical attacks and mass 
killings by producing a "climate" of violence where communal 
‘riots’ (i.e. pogroms) can ‘flare up’ (be organised) at any time. The 
"climate" is worked matter, the object of a concerted praxis. 

Scapegoating, racism, and virtual genocide thus form the third 
level: all of these require detailed, intricate, elaborate organisation, 
and point to fascism as the concerted action of organised groups 
working on serialities. Fascist spontaneity is manipulated 
spontaneity, organised spontaneity. No explosion of violence 
happens spontaneously. It presumes massive organizational 
inputs, as Gujarat clearly shows. At one extreme the organised 
group is the sovereign group itself, the state using the resources 
of its machinery to aid and abet the work of other organised 
groups. At the other extreme are the non-organised series 
("masses") who are the permanent objects of ‘other-direction’. 
Between them lie the organised groups that make up the fascist 
movement itself and function as pressure groups on both the 
sovereign and the series, exerting powerful networks of control 
over both, and directing the violence. The reports filed by Teesta 
Setalvad in the worst phase of the violence suggest that the 
genocide was perpetrated by ‘mobs’ of 5000 to 15,000 that 
‘collected swiftly’ to execute the carnage ‘with precision’. ‘It is not 
easy to collect such large mobs even in a city like Mumbai, let 
alone Ahmedabad’ (‘A trained saffron militia at work?’, 7/3/02). In 
other words, these ghastly mobs comprised both directing groups 
and directed serialities, bound together in dispersive acts of 
murder and destruction orchestrated by activists of the VHP and 
Bajrang Dal, who formed an organised element extracting organic 
actions from inert non-organised series. A democracy that cannot 
disarm these stormtoopers is a democracy well on the way to its 
own destruction by fascism. 

Thus the framework that I want to suggest to you consists of these 
three levels. Nationalism as the rational core of fascist ideology, 
with the "Nation" conceived as some living entity afflicted by 
democracy, infected by minorities, in desperate need of renewal or 
"rebirth" (what Sartre calls ‘hyperorganicism’, that is, the 
simulation of organic individuality at the level of a constituted 
dialectic); the level of male violence and male authority, of 
repressive family cultures that indoctrinate women and youth in a 
‘passive and servile attitude towards the führer figure’ (Reich), and 
root out of children everything that contributes to their humanity, to 
a sense of who they are as individuals (the capacity to think 
critically, to resist domination, to have friendships of their choice). 
In India, of course, we not only have gender repression, we have 
caste repression at work, the oppression of minorities, the 
appalling indifference towards children, etc. Thus as a culture we 
are replete with examples of subterranean repressive cultures in 
our society. I call them ‘subterranean’ because they are invisible in 
their commonness, subtend the whole of our existence, and only 
become visible in times of resistance. Finally, organised brutality 
or violence as (common) praxis – the fabrication of religious and 
racial mythologies and campaigns of genocide as concerted 
praxes of organised groups acting on/conditioning serialities, 

When all this is put together in terms of an agenda for opposing 
fascism, we need to ask, have we seriously been pursuing an 
agenda on any of these levels? Do we have an agenda for fighting 
fascism in India? And wouldn’t such an agenda have to go to the 
heart of mainstream culture to break the stranglehold of an 
oppressive seriality where millions of people must feel helpless 
and confused by their inert complicity in the politics of a movement 
that perpetrates violence in the name of ‘all’ ‘Hindus’. 

One way of addressing some of this is by breaking the culture of 
silence. By talking about these issues, by debating them publicly 
and at home. Whenever we get the chance, we must ensure that 
all these issues are not swept under the carpet. For instance, one 
of my friends wanted to discuss Gujarat with members of his 
union. They were journalists, yet some of them felt quite 
uncomfortable and asked, "why should Gujarat be raked up once 
again?" "What’s happened is done and forgotten, so let’s forget 
about it". This attitude of "let’s forget about it" is precisely what the 
Sangh Parivar thrives on. The great Palestinian poet Mahmoud 
Darwish was actually living in Beirut in August 1982 when it was 
intensively bombed by the Israeli airforce and navy. The 
bombardment was spread over two months, and almost every day 
about two to three hundred Lebanese and Palestinian civilians 
were killed. To come to terms with that experience, he wrote a 
diary which he called Dh‚kirah li-l-nisy‚n, ‘Memory for 
forgetfulness’. It’s worth reflecting on what this title might mean.

Going back to a more specific characterisation of each of these 
levels, let me start with nationalism. As you know, nationalism 
constitutes a terrain which is common to both the Right and the 
Left in this country. This is partly the reason why the Left is forced 
to conclude that really the Right wing is not serious about 
‘Swadeshi’. Actually the left sees itself as the defender of ‘national’ 
independence, which it interprets primarily in economic terms. The 
left’s nationalism is isolationist, it views world economy as a 
collection of relatively autonomous national economies and is 
unwilling to accept that capitalism undermines national 
self-sufficiency for ever, so that any attempt to go back to it (rather 
than forward to further integration and rational collective 
management of the world’s resources) is doomed to failure. The 
nationalism of the fascist right is also deeply isolationist and its 
rhetoric against ‘international capital’ even more xenophobic. But 
there is another aspect to its nationalism which is not apparent in 
other political currents. Fascist movements subscribe to a 
particular kind of nationalism based on a promise of renewal or 
‘palingenesis’, a term that comes from this book by Griffin, which 
is a collection of readings by fascist writers (Griffin, Fascism, 
Oxford 1995). ‘Palingenesis’ means regeneration. The idea is that 
there is some living practical community, the ‘Nation’, which is in a 
terminal state of decline, suffering a kind of incurable disease, and 
fascism projects itself as the panacea that will cure the ‘Nation’ so 
that ‘it’ is healed and regenerated. This is a common thread that 
unites all the classical fascist and neo-nazi writings. Thus in We or 
Our Nationhood Defined Golwalkar speaks of ‘revitalising’ the 
‘Hindu Nation’ and of ‘National Regeneration’. The programme he 
defines for the RSS is one of transforming India into an ethnocratic 
state based on the utopia of a fantasised Hindu community that 
recovers its pristine identity. He also has a racial idea of the 
nation, since the entire nation is identified with a particular ‘race’, 
similar to other Nazi race theories. 

So far as the cultures of authority and oppression are concerned, I 
think identification with authority is the crucial thing that we need to 
tackle. It is a matter of the school, the workplace, the family, 
communities, etc., all of which are factories of ‘reactionary 
ideology’, producing serial individuals (conformists) in staggering 
numbers, because in each of these sites of learning or 
socialisation ‘everyone learns to be the expression of all the 
Others’, to ‘feel’ like the Others, ‘think’ like the Others, etc., so that 
what emerges is a total suppression of the human, an annihilation 
of organic individuality, and eventually the kind of externally unified, 
regimented mass that images of fascist Europe depict as 
emblematic of fascist power. But Reich’s point is that the roots of 
authority lie deep within the institutionalised repression of 
sexuality and manipulation of desires which through the family, 
pedagogy, etc., create an ‘artificial interest’ which ‘actively supports 
the authoritarian order’. 

But we still require a totalising conception of how authority 
operates in Indian society, and how that interlaces with political 
strategies, with the increasing strength of the Right wing in this 
country. Sexual politics is equally important because it is in the 
interests of conservative, right-wing establishment forces to mould 
individuals, to control and manipulate their desires, and make the 
young in particular feel guiltyand repressed about their sexuality. 
This suppression of sexuality is a powerful factor in the 
reinforcement of authoritarianism and the rise of fascist 
movements, and there is no way we can respond to such 
movements without encouraging reciprocity (that is, a free 
relationship between individuals) and an active stake in freedom. 

These three levels are so closely interlaced with each other that it 
is difficult to separate them because violence and aggression run 
as the common thread though all of them. If you look at 
nationalism in its contemporary forms, for example in the Balkans, 
it is no longer separable from the most horrific violence. The Serb 
nationalism of Milosevic, as we all know, took the form of ethnic 
cleansing. At the second level, of cultures of authority and 
repression, there is always violence. The assertions of authority 
are petrified violence and we have to be able to challenge them in 
their institutionalised forms. At the third level - violence as praxis - 
the issue is, can the ‘other-direction’ of organised (fascist) groups 
be combatted by anything short of the political action of other 
organised groups? In which case,which groups are these, and 
where are they? 

A final point relates to the fascist use of the spectacle. Fascism is 
a politics of spectacles. The spectacle is a display of the power of 
the organised group over the series. As such, it belongs to the 
repertoire of forms of manipulation through which all authoritarian 
movements seek to reinforce their hold over the ‘masses’, the 
serial impotence of the latter, and their conditioning through the 
hypnotic spell of symbols and images that resonate with serial 
meanings (the spectacle as a Mass of alterity). Mussolini’s 
theatrical style was strongly influenced by the theories of Gustave 
Le Bon who believed in the intrinsic irrationalism of the ‘crowd’ 
and whose prescriptions to politicians on how to control the crowd 
relied heavily ‘on the French research on hypnotism of the late 
1800s’. Le Bon argued that the creation of myths would become 
the leader’s means to excite and subordinate the ‘masses’, and 
encouraged politicians to play on the power of representation and 
to adopt theatrical modes. (Falasca-Zamponi, Fascist Spectacle: 
The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy, 20). Religious 
processions and the artefacts and iconographies of religion 
occupy a major place in the repertoire of Hindutva precisely 
because spectacles play such an important role in the political 
culture of fascism.

To conclude, therefore, I would point out that at each of these 
levels we have to define our theatres of resistance. Spaces for 
intervention have to exist at all these levels, but that requires the 
articulation of a powerful, anti-authoritarian politics that 
encourages individuals to think critically, fosters relationships 
based on reciprocity, and promotes a social and political culture 
which values freedom sufficiently to resist and undermine the 
hypnotic spells of nationalism, hierarchy, and serial domination. 

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