October 05, 2006


On the anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street many pundits- including Christopher Hitchens and a couple of days ago the venerable New York Times commentator and former Nixon speechwriter William Safire have turned to describing the new threat of Al Quaeda in words borrowed from the midcentury conflict, choosing to describe it as a movement of Islamo-Fascism or as Hitchens has argued Fascism with a Muslim face.

Does the comparison with Fascism help us understand this movement or will it hurt it? Safire argued in the New York Times that it was the appropriate term to use as

the compound defines those terrorists who profess a religious mission while embracing totalitarian methods.

This comparison is being made often enough by enough people that its worth thinking about and again its a subject to which this blog will return again and again. There is something though that is fundamentally right and something fundamentally wrong with the analogy- beyond its anachronism and in my opinion we have to be very careful about how its used.

If we want to understand what is going on we need to be careful with our terms. In the 1940s the Fascist and Nazi powers waged a war in alliance with Japan across three continents against a coalition of communist and democratic powers- a war in which approximately 50 million people died, roughly 30-40 million of them Russians. Nothing like that can be seen today- this is no third world war- and anyone who thinks it is needs their head examining.

Fascist and Nazi ideology furthermore was not particularly religious- it was based on a skewed interpretation of the philosophy of Freidrick Neitsche allied to a particular reading of some of the early twentieth Century German idealists, the jurisprudence of men like Carl Schmidt and the elementary popular psychology and nationalism of Hitler and Mussolini. Fascism and Nazism furthermore unlike Communism and Islamic Fundamentalism saw their main ideologues develop the theses after the regimes began. They were welded together as needed- not ideologies crafted, absorbed and then transalated into political action.

In one way and one way alone are Fascism and Nazism related to Islamic Fundamentalism. If we go back to the second quarter of the twentieth century, between 1917 and 1940 we find a series of countries from France and Spain in the West to Russia in the East facing the problem of the collapse of an old regime in exactly the same way- by the invention of a rightwing, ultra movement. This movement took a different form in each country depending upon its timing and location- from Kornilov in Russia to Franco in Spain though you find the same people backing it. The Franz von Papens of the world, aristocrats with a religious bent, who want to exploit nationalism to prop up the old regime. To some extent as Isaiah Berlin noted these people were the descendents ideologically of some aspects of the romantic movement, of Joseph De Maistre (though modern scholarship is beggining to question that). This vague right, which grew out of a reaction to modernity and a desire to restore traditional or reinvent in a radical way traditional society has some features in common with Islamic Fundamentalism. But using the term Islamo-Fascism excludes much of that vague right from our argument.

So the term is not useful- it attaches this conflict which is more of a policing operation and an effort to persuade to a great war against an economic superpower- it strengthens the hand of those that want to oversimplify the movement that we are up against and diminishes the effort we can put into understanding why this is happening and it undermines any victory in this war- because it is self evidently true that powers that can't remake Iraq by force are going to struggle with Iran let alone the whole of the middle East or the Muslim world.

Wake up this is not the second world war, these are not Fascists. Lets try and develop a strategy which doesn't involve fighting the war of 1939 in 2006 and relies upon analysis instead of analogy.


Anonymous said...

Aren't they similar in that neither accepts that self determination should be allowed to override their stance so both fundamentalists and fascists would not accept that their 'truths' are something that the populace more generally should be allowed to deny by voting for something else.

Gracchi said...

They are similar in that way but so are communists and most political organisations of the past. To take an example, Rousseau the great French philosopher argued that there was a difference between the sum of the particular wills of the population and the general good of the population. Rousseau would not have accepted that an election should change arrangements. It doesn't mean that Rousseau or a medieval monarch or a communist dictator is best described as fascist. We can say that they are all anti-democratic but not fascist. Fascism is a particular ideology not just being anti-democratic.