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Fascism, Post-Fascism, Populism and National Populism. On Enzo Traverso.

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Les nouveaux visages du fascisme, d’Enzo Traverso, Paris, Textuel, 2017.

Available in English: The New Faces of Fascism Populism and the Far Right Enzo Traverso. Verso, 2019.

“German Fascism, like Italian fascism, raised itself on the backs of the petty bourgeoisie, which it turned into a battering ram against the organisations of the working class and the institutions of democracy. But fascism in power is least of all the rule of the petty bourgeoisie On the contrary it is the most ruthless dictatorship of monopoly capital.”


Leon Trotksy, What is National Socialism? 1933.



What does fascism mean at present ? In responding to this question Ernesto Taverso’s New Faces of Fascism, Populism and the Far Right,  takes us back to the past before confronting the contemporary world, and potential futures. “Theory is history” is the watchword of any discussion about fascism, populism, post-fascism, and national populism. These extended conversations are as much about the workings of far right ideas and movements in history as about their shape today. One theme is clear, we are far from the world Trotsky described. There are no mass movements about to create dictatorships and ram down their ideas on the population.


Born in Italy, but having made  his academic career in France, writing studies of German Jewish philosophy, Nazism, anti-semitism, and the two World Wars, the writer and teacher has an international reputation. Since 2013 Traverso has been professor in Cornell University in the US he was a member of the Trotskyist Ligue communiste révolutionnaire, (LCR) until it merged with other groups at the foundation of the Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste (NPA) in 2009.  He has retained an audience on the radical left both in France, and with 8 books translated, in the English-speaking world.


Traverso has written a a critique of the ‘militant’ anti-communism of François Furet, Stéphane Courtois (The Black Book of Communism) and Ernesto Nolte. He emphasised the differences between Stalinism and Nazism (many of his themes are summarised in this article: De l’anticommunisme (2001) Some of his best known books are on the dramas of the past in which different European far-rights took to the stage, and the “historical singularity” of the Shoa was played out. He has also advanced the less theoretical view that after the Second World War, the establishment of the State of the Israel, and the decline of anti-Semitism in the West,  the Jewish “historical role as the critical consciousness of Western culture”, the keynote of Jewish modernity, has ended. Not everybody, including radical Jews, would agree. This assertion has provoked the claim that the fruit of much intellectual labour is to assert a  mass betrayal, ” la trahison des élites intellectuelles juives!” (Review: Enzo Traverso, La Fin de la modernité juive. Histoire d’un tournant)


What does fascism mean today? That an answer is far from obvious comes from the fact that no real parties exist which call themselves fascist or Nazi. Interviewed in Jacobin Taverso has said, “in the competition between the Left and the Right to reinvent itself, post-fascism is one length ahead. ” (Fascisms Old and New). Far-right ideas have always been fluid, and capable of drawing inspiration from hostility to liberal ideas of formal equality, Parliamentary democracy from the left, as well as traditional  pictures of the Nation an organic whole,  and cultural or biological racism.


Readers of Zeev Sternhell (1935 – 2000), an author Traverso critically engages with,  are struck by the way that both nationalist and socialist ideas went into the French far-right that the author, who passed away this year, saw as a matrix of European fascism (Ni droite ni gauche. L’idéologie fasciste en France. 1983). A turn-of-the-20th century socialism divided between those who defended republican and democratic liberalism, the alliance that reached its highpoint during the Dreyfus Affair, and an anti-parliamentarian left, which despised the bourgeois Third Republic. This reached  the point where some aligned with the Monarchist and nationalist right, illustrating before the cataclysms  of the Great War, and the divisions opened up on the left by the 1917 Russian Revolution,  how ideas do not always walk around, as the theorist of populism Ernesto Laclau once said,  with indelible class or left/right identities written on their backs.

From Red to Brown.


That leading French Communists, like Jacques Doriot could in 1936 found the mass fascist party, the Parti populaire français  and end as the leader of the Nazi sponsored  Comité de libération française, perishing in strafing by Allied Planes, is only one of many political cross overs. Less well-known is the career of Georges Valois, former radical syndicalist, disciple of Georges Sorel, pillar of the Cercle Proudhon (1911) that brought together radical trade unionists and Action française, founder of the first  French fascist party,  le Faisceau, modelled after Mussolini’s original. By the late 1930s Valois turned back towards the left and tried to join the French socialist party, the SFIO. He died of typhus, arrested and deported by the Gestapo for working for the Resistance.

These two careers remind us of the gulf that separates 1930s fascism and today’s far-right. For Sternhell the far-right was born out of a will to break with “l’ordre libérale” back in the late 19th century. What has been called the first populist movement, a mass of support for an figure who would carry the “will of the people” to power against corrupt elites, “Boulangism”  1885-1889 (after its leader General Boulanger), was a prelude, a synthesis of anti-liberalism, nationalism, with an anti-Semitic overtow . But it was the profound crisis that followed the Great War that gave it political force.   Ernesto Traverso points out the “The chaos after the Great War was the result of a breakdown in the so-called “Concert of Europe” — nineteenth-century classical liberalism — and today it is a consequence of the end of the Cold War. Fascism and post-fascism have been born from this chaotic and fluctuating situation.”

Les nouveaux visages du fascisme begins with comparison with the – still within living memory – past.  Régis Meyran presents these “conversations” by underlining the differences between present -day far-right and classical fascism. Citing Traveso’s initial effort to underline the difference between fascism in the past and the far right today that is broadly in the same line as Sternhell, classical fascism claimed to offer a revolutionary alternative, “une alternative de civilisation, annonçait sa « révolution nationale » et se projetait dans le futur. l’utopie d’un « Homme nouveau. “Les métamorphoses des droites radicales au xxie siècle 2015)


Today by contrast, their reduced offer is “un nationalisme structuré par l’islamophobie, ces movements étendent désormais être des partis républicains  que les autres partis.” nationalism structured around Islamophobia. This comes from a writer who at numerous points in the present volume is prepared to locate the “nouvelle judéophobie” of French Muslim minorities in these terms, “À cause de la politique israélienne le juif devient l’incarnation de l’Occident”, because of Israeli policies the Jew has become the incarnation of the West. That is, unlike traditional anti-semitism which saw Jews as enemies of the West… (Page 96). This is hackle-raising. It is not convincing to argue that hostility to Jews from people in North Africa,  the Middle East, and amongst those of a Moslem background across the world, and others, has been created by the existence of the state of Israel. Were this the case it would  be remarkably sudden dislike –  post-1948.

There is another difficulty with the assertion. The European far-right has had complex relationship with Arab nationalism, and Islamism, than this, or a reference, say, to French colonialism in the Maghreb,  suggests. The more than prominent holocaust denier Alain Soral’s admiration for Syrian Baathism and the late Colonel Gadhafi, and the Iranian finance fronted his  electoral Liste antisioniste (2009) with Shi’ite  candidates, and a few ultra-orthodox Jews, and the backing of prominent black comedian Dieudonne. This indicates that while these ‘nationalist revolutionaries’, right-wing in values, but (self-proclaimed) left wing on economics and imperialism, may  have lost an earlier battle for influence on the far-right, and seem absent from the electoral apparatuses like the Front National, now Rassemblement National, of Marine Le Pen; they have not disappeared.

Traverso discusses with indulgence the  “Indigènes de la République”, a movement, which ‘in general’ played “un rôle salutaire” (Page 49) Known for its hostility to secularists, and vividly criticised for its own religious and race based ‘identity politics’ by Magrébin leftists in France, the author extends his welcome to the point of reinterpreting Houria Bouteldja’s attack on the “philosémitisme d’Etat”. He suggests that what they really meant to say was not anti-Semitic, but criticism of “philosionisme” – philo-Zionism. (Page 99) As one might imagine the academic treats Charlie Hebdo – he was a signer of a public letter against National Unity following the slaughter at the Weekly and the Hyper-cacher. They took advantage of their privileges in France to mock the excluded (Page 63) Look where it got them.


Hoping that an English translation would offer the words “democratic” or “constitutional” rather than republican, what are the results of the turn towards political integration? Far-right parties in the Western side of Europe often have small memberships, the Rassemblement National numbers only just over 25,000 card-carriers but went to the second round of the Presidential election in 2017, where Marine Le Pen got 33.9% of the vote to Emmanuel Macron’s 66,1%, the Alternative für Deutschland, AfD, 35,000, 94 seats in the Bundestag,  the Italian Fratelli d’Italia, FdI, 160,00, but under 5% of the vote in Parliamentary elections. None of these parties have fully democatic democratic structures, they are Leader-led, from Matteo Salvini in the Liga Nord,  to Marine Le Pen, to Gert Wilders. But there is no  Führerprinzip –  if you disagree with the line you get shoved out, not beaten up, or shot.

But that does not prevent analogies with the past.  Trump, for example, draw on classical far-right demagogy.  He call for the defence of a virtuous community, rooted in the country, threated by a metropolitan corrupt cosmopolitan elite – and a lot more gobbing on ‘the enemy’ as we have seen in recent months. But the Trump style, self-taught in modern communications, does not mobilise the masses: he attracts a public of atomised individuals, consumers, not soldiers. Overtly reactionary messages come from the Polish Law and Justice Party and the Hungarian Fidesz, both of which are hostile to liberal conceptions of democracy. But their protectionist policies are not autarky, nor have their sent legions to conquer lost national territory.

Post-fascism, Traverso declares, works in an atmosphere dominated by the “impolitique”, the removal of decision-making from popular control. It offers a “démocratie plébiscitaire” through a direct relationship between the Leader and the People. But what kind of “nouvelle civilisation”, what third way between capitalism and communism do any but the most marginal far right groups call for? Economic protection and the defence of national identity are far from the call for a spiritual and moral revolution of 1920s and 1930s fascism. Yet there are deep concerns voiced by liberals like Madeleine Albright,  in a winner-take-all politics that follows from seeing rule as a plebiscite. The direct tie between electors and the governors takes place only virtually, while policies and administration jobs remain as removed from popular power as under centrist ‘neoliberal’ Cabinets.

The book is at its most thought-provoking when it offers a number of different ways with which to think about the present-day far-right. Traverso focuses on the “metamorphoses” of the extreme right into anti-system, anti-elite, but formally constitutional parties. Xenophobic, structured around Islamophobia, nationalism against globalisation, pitting nations against Europe, authoritarian and law-and-order, they stand, for “un État souverain, qui refuserait la soumission au pouvoir de la finance.” (Page 35) Traditional appeals to the nation itself is reconfigured in terms of “identity”, Despite the  independence of maītre-penseurs, like Éric Zemmour and Renaud Camus, many would regard Traverso’s paradigm, the French ‘post-fascist’ right as indebted to  Maurice Barrès and the mystique of La Terre et les morts, with a genetic appeal to Français de souche (of French stock) to boot. It hardly needs underlining that Zemmour’s Le Suicide français (2014) is far from just a diatribe against French decline and immigration: the best-seller is one long rant against the liberalism of May 68 (‘Dérision, Déconstruction, Destruction’) and ‘political correctness.’

National Populism.

A useful summary is offered in Traverso’s more recent statement, “the driver of the radical ideals in Europe is its critique of neoliberalism. It is reactionary, authoritarian, inspired by the so-called sovereigntist populism. This is different from the fascism that had other characteristics like, among other things, a militaristic, expansionist, imperialist dimension which is not present in the current radical right.” (Enzo Traverso: “What we’re seeing now around the world is different from classic fascism” 2019). The difficulty is that while we would not wish to over-egg the point, this politics, as Jan-Werner Müller has argued, populists claim that in their battle against elites they alone represent the people. They say, in effect, We are the People, who are You?” In this “moralistic imagination of politics”. “Once installed in office, “they will engage in occupying the state mass clientelism and corruption, and the suppression of anything like a critical civil society. (Page 102. What is Populism? 2016)

It is difficult to draw hard and fast lines between post-fascism and populism. If populism is analysed as a ‘style’, (“à partir de son style”) that is, a direct appeal to the People against the Elites, it’s a term that can refer to left as well as right. The term national populism, by contrast,  puts the emphasis on what sovereignty parties of the right strive for. It’s their nation, their people, and their decision-making. An attack on liberalism, reconfigured itself to mean the ‘anti-May 68’ wave in France, and more widely, the hostility to ‘woke’ culture, an appeal to the ‘real’ people, the Somewheres against the Nowhere people, and we can see national populism in parties, and an influence on the Brexit Party, and, to an extent, on  government. The  British Cabinet of Boris Johnson, even has had some input from a new form of ‘red-brown’, or ex-left-wing, ex-Marxist cohort, the Spiked Network marked above all for waging culture wars on behalf of the populist right.

Another is this extraordinary ideology, the “anglosphere”, – at the moment, when a ‘no Deal ‘ Brexit looms –  far from a marginal dream-picture of a future world.

…we should then spend the next few years forming up with the Anglosphere – in particular, with the Five Eyes of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The Europeans may be our brethren, yes, but the Anglosphere are our kin. We share a common language, many traditions, roots, history and culture. We have a mutual geopolitical strategic interest in forming up at this juncture, as many of our friends across the water have already been keen to point out. We should therefore begin by formalising a ‘CANZUK’ free trade and perhaps movement agreement, which polling has shown to attract broad support among the populace in each country.


The Europeans may be our brethren, but the Anglosphere are our kin Patrick Timms. January 2020.


One feature of The New Faces of Fascism stands out. The shift in the way Marxists looked in the past at these  labels  not to classify them properly, but to see what the function of the far-right is palpable. Trotsky was only one who outlined what he saw was the role of Nazism – to destroy the workers’ movement, which he believed could have, if politically untied, have led a socialist revolution in Germany. In the 1970s Nicos Poulantzas tried to explain how fascism and Nazism arose out of class struggles against labour movements, and gained the support of monopoly capital as a means to help resolve economic crises. Although right-wing populists advocate a form of national neo-liberalism, few people today, talk much about how they work for the interests of fractions of the bourgeoisie. Except, perhaps when it comes to where ideas such as the “anglosphere” come from, the foundations financing it, and the businesses hoping to profit from it.

Les nouveaux visages du fascisme, is better at starting arguments than settling them, It is not an account of the social conditions that have propelled national populists to the fore, beyond some references to neo-liberalism, post-politics, and “the extreme centre”.  It looks at the Islamic state and concludes that the genocidal world it imposed was a “univers totalitaire”. But like Traverso’s use of this aspect of Hannah Arendt’s portrait of totalitarianism the ideas offered are useful, debatable, and thought-provoking. Like ‘post-fascism’ our ways of looking it, and thinking about how the left should counter national populism, are, for the moment, open to further debate.









3 Responses

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  1. Two passing, ephemeral thoughts. One; you say ” It is not convincing to argue that hostility to Jews from people in North Africa, the Middle East, and amongst those of a Moslem background across the world, and others, has been created by the existence of the state of Israel. Were this the case it would be remarkably sudden dislike – post-1948.” True, but also true was the remarkable tolerance of Jewish communities in much of classical Islam and up to the 19th century. So where do we date this hostility ? If I was forced to make a guess, I’d date it from the formation of ideological Zionism, the dream of a common home and the first big settlements in the period from 1900 onwards, and then the beginnings of this settlement having an armed wing courtesy of Zeev Jabotin­sky’s courtship of the British Army in WW1.

    Secondly, the attractions of Fascism to the left is not just a French phenomena – I’d look at the swathes of support Mosley’s New Party got from many on the ‘left’ of the 1929 Labour Party (and from the ILP in particular. One fascinating individual was a man called Wilfred Risdon, a South Wales miner, active in the SWMF, a colleague of A J Cook and the young Nye Bevan and who competed against Bevan for a prized “Fed” scholarship to the Central Labour College. He went beyond the New Party and became the effective No 3 of the BUF, responsible for security and the creation of uniformed blackshirt militia. There were many others who made that journey from our own political home.

    David Walsh

    October 17, 2020 at 3:04 pm

    • Having known North African Sephardi Jews (my employer and her friends, people I was also socially mixed with, for roughly three years in France) I would say that no doubt their experience of the mass ethnic cleansing of Jews in Arab countries that followed the creation of the state of Israel, and the fact that only Muslims, for example, could get citizenship in an independent Algeria, obviously affected their take.

      But reading about this well, “They were afforded relative security against persecution, provided they did not contest the varying inferior social and legal status imposed on them in Islamic states.” That does not look to me like a good model.

      Then, “While there were antisemitic incidents before the 20th century, during this time antisemitism in the Arab world increased greatly. During the 1930s and the 1940s several Jewish communities in the Arab world suffered from pogroms. (famously, I cite from memory, there was one in Constantine in Algeria).

      Sternhell cites Moseley and other examples across Europe. I have not heard of Wilfred Risdon – that really is fascinating!

      Andrew Coates

      October 17, 2020 at 4:33 pm

      • It is surprising how the New Party was so attractive to many on the left, when it was clear that its “corporatist” message – “economic recovery to be entrusted to an executive bureau” was openly fascistic in approach. I came across Risdon when I was looking into the BUF in the very early days in the NE in connection with what became known as the “Battle of Stockton” in 1933. He walked from the BUF in the late 1930’s, but was still interned for a period in Brixton Prison. He never went back into politics but later became a national leader of the UK anti-vivisection movement. He has a wiki; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilfred_Risdon

        david walsh

        October 17, 2020 at 7:20 pm

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