31 March 2021

Universal Fascism? A Response to Ugo Palheta

Enzo Traverso

In recent years, the dramatic rise of extreme right movements on a global scale has put the question of fascism at the core of the political agenda. Fascism is coming back: nobody could seriously pretend that it belongs exclusively to the past as an object of historical study alone, and it has not been so intensely discussed in the public sphere since the end of the Second World War. We must be grateful to Ugo Palheta for clarifying the terms of this necessary debate.1 His text includes an analytical dimension on both the causes and the features of this new ‘fascist’ wave, and a programmatic conclusion on the means to fight it. I agree with many aspects of his diagnosis but I remain sceptical with respect to some others. Here, I will try to explain my reasons, in the hope that this will stimulate other contributions.

Ugo Palheta defines fascism as a project of ‘regenerating’ the nation considered as an imagined community built around homogeneous ethnic and racial features. This imagined community possesses its ‘positive’ and negative myths. It designates a supposedly original purity to be defended or re-established against its enemies: immigration (‘the great replacement’), ‘anti-white racism,’ feminist and LGBTQI corruption of traditional values, Islam and its allies (‘islamo-leftism’), etc. The premises for the emergence of this neofascist wave, Palheta argues, lie in the ‘crisis of hegemony’ of the global elites whose ruling tools inherited from the old nation-states appear obsolete and increasingly ineffective. As Gramsci explained, revisiting Machiavelli, domination is a combination of repressive apparatuses and cultural hegemony that allows a political regime to appear as legitimate and beneficial rather than tyrannical and oppressive. After several decades of neoliberal policies, the ruling classes have enormously developed their wealth and power but have also undergone a significant loss of legitimacy and cultural hegemony. These are the premises for the rise of neofascism: on the one hand, the growing ‘descent into savagery’ (ensauvagement) of the ruling classes and, on the other, the general authoritarian tendencies (fascisation) that their domination engenders. Therefore, Palheta points out, fascism is shaped by a structural contradiction: it pretends to offer an alternative to neoliberalism and, at the same time, claims the reestablishment of a threatened order. Like classical fascism, which depicted itself as a ‘third way’ against both capitalism and socialism, liberal democracy and Bolshevism, neofascism pretends to struggle against the ‘establishment,’ but it also wishes to restore law and order. Historically, this was one of the features of the Conservative Revolution.

I agree with Palheta’s definition of fascism as a project of ‘regenerating’ the nation, but it does not seem to me complete or satisfactory, insofar as it does not grasp the ensemble of fascism’s constitutive elements. Viewed with historical lenses, fascism was more than a form of radical nationalism and a racist idea of the nation. It was also a practice of political violence, a militant anticommunism, and a complete destruction of democracy. Violence, especially directed against the Left and communism, was the privileged form of its political action, and wherever it came to power—either legally, as in Italy and Germany, or through a military putsch, as in Spain—it destroyed democracy. From this point of view, the new movements on the radical Right have a different relationship with both violence and democracy. They do not possess armed militias; they do not claim a new political order and do not threat the stability of traditional institutions. If they pretend to defend ‘the people’ against the elites and to re-establish order, they do not wish to create a new order. In Europe, they are more interested in implementing authoritarian and nationalist tendencies within the EU rather than destroying its institutions. This is the posture of Victor Orban in Hungary and Mateus Morawiecki in Poland, as well as the orientation of Vox in Spain, the Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen in France, and Matteo Salvini’s Lega in Italy, three political forces that finally accepted the Euro. The Italian Lega recently entered a coalition government led by the former ECB director Mario Draghi, the symbolic embodiment of neoliberalism and the financial elites. In Austria, the Netherlands and Germany, the countries that most benefited from the Euro, the far right is certainly xenophobic and racist but not particularly anti-EU, anti-Euro or opposed to neoliberalism. Its political profile is much more grounded on cultural conservatism. In India, Brazil and the United States, extreme right leaders came to power and developed authoritarian and xenophobic tendencies without putting into question the institutional framework of their states. Bolsonaro and Trump not only were unable to dissolve parliament but finished or are finishing their mandates facing several impeachment procedures.

The case of Donald Trump, the most spectacular and discussed in the latest months, is particularly instructive. His fascist trajectory clearly appeared at the end of his presidency, when he refused to admit his defeat and tried to invalidate the election result. The folkloric ‘insurrection’ of his partisans who invaded the Capitol was not a failed fascist coup; it was a desperate attempt at invalidating the elections by a leader who had certainly broken with the most elementary rules of democracy—which makes it possible to depict him as a fascist—but was unable to indicate a political alternative. The Capitol events incontestably revealed the existence of a mass fascist movement in the United States, but this movement is far from conquering power. Its immediate consequence was putting the GOP into a deep crisis. Trump had won the elections in 2016 as a candidate of the GOP: a coalition of economic elites, upper middle-class interested in tax cuts, defenders of conservative values, Christian fundamentalists, and marginaliSed and impoverished white popular classes attracted by a protest vote. As the fascist leader of a movement of white supremacists and reactionary nationalists, however, Trump does not have much chance of getting elected. The fascist movement behind him is certainly a source of political instability, which can lead to violent clashes against BLM and other left movements, but should be understood in its proper context. Differently from the fascist militia in 1920-1925 or the SA in 1930-1933, which expressed the fall of the state monopoly of violence in postwar Italy and Germany, the Trump militias are the legacy of the history of the United States, a country that for centuries considered individual weapons as a fundamental feature of political freedom.


Classical fascism was born in a continent devastated by total war, grew up in a climate of civil wars, within states deeply unsettled and institutionally paralysed by sharp political conflicts. Its radicalism came out of a confrontation with Bolshevism, which gave it its ‘revolutionary’ character. Fascism was a utopian ideology and imagination, which created the myth of the ‘New Man’ and national greatness. The new far right movements lack all these premises: they come out of a ‘crisis of hegemony’ which cannot be compared with the European collapse of the 1930s; their radicalism contains nothing ‘revolutionary’ and their conservatism—the defence of traditional values, traditional cultures, threatened ‘national identities,’ and a bourgeois respectability opposed to sexual ‘deviancies’—does not possess the idea of futurity that so deeply shaped fascist ideologies and utopias. This is why it seems to me more appropriate to depict them as ‘post-fascist.’


Considering the ideology and propaganda of contemporary radical right movements, Palheta pertinently emphasizes their strong anti-cosmopolitan trends, in which he grasps some elements of continuity with fascist anti-Semitism. This is certainly true, but he curiously neglects a major change that has occurred in the last two decades and that significantly distinguishes them from classical fascism. Their main targets are no longer the Jews—most far-right movements have very good relationships with Israel—but rather the Muslims. Islamophobia has replaced anti-Semitism in post-fascist rhetoric: the mantra of the struggle against Jewish-Bolshevism was replaced by the rejection of ‘Islamo-leftism’ and ‘decolonial’ or anticolonial movements. Since the influence of contemporary left movements—particularly antiracist, feminist, and LGBTQI—is certainly significant but not comparable to the impact of Bolshevism during the interwar decades, when the alternative was embodied by the USSR, post-fascism brings to mind much more ‘cultural despair’ (Kulturpessimismus) than historical fascism.

Speaking of the new extreme Rights as ‘counterrevolution’—either ‘posthumous’ or ‘preventive’—does not seem to me useful or clarifying, since it simply transposes historical fascism onto an ensemble of movements which have explicitly abandoned this ideological and political reference. Depicting fascism as counterrevolution was meaningful in the 1920s and 1930s, in a European context shaped by the October Revolution, the Italian biennio rosso (the factory occupations of 1919-20), the January 1919 Spartacist uprising in Berlin, the civil wars in Bavaria and Hungary in 1920, and the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, but becomes an almost incomprehensible catchword when applied to Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, Victor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro or even Donald Trump. Counterrevolution does not exist without revolution.

Palheta is right in pointing out a tendency to reinforce social control and surveillance technologies, and to extend the scope of police repression. This tendency, he argues, shapes most contemporary states and expresses a general ‘descent into savagery’ (ensauvagement) of the dominant class. These changes, however, belong to most liberal democracies and cannot be related to the rise of fascism. In the United States, Obama expelled more undocumented immigrants than Trump, and the exacerbation of police racist violence led to the creation of Black Lives Matter in 2013, three years before the election of Donald Trump. In France, exception laws were promulgated under Hollande’s presidency after the terrorist attacks of 2015 and a dramatic increase of police violence against social movements, notably the Yellow Vests, has taken place since the election of Macron in 2017. All these tendencies do not mirror a ‘dynamic offascisation’ but rather the emergence of new forms of authoritarian neoliberalism. In most cases, far right parties support these changes without managing their application. In the 1930s, the European industrial, financial, and military elites supported fascism as a solution to endemic political crises, institutional paralysis, and foremost as a defence against Bolshevism. Today, the dominant classes support the EU rather than populist, nationalist and neofascist movements claiming a return to ‘national sovereignties’. In the US, the dominant classes can support the Republican Party as a customary alternative to the Democratic Party, but they would never endorse white supremacism against Joe Biden. Not because they believe in democracy, but because Biden is incomparably more effective than white supremacism in defending the establishment itself.

Does this mean that there is no fascist danger? Not at all. The dramatic rise of far-right movements, parties and governments clearly shows that fascism can become an alternative, especially in the case of a general economic crisis, a prolonged depression of the US economy or a collapse of the Euro. Such developments could radicalize those movements toward fascism and give them large mass support. Their relationship with the dominant classes would inevitably change, as happened in the 1930s. But this tendency is far from prevailing today. It is interesting to observe that the Covid pandemic did not produce a wave of xenophobia or a search for scapegoats. In the US, it led to the electoral defeat of Trump (despite the radicalization of Trumpism), in Brazil to growing difficulties for Bolsonaro, and on the continent to a reinforcement of the EU, which mitigated its usual neoliberalism by adopting unexpected neo-Keynesian policies. The ‘possibility of fascism’ remains, but the economic crisis engendered by the pandemic did not reinforce it. In Italy, during the worst months of this health emergency, hate against refugees and immigrants was replaced by spontaneous solidarity and the popular welcome of Chinese, Albanian and African doctors who came to help their exhausted colleagues. This tendency is certainly not irreversible, but it shows that we are not facing an irresistible process of fascisation.

Till now, neofascist and post-fascist movements are caught in the contradiction described by Palheta: either they appear as an ‘anti-systemic’ alternative and remain excluded from power; or they participate in re-establishing law and order by accepting the ‘system,’ with its rules and institutions. In this case, however, they become part of the establishment they previously rejected. Palheta himself indicates ‘bourgeois normalisation’ as a possible outcome of the current ‘crisis of hegemony’ of neoliberalism. But ‘bourgeois normalisation’ is incompatible with a general ‘dynamic of fascisation.’ This trajectory—what some scholars have called a ‘Bonapartist’ turn ordefascisation—usually occurred after the establishment of a fascist regime (think of late Francoism). If this ‘normalisation’ shapes a fascist movement before conquering power, this means that a ‘dynamic offascisation’ did not exist. In Italy, the ‘bourgeois normalisation’ of the Lega took place without any ‘strong popular response’ (which is the condition Palheta indicates for such a ‘normalisation’). In other countries, the spectre of fascism could be used by the elites themselves in order to contrast their ‘crisis of hegemony’. For Biden, Macron and Merkel, it could be a convenient pretext to silence any left-wing opposition.

Palheta’s conclusion is a plea for antifascism, an antifascism conceived of not as ‘a sectoral struggle, a particular method of struggle or an abstract ideology,’ but rather as a central dimension of left politics, as something ‘permeating and involving all emancipation movements’. A Left provided with historical consciousness and a memory of the past cannot but agree with this proposition. Despite Palheta’s sensitivity to this need for a heterogeneous antifascist ethos rather than a monolithic antifascist ideology, his account of fascism itself risks occluding some of the unique post-fascist dynamics against which we are struggling today. Antifascism is not the panacea for a universal ‘process of fascisation’; rather, it must be adapted and displayed according to the diversity of national contexts.


“IMG_6140” byElvert Barnes is licensed underCC BY-SA 2.0

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