This was my holiday reading! A very important book.
FASCISM – A WARNING: Madeleine Albright.
Madeleine Albright was well-placed to write an urgent warning about the resurgence of Fascism. She was born in Czechoslovakia; her parents escaped first from the Nazis and then the Communists. Three of her Jewish grandparents died in the Holocaust. She was a refugee, though as she says a lucky one in that she arrived in New York on a liner, not a rubber boat, and her family were welcomed in their new country. She became the US ambassador to the United Nations, and then was appointed by Bill Clinton to be the first female US Secretary of State. She met many of the leaders in this book, including Putin (“he tells bald lies with a straight face”), Erdogan and Kim Il-Jong.
She wrote this book in 2018 in a rapidly changing world. She died in March 2022 aged 84, so sadly she would have seen the Capitol Riots in January 2021 and the attempted Russian invasion of Ukraine. There are some politicians whom the world does not miss until they are gone. Like any politician, she made mistakes when in power, but compared with today’s politicians, she comes across as enlightened, gracious, dignified, and utterly committed to liberal democracy. These qualities can no longer be taken for granted in politicians. She says of George W Bush: “We disagreed often on matters of policy, but I have always admired the man’s easy-going optimism and personal decency”. Can we imagine Trump saying that about an opponent? (Americans never bought into the “Bush as idiot” trope that right-on British comedians used to get an easy laugh).
The first third of the book is a history of the rise of Mussolini and Hitler. The rest draws parallels with the recent history and the retreat from democracy in so many countries. The main take-away from the book is that Fascism takes hold because ordinary people want it to. They want easy answers, and respond to a public figure who tells them what they want to hear. Blaming economic downturns on immigrants or minorities often goes down well. There is a distinction between Fascist leaders, and rulers who take power supported by the army alone as happens in military coups, which do not normally occur in developed countries: “A Fascist is a tyrant but a tyrant is not necessarily a Fascist”. In Italy and Germany in the 1920s, the army stayed out of politics, and the right-wing establishment – i.e. King Victor Emmanuel of Italy and successive Presidents of Germany and their governments – were weak and divided, as well as incompetent in the face of economic crisis. Hitler and Mussolini spoke directly to the people. The book quotes Hitler as saying that most people earnestly desire to have faith in something and are not intellectually equipped to quibble over what that object of belief might be. “He had an intuitive sense of what delighted audiences, and it wasn’t abstract theories or objective arguments…. He sought to incite hatred of those that he saw as traitors”. But although Fascism does not succeed without popular support, to take the final step to power and remain in power the leader resorts to violence and intimidation using organised gangs such as the SA and SS.
She then writes about some of the post-war dictators such as Milosevic [Serbia] and Chavez [Venezuela] (both of whom identified as left-wing), Putin, and perhaps more concerningly, those who gained power through democratic elections and then manipulated the system to stay in power, such as Erdogan [Turkey] and Orban [Hungary]. It is the continuing support among their electorate for these latter, who rely on nationalist sentiment to retain that support, that is most worrying. However, although they may have some Fascist characteristics, she stops short of directly labelling any post-war leader as Fascist, with the exception of the North Korean dynasty.
Regarding Trump, she expresses huge concern about his support for anti-democratic strongmen in other countries, and about his running down of democratic institutions in his own country, such as accusing the press of always lying, and his anti-immigration rhetoric. All this makes other leaders think this is acceptable whereas when America was truly great it set a good example to other leaders. Again, she stops short of describing him as a Fascist. Given her position in the Democratic Party this was probably wise: but of course she was writing before the January 2021 Capitol Riots when Trump encouraged violent supporters to try to overturn the election results, which she had previously said is a hallmark of Fascism. There are two sorts of Fascists: those who give orders, and those who obey them.
This leads to concerns about the role of the media and social media in manipulating truth. Politicians telling lies is as old as politics. Even photoshopping is not new: there is the well-known example of the photograph of Lenin and Trotsky, which the Bolsheviks re-issued with Trotsky removed. But in the internet age the scope for this has hugely increased, when anyone can influence thousands of others by telling one untruth. Trump and his supporters such as Carlton Tucker not only spread untruths but bully and denigrate anyone who disagrees with them; and the most venom is reserved for other Republicans rather than liberals, just as Hitler had the SA leaders murdered before he started on the communists and Jews. George Orwell said that a one-word definition of a Fascist is a “bully”. Albright is careful to point out that Fascist, bullying tendences are also shown by the proponents of extreme “Woke” political correctness: all too often the message is that it is not good enough to oppose racism or transphobia; you have to oppose it in the right way with the right language.
She points out that it is not strictly true to conflate populism with Fascism, as often happens. The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of populism is “a belief in the rights, wisdom and virtues of the common people”: nothing wrong with that. But in a street clash between left and right, or between Just Stop Oil and Anti-Ulez protestors, who are the populists? Since the term has become perjorative, the answer is whoever you disagree with.
Britain doesn’t get much of a mention. In the 1930s, Mosley and the British Union of Fascists were largely sidelined because there was a strong right-wing establishment which rendered them unnecessary, especially with the appeasement of Hitler, and there was no popular antipathy to the Jews or immigrants. Nigel Farage gets about one line and isn’t even in the index: whatever we think about him, he shouldn’t really be described as Fascist just because he is right-wing: using the term “Fascist” about anyone you disagree with desensitizes us to the term.
That is not to say that we mustn’t be concerned and on our guard. What Albright doesn’t say is that in England we did have the first Fascist dictator in modern Europe. Been there, done it, got the t-shirt! Oliver Cromwell subverted a just cause that was supported by many English people, manipulated and eventually closed down (“prorogued”) parliament, used his own private army to intimidate people who had previously been on the same side as himself, illegally had the King executed, committed genocide in Ireland, and ruled as a dictator. He was probably worse than any King we have had. Once he died we asked for the King back. We demand change at our peril.
9th September 2023