from the book


Past, Present and Future

a book by

Walter Laqueur, 1996



Clerical fascism and the Third World

One species of fascism with a time-honored past had a recent revival and may have a promising future in some parts of the world. This is clerical fascism, which can take various forms, such as the confluence of fascism and radical, fundamentalist religion.

The term fundamentalism is as imperfect as most of the terms used in political and general discourse today. But no one so far has produced a concept that fits better and is more widely accepted. If fundamentalism is interpreted as orthodox, going back to the origins, meaning the sacred texts, the legitimacy of present-day fundamentalists is dubious. Often they provide their own, novel interpretations of these texts, which are by no means identical with tradition. Fundamentalism interpreted as anti-modernism is more accurate, but since modernity has a variety of meanings, this is not always helpful. Thus, in the final analysis, fundamentalism has come to represent a radical, militant, fanatical movement trying to impose its beliefs on others by means of force, and thus, it is a political movement.

The similarities between fascism and fundamentalism were noted even in the early 1920s, well before Hitler had become a household name. One of the earliest accounts of fundamentalism in the United States was entitled "Faszismus und Fundamentalismus in den USA." The author showed in great detail how political fanaticism fueled religious intolerance, how extreme nationalism and populism went hand in hand with radical religion, and how the Ku Klux Klan cooperated with the fundamentalists. Both were based on the same social strata, the poorly educated and discontented looking for primitive and violent solutions.

The term clerico fascisti was coined even earlier, in 1922. It refers to a group of Catholic believers in Rome and northern Italy who advocated a synthesis of Catholicism and fascism. The affinities between the Muslim Brotherhood and fascism were observed in the 1930s, as was the fact that the extreme Muslim organizations supported the Axis powers in World War II.

In a remarkable book published in 1937, a German Catholic writer labeled Nazism a new political Islam and Hitler-Mohammed its prophet. Why this "new German" (neudeutsch) Islam. According to Hitler from Mein Kampf onward, the sword has always been the carrier, prophet, and propagator of a new religion "Hatred was always the main moving force of all revolutionary change, pervasive fanaticism and even hysteria were impelling the masses rather than any scientific perception."

Nazism contained a pagan element, and Italian Fascism featured an anticlerical trend, but they appeared only at the margins of these movements. Once in power, the fascist states were eager not to jeopardize their relations with the church. On the other hand, the clergy played a crucial role in fascist or pro-fascist regimes and movements. Fascist and para-fascist parties in Latin America and the various "integralist" movements rejected the pagan element in Nazism and invoked the need for a Christian spiritual revolution (Father Charles Coughlin in the United States). Sir Oswald Mosley in Britain wrote in retrospect that it had been the weakness of fascism in Britain that it had not been more Christian in inspiration. Neither Engelbert Dollfuss and Kurt von Schuschnigg in Austria nor the Slovak governments of Monsignor Tiso (often labeled at the time as a clerical fascist) were inspired by fanatic religiosity; they were authoritarian rather than totalitarian. The Croat state of the Ustasha, on the other hand, provides a good example of the dual impact of religion and fascism resulting in state terrorism unprecedented even by Balkan standards.

It has been argued that there could be no lasting understanding between fascism and religion simply because both were holistic weltanschauungen, staking claims to the whole human being in all respects. "Thou shall have no other gods before me" says the Bible, but it also demands to "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's," and the Talmud announces unambiguously, "Dina de malkuta dina" (The law of the [worldly] kingdom is the law). But Islam is, according to the fundamentalists, din va dawla, both a religion and a political-social system. Islam does not call for Muslims to disobey non-Muslim rulers. But it implies that they should obey only as long as the rule of the infidels lasts.

It also has been contended that a fascist-religious synthesis is impossible because all varieties of fascism are deeply nationalistic, whereas modem secular nationalism is irrelevant, if not anathema, to the world's principal religions. But militant religion and nationalism coexist in Shi'ite Iran, among Jewish fanatics in Israel, among Sikhs in India, and elsewhere in Asia. The Russian Orthodox Church has always been the main pillar of Russian nationalism, as are the Armenian, Georgian, Ukrainian, and Bulgarian churches of their countries.

Another, more valid argument is that historically some religions have been less fanatical and more tolerant than others. These are therefore unlikely candidates for clerical fascism in any form. Not all religions have tried to establish a theocracy. For example, in the past India was the model country of tolerance, with King Asoka honoring all (other) religions and Akbar preaching religious tolerance.

Similar tolerance was exercised in Europe under Friedrich von Hohenstaufen in the thirteenth century, but this was an exception. The history of Christianity since the early Middle Ages is one of the persecution of heretics, the burning of witches, crusades and pogroms, inquisitions and other forms of intolerance. The power struggle between church and ruler lasted for many centuries and lost its relevance only with the secularization of the state in early modern times or, as in the case of Russia, with the imposition of the will of the tsar (Ivan IV) on the church.

In Islam, Iran offers the best-known example of religious intolerance. This tradition, to be sure, dates back even to pre-lslamic times; as manifested in the persecution of the Turks and Uzbeks and, more recently, in the persecution of various Islamic sects, Bahais, Christians, Jews, and virtually all other religions. The injunction of a holy war (jihad) against the non-lslamic world (dar al harb) is a collective duty (fard al kifaya) of vital importance. The jihad is a permanent revolution in which there may be temporary truces but no real peace. This is the law, but on a practical level, concessions must be made much of the time.

Fundamentalism, is not of course, an Islamic monopoly, as it can be found in Christianity and judaism as well as in other religions. In extreme forms it is manifested in political terrorism (such as the antiabortion murders in the United States, in Kahanism in Israel, in Hindu attacks against Muslims in India). Fundamentalists have exerted political pressure on secular governments in America, Europe, and Asia. But only in the Muslim world have radicals acquired positions of power and are likely to have further successes, from Algeria to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and even beyond. Conversely, in most parts of the West and East secularism has made so much progress that it has made a fundamentalist takeover unlikely.



The Prospects of Fascism

What are the prospects for fascism n the contemporary world. The record of more than seventy years shows common patterns. Fascism arises at a time of economic, social, and political crisis, when the old order no longer seems able to cope with urgent problems. These are the preconditions for the growth of fascist and neofascist movements, but whether the fascists are able to exploit such a constellation depends on a variety of circumstances, such as the intensity of the crisis, the determination of the incumbents to resist the challenge, and the presence or absence of effective fascist leaders. A promising situation (that is, promising from a fascist point of view) may pass unused because the fascists are divided or lack effective , leadership.

Fascism has always been a movement of protest and discontent and the contemporary world contains a great reservoir of protest. The social basis of the new fascism has become more plebeian (in some countries more than in others) and more radically populist than historical fascism was. Outside Europe it has been strongest in those societies unable or unwilling to keep in step with the West, or even to overtake it, as the Asian-Pacific countries have done.

To assess the overall prospects of fascism and similar movements, we must consider several factors. If it is true that the cold war ended with the decisive victory of liberal democracy as the only remaining contestant in the field, as the ideal to which everyone-or almost everyone-was aspiring, the future for fascism is bleak. But the prospects for liberal democracy are not that rosy, for there is likely to be a backlash against conditions on the international and the domestic scene, which many consider as increasingly chaotic. Clearly, not every non-democratic regime needs to be in a fascist mold. If a society has reached a relatively high level of development and the crisis facing it seems to be transient, a relatively mild authoritarian regime could resolve the problem. "Objectively," a harsh totalitarian regime may not be needed to confront contemporary (or future) challenges. But "objectively," fascism and Nazism were not needed in 1923 and 1933, either, and yet they prevailed because non-democratic movements tend to have a momentum of their own. The deeper the crisis is, real or perceived, the greater will be the desire for an effective dictatorship that enables its rulers to pursue their politics unencumbered by pressures and opposition from below. Such a dictatorship must be firm and ruthless; it cannot tolerate an opposition, thus the need for repression. It also needs the support of broad sections of the population, hence the need for propaganda.

Europe and other parts of the world have witnessed enormous economic progress over the last half-century. But there is no reason to assume that this growth will continue to rise at the same rate. Real income in the United States has fallen since the mid-1970s and has stagnated in most West European countries. Unemployment-virtually unknown in the 1960s-is now endemic, with a rate in various countries in excess of 10 percent, and in some, such as Spain, over 20 percent. According to projections, a considerable part of the labor force, perhaps as much as half, will be working part time in twenty years from now.

New investment has been directed more and more toward Asia and certain Third World countries where productivity is higher. Free trade finds fewer supporters, and indeed, many regard it as detrimental to their interests. Economic growth in Asia will be, in all probability, fast in the decades to come. Accordingly, this relative decline of the West may give rise to resentment and fear. Some argue that democracy and radical economic reform do not mix. True, the relative decline is taking place during a period of prosperity, if compared with the situation in the 1920s and 1930s. Industrial jobs are disappearing faster in Europe than new ones become available, but a social security safety net now takes care of those affected. Shelter, food, and medical assistance are provided for the needy. ~ But it is not certain whether even rich Europe can afford to spend so much on welfare for a growing underclass. Even some of the richest cities on the Continent find themselves on the verge of bankruptcy. And even if the countries can afford it, the social consequences of a dependence on welfare are dismal and politically dangerous. It means that millions of people are marginalized and no longer seek employment. Areas of decay and violent crime have been created in major European cities; in America they have existed for a long time.

Since the 1970s the gap between the rich and the poor has substantially widened, particularly in the United States, Britain, and the former Soviet Union. According to projections, this trend will continue, and although some countries, notably the United States, have shown tolerance so far of this rising inequality, elsewhere it is causing social and political unrest.

The underclass is still a minority, but the feeling of uncertainty among the majority of the employed, about the future of their workplace, is rising. In technical language this is known as accelerated structural change in the economy, and it affects white-collar employees as much as manual workers. If enough people develop such feelings of insecurity, they will turn into a political factor of paramount importance. If there are not enough jobs for everyone (or almost everyone); if the young for whom no work can be found in the first place are joined by those of early middle age who, having lost their job, cannot be reintegrated into the economy; and if there are no far-reaching schemes for work sharing, the social and political consequences may be serious. Such a situation can lead to populist and/or extremist movements, as it did in the past. Of all the factors that contributed to the rise of fascism in the 1930s, insecurity was one of the most crucial, and certainly the least understood and examined.

Part of the new underclass is native born, and part is of foreign origin In Holland, for instance, 40 percent of Turkish and Moroccan immigrants are unemployed, but only 7 percent of the Dutch have no job. A similar disproportion exists elsewhere. Such inequality breeds hostility among the guest workers toward the "rich" natives with whom they come into contact daily. It also means resentment of the "parasites" by the native-born population and a growing reluctance to pay billions each year to provide social services, food, and shelter for the nonworking underclass. The impression takes hold that the situation is out of control. Ethnic strife and class conflicts increase and the demand for a strong govemment grows.

Another aspect, perhaps more important, as far as Europe is concerned, is the crisis of parliamentary democracy. Wherever fascism grew strong in Europe, it was against a background of a loss of faith in democratic institutions. In part, it had to do with claims of corruption. But such claims were only one aspect, and not the most important one There had been little corruption in Germany before 1933. Nazism and fascism did not gain power primarily because of promises to clean up corrupt regimes; rather, they promised to replace weak governments. There was, and is now, a need for a strong democratic government, but is it possible in the contemporary world Even where it has deep roots, democracy has never been loved; the most it engenders is a belief that despite all their drawbacks, democratic institutions are the best in an imperfect world.

In the 1970s, as in the late 1920s, the feeling prevailed that the system had become unworkable and the countries ungovernable In the 1980s, this feeling was submerged, only to resurface again in the 1990s. It refers to the belief that governments have become weak and even impotent as the result of growing pressures that cause governments to act not in the national interest but to safeguard their reelection. lnstead of making difficult decisions, they try to be all things to all people. It refers to the growing importance of lobbies fighting for vested interests and of the media- responsible to no one but their owners-setting the national agenda, not in accordance with real, deeper needs, but with the quickly changing exigencies of entertainment.

These perceptions are not exaggerated, but they are incomplete. The weakness of democratic leaders and institutions is paralleled by irresponsibility and apathy in society the belief in the omnipotence of the state, the widespread and increasing feeling that it can deliver almost anything without a corresponding effort on the part of the people, that a state and a society are akin to a corporation with limited stakes, concerned with profits, privileges, and entitlements, with civic duties limited to a minimum of taxation. Thus the inclination is growing to support a new kind of leadership proposing quick solutions outside the democratic system.

In what circumstances do democratic regimes disintegrate? Governments lose their monopoly of force, because the constitution gives them little power, because they have such power but are reluctant to use it, or because the forces of law and order are no longer loyal to the democratic system Electoral systems that do not create stability have been cited as an important reason for the breakdown of democratic regimes. But frequent changes in government (and even protracted periods of no government) do not necessarily lead to the victory of extremist forces. Legitimacy is a crucial factor, as is the readiness of the opposition to accept the democratic system and act accordingly. If there is no broad democratic consensus in society resting on shared values and goals the prospects of democracy are dim. Support for democracy will erode if political change is blocked. This was the case in Italy and Austria after World War II. There was no democratic alternative to the leading party (or parties), which stayed in power without interruption. But once the cold war ended, the old system disintegrated.

The crisis of democracy accounts for the rise of Fascism and Nazism in the 1920s and 1930s in Italy and Germany. But it does not explain the rise of strong fascist movements in Hungary and Romania in the 1930s, because there was no democracy in these countries in the first place. No' does it explain the emergence of strong parties of the extreme Right more recently in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The crisis of democracy is irrelevant to the rise of radical Islam in Iran, Algeria, and Egypt, or to secular totalitarian dictatorships such as that in Iraq.

It is precisely in the more developed countries of the Third World that a political doctrine and a political system in the fascist tradition seem to have the best chances at the present time. Whatever the shortcomings of parliamentary democracy in western, central, and southern Europe, it is difficult to imagine the return to power of movements as repressive, violent, and enthusiastic as fascism was in its heyday. The neo-Nazi, the neofascist sectarians should remain uninfluential. The more substantial populist ultra-nationalist parties have much better chances, but even they could not, in all probability, go beyond authoritarianism if they gained power. They might dismantle part of the democratic system, but they could not establish a fully fledged totalitarian regime. The European countries have been immunized to a certain extent against fascism, and Europeans and Americans are too rich and lethargic to put up much of a fight for such a system unless confronted by a crisis much deeper than any that can be envisioned at the present time.

The situation in Russia and Eastern Europe is less predictable. The collapse of Communism created a void that some hoped would be filled by democrats. But even though Communism had a bad fall, the Communist leaders had a soft landing and, within a few years, again found themselves in power in most countries. Attempts to introduce democratic institutions were less than successful, and so the ideological void was filled by some kind of national socialism. Could it have been different? Perhaps, but the chances were not very good because there had been no democratic foundations on which to build, and the transition was bound to be difficult and protracted. With all this, historical Communism cannot be put together again, so perhaps fascism and Communism will have to combine forces in a search for innovation and refurbishment. Perhaps they will return in the framework of a ,military dictatorship.

The first manifesto of such a regime can be envisaged without difficulty, for there have been many precursors Corrupt and inefficient politicians will be denounced; threats of a breakdown of public order, inflation, unemployment and economic decline, and growing anarchy and separatism will be invoked-in brief, impending total disaster. In such circumstances, in the national interest, a strong government will be chosen to save the country. A state of emergency (or siege) will be declared for a limited period only. Such a dictatorship will be popular, at least for a while. The fact that the military has not been victorious in recent wars will not be a major impediment, for it can always be argued that they would have won the war if it had not been for the corrupt politicians. (Primo de Rivera came to power in Spain immediately after the army had been humiliated in Morocco, and Neguib and Nasser ousted King Farouk after Egypt's defeat in the war against Israel.) What matters is that the army and the security forces still function, even when the other state institutions have broken down.

Russia could have additional support for a regime of this kind because of the strong presence of various mafias and the widespread belief that only iron measures can eliminate them. Since the supreme military leadership is thought to be involved in the general corruption, the initiative for such a coup is more likely to come from the colonels than the generals.

Would this be a fascist dictatorship? Not in the traditional sense, but it could turn into one, because the-army does not have the competence to carry out the purge, nor could it act as an instrument of terror and propaganda. To manage a modern society and economy, a coalition is needed between the military and at least some civilian leaders. The army needs a political movement as a transmission belt, in the same way that Stalin did and virtually all modem dictators have.

The situation outside Europe is different. The grave crisis in the Middle East, North Africa, and other more developed countries of the Third World has been aggravated by demographic pressures. The people also subscribe to beliefs, fanaticism, and a willingness to fight that no longer exist in the rich and lazy West. This part of the world has no historical experience of fascism, no revulsion to bloodshed, and fewer restraints on engaging in mass violence. The potential of fascist-like movements and regimes is particularly strong in countries with much accumulated resentment that can look back on a great past. Some of these countries can turn easily from an authoritarian regime to one more repressive and aggressive. Iran under the shah was a dictatorship but not a very strict one. On the contrary, the shah experimented with reform and thus exposed himself to acute danger. But when challenged by extremists he lacked the determination to use the force that was needed to save his regime. Likewise, in Algeria the crisis occurred not when the dictatorship was harshest but when it began to make concessions to the Islamic challengers; this coincided with the consequences of a ruinous economic and social policy becoming ever more apparent.

Paraphrasing President Calvin Coolidge, we can say that the business of the Pacific Rim is business. China, Japan, and Southeast Asia have made enormous economic progress, and there is reason to assume that they will eventually catch up with the West. As a result, their political power-their standing in the world-will also increase. South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and China have shown an annual growth rate of 16 to 20 percent since the mid-l970s, with Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia not far behind. The reason for this economic "miracle" is no secret It is the old-fashioned virtues of hard work and high saving rates. As a result, the percentage of the population below the poverty line in these countries is now a fraction of what it was in the early 1 960s.

Conversely the national income of Middle Eastern and African countries has stagnated or declined, and because of the rapid population growth, the number of the very poor and unemployed has increased. Over the past decade, per capita income in the Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa has declined by more than 20 percent, the worst performance by any world region. This has generated even more frustration and hatred, which can turn inward but can also turn into terrorism and a political system such as clerical fascism. A democratic solution seems ruled out for the foreseeable future. These countries have fallen behind the rest of the world, and the more frustrated the people are, the greater will be their rage and their desire to reassert themselves.

The early-twentieth-century European thinkers who paved the way for fascism were preoccupied with a cultural as much as a political critique of society. The parallels between their ideas and the situation, at the end of the century, which has witnessed the rise and downfall of fascism, are striking. Fascism appeared with the promise of a new synthesis of nationalism and socialism but also a halt to decadence, a regeneration and rejuvenation of society, and a restoration of faith and values. It also vowed to provide a more effective government than democracy was and to put the national interest ahead of the egotism of individuals.

European fascism was both a product of the fin de siecle of 1900 and a reaction against it. It is fascinating even in retrospect how a hundred years ago, literary cult figures such as Maurice Barres and Gabriele D'Annunzio transformed themselves in record time from world-weary dandies engaged in the cult of the self and hyper-aestheticism to advocates of super-patriotism and anti-liberal ideas of war and dictatorship that came close to fascism. The career of Giulio Evola, from Dadaism to ultra-fascism, proceeded on similar lines, and Martin Heidegger, prophet of nihilism, has become the guru of a later generation of nihilists.

Writing under Mussolini, thirty years later, Benedetto Croce, great philosopher and astute observer of the Italian scene, wrote that fascism was the new irrationalism and decadence, "including occultism and theosophy, with logical restraints removed, the critical faculties enfeebled, the responsibility of rational assent brushed aside." Croce's comments again sound highly topical. Taken one by one, the fin de siecle ideas were no more than entertainments, intellectual fads that would not have survived unless the political stage had been set for them.

The new fascists believe that the political stage may have been set for their message to be accepted as the result of the cultural and political crisis of the West, its drifting and general weakness. With the disappearance of the "Communist danger," there is only the threat of chaos, but it is a hr more difficult challenge to cope with.

Decades of attempts to perfect democracy and to weaken authority have often resulted in bedlam. Concern has spread about the weakness or absence of leadership, about moral and cultural relativism and the fragmentation of society. Special-interest groups and ethnic minorities demand not just autonomy and equal rights but even preferential treatment. As a result the pendulum is swinging back in strange ways to the mood of an earlier age, with the emphasis on the good of the collective rather than on that of the individual, from permissiveness to discipline, order, and authority. Fascism is neither the only nor, in many countries, the most likely form of this backlash. But it is certainly one contender eager to exploit the discontents of society. New messages may fall on open ears in some developed countries and especially in backward societies. But those hypnotized by a second coming of Nazism and fascism, in Western Europe, are looking in the wrong direction. The fashions, the symbols, and the rhetoric of the 1990s are not those of the 1930s, and those countries most likely to succumb to non-democratic ideologies are neither Germany nor Italy. Rather, these new movements will be populist, with a strong religious element in some places or a conservative or national Bolshevist streak. Fascism may not have a thousand faces, but it certainly may have a dozen, some old and familiar and others that we have not seen before.

If microbes and pests have become resistant to the magic bullets and the miracle pesticides of the 1940s and 1950s, fascism has used evolutionary techniques to adjust itself to new conditions and outwit humans. And since democratic societies always tend to celebrate victory a little too early, discarding tools that were of some use in the past and removing its guards out of negligence, convenience and the desire to make some misplaced and shortsighted economies, fascism, like the staphylococci, is making a comeback. There might be no wonder drug in either case, but at least there ought to be awareness that a threat still exists and that it might be premature to dispose with the injunction in the Bible calling for sobriety and vigilance.

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