What Was the Fascism Debate?Roundup
tags: political history, fascism, Donald Trump
Udi Greenberg is an associate professor of European history at Dartmouth College.
Writing from prison in the early 1930s, Antonio Gramsci lamented Europe’s fall into what he called “Caesarism.” Social upheavals across the continent had empowered ambitious autocrats who, like Julius Caesar, claimed to represent their nation’s popular will while destroying its democratic institutions. Even though the concept was coined in the nineteenth century to describe figures like Napoleon III, many thought it aptly depicted the nascent dictatorships of the interwar era. Gramsci invoked it to analyze Mussolini’s fascist state, and journalist Jay Franklin expanded it to depict Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes. Caesarism, however, also proved controversial, and other thinkers dismissed the term as inadequate. Political theorist Karl Loewenstein, for example, believed that analogies to Roman times obscured the new regimes’ unprecedented ambitions to remake human nature. Only a novel term, like “totalitarianism,” could really capture their extreme terror, utilization of new technologies, and desire to colonize citizens’ minds. The latter camp ultimately emerged victorious, and the totalitarian label proliferated in speeches and publications. Even though caesarism remained in scholarly circulation in the 1940s and 1950s, totalitarianism became the basic term to describe the dangers of modern politics.
In retrospect, the debate’s most noteworthy aspect was not whether caesarism or totalitarianism better defined the era’s evils. Both Gramsci and Loewenstein had a point: interwar dictators built on previous historical models, but also broke with them. Instead, the disagreement over terminology merits attention because it illuminates the anxieties, hopes, and self-conceptions of the time. It helps us grasp how past thinkers understood their place in history, how they sought to articulate what was familiar and what was uncanny, and how they struggled to develop a response to the era’s frightening realities. Their countless books and essays were not a pedantic exercise in historical accuracy, but an effort to isolate the defining features of modern dictatorships with the hope of arresting their spread.
In recent years, the controversy over the fascist analogy has generated similar heat. In an avalanche of books and essays, scholars have endlessly debated whether we are facing the rebirth of Mussolini and Hitler’s violent ideology or are witnessing a profoundly different beast, for which new terminology is needed. And even though the radical right has flourished across continents and countries, this theoretical dispute has raged most intensely in the United States. From its imposition of xenophobic travel restrictions in 2017 to its incitement of violence against Congress in 2021, the Trump administration made the issue of permanent interest.
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