Fascism, After a Fashion

July 13, 1995|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- A recent report by the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith has drawn attention to the international scale of the so-called skinhead movement, which began in Britain in the 1970s.

The report, issued in Washington, identified these groups with Nazism. The Anti-Defamation League's national director, Abraham Foxman, said: ''It is unbelievable that three generations after the Holocaust, we still hear the deadly march of Nazi thugs. . . . (W)e dare not ignore the first sounds of jackboots.''

This is a comprehensible reaction to the discovery that some 70,000 people in 30 countries (including an estimated 3,500 in the U.S.) are loosely grouped in a violent, racist, and anti-Semitic movement, its members increasingly in touch with one another, disseminating their propaganda through ''the Net'' and other modern electronic systems. Mr. Foxman's is nonetheless an incorrect comparison that confuses important issues.

The skinheads are a repellent and in some instances murderous crowd, with repellent motivations, but they are not Nazis. They would like to be Nazis. They adore the paraphernalia of Nazism (as do sado-masochists), but have neither the ideology, nor possibly the brains, for Nazism. They are play-actors, dangerous for what they are. But they do not make up a political phenomenon of serious consequence in any of the Western countries. America's various (and marginal) white supremacy groups are similarly racist but not Nazi. The militia movement, which has had so much publicity since the Oklahoma City bombing, is a revolt by poor or lower-middle-class people against what its members see as an internationalist elite in the American government, but it is neither fascist nor Nazi.

Militia groups may be racist, but the movement's aim is a kind of anarchistic libertarian regime in the United States. There is a real connection to the libertarian ideas of the 1960s' flower-children. After the apocalypse, militia survivors will live free lives in the great and unregulated American West, untroubled by government.

Fascism is a collective movement, the opposite of the militias' anarchic individualism. It is a phenomenon of social radicalism, calling for strong, nationalist government. Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin, American demagogues of the 1930s, often attacked in those years as American-style fascists, demanded a national guaranteed annual income. Long created his political base while governor of Louisiana by building schools, hospitals and roads for the poor. Coughlin, like Long, began as a New Deal supporter.

Italian fascism advocated ''corporatist'' national planning, with government by a charismatic leader counselled by representatives of the nation's economic and social interests: farmers, labor, business, the professions, women, the church. It wanted national glory and expansion, but saw itself as a mass movement of the people against old elites and old wealth.

Germany's Nazism -- ''National Socialism'' -- emphasized ''Aryan'' rule and messianic national goals, but also took steps to end unemployment, restore German industrial growth and build infrastructure as well as German military power. Nazism's racism and anti-Semitism were connected both to the Social Darwinist ideas of the pre-1914 period, held in eminently respectable circles, and to old popular prejudices about Jews as ''Christ-killers'' and manipulative international financiers (the latter responsible for left-wing anti-Semitism, very marked in this same period).

Can fascism or Nazism come back? Historical fascism clearly was connected to the First World War. It was a phenomenon of a particular period. It took root in societies whose moral and political universes had been blown away by the war.

Nonetheless frustrated nationalism and a popular demand for radical social reform or revolution make a powerful combination. There is no reason to think they could not come together again in some country in crisis, producing a political movement that would be fascism under another name.

Any country is vulnerable to such forces if times are bad enough and the future radically uncertain. This is why it is necessary to think clearly about the fascisms we already have known, and to call things by their right names. Such distinctions need to be made because if everything on the violent right is called Nazi or fascist, this damages our ability to recognize -- and more important, to understand -- the real thing, under whatever name it reappears.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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