Monday 16 September 2019

Mary Kenny: 'The hot air of 'fascism' fans flames - but it's nowhere near'

Legacy: A salute being given at a Blueshirt meeting at Charleville, Co Cork, in April 1934.
Legacy: A salute being given at a Blueshirt meeting at Charleville, Co Cork, in April 1934.
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Fascism? It's all the rage. Or, at least, throwing around accusations about encroaching fascism in every society is now the fashion.

Madeleine Albright, sometime American secretary of state, has called Donald Trump a fascist. The "rise" of neo-fascism is seen in the dominance of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Viktor Orban in Hungary. Albright includes the Venezuelan leadership of Chavez and Maduro as tinged with fascism.

In Ireland, after Peter Casey garnered 24pc of the vote in the presidential election, social media was awash with fears about a fascist and racist threat. Fintan O'Toole warned that "there is a capacity for fascism that lurks beneath the surface in every society. If opportunistic politicians dig down into it, it can emerge. So they shouldn't."

Former Venezuela President Hugo Chavez
Former Venezuela President Hugo Chavez

The popular novelist Marian Keyes had to reassure her followers that "Ireland isn't a fascist hellhole just yet. [But] how about stop giving air time to racist chancers and keep it that way?"

There is a lamentable lack of definition in all this hot air about fascism. People confuse - and conflate - fascism with racism, and although they can be aligned, they are not the same thing.

Benito Mussolini was a fascist - he invented the concept (drawing on the image of bundling together bunches of elm rods, or fasces, to represent the corporate state) - but he wasn't either a racist or an anti-Semite: he called racial theories "stupid, barbarous and unworthy of a European nation".

Spain's Franco was also a fascist, and an autocratic dictator, as well as a cruel oppressor, but he, too, was not a racist: he had Moroccan troops willingly under his command, forming one of the first "integrated" European forces. Neither was he anti-Semitic.

Many South American regimes have been fascist, but not racist - the junta of Juan and Evita Peron being an example. While South Africa was institutionally racist under the rule of apartheid, it did have a parliament and the rule of law and a degree of press and commercial freedom, so it was not fascist.

Some of the Nordic countries inclined to racism but not fascism. The Norwegian foundation constitution of 1904 was hostile to those who might not blend into Norwegian society, including Jews (and Jesuits). Yet Norway had strong democratic roots - it was one of the first countries to extend the franchise to women, who, from the 1890s, were active in local government.

Nazi Germany was obviously both fascist and racist. It suspended the rule of law, encouraged force and thuggery, repressed free institutions and threw people arbitrarily into concentration camps.

There is certainly a rise of what is disparagingly known as "populism" around the globe, although that can just means candidates who are popular with the voters, and who express opinions others think are offensive.

Sometimes their opinions are offensive. But that doesn't make them "fascists" or, necessarily, "racists". The characterisation of Peter Casey as a proto-fascist, or even opportunistically "digging down" into some fascist sub-growth is absurd. Casey has some right-wing views but conservatism isn't fascism. Fascism was opposed to capitalism: it believed in bringing commerce under the command of the corporate state.

He has some critical views of the lifestyles of Travellers and isn't convinced they are a separate ethnic group: this may be unkind, but it doesn't make him a "racist" either.

In the early 1930s, there was some interest in Ireland in the continental fascist parties: even the generally quite decent agricultural organisation Muintir na Tíre praised theories about the corporate state.

Mussolini had brought together agricultural workers, students, trade unionists, fishermen and business people under his "fascisti" umbrella, promoting disparate elements of the society working together, as the early phase of fascism had it.

Fascism also emphasised the importance of youth - their marching song was 'Giovinezza!' ('Youth') - modernisation, and speed, as in fast cars, fast trains, and the artist Marinetti's "futurism". WB Yeats was attracted to the movement and even wrote an anthem for the Blueshirt leader Eoin O'Duffy.

In Ireland, the Blueshirts arose, initially, from a fear that the state would be destabilised by dissident IRA factions but, as Maurice Manning wrote in his definitive book on the Blueshirts, the Irish version of 1930s fascism was pretty mild. It was anti-Communist and supported "law and order" and the corporate state, but it was not decisively anti-democratic.

In Spain, when O'Duffy took his troops there to fight for Franco (or, as they saw it, to defend Christian civilisation against the Reds), Spanish fascists mocked the Irish brigade for kneeling down to say the Rosary on the battlefield: "Praying is only for women!" according to their machismo creed.

Racism is the hatred or denigration of people of other races and ethnic origins: fascism is usually characterised by one-party or one-man rule ('Uno Duce, una Voce", as the late PJ Mara once half-jokingly ordered in compliance with Charlie Haughey's command), the suppression of the rule of law and democratic institutions, as well as arbitrary use of force.

There is, today, populism, there is authoritarianism, there is political divisiveness - Trump and Brexit have enhanced that - and there is a revival, too, of what the Germans have dubbed the 'alt-right', sometimes under pressures of anxiety about uncontrolled immigration.

But we are nowhere near fascism. And it's irresponsible to keep chucking around the idea that we might be.

Mary Kenny is the author of 'Germany Calling', a personal biography of Lord Haw-Haw

Irish Independent

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