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Can of Worms?

In the Ukraine-Russia stand-off, the word “fascist” is increasingly used to describe the opposing force. Russians are calling the Kiev forces “fascists”(and anti-Semites). While some in Eastern Ukraine have characterized the Russian “tourists” infiltrating their cities as “fascists.” It is a derogatory word invoking the history of Hitler’s invasion of Eastern Europe as well as the Soviet Union’s control of Eastern Europe down to 1990-91. The word may carry emotional clout in the struggle that’s now going on, but does it throw any light on the character of those forces.

Philosophers, historians, linguists, newspaper readers, liberals, fascists, and communists, what do you say?

Here is Wiki’s summary (which it declares in need of further work):

Fascism is a form of radical authoritarian nationalism that came to prominence in early 20th-century Europe. Influenced by national syndicalism, the first fascist movements emerged in Italy around World War I, combining more typically right-wing positions with elements of left-wing politics, in opposition to communism, socialism, liberal democracy and traditional conservatism. Although fascism is usually placed on the far right on the traditional left–right spectrum, fascists themselves and some commentators have argued that the description is inadequate.

Fascists sought to unify their nation through a totalitarian state that promoted the mass mobilization of the national community and were characterized by having a vanguard party that initiated a revolutionary political movement aiming to reorganize the nation along principles according to fascist ideology. Fascist movements shared certain common features, including the veneration of the state, a devotion to a strong leader, and an emphasis on ultranationalism and militarism. Fascism views political violence, war, and imperialism as a means to achieve national rejuvenation and asserts that stronger nations have the right to expand their territory by displacing weaker nations....

Following World War II, few parties have openly described themselves as fascist, and the term is usually used pejoratively by political opponents. The terms neo-fascist or post-fascist are sometimes applied more formally to describe parties of the far right

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



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I’ll weigh in as a reader and point to Timothy Snyder’s piece in the New York Review of Books current issue (which has been outpaced by events). He explains the aspects of the Eurasian ideology that the Yanukovich regime used in justifying how it could tell “itself that its opponents are Jews and us that its opponents are Nazis.” More:

Founded around 2001 by the Russian political scientist Aleksandr Dugin, it proposes the realization of National Bolshevism. Rather than rejecting totalitarian ideologies, Eurasianism calls upon politicians of the twenty-first century to draw what is useful from both fascism and Stalinism. … Eurasianism is not only the ideological source of the Eurasian Union, it is also the creed of a number of people in the Putin administration, and the moving force of a rather active far-right Russian youth movement.

Anyway, it presents context and history while examining the question “Why exactly do people with such views think they can call other people fascists?” in a compelling and relatively brief fashion.

I doubt that Putin understands himself as a fascist nor that it's the best way to describe his motives, but he seems willing enough to borrow plays from the old fascist playbooks when it suits his needs.  His appeal to Russian nationalism in eastern Ukraine and internally in Russia, and what may well turn out to be his annexation of the Crimea, have fascist precedents.  

Without resorting to accusations of fascism, nationalism certainly seems to be alive and well (and exploitable?) in the region.

For the Kremlin, every sign of nationalism in Eastern Europe, except for Russian nationalism, is a bad and dangerous thing. And every nationalist, except a Russian nationalist, is by implication a fascist. So if your country once belonged to the Soviet Union and you now would like it to be closer to the West and less dependent on Mother Russia, you are a fascist, or may as well be. Despite Russian conservatism, "liberal" still lacks the charge that "fascist" carries in Russian propaganda. Similarly, for Russia, democracy means nothing more than elections—rigged or fair. If an elected leader changes the constitution so that he has all the power, gags the press, robs his country blind, and orders his guards to start shooting people in the streets, he, not his opponents, gets to wear the mantle of democracy.

A major segment of Maidan (the opposition who kicked out Yanukovich) is a group called Svoboda. Svoboda has been around a while and they're well known to be fascist and anti-semitic; indeed they collaborated with the Nazis during World War I. When Yanukovich was kicked out they were given several prominent positions in the Ukrainian government. So the idea that Maidan are fascist did not come from nowhere.

From Timothy Snyder's article, referenced above by Dominic Preziosi:

The course of the [Ukranian] protest has very much been influenced by the presence of a rival project [to the European Union], based in Moscow, called the Eurasian Union. This is an international commercial and political union that does not yet exist but that is to come into being in January 2015. The Eurasian Union, unlike the European Union, is not based on the principles of the equality and democracy of member states, the rule of law, or human rights.

On the contrary, it is a hierarchical organization, which by its nature seems unlikely to admit any members that are democracies with the rule of law and human rights. Any democracy within the Eurasian Union would pose a threat to Putin’s rule in Russia. Putin wants Ukraine in his Eurasian Union, which means that Ukraine must be authoritarian, which means that the Maidan must be crushed.

Thus the Iron Curtain seems to rise again as the Eurasian Union.  Is Putin proving both Orwell and Tolkien prescient?


One pundit had this to say on "Fascist!" charges: It is wolves calling wolves wolves.

What a can of worms, indeed. But here are some considerations:

a) totalitarianism. Many, many years ago, Hannah Arendt argued that "totalitarianism" must be distinguished from "authoritarianism," no matter how dictatorial the latter could be. In her view, there were only two genuine totalitarianisms: Hitler's Germany after the mid-thirties, and Stalin's USSR after about 1938 (I've often wondered how she would have handled Mao's China in full bloom). Thus in her view, Fascist Italy, Spain, and various other European countries, were not totalitarian. As she pointed out, the church, the army, and the monarchy maintained separate existences, however much they played ball with Mussolini, Franco, etc. etc. Hitler and Stalin, of course, had no monarchy to worry about, but they did their utmost to fold institutions such as church and army into the new party-society that they sought to create (as did Mao, by the way).
    Even more years ago, perhaps, Waldemar Gurian, writing in Commonweal, pointed to the conjuctions between "left" and "right" in ruling party platforms. Mussolini started political life as a socialist, and the Nazi party was of course a shortcut for "National Socialism" (in German it was the NSDAP, Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or National Socialist German Workers' Party. And Gurian and others pointed out that western leftists were always reluctant to use the term "National Socialist" about Germany, because it was essential to maintain the distinction between Good Socialism and Bad Naziism.
    Hence the word "fascist" came to be preferred in many western circles, because it has no socialist meaning attached to it, and seemingly could cover both Italy and Germany (and others like Spain, some of the Balkans, etc.)
    Mussolini and his ilk also did much with the notion of a corporatist organization of society, supposedly bringing interest groups together to cooperate under state and party direction, rather than fighting each other (some influence of Catholic social teaching here). Corporatism can mean so many different things in different situations that it's difficult go get a handle on, but again it is (for me, anyway) difficult to distinguish between "fascist" corporatism in, say, Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, and what went on in Stalinist Russia or Maoist China (and indeed continues often today) where the primary function of trade unions is not to fight for workers' rights, better conditions, higher wages and so forth, but to channel Beijing's directives down to the workers and make sure they pay attention and obey for the good of the Chinese economy.

I don't think I've ever seen a good definition of the word "fascist" to cover all varieties. Too often it simply means those we don't like. After June 4, 1989, when the Chinese army shot its way into Beijing, killing hundreds of civilians on the way, some western progressives condemned the move as a "fascist" action because they couldn't bear to think that it might be a "communist" action, despite the communist government and party that had ordered the incursion.

If, of course, government and party were really communist (whatever that term might mean) in anything but name.

None of which helps us to decide how many, if any, of the Kiev activists are really fascist.

I need to correct my earlier comment; Svoboda did not collaborate with the Nazis. They haven't been around that long. However they consider themselves the hiers of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, a fascist group which did collaborate the Nazis and was responsible for the deaths of about 100,000 Poles. In many pictures of the Maidan protests people can be seen flying the red and black OUN flag.

Svoboda has been condemned by several Jewish groups for their anti-semitic positions, and their leader Oleh Tyahnybok has proposed depriving Russian citizens of citizenship. They're a dangerous group, and the fact that Maidan has given them control of important ministries does not speak well of the new governmnet.

"...Oleh Tyahnybok has proposed depriving Russian citizens of citizenship."

That is to say ethnic Russians who are citizens of the Ukraine. My phrasing was a little poor there.

The leadership circle in Kiev at the moment has hardly been identified or interviewed, at least in the Western media. Who will run in May? Who will win? What do they stand for? What will they stand for. Calling any of them fascists or anti-Semites, liberals or neo-liberals assumes they have a fixed program that they intend to carry out--and will be able to carry out. At the moment, perhaps they should be seen as amateurs hoping to form an effective government, a huge challenge.

I remember being impressed with the leaders of the Orange Revolution, Yulia Tymoshenko and Victor Yushenko just for their courage and persistence. But apparently that wasn't sufficient to run a good government and be re-elected. Democracy is hard.


If Putin thinks that the rights of the Russians trump the rights of other peoples, then he is a facist in the most fundamental sense -- he's defending the ubermensch.  But I'm not sure he's interested in Russia's power so much as he's interested in Putin's power.

I am surprised by his making the laughable claims, first, that the last president of Ukraine asked him to send troops, and, second, that there are no Russian troops there now.  How dumb does he think the rest of the world is?  


If Putin thinks that the rights of the Russians trump the rights of other peoples, then he is a facist in the most fundamental sense -- he's defending the ubermensch.  But I'm not sure he's interested in Russia's power so much as he's interested in Putin's power.

I am surprised by his making the laughable claims, first, that the last president of Ukraine asked him to send troops, and, second, that there are no Russian troops there now.  How dumb does he think the rest of the world is?  

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