Vox Populi, Vox Dei

Eva Perón, ca. 1943

Vox Populi, Vox Dei

From Fascism to Populism in History, Federico Finchelstein, University of California Press, 2017, 328 pp, h.b., reviewed by LESLIE JONES

In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci refers to the sentimental connection (connessione sentimentale) that exists between the intelligentsia and the people. But not today, as Federico Finchelstein unwittingly makes clear.

“Why beholdest thou the mote that is in your brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye”? (St Matthew, 7:3). During both the British EU referendum campaign and the American Presidential election, many commentators gave up being objective. Both results were generally unexpected (and unwelcomed), a testament to left-liberal wishful thinking but also to the underestimation of nationalism. Indicatively, in this context, “defeated” French Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen won 11 million votes in 2017, more than twice the number of her father in 2002. And Donald Trump, likewise, won almost 63 million votes in 2016.

Apropos Le Pen, according to Finchelstein, she “denied any role in the Holocaust for the French collaborators of the Nazis…” (page 204). Not true. What she in fact said was “I don’t think France is responsible for the Vel d’Hiv” (the rounding up of French Jews prior to their deportation). It was those in power at the time (i.e. the Vichy regime) who were responsible, in her opinion, “not France”. President Francois Mitterand said much the same thing in 1994, to wit, “The republic had nothing to do with that, France is not responsible”.

Right wing populists “envisage a future when tolerance and diversity…cease to have a prominent political role” (page 161). The author’s complaint rings somewhat hollow, given the current ideological uniformity within academia. Ditto, his suggestion (page xviii) that liberals and socialists, unlike populists, “empirically confront their failures”. Just how many of Trump’s critics in the media have addressed the underlying causes of his victory? We can think of only one significant example, to wit, Joe Scarborough on MNBC.

According to Professor Finchelstein, “Crisis, zenophobia and populism characterise our new century” (page xi). Right wing populists like Donald Trump, in his judgement, “undermine tolerance and eventually democracy” (page x). They use zenophobia “to turn society backwards” (page xv). But, after all, only Marxists and neo-Conservatives (many of them former Marxists) claim to know which direction history is taking.

These criticisms notwithstanding, Federico Finchelstein, Professor of History at the New School for Social Research, in New York, is a serious scholar. He insists, correctly, that the fact that the Klan supported Trump “does not mean that Trumpism was a form of  fascism” (page 9). He also notes that both fascism and populism entailed strong, charismatic leaders who manipulated the masses, undermined the rule of law and attacked the press*. Yet he is careful not to conflate the two. Indeed, the thesis of his book is that the salient characteristic of post-war populism, beginning with Peronism, was its “rejection of dictatorship”. In a populist democracy, the charismatic leader can ultimately be overthrown in an election. Post war populism can therefore be considered as “authoritarian experiments in democracy” (page xiv).

As the author points out, populism now inhabits the space once occupied by fascism (page xiv). It can therefore take divergent forms. There are left-wing Populist movements, notably Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and Corbynism in the UK. In this regard, Peronism was something of a precursor. Whereas Fascism in its heyday rallied the middle classes, after the war and the defeat of fascism, Juan Péron mobilised the working classes. He redistributed income and conferred rights on rural and urban workers.

Finchelstein acknowledges that significant “sectors of society… feel… left aside by technocratic elites…” (page 4). Can the latter offer a solution to the problems caused by globalism, including those associated with uncontrolled immigration? If not, the right-wing variant of populism, as articulated by Golden Dawn, the FN, AfD etc. etc. will remain “…a significant challenger, to both conventional and more radical emancipatory forms of politics” (page 174).

Professor Finchelstein still remains wedded to superannuated notions – notably the aforementioned idea of “radical emancipatory forms of politics”. But “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents”. Some repetition notwithstanding, this is a timely and commendable analysis.

*We disagree, however, with Finchelstein’s assertion that Italian fascism “promoted the idea of a war without end” (page 79). In fact, in his declaration of war on France and Britain, on 10 June 1940, Mussolini envisaged “a long period of peace with justice”. 

Dr Leslie Jones is the Editor of Quarterly Review

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1 Response to Vox Populi, Vox Dei

  1. David Ashton says:

    These sort of books are vitiated by the lack of precision and detail in the definition of words like “fascism”, “populism”, “left”, “right”, “radical”, “backwards”, “democracy”, “class”, “racism”, “authoritarian”, “progressive”, “emancipatory”, &c. They are used especially today to “suggest” attitudes rather than concepts, and invite the same sort of critique that A. J. Ayer attempted with religious language; “Barthes on Barthes” so to speak. There have been some attempts at this; e.g. A. James Gregor’s “Metapolitics”. “History is often abused to advance a political agenda” as the irrelevantly delicious Suzannah Lipscomb is saying at this moment on a video lecture running as I write, and it works in various directions. For Leninists and others, language, including personal abuse, is a tool to be used for a political end. My advice is to look carefully at individual policies as well as language used to defend, oppose or conceal them. The current trend of “race-class-gender” (own words) ideology control, implement and/or purge legislation, public discourse, student life and so forth is a phenomenon worth analysis – wherever permissible (!).

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