This interview with Enzo Traverso was first published in L'humanité. Translated by David Broder.
June 2015 press conference of far right 'Europe of Nations and Freedom' bloc within European Parliament.
In his Les Nouveaux Visages du Fascisme, historian Enzo Traverso analyses the mutations of the European far Right movements that have emerged from "the fascist matrix."1 According to Traverso, the Left has to "offer political perspectives again" in order to occupy "the immense void" that is today being filled by both jihadism and a "post-fascism" that excludes Muslims.
Are Europe’s far-Right movements (the AfD in Germany, the Front National in France, Jobbik in Hungary…) adopting the same codes as fascism or Nazism?
Enzo Traverso: First of all, these movements do share common traits, including their rejection of the European Union, their xenophobia and their racism, in particular in its Islamophobic dimension. Beyond these markers, we can see notable differences. There are clearly neo-fascist or neo-Nazi movements, like Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary, etc., whose radicalism is often linked to the extent of the crisis, even if in Greece the rise of Syriza did put a lid on this dynamic. As for France, the Front National does have a fascist matrix, and there are certainly neo-fascists in the party, but its discourse is no longer fascist. After all, it has made a considerable effort at ideological mutation, and that is one of the keys to its success. If it still advanced neo-fascist arguments it would not get a hearing, and could certainly not hope to reach the second round of the presidential election.
Why call these parties "from the fascist matrix" post-fascists and not-neo-fascists? How do you characterise this post-fascism?
It is a transitional category. Post-fascism is a concept that attempts to grasp a mutation process that is still underway; the FN is no longer a fascist movement, but it is still far-Right and xenophobic, and it has still not broken the umbilical cord that links it to its fascist matrix. We do not know what that will produce. This could end up — if the European Union were to break apart and the economic crisis were to deepen — transforming into a clearly fascist alternative. That has happened in the past. Or it could take on new characteristics and integrate into the system, like the Movimento Sociale Italiano did in the 1990s, becoming a component of the traditional Right. This is an open process, for within the tendency I call "post-fascist" there are also political movements born in recent years that are not fascist in origin, for instance UKIP in England or the Lega Nord in Italy, which are converging together with this current; indeed, Matteo Salvini and Nigel Farage have good relations with the Front National. This notion does not seek either to play down the danger or to make it more acceptable, but to understand it, the better to combat it more effectively.
Islamophobia has replaced anti-Semitism as the major preoccupation of the far Right — especially in France — even if militant anti-Semitism has not gone away
In the FN there are still nostalgists for l’Algérie française and old-guard anti-Semites. But anti-Semitism has disappeared from political discourse. Or better, Marine Le Pen presents herself as a rampart against the new anti-Semitism of the youths in the banlieue and against jihadist "Islamo-fascism." Like other European far-Right parties the FN is trying to establish good relations with the State of Israel. From this point of view there is an evident break with the old fascisms. Even so, there is an analogy with the 1930s. Just as Jews then appeared as a minority rotting away at France from within, infiltrating the state and the circles of power, so too are Muslims in France presented as a body foreign to the nation yet eating away at it: the enemy within. That is how the Jew was presented in the 1930s, working in concert with the Bolshevik attacking the nation from the outside. Today, they say, the Muslim works away from within, while Islamic states — rich foreign powers like Qatar — try to gain a monopoly hold on France with their money. From the 1930s to today, the far Right has needed to set up a threat that it can oppose.
Does populism — in which we can also sometimes note left-wing hues — make up part of this same dynamic?
The rise of these movements poses semantic problems. How should we characterise them? How should we define them? The notion of "populism" is used for convenience’s sake, but we should be wary of it, too. "Populist" is an adjective that defines an often-demagogic political style, in its both left-wing and right-wing variants deploying the rhetorical tool of the people against the élites. But the notion of populism does not define the political nature of a party or a movement. When it is used to equate Sanders with Trump or Mélenchon with Le Pen it is a mere mystification, because instead of helping us understand reality, it deforms it.
There you are ticking off the media, who throw this notion around without proper care?
Yes, because in the Western world the notion of "populism" tells us more about those who use it than those it is directed toward. It is a weapon that the governmental parties and the media who support them use to stigmatise all criticism; to criticise the El Khomri bill [Loi Travail, the "Labour Law" at the root of the Nuit Debout protests] is populist, criticising Europe’s economic policies is populist... The notion of totalitarianism was also used to characterise both communism and fascism, to characterise all forms of anti-liberalism. But this means that anything that goes beyond a certain norm fixed by the dominant social and political order is populism. This is a dangerous and instrumental use of the concept.
But left-wing figures also use the term, albeit in a different way. Jean-Luc Mélenchon has identified himself with "populism" 2
In Latin America, "populism" means the populism of the movements who integrate the popular classes into a political system that had previously always excluded them. Mélenchon would like to use "populism" in the Latin American sense, like Podemos does in Spain. But in Spain there is no anti-systemic far Right, and that is the reason why using this rhetorical tool in France is dangerous. To the extent that Mélenchon uses this notion to refer to himself, he offers his opponents arguments with which to wage a media campaign comparing him to Marine Le Pen, because the concept has already been given this slant.
Getting back to the post-fascisms, how far are they succeeding in their ambition to display a certain "modernism"?
We cannot speak of a modernism, for they base themselves on a conservative reflex among the electorate. Rather, this is a mutation of language. Today the FN is adopting a republican rhetoric and its racism has declined in the name of women’s rights, laïcité [French state secularism], etc… In the fascisms of the 1930s there were no women leaders and no toleration for homosexuals. Unlike the fascists of the 1930s who mounted a radical critique of democracy, the FN today claims to uphold it. Their nationalism has also evolved, for the enemy is no longer a foreign power. Rather, what is important is to preserve "national identity" as against internal minorities, immigrants, and Muslims, most of whom are French citizens. There is a certain continuity, but also a change of target. Islamophobia today reproduces some of the traits of the anti-Semitism of the 1930s. Their discourse on the Republic has also evolved; since the beginning of the twentieth century French fascism was anti-republican and anti-parliamentarist, whereas today the FN calls itself republican. That brings us back to the contradictions of republican discourse itself: for what is the Republic? The First Republic, the Paris Commune, the Third Republic that capitulated to Vichy, or the Fourth Republic with its war in Algeria? It is not enough to idealise the Republic — it also has to be given some content.
In the book you pick up on the analysis you elaborated in Où sont passés les intellectuels? regarding the eclipse of the utopias. Is this the "end of history" as the liberals prophesied after the fall of the Berlin Wall, or a transition?
The twenty-first century arrived in a "presentist" world: there is no longer anything but the present, and the world is folded in on itself, incapable of projecting itself into the future. In the twentieth century the Soviet Union showed that an alternative to capitalism could exist, even if it was not an attractive model. The very existence of the USSR obliged capitalism to adopt a "human face." After the end of the Cold War, capitalism became an unsurpassable horizon without any apparent alternatives, and it became brutal. From this point of view we can speak of the "end of utopias." A cycle came to an end. There will be others – humanity cannot live without utopias. There will also be revolutions, and there are already signs portending future upheavals. But for the moment these movements are weighed down by an inability to project themselves into the future. For example, while in Spain the indignados produced Podemos — a political construction — in France Nuit Debout was an inspiring vehicle for hope, but it was just an outburst, for the moment unable to build anything lasting.
You say that faced with the "regressive response" to neoliberalism represented by Da’esh, the only effective answer is the "re-awakening of an anti-colonial Left." What shape do you think that would take?
In France, a country with an overbearing colonial past, the Left is paying the price for the ambiguities of its history. From the Third Republic up till the Algerian War, anti-colonialism was always carried forward by minorities ("Third Worldists," anarchists, Trotskyists, etc.) or intellectuals (Sartre, Genet, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, etc.). The SFIO [ancestor of the Socialist Party] was the party of the Algerian War, and from the 1930s onward the Communist Party accepted colonialism… Frantz Fanon never penetrated into Socialist or Communist culture. The Left always maintained a national-republican, paternalist, assimilationist discourse, which acted as a vehicle for the myth of the "civilising mission" of a nation bearing universal values. The Left has always had the greatest of difficulties in accepting the emergence of a self-organised movement of post-colonial youth. Yet if the Left’s identity holds to the principle of equality, that must proceed by way of recognising the multicultural and multi-ethnic character of France. We need a change of codes, for example on the question of Islam, by rethinking the Left as a political movement structured around a multiplicity of actors. From this point of view, the experience of the United States — which has always seen itself as a country of immigrants — could prove interesting.
You link this to what some call "the malaise of the banlieues"
At a global level, the end of anti-colonialism, the neo-imperial wars of recent decades and the rise of Islamism have muddied the waters. National-republican and paternalist anti-racism like that of SOS Racisme and the little hand [SOS Racisme’s logo, a hand with the words "Hands Off My Mate"] no longer make headway among the banlieue youth, especially since the Front National has itself adopted a republican rhetoric. There is an immense political void, filled by the return of the religious and, among certain marginal fringe elements, the attraction of jihadism. We have seen it the last few years, with the Theo affair [a young black man raped by a policeman with a truncheon, leading to protests earlier in February 2017] like in October 2005 [the riots around France after the death of two young men hunted by police]: there is anger, an extraordinary potential for revolt in the banlieues, but also a certain incapacity to provide it with political perspectives. That is true of both the actors within the banlieues and the Left as a whole.
1. Les Nouveaux Visages du fascisme. Conversation avec Régis Meyran. Éditions Textuel, 157 pages, 17 euros.
2. "Populiste, moi ? J’assume!," interview with l’Express, 16 September 2010.