“Fascist” has long been a go-to pejorative to describe political enemies, especially for leftists like myself – I recall using it as a youth against hard libertarians like Mike Harris, even though they bore basically no similarity to fascism beyond the bare fact of being right-wing. But in those days there were very few politicians who had the authoritarianism or nativism characteristic of historical fascism. Today there are more – but it’s still rare for them to call themselves fascists. The word isn’t going to go away, and, it appears, neither are the new more-fascist-like breed of politicians and voters. So it’s probably helpful to think on what historical fascism actually was – the people who once actually called themselves fascists.
I got an education on historical fascism in Lisbon a few years ago, when I visited the Aljube Museum of Resistance and Freedom. The museum was devoted to the dark years 1932-1968 when Antonio de Oliveira Salazar ruled the country, and to the heroic struggles of citizens to fight against his rule – a difficult task when his authoritarianism went as far as the confiscation of typewriters. Salazar had everything I would have considered the hallmarks of fascism: he took dictatorial power over the government with no checks and balances; his não discutimos speech proclaimed there would be no debate over any ideas guiding the country; he had secret police spying on the people to stamp out dissent. None of this surprised me as I read it, until I read one additional thing:
The Fascists opposed Salazar.
The figure Salazar reminds me of most is Maurice Duplessis, the Québéc premier of the same era, who cracked down on unions and his political opponents – and went by the nickname “le Chef”, the literal French equivalent of “il Duce” or “der Führer”. Duplessis and Salazar were both Catholic conservatives – closely allied with the church, maintaining its role in social institutions like health and education. But in this, it turns out, they were very far from the self-identified Fascists.
When Mussolini started his capital-F Fascist organizations after World War I, he did so in close alliance with the fascinating figure Filippo Marinetti. Marinetti is best known as the author of the 1909 Futurist Manifesto, a breathless document echoed by so many of today’s Silicon Valley techno-optimists and accelerationists, proclaiming that “a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace”, and pouring scorn on the things that preserve the past like museums, libraries, and cemeteries. You can hear strong echoes of Marinetti over a century later in tech billionaire Marc Andreessen’s recent Techno-Optimist Manifesto – which explicitly includes Marinetti in its closing list of inspirations.
What also appear in Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, alongside the enthusiasm for speed and technology, are some characteristic fascist themes: “We want to glorify war – the only cure for the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.” So when I want to understand what was going on with Mussolini, I look to Marinetti.
When I do that, I understand why the Fascists opposed Salazar. Because Salazar’s ties with the church made him at least somewhat conservative in the literal sense: he wanted to be old-fashioned and traditionalist, preserving the traditional church-led social order, as Duplessis did in Québec. (The moment Duplessis left office, that order was ripped apart forever.) By contrast the Fascists were, also in the literal sense, progressives: they believed in progress and rapid technological change. When N.S. Lyons now refers to the likes of Andreessen as right-wing progressives, he could just as easily have been referring to Marinetti – or even to Mussolini himself. Marinetti and Mussolini too were right-wing progressives – as Salazar was not. That Portuguese positivist slogan which still adorns the Brazilian flag, ordem e progresso (order and progress), could have been a slogan for Mussolini – but not for Salazar.
The diffference between the two is newly relevant today, even if we leave the F-word out of the discussion. Marinetti and Salazar each have their different heirs among the newly ascendant right-wing movements of the 2020s, movements that are both very different from the Christian laissez-faire Reaganism that my generation grew up with – but still contain differences from each other. Andreessen’s Futurism is not so far from Curtis Yarvin‘s vision of overthrowing democracy to support laissez-faire technological capitalism. (Adrienne LaFrance appropriately labels such views techno-authoritarianism.) Perhaps not surprisingly, those views tend to find their adherents among a small number of rich people (like Andreessen) whose money gives them disproportionate influence.
Now contrast to them Viktor Orbán, the right-wing Hungarian prime minister who persecutes his political enemies (effectively forcing Central European University to leave the country). Orbán portrays himself as a defender of Christianity; he is a darling to many American conservatives who are actually conservative (like Rod Dreher), and see him as a bastion against the normalizing of gay relationships and transgender. Orbán, it seems to me, is an heir to Salazar and Duplessis, but not to Marinetti or Mussolini; Andreessen and Yarvin, the other way round. In that respect, the opposition between Salazar and the fascists is with us again today.
To be clear, I wouldn’t want to live in a world run by any of these people. But I do believe in understanding those one disagrees with. Even if one considers them too dangerous to debate or compromise with, it is, at the very least, strategically important to know one’s enemy. And it seems to me that the distinction between right-wing authoritarianisms – conservative vs. progressive – is quite valuable for that understanding.