Bourgeois Self-Pity: A Warning. Review of Madeleine Albright’s Fascism: A Warning
Book Review | Dictatorship | Europe & Eurasia | Political Theory | The Americas
In 1944, grieving disciples of the late Leon Trotsky brought forth his brief manuscript Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight It, wherein through surveying developments in Italy and Germany he states, “When a state turns fascist…it means first of all for the most part that the workers organizations are annihilated; that the proletariat is reduced to an amorphous state; and that a system of administration is created which penetrates deeply into the masses and which serves to frustrate the independent crystallization of the proletariat” (10). Despite both its age and the violent revolutionary Marxism of its author, the curious and concerned reader will discover within that single expository pamphlet both more and more meaningful analysis of right-wing authoritarianism than in the entire sanctimonious complaint that is Dr. Madeleine Albright’s Fascism: A Warning.
A political scientist and former ambassador to the United Nations and secretary of state under President Clinton, who with Bill Woodward has over the years published even more self-referential books than usual, Albright’s implied thesis is that candidate and now President Trump results from and/or encourages global anti-democratic and authoritarian tendencies. This assertion may be freely debated on its own terms, but Albright proceeds from a deeply problematic conception of fascism. “To my mind, a Fascist is someone who identifies strongly with and claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use whatever means are necessary—including violence—to achieve his or her goals” (11). She continues elsewhere, “What makes a movement Fascist is not ideology but the willingness to do whatever is necessary—including the use of force and trampling on the rights of others—to achieve victory and command obedience” (229). This highly indistinct formulation confuses fascism with nationalism, with authoritarianism, and even with the social contract, and defies the universal understanding of fascism by both its practitioners and scholars that it is an authoritarian tendency of the Right, which places peculiar emphasis on the militarization of society, and which developed in Western Europe from the 1930s and in Latin America from the 1960s.
A fascist regime may or may not wage wars of aggression, but it in all cases builds up an aggressive one-party state that obliterates the free association of Marxists, trade unionists, socialists, feminists, and other left-wing opponents. Benito Mussolini himself stated in 1933 that “the foundation of Fascism is the conception of the State, its character, its duty, and its aim. Fascism conceives of the State as an absolute, in comparison with which all individuals or groups are relative, only to be conceived of in their relation to the State” (The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism, 21). Albright’s serious error might have been corrected through even selective reading of international fascist literature—insidious and revolting though it may be—comprehensively available from Ostara Publications; but the initial results include lifeless chapters (2-6) on Mussolini and Hitler that terminate without mention of Romanian or Croatian fascism, and without useful mention of Portugal under Dr. Salazar or Spain under General Franco.
These problems multiply on the crucial question of case selection, in that much of the tangential content of Albright’s book ought to be removed and substituted with identification and discussion of genuine fascist regimes and movements. Superficial chapters on international communism (7), the breakup of Yugoslavia (8), Venezuela under Hugo Chávez (10), Erdoğan in Turkey (11), Putin (12), and North Korea (14) all belong to a different book, because the authoritarian actors they describe—with the sole possible exception of Putin, pending the findings of the Mueller probe—are not even remotely connected to either fascist brigades or Trump supporters. This haphazard visitation of disconnected dictatorships is accompanied by the egregious omission of the entire civilizational struggle against fascism in Central and South America, which during the second half of the twentieth century served as the main political and moral preoccupation for millions.
The Brazilian and Argentine juntas, Chile under Pinochet, Paraguayan Nazism, the highly destructive Nicaraguan and Guatemalan civil wars, and the sadistic death squads of El Salvador—which all drew a sovereign wealth of blood from innumerable tortured, murdered, abducted, and disappeared—completely escape the attention of a former Madam Secretary who nevertheless contends that “we all have good reason to speak up on behalf of democratic values” (117). This oversight is especially peculiar given that Albright’s female predecessor as a Columbia PhD, professor at Georgetown, and ambassador to the UN was Dr. Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, who furnished much of the conceptual and diplomatic assistance to fascism in South America during the 1980s; yet Albright appears altogether ignorant of or uninterested in the life and doctrine of her exact forbear.
The end result is a volume both cynical and shallow. It is cynical in that her thinly-disguised purpose is to attack the current president, in general terms but especially on his conduct of foreign relations. Citing his “ingrained” (211) enthusiasm for foreign autocracy and “persistent scorn” (212) for the American government and constitution, Albright asserts, “President Trump’s eyes light up when strongmen steamroll opposition, brush aside legal constraints, ignore criticism, and do whatever it takes to get their way” (209). Based on most of what we read from mostly hostile newspapers, her contention might seem plausible, but the difficulty lies in the absence of any substantiation, much less proof of so bold a claim. Fascism: A Warning offers no investigative or scholarly examination at all of the foreign policy of the present administration, being content to but vaguely and passively denounce it.
Equally astonishing—amid the paean of praise to Clinton and Obama throughout—is the utter inability to conceive that the recent politics of popular protest may convey even a shred of validity or that Albright and her neoliberal globalist chieftains might have even partially brought their exile upon themselves through poor leadership and harmful policies. Political realism, for instance, is hardly to be dismissed as “merely a slogan” (216), and it is not “absurd” (245) to call into question the wisdom of multilateral free trade deals that have decimated domestic manufactures and resulted in the perverse importation of most of our consumables from a communist dictatorship. She does mention in one place (180) that elites may need to revisit some of their prevailing assumptions, and in another (116) that ordinary people have a moral obligation to adhere to realistic expectations about the possibilities of government; but neither suggestion is properly explored, commendable though both may be. The reader therefore encounters little to no compelling argumentation.
Antonio Gramsci from the Marxist Left, Jacques Maritain from the Thomist Right, and E.H. Carr from the tradition of high international realism all wrestled with the contemporary social and moral implications of the triumph of European authoritarianism, to which Fascism: A Warning contributes nothing. It lacks also the mature insights of Carl Schmitt concerning the breakdown of Weimar democracy, or of Hannah Arendt’s magisterial Origins of Totalitarianism (1968). If one seeks to criticize President Trump, then do so. If one seeks to compose a serious analysis of fascism, then do so. But employ distinct and separate rods of the fasces.
Mark R. Royce, PhD, is a political scientist and international relations scholar, author of The Political Theology of European Integration: Comparing the Influence of Religious Histories on European Policies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). At George Mason University, he was awarded (Oct 10, 2017) an Associate Provost citation for outstanding undergraduate teaching.
Photo Credit: Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Munich, Germany. June 1940. Part of Eva Braun’s Photo Albums, ca. 1913 – ca. 1944, seized by the US government.