Fighting the Last War:
Confusion, Partisanship, and Alarmism in the Literature on the Radical Right
by jeffrey m. bale and tamir bar-on
lexington, 474 pages, $135
In 1938 Franklin Roosevelt, facing a political challenge from a resurgent Republican Party, denounced the party’s “fascist” tendencies. It was an early example of how the term could be applied even to conservatives loyal to the framework of a liberal democracy. One might have expected this usage to die out: No major modern political phenomenon has been so thoroughly discredited and obliterated as European fascism was in the 1940s. Yet the f-word was never buried, for it had achieved a demonic status like no other, making it very useful in partisan polemics. Its power to stigmatize remained incomparable, and thus, in 1947, two years after the total destruction of National Socialism, when President Harry Truman found himself in a difficult political struggle, he revived Roosevelt’s rhetorical strategy, warning of “fascist” tendencies among Republicans.
True, fascism never wholly disappeared. Several efforts to revive modified or partial neofascism were attempted in Europe after the war, and tiny fringe groups emerged from time to time in a variety of countries. But these groups’ challenge to democracy faded away, becoming weaker and weaker with each passing year until, by the 1990s, they had reached the point of virtual extinction. A basic rule of thumb is useful when assessing postwar movements on the right: The larger or more important any such initiative might be, the less genuinely neofascist it was, and the more genuinely neofascist, the less significant. When political terrorism returned in the 1960s, it came almost exclusively from the extreme left, whence it had originated in its modern form in Russia in the 1860s.
Related to fascism, but distinct, is the “radical right,” which refers to fringe groups on the right that opposed the postwar system. During the early Cold War, social scientists became alarmed by the extremes of anti-communism, and advanced the term to denote those whose zeal might cause them to be less than scrupulous about presumption of innocence and other legal principles. As the brief heyday of Joseph McCarthy drew to a close in 1954 and 1955, major scholars such as Daniel Bell and Seymour Martin Lipset devoted several publications to this theme. They were correct to be concerned that new radicalization, violence, and authoritarianism would soon be finding expression in the Western world, but their work revealed once more the very limited predictive capacity of the social sciences, unprepared as they were for the left-inspired cultural revolution of the following decade and the eventual large-scale violence and acts of terrorism to which it gave rise, both in the United States from 1969 to 1972 and in other major countries.
This wave of left-wing revolutionary violence was repressed and then died away, but the cultural revolution’s “long march through the institutions” began. This march is now aided by novel modes of stigmatization, unprecedented in human history. The f-word also survived, indispensable in its unique capacity for denoting the demonic. Concurrently, however, the term “radical right,” first employed by Bell, Lipset, and others, became a standard label. That these groups might be capable of mass atrocities was shown by the actions of “lone wolves” such as the anarcho-libertarian Timothy McVeigh, although, as 9/11 demonstrated, other serious threats would come from a very different quarter.
For decades, Jeffrey Bale and Tamir Bar-On have been two of the most active and careful researchers studying the radical right. Bale, now retired from the Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies program of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, has devoted forty years to the investigation of this area. To his credit, after 2001 he concluded that major new terrorist threats were coming from jihadism and not just the radical right. The first volume of his The Darkest Sides of Politics: Postwar Fascism, Covert Operations, and Terrorism (2017) provided an unusually comprehensive treatment of such phenomena. Bar-On, teaching at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education in Mexico, has published extensively as well, with special attention to France and to neofascism in general.
In recent years, these two veteran scholars have become dismayed to observe that sober, objective analysis has declined, while the appellations of “fascist” and “radical right” have become ever more frequent, indiscriminate, and finally virtually meaningless. Without evidence, insignificant right-wing groups are elevated to the status of dangerous “militias,” and minor conservative associations are consigned to the “radical right” or “quasi-fascism.”
Bale and Bar-On’s new book is by far the most precise, thorough, and well researched study of the increasing tendency to characterize conservative and right-wing groups with the old-fashioned propaganda pioneered by early twentieth-century communists. It builds on pioneering work such as the late A. James Gregor’s The Search for Neofascism: The Use andAbuse of Social Science (2006), and it presents the most comprehensive single-volume account of this trend currently available.
The authors devote the largest section of the book to “The Never-Ending ‘Brown Scare’ since 1945.” They advance the thesis, which employs much of their previous research, that “the Islamic radical right (Islamism) is a greater threat to democracy and security than ‘fascism.’” The authors also interrogate the reluctance of left-wing commentators to include jihadi terrorism in the category of “radical right.” Bale and Bar-On do not ignore dangers posed by the very small radical right groups that do exist, for these groups probably continue to offer the chief threat of mass-casualty “lone wolf” terrorism. However, the most important contribution the authors provide to current scholarship is an extensively documented account of the innumerable exaggerations and distortions in the current labeling of right-wing groups and movements, and its frequent use for partisan political purposes. They conclude with a detailed presentation of “suggestions for improving analyses of the radical right” based on rigor, objectivity, and precision. The comprehensiveness of their data is impressive. This, together with the acuity and objectivity of their analysis, free of partisan political overtones, makes this work the best, most useful available account of the way the labels “fascism” and “radical right” are employed in the twenty-first century.
The book’s only significant drawback rests in the fact that more than a third of the data and discussion is relegated to massive footnotes at the ends of chapters. This makes the analysis and research data hard to follow, sometimes chopping it apart. A more complete integration of all the supporting material into the central text would have improved the focus and made the full import of the data easier to grasp. Nevertheless, this volume serves as a unique and indispensable reference work.
Early on, the authors illustrate the complexity and confusion surrounding the labels “fascism” and “radical right,” citing a work by Cas Mudde in 2007 that collected no less than fifty-eight different definitions of the “radical right” offered by various commentators. It would doubtless be possible to amass as many different definitions of “fascism” or “neofascism,” since the criteria employed are equally arbitrary. “Neofascism” has been “on the march” for more than seventy years—a long march indeed, which never seems to reach its destination. Fantasies of this sort concerning threats posed by the “radical right” have been obstacles to taking seriously the threat of Islamic terrorism, with dire consequences that are well known.
If the threat from the radical right has been overstated, why does it continue to preoccupy the American government? Since 2021, the Biden administration has committed unprecedented resources to the identification, investigation, and prosecution of “domestic terrorism,” even to the extent of including local school-board meetings in its dragnet. A year and a half of such efforts has failed to produce significant results. The many hundreds of investigations and arrests of those involved in the Capitol riot of January 6 have thus far produced only individual convictions for various felonies, most of a comparatively limited nature, with no evidence thus far of any general conspiracy to commit murder or overthrow the government. By comparison, successive nights of systematic left-wing attacks on the federal courthouse in Portland in 2020—a more organized, prolonged, and violent assault—have given rise to a paltry number of prosecutions.
Yet such fears have a political use. “The attacking side,” observed Leon Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution, “is almost always interested in seeming on the defensive.” As Trotsky knew well, it is strategically effective to insist that one’s rhetorical (and actual) violence is motivated solely by the dire need to defend oneself. This imperative is why the Communist International, the most aggressive and subversive force of the early twentieth century, insisted that it was acting against the danger of imminent assault from many causes. In 1923, the International became the first organization to condemn its enemies using a new political epithet: “fascist.”
The radicalization of European politics during the interwar years gave greater currency to this tactic, and for some time with apparent justification. There really were efforts to reproduce Italian Fascism in other countries, accompanied during the 1930s by a drift toward authoritarianism among certain conservative forces, even when they stopped short of fascism’s revolutionary ambitions. In Hungary, for example, the “Right Radicals,” as they were conventionally known, became the dominant political force. Above all, of course, there was the rise of National Socialism in Germany.
The term “Nazi” was an awkward one for Russian communists, since the “socialism” in National Socialism might remind some of the Soviet Union, whereas “fascist” could more easily be universalized and stigmatized. It could also be “hybridized,” as in “conservative fascists” or “social fascists”—the latter the favorite communist appellation for social democrats. The label’s vagueness and plasticity added to its usefulness, since, unlike all other major political terms of that era, this one had no clear inherent meaning and might be applied to anything. The very sound of the word is somehow demonic. When Italy, led by the arch-fascist Benito Mussolini, joined the Axis powers and entered the conflict, Britain and the United States—who had previously hoped to maintain good relations with Mussolini—happily defined the war as a struggle against “fascism” (even if most meant by that term National Socialism). Thus the f-word moved front and center in political vituperation.
Propaganda terminology often produces embarrassing paradoxes. In 1939, the Soviet government, which had pioneered the use of the all-purpose f-word, was placed in a delicate position. Hitler’s military adventurism had been made possible by Stalin’s non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union. Although this treaty was fully consistent with the long-term Soviet plan to exploit a “second imperialist war” in Europe, as the Soviets called it, the abrupt agreement with Hitler created confusion and embarrassment. Moscow began to insist that its formerly “fascist” rival was not fascist at all but “National Socialist,” a ruse made more plausible by the fact that the German movement never used the term “fascist.” Yet this did not relieve embarrassment, since sidelining the term “fascist” and emphasizing National Socialism made Hitlerism sound rather more like the Soviet Union itself. The problem of terminology was resolved by the German invasion in 1941, which enabled Stalin to join the anti-fascist alliance. Indeed, Stalin was the first to popularize the term “anti-fascist.”
During the past year or so, political polarization has stimulated speculation about a return to the political extremism of the 1930s, and about the danger of civil war. The recent work of political scientist Barbara F. Walter, How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them (2022), provides the most scholarly discussion. Walter suggests that the most likely scenario would not be a repeat of America in 1861 or Spain in 1936, but a sort of guerrilla insurrection by “militias” in “red states.” If that is the main danger, it should provide little cause for concern, for the present degree of elite domination and centralization of power would make it possible to immediately isolate and crush any such suicidal gestures—unless, of course, the whole system somehow split apart. One can be forgiven for wondering whether the manic search for a dangerous “radical right” is designed to provoke some such outburst as a means of justifying greater repression, centralization, and uniformity. (In an earlier article in these pages, “The Road to Revolution,” January 2021, I mentioned exactly that scenario in Spain in 1936, when such a strategy eventually backfired, precipitating civil war.)
“Militias” of “white supremacists” are presently a major focus of concern. A number of groups of this sort do indeed exist, usually heavily infiltrated and monitored. That said, Bale and Bar-On report that by far the largest “racist” and “nationalist” movement in the United States today is not, say, in Idaho, but is the black nationalist Nation of Islam, with a reputed membership of some 50,000. They estimate that all the tiny white supremacist and racist groups combined amount to no more than 20,000 or so members—less than half as many.
But raising the specter of the “radical right” remains helpful in securing the position of the establishment. Since there are so few genuine right-wing extremists in the United States, it has been necessary to invent them in a manner very similar to the way that the Comintern invented multiple “hybrid fascisms” in the 1920s. In the twenty-first century a new “extremism industry” has emerged, composed of journalists and “extremism experts.” The latter are frequently passed off as objective scholars, but many are employees of left-wing think tanks who in truth function as paid propagandists. To provide grist for their mill, they invent new sub-targets under such labels as “climate change and extremism,” “gaming and extremism,” “gender and extremism,” “fashion and extremism,” “music and extremism,” “neo-Nazi accelerationists,” and “far-right speech codes.” As several commentators have observed, today’s extremism experts are part of the heresy-hunting clergy of a new political religion.
“Extremists” have customarily been seen as those occupying the political margins, but the extremism experts now insist that “extremism” has gone “mainstream.” Thus, extremism is not even necessarily extreme; it simply denotes political opposition, clearing the ground for President Biden to call many Republicans “semi-fascists.” We are in a situation in which anyone who votes for candidates who lack elite approval will be derided as fascist and extremist.
In September 2022, the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that German government agents recently opened “hundreds” of nominal neo-Nazi and radical-right accounts online to lure and incriminate extremists. German government officials insist that what borders on entrapment “is the future of intelligence gathering.” It calls to mind the late Tsarist period, when Okhrana agents sometimes took the lead in planning the assassination of Russian officials in order to manipulate the terrorists. The German government is rather more candid than the Biden administration and the FBI, which admit only to working actively to open many new searches for “right-wing terrorists.”
History offers some warnings for our present moment. It is not irresponsible to worry that the search for “domestic terrorists” is functioning much as did the Reichstag Fire and the suppression of communists and many others in Germany in 1933. There was indeed major arson in the Reichstag, and there certainly existed a large-scale and violent communist movement. (It was the biggest in the world outside the Soviet Union, vastly greater in size and influence than all the designated “radical right” groups in the contemporary United States put together.) In Germany, this threat to civic order was exploited to impose a new centralized coercion that had the most extreme and destructive consequences. Is the same thing happening in the United States today?
Two centuries ago, Tocqueville warned about the potential for a “soft despotism” in the United States, a new kind of totalitarianism, which would be the downfall of American freedom. Could this be its first phase—the propagandizing use of “fascism” to disqualify dissent, and so to soften up the American public for illiberal measures? If so, then democracy is indeed in danger, but principally from its own self-proclaimed saviors.
Stanley G. Payne is the Jaume Vicens Vives and Hilldale Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.