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Return of the "Commie-Nazis"

April 19, 2007 Topics: Society Regions: RussiaEurasia Tags: FascismRight-wing Politics

Return of the "Commie-Nazis"

Mini Teaser: Fascism did not die with Hitler and Mussolini in World War II. As recent events show, understanding what fascism means in the 21st century is a lesson worth learning. 

by Author(s): Nikolas K. Gvosdev

Roger Griffin, Werner Loh and Andreas Umland eds., Fascism Past and Present, West and East: An International Debate on Concepts and Cases in the Comparative Study of the Extreme Right (Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag, 2006), 520 pp., $24.90.

The recent "Marches of the Dissatisfied" in Russia have once again called attention to the extremist forces which form part of the "Alternative Russia" movement, among them Eduard Limonov's National Bolshevik Party. This led me to examine a volume sent to the magazine last year-a symposium bearing on its cover the "Commie-Nazi" blended flag of the National Bolsheviks (the Nazi colors but with a hammer and sickle in place of the swastika) entitled Fascism Past and Present, West and East. Edited by three leading scholars on fascist and extremist movements-Roger Griffin, Werner Loh and Andreas Umland-it opens with the observation made by Walter Lacquer that the "prospects of the extreme Right in the former Soviet Union and Soviet bloc seem better than in most other parts of the world" and the extent to which extremist movements have become "respectable" again in various parts of Europe.

Let me start out by saying this is not a work that "chases the headlines" and it is most certainly not a comprehensive breakdown of current extremist movements and politicians in the former Soviet Union punctuated by amusing and illustrative anecdotes. It is an academic book, with a great deal of discussion of theory, written with all of the jargon beloved by social scientists (forcing someone like me, who considers himself to be an educated person, to consult the dictionary from time to time). And horror of horrors for an American audience-it contains chapters and contributions that are not in English. This book is not going to be read by DC policymakers and pundits who have no time to read and want quick, systemized information in an easy-to-digest format.

But the book's value, in my opinion, is to call attention to two very important debates in the scholarly community. The first is when do national and patriotic movements cross the line into xenophobia and fascism, and when do political groupings that reject the assumptions of classic liberalism (either from a conservative or left-wing socialist critique) become extremists who pose a danger to democracy? And at what point are these lines crossed so as to legitimately exclude such movements from the political process? A concern, expressed at several points by A. James Gregor (UC Berkeley), is whether the use of the term "fascist" is used to deprive illiberal political movements of the ability to contest political space.

The second is whether or not political leaders who disavow fascism should be taken at their word or whether, as Umland notes, one must assess actions apart from language. This is important because, as we have seen in Russia, Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic States, extremist political movements have often been concerned about the negative labels associated with terms such as "fascist" and have rhetorically disassociated themselves from such movements, even though their political programs, and indeed practice of politics, would put them very clearly into the category of fascist movements.

The presence of extreme nationalist and fascist-style political movements in the "Orange Coalition" of Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine, for example, produced some embarrassing moments, particularly with regard to anti-Semitism. An ongoing issue in press coverage, therefore, was whether such groups should be tagged as "fascist" or simply subsumed under a more acceptable label of "nationalist." Similarly, the presence of both far-Left and far-Right groups in the "Alternative Russia" coalition raises questions about its ultimate commitment to democracy.

Readers will leave perhaps with no definitive answers as to what fascism means in the contemporary world, but they will appreciate the complexity of the debates on the issue.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.

Essay Types: Book Review