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Stanley Payne: Fascism is not relevant nowadays, neither Putin nor Meloni are fascists

Stanley Payne is one of the world’s greatest experts for fascism. Payne, who is professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been studying fascism for more than sixty years. Back in 1961, he wrote a monograph on the Spanish Falangists “Falange: A History of Spanish Fascism”. Later he wrote several more books on the history of Spain, among which is one of the most famous books on the Spanish Civil War in English “The Spanish Civil War”. His monumental synthesis on the history of fascism “A History of Fascism 1914-1945” is one of the most authoritative books for that field. However, with the professor Payne, we talked mostly about the present issues – about the relevance of fascism today, about the use of the term fascism in the political arena, etc.

Ukraine and Russia accuse each other of fascism and Nazism. What is the main cause of this – the indiscriminate use of the term in the former Soviet Union to control the opposition, or is it a global phenomenon?

This is a global phenomenon for the better part of a century, since 1945. There is, however, one factual reference—during WWII Ukrainian nationalism was dominated by the “radical right” (not truly a revolutionary “fascism”) and allied with Germany as a liberator, as Germany had been in 1918. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army was a real force and never totally defeated till about 1950. It has always been seen by West Ukrainian nationalists as primarily a “national liberation army” to be honored. In addition, there are very small neofascist and radical right groups in Ukraine, as in many countries. So these factors, though very secondary in 2022, can be raised by Russians. Similarly, it’s easy enough to portray the authoritarian Russian militaristic chauvinism of Putin as “fascism,” despite its historical specificity.

Some authors, like Timothy Snyder, talk about “rashism” in Russia. To what extent do you think that term is justified, are there elements of fascism in today’s Russia?

Snyder is a good historian but a poor political analyst. In the world of the XXI century, Putinism is a right-wing phenomenon, though sui generis. It has no more of the characteristics of fascism than do many other dictatorships. One would have to argue that every dictatorship is “fascist,” which is hopelessly reductionist. Thus China would have to be “fascist,” etc. This is not helpful.

Putinism is not revolutionary but immobilist. Its ideological referents are not fascist vitalism but the historic past and reactionary Orthodox religion. There was never a Putin movement of the masses, but a total manipulation of power by the existing state from the top downward. There is no economic “national socialism” or even fascist corporatism but a corrupt “mafia state,” which explains why its army is so poor.

Russia, on the other hand, accuses the Ukrainian government of being Nazi, that is, of being followers of Stepan Bandera’s faction of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. To what extent can a positive attitude towards Stepan Bandera today be considered fascism?

Was OUN ever really “fascist”? There were elements in it that favored fascism, but it was not so much a revolutionary movement as a composite radical nationalism. Highly authoritarian and violently antisemitic, yes, but that was rather common in the East European politics of the era. I would characterize it at the extreme end of the radical right, but not fully fascist. Its only difference from Putinism was the antisemitism, otherwise this is the pot calling the kettle black. Bandera is still honored by some not as a “fascist,” but as the principal leader of Ukrainian independence in WWII, the Ukrainian Piłsudski in a much more radical conflict.

In the Yugoslav context term “clerofascism” was frequently used. Was organized religion mainly a friend or a foe of the fascist movements?

That depended on the country and the context in a situation that was never simply black-and-white. In Italy and Germany fascism was a secular and materialistic doctrine, fundamentally anti-Christian. Yet in complex Western countries fascism never stood a chance of taking over manu militari, as did communism in many countries. Both Mussolini and Hitler understood they would have to make deals and compromises, as both did. In Italy a complex connubium developed between fascism and Catholicism, unstable but definitely functional.

The relationship with Christianity was more significant, if also complex, in Spain, Hungary, Croatia and Romania. If you want an either/or, organized religion was more of a foe than a friend, yet a close and complex relationship developed in Italy and Spain. The most “religious” fascist=type movement, quite heterodox, was the Legion of the Archangel Michael in Romania.

Is fascism even a relevant ideology today? If not, do you see the possibility of its resurgence and under what circumstances?

No, fascism is relevant today only as an ideological phantasm and a term of abuse. Fascism was not merely obliterated militarily but irretrievably weakened by the vast historical changes since 1945. Humanist/materialist culture leaves no room for the metaphysical vitalism fundamental to fascism. Nor is there any room in the contemporary world for a militarized mass politics, and thus genuine neofascists remain tiny, isolated, insignificant groups.

How would you ideologically characterize the right-wing populists who are most often labeled as the “far”, “extreme” or “radical” right in the mainstream media?

Exactly as that, right-wing nationalists or populists who cannot possibly be placed in the same simple box, due to their bewildering heterogeneity. A small, irrelevant minority are genuine neofascists; most aren’t. Some are reformists, others propound a wide variety of radical changes. Some want a radical alternative, exactly as do the “democratic left.” Since the latter are much more numerous, they are the greater threat to the existing Western systems.

Often in describing political movements and parties, their relationship to the past events is used as a significant factor, or the party’s organizational past itself. How relevant is, for example, that possibly future Italian ruling party Brothers of Italy has a post-fascist past?

Such a reference is historically accurate, but not descriptive of the Fratelli. The latter is “third generation” post fascist, and now generally removed from fascism altogether. The final decisive break with historic fascism occurred with its predecessor, Alleanza Nazionale.

Interviewed by Tomislav Kardum and Matija Štahan

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Last modified: 16. 10. 2022.