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Colonialism, Fascism and 'Uncle Shylock'

Print edition : Aug 19, 2000 T+T-
A Reflection on Our Times - IVAIJAZ AHMAD

PREVIOUS instalments of this series of essays argued that struggles for socialism, national liberation and democratisation of all aspects of human life constitute the fundamental story of the 20th century. Equally fundamental have been the immensely murd erous (and frequently successful) offensives against these forces of revolution and emancipation. Seen from this latter perspective, the story of the 20th century can also be told as the story of a transition from a world divided among competing colonial and imperialist nation-states to a world empire united by the rule of capital itself.

The hallmark of the 19th century was that it completed the process of creating a world economy based on the nation-states of advanced capital and their colonies. The hallmark of the 20th century was that it witnessed the dissolution of that system of col onial empires and a mortal contest between socialism and capitalism over how this new post-colonial world was to be organised economically, socially, politically, ideologically, aesthetically. "Globalisation" is the loose term designating the system that emerged at the end of that contest, with the demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

The beginning of the colonial era can be dated from the end of the 15th century. Until the beginning of the 19th century, however, most of Asia and (especially) Africa had remained outside colonial sovereignty. Then the pace quickened. In the first 75 ye ars of the 19th century, colonial powers added an average of 210,000 square kilometres of non-European territory to their possessions annually. Between the mid-1870s and the First World War (1914-18), then, the average annual conquest jumped to 620,000 s q km. By the latter date (1914), 85 per cent of the globe's surface comprised colonial powers, their colonies and former colonies.

The 20th century thus begins at the point where the colonial division of the world was already complete. This accelerated pace of colonisation was partly facilitated by the technologies that we associate with the Second Industrial Revolution in the latte r decades of the 19th century: mass-produced steel, industrial chemistry, the internal-combustion engine, electric power and oil as sources of energy, the spread of the railways and the telegraph as standard forms of long-distance travel and communicatio n, and so on. Two features of that unprecedented industrial transformation were to have lasting consequences. The scales of investment in these new types of industry required concentrations of capital so stupendous that the way was paved for a new kind o f separation between finance capital and industrial capital, and for periods when the former has been dominant over the latter. Second, these new types of industry spread over much of Western Europe, the United States and even Japan, so that some of thes e other countries - the U.S., Germany, Italy and Belgium, for example - also now entered into much more intensified inter-colonial rivalry.

With the world already divided among major colonial powers, new wars could only be wars for the re-division of the world. The competition now was not just for unoccupied territory but for export markets, sources of raw materials and the investment opport unities already cornered by the established colonial powers. Numerous local wars of colonial expansion and inter-colonial rivalry at the dawn of the 20th century thus gained a new kind of ferocious edge, leading inexorably to a general conflagration. Nev er in history had there been a war involving so many countries, and fought over such vast global stakes, that it could be regarded as a 'World War'. The 20th century had the distinction of being the one that more or less began with precisely such a war.

But that very period, 1870-1914, which had witnessed such new forms and scales of industrialisation across the core capitalist countries, as well as such an accelerated pace of colonisation in Asia and Africa, also witnessed the rise of the first mass pa rties of the working class in Europe and the first anti-colonial movements of the modern type in the colonised continents. The First World War, and the consequent breakdown of the European system, then had momentous consequences, within Europe and on the global scale.

That breakdown helped pave the way for a successful revolution in Russia, in territorial terms the largest country straddling the Euro-Asian land mass. It also led to great revolutionary upheavals in several European countries, such as Italy, Germany, Au stria, Hungary and Spain. Communist parties were at the same time founded in many countries outside Europe, notably in India, China and other countries of East and South-East Asia. That same breakdown of the European system also opened up the space in wh ich the growing anti-colonial movements started becoming mass movements. And, when the system broke down again two decades later, leading to the Second World War (1939-45), the next 30 years (1945-75) witnessed the dissolution of colonial empires across Asia and Africa and the rise of socialist regimes in a dozen countries, from East Asia to East and Central Europe to Latin America.

The emergence of socialism and national liberation out of the crisis of the European colonial system, which produced the two World Wars, has been commented upon in previous essays in this series (especially "The Century of Democratic Demand", Frontlin e, July 7, 2000). But two other consequences were equally momentous: the rise of fascism to global prominence and state power in some countries, and the more enduring rise of the U.S. to world hegemony, superseding the European system and eventually laying the foundation for a historically new phase of imperialism, that of "globalisation".

AS for fascism, it really depends on how one looks at it. In its most pristine form, fascism was a specific Italian phenomenon between the two World Wars, punctuated by the rise and fall of Mussolini. Even the National Socialism of the Nazis in Germany, not to speak of Franco's dictatorship in Spain, was in some fundamental ways quite different. In the broadest sense, however, what we now know as fascism has been a permanent tendency in the age of imperialism, from late nineteenth century onwards- laten t in one time and place, more manifest in another, and sometimes even rising to local dominance in one country or another, always taking specific forms corresponding to the history and political economy of the country concerned. Before the Italians besto wed upon it the term "fascism", this ideological form used to be called "integral nationalism" and arose in the latter part of the 19th century as an ideology of the Far Right, in opposition to the class ideology of the Socialist Left which had then for the first time acquired mass working class bases in a number of European phenomena. Strongest in Germany and France, it was even then a trans-European project and was to grow into a truly global phenomenon in the course of the 20th century. Here, we shal l comment on the phenomenon in the latter, broader sense.

In its basic formation, fascist ideology arose as an anti-materialist, anti-rationalist response to Marxism and drew heavily from racialistic theories of the 19th century. Against the materialist Marxist proposition that class conflict was the real motor of history, fascism proposed a radically spiritualised kind of nationalism whereby each nation had its own unique racial stock and cultural ethos, so that civilisational conflicts were the primary conflicts in history. Against the Marxist idea that the state was a product of class conflict and represented the interests of the dominant class (of the bourgeoisie under capitalism), fascism preached the idea that the state was the supreme point of the unity of the National Spirit as a whole and that anyone who spoke of class conflict was an enemy of the Nation. Even liberal democracy with its electoral contests, changes of government and guaranteed constitutional rights of individuals and minorities was seen as a danger to unity of the Nation. And, if Mar x had denounced colonialism and Lenin had explicitly associated the idea of socialism with that of national liberation, fascism, drawing upon its racialistic theories, demanded not the liberation of the colonised peoples (who were considered racially inf erior) but a re-division of the world so that those of the "civilised" countries which had fallen behind in the race for colonies may get their 'fair' share.

This kind of ideology was attractive to bourgeoisies in general but especially to bourgeoisies in the countries where there were powerful working class movements which they sought to crush with the help of this hysterical kind of militarised right-wing n ationalism. Fully-fledged fascism which came to such prominence in Europe after the First World War was, in this first instance, the ideology of a bourgeoisie that was at once advanced and beleaguered. No wonder that fascism was the most ferocious in pre cisely the countries such as Germany, Italy and Spain where the working class movements were the strongest. Nor is it a wonder that the communist parties became so central a force in organising anti-fascist resistance throughout the Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War, or that the Soviet Union played so pivotal a role in the defeat of fascism, suffering in the process by far the largest number of casualties that any country has ever suffered in the entire history of warfare. (Never in the h istory of warfare was a victorious country as thoroughly devastated as was the Soviet Union by the Nazis and Vietnam by the Americans.)

But this ideology was also very attractive for bourgeoisies in those countries which had become major industrial powers only during the Second Industrial Revolution, in the latter part of the 19th century, and had not acquired colonies while Britain, for example, had been conquering much of the globe. Germany particularly and also Italy were again prominent in this category as well. It is also significant that Japan, the one Asian country that had industrialised itself on the European scale, also proved to be the one Asian country that launched a full-scale colonising project and where fascist ideology became such a powerful force. In this second instance, then, fascism was the ideology of those countries that had (a) acquired sufficient industrial mea ns to genuinely to start competing with the old colonial powers economically and militarily but (b) had entered the competition for colonial possessions much too late.

So strong has been the imprint of the Second World War that we now associate the phenomenon of fascism almost exclusively with Germany and Italy, where it triumphed in its most naked forms.

We forget now that fascism was even then a generalised European phenomenon, stronger in some places than others. In France, for example, it was a mass movement of menacing proportions. Even after they were prevented from taking power, French fascists wer e prominent in supporting the Nazis when the latter occupied their country and then played a considerable role in whipping up support for the French colonial army during the Algerian War of Independence. Today, French neo-fascists command almost a fifth of the national vote and train their guns at the poorest and also the racially differentiated section of the working class, that is, the immigrants from the former colonies. They blame the North African Muslims in France for high unemployment rates among the 'real' Frenchmen in exactly the way the Nazis once used to blame Jews for the economic ills of Germany, and they blame the immigrant for defiling the purity of French culture much in the same terms as the Nazis once used in designating the Jew as a threat to the German ('Aryan') racial purity.

Nor was fascism at any point in the 20th century a purely European phenomenon. Ranging from Japan to Argentina, and from South Africa to Northern Europe, it has had a remarkable global reach. The Lebanese fascists simply took over the name of the Spanish fascists and called themselves the Phalange. In Iraq, which in the 1940s had a mass communist party, those who were inspired by Mussolini and Hitler called themselves "the Party of Arab National Resurgence" and then added the word "Socialist" to their n ame, echoing the official name of the Nazis: "National-Socialist."

IN India, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was founded directly in response to the anti-colonial struggle becoming a mass movement with the Rowlatt Satyagrah, and to the first outbreak of organised working class militancy in the early 1920s. Several luminaries of both the RSS and the All India Hindu Mahasabha were inspired directly by European fascism (B.S. Munje went so far as to seek, and receive, audience with Mussolini), while they breezily spoke of a Hindu 'race' and happily suggested a German -style 'solution' to the 'Muslim problem'. As Hindu Mahasabha president V.D. Savarkar famously put it, "Germany has also shown us how well nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one unit ed whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by." Such were the grounds on which the multi-denominational, secular anti-colonialism was rejected. Gandhi, for example, was said to be guilty of betraying Hindus because he sought precisel y that "assimilation into a united whole" of those denominational communities whom Savarkar regarded as separate and antithetical "races and cultures". Jawaharlal Nehru, for his part, was a passionate anti-fascist. He repeatedly warned during the 1940s a gainst the Nazi agents' activities in India and continued until the end of his life against the danger of 'majority communalism' becoming a 'fascism'.

We shall return to the fascist nature of Hindutva nationalism some other day. For purposes of the present argument, we may note four major mutations that came after the Second World War. First, the word 'fascism' fell into such terrible disrepute that th e kind of people who would have proudly called themselves fascists or would have happily regarded Nazi Germany as an exemplary nation so long as fascism was ascendant, before Hitler's defeat, now abandoned that designation and began presenting themselves simply as nationalists: the National Front in France, the National Alliance in Italy, an assortment of murderous nationalisms and purifying projects in the former USSR and Yugoslavia, the proponents of Hindu nationalism and Hindu Rashtra in India, and s o on.

Second, overt kinds of racism also now became impossible to sustain as an open policy or respectable discourse, as it had been through much of the history of capital - for two quite different reasons. One was that the sheer success of the anti-colonial m ovements made it impossible for European-style racism to declare itself so very openly. Secondly, the machineries of racist violence that colonialism had so cruelly perfected in Latin America, Asia and Africa over roughly half a millennium were brought b ack by fascism to the very heart of Europe, with all the splendours of industrial efficiency at the service of Nazi irrationalism, as it flung millions of Jews into gas ovens. Racial supremacy could no longer be preached, and violences of racial purifica tion could no longer be practised, in their own name - not on a very large scale, at any rate. So, just as fascism had re-surfaced under the guise of 'nationalism', racism too now re-surfaced in a more mystified form, as 'Culture' and even 'national cult ure'.

The third mutation, stronger and more brazen in some places than others, was the increasing identification of 'nation' and 'culture' with religion. This was not a 'return' to 'tradition'. The triad of nation/culture/religious community can be as sacrosan ct in ultra-modern Israel as in 'fundamentalist' Iran. In its Hindutva variant, this same triad can appeal as much to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's arcane mahants as to the Saffron yuppies and hipsters of Mumbai. In its most violent forms, this triad has t aken countless lives in the statelets that have arisen on the ruins of former Yugoslavia. In more subtle ways, even the most worldly-wise of the American intellectuals implicitly assume that 'the West' is Judaeo-Christian. In numerous Third World countri es, 'religion' functions now within right-wing ideologies of nationalism as 'race' functioned in the Nazi discourse of nationhood.

And 'culture' now is where biology used to be in the days when overt racism was respectable. The respectable racism of the British middle classes no longer expresses its dismay at the presence of the South Asian or West Indian immigrant inside Britain in racial terms but in the language of cultural difference and threat to the 'British way of life'.The cultural discourse of the French National Front is of course loftier; the anti-Turkish culturalist racism of the neo-fascist gangs in Germany is more vul gar. Living under the living shadow of Hitler, Savarkar could cheerfully speak of the 'Hindu race'; the Malkanis and the Sudarshans of today would rather speak of 'Hindu culture' which is said to be the same thing as the 'national mainstream'.

The fourth mutation is in relation to class ideology and imperialism. The classical fascisms of the revolutionary period, which arose explicitly in the face of the socialist project and in the era of anti-colonial nationalism in the colonies, cultivated for themselves some patriotic ambitions and took from the aspirations of the working classes, the disaffected petty bourgeois and the small capitalist a certain type of class radicalism, as was indicated in the name the Nazis gave themselves: national so cialists. Mussolini himself had gone from being an illustrious leader of the Socialist Party to becoming the founder of Italian fascism and head of the fascist state. Much of that 'nationalism' itself was imperialistic in its own right while most of that class radicalism was demagogic and was then abandoned altogether as fascism accommodated itself to monopoly capital. We can justifiably think of those fascisms of the inter-war period as the centre of gravity in a global counter-revolution. They thought of themselves, however, as revolutions - of the radical Right!

FASCISMS of our own time are different. In post-War Europe the broad cultural and intellectual legacy of fascism has in fact had a much wider circulation than most European intellectuals would grant. However, the actual fascist movements there have been so marked by their defeat and so caught in the anti-communist and anti-immigrant crusades that they have merely become the far-Right auxiliaries of their own bourgeoisies, without any independent projects of their own. In an important sense, the centre o f gravity for fascistic politics has now shifted to either the former socialist countries of eastern and central Europe, where these political forces have always being nurtured by imperialism, or to countries of the Third World where the bourgeoisies can not even imagine competing with the dominant imperialist powers, as the Nazis for instance credibly did.

The notable feature of Hindutva fascism is that at no point in its entire history has it been either anti-colonial or anti-imperialist. Before Independence, it colluded with the British against leaders of secular anti-colonialism. During the decades imme diately after Independence, when the Indian state was attempting to build a relatively autonomous national economy, the Hindutva brigade always aligned itself with the most pro-imperialist wing of the Indian bourgeoisie. It of course always denounced the "socialistic" regulation of the Indian economy during the Nehru period, but it also does not have any use for the fascistic kind of regulation of the national economy that the Nazis had instituted or even the authoritarian kind that has facilitated the industrialisation of East Asia. Jaswant Singh, the current Hindutva Foreign Minister, contemptuously dismisses as "the lost decades" that earlier phase of post-Independence India when it had sought to shelter its economy from undue pressures of metropoli tan capital.

Instead what we have is a majoritarian cultural nationalism for whom national redemption consists not in the ambition to challenge the foreign powers but in hallucinatory culture wars - against the minorities and the Left - that symbolically compensate f or impotence in the real world of political economy.

Classical fascisms of the inter-War years were movements (and regimes) of developed bourgeoisies in the period of inter-imperialist rivalry, in which even a Mussolini could dream of becoming an independent imperialist in his own right and a rival of Belg ium or even France. The Hindutva-type fascisms of our own time are movements (and regimes) of backward bourgeoisies who have grown prematurely senile and can conceive of no historical mission for themselves, in the age of globalisation. Third World fasci sm is what comes after the collapse of the national bourgeois project. None of these bourgeoisies dreamed of becoming genuinely independent on their own. So long as the USSR was there, some of these bourgeoisies, notably the Indian one, sought to use Sov iet aid and guarantees for winning some margin of independence from imperialism. That half-hearted will to resist collapsed even before the Soviet Union was dissolved. U.S. hegemony was accepted, deep in the soul, even before it was complete in objective reality.

And that brings us to the fourth, final and that most enduring consequence of the War of 1914 which is still with us: the rise of the U.S. to world power: first as the most powerful among the competing imperiast rivals (1914-1945), then as the hegemonic power in the capitalist bloc in ferocious battle against the Soviet bloc and socialism generally (1945-1989), and finally, with the collapse of the USSR and the consequent final collapse of the national bourgeois project in the Third World, as sole super power and supreme commander of the forces of neo-liberal 'globalisation'.

The next essay in this series would address the question of this 'globalisation' which is the very shape of the world in our time, whether or not we accept the term itself. Here one can merely list some preconditions without which this 'globalisation'- t his latest and most ferocious phase of imperialism - could not have come about. The first is the fact that the U.S. had already become the dominant economic and military power in the capitalist world while the old colonial empires of its inferior competi tors were still largely intact. Thanks to the ferocity with which it collected its debts from Europe after the First World War, much of the European press had even then changed the designation of the U.S. from 'Uncle Sam' to 'Uncle Shylock'.

Second, the actual process of 'globalisation' could not get going until after the dissolution of the colonial empires. Colonialism had created something resembling a world economy but it was a system, really, of interlocking economies, in which different colonial powers controlled different segments. Decolonisation was now necessary for the further development of capitalism as a wholly integrated global economy in this new phase, as much as colonialism had long been the very premise on which the capital ist world system was born in the first place. And, the U.S. could not have emerged as a hegemonic power until after its rivals had lost their empires and imperial projects.

Third, the era of classical colonialism had also divided the world into a core of industrialised countries and a vast hinterland of non-industrialised zones. For capitalism really to take off as a universal system, an altogether new kind of division of t he world was necessary, between the advanced and the backward capitalist countries. The dissolution of the colonial empires made possible the national bourgeois project of some degree of industrialisation in the Third World and thus vastly altered the ve ry scope of capitalism as such. As the pre-eminent financial, technological and military power of the world, the U.S. was uniquely endowed to shape the whole of this new system in a way no colonial power ever had been.

Fourth, the immense technological innovations of the post-War period have been as necessary for the launching of this new, globalised imperialism as the technologies of the Second Industrial Revolution had been necessary for completion of the colonial co nquest. A later essay could discuss this crucial matter of the technologies of globalism and their economic and social effects. Suffice it to say here that an integrated global financial market could not have emerged without a technology which makes it p ossible to conduct in a matter of seconds multiple transactions involving the movement of billions of dollars across the globe.

Finally, the existence of the Soviet bloc and the East Asian socialist states had obstructed 'globalisation' in three ways. They constituted roughly a third of the world, and this one-third was simply not available for capitalist globalisation. They held out the possibility of a challenge to the capitalist system as such, on the global scale. And, they served as alternative sources of technology, training, finance and military supplies for countries of the Third World. Only with the collapse of the Sovi et bloc and the full assimilation of China into the world market could capitalism become a truly global system.