Fascism is back in fashion. That, at least, is the message that former secretary of state Madeleine Albright wants to convey with her new book, “Fascism: A Warning.” In many places, she notes, we see strongmen on the rise, and this authoritarian resurgence is accompanied by a conspicuous surge of ideas from the far right. Racists and xenophobes are popping up in places — university campuses, high political office — where we never expected to see them.
So are we experiencing a revival of the most virulent forms of extreme right-wing ideology, of the sort that the West thought it had vanquished back in 1945? Albright believes that answering this question is crucial to understanding the current political moment. The first chapters of her book follow the careers of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler in the 1920s and ’30s. Her account gains additional force from her own biography: As a little girl, she had to leave her native Czechoslovakia with her family after the Nazis invaded in 1939. (Her maternal grandmother, who was Jewish, was murdered by the Nazis in World War II.)
The rest of the book, in which she melds her travels as secretary of state with ruminations about despots around the world, is decidedly weaker. There’s an obligatory feel to these accounts, which include encounters with Hugo Chavez, Slobodan Milosevic, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin. Rather oddly, given the title of her book, she admits that none of these contemporary politicians really qualify as fascists. She’s merely using them — and a long chapter at the end, about the worrisome behavior of the current U.S. president — to show what can happen to power-hungry leaders who run roughshod over checks and balances. Almost in passing, she mentions that the Kim family regime in North Korea — she conducted talks in 2000 with Kim Jong Il, the father of the incumbent there — probably qualifies as the only truly fascist regime in the world today.
I happen to agree with her on that. Unfortunately, she never really explains what she means by it. She might have noted that fascists believe that their nations exist in a sort of permanent emergency, constantly facing mortal threats from internal and external enemies. (North Korea? Check.) She could have mentioned that they think society should be defended by organizing it along rigidly military lines (check) and run by a one-party state that serves an all-powerful leader (check). She could have even referred to the excellent book “The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters,” by scholar B.R. Myers, who shows that the Kim family regime adheres to an openly racist ideology (largely copied from imperial Japan) devoted to maintaining the purity of the Korean ethnic group against insidious aliens (especially mongrel Americans).
But Albright is not willing to get into the delicate business of defining what other sorts of modern political movements might qualify for the f-word treatment. She identifies President Trump, rather cautiously, as the “first anti-democratic president in modern U.S. history.” Yet here, too, she shies away from a precise characterization of his beliefs. She notes that the modern autocrats Trump so openly admires borrow from each other: “They walk in one another’s footsteps, as Hitler did with Mussolini — and today the herd is moving in a Fascist direction.” So how does she know? What are the criteria for the conclusion?
At the beginning of her book, Albright notes the widespread confusion surrounding the word “fascist,” eagerly wielded by both right and left to tar their opponents. Yet in the end she doesn’t add a great deal more to our understanding of what qualifies someone as a modern fascist or how fascism might have mutated to fit current conditions.
And that is a pity, because it’s just the sort of clarifying discussion we desperately need. Unfortunately, the eminent Yale historian Timothy Snyder doesn’t do much better. In his new book, “The Road to Unfreedom,” Snyder sets out to explain how Putin’s increasingly authoritarian Russia decided to ravage neighboring Ukraine and then turned some of the same tools for sowing chaos and division on Western Europe and the United States.
It’s a complicated story, so he would have been advised to tell it fairly straight. Instead he opts for hyperbole and academic word games. To cite just one example, “the undesired exposure of private conversations” in a political scandal in Poland “was incipient totalitarianism” — the same kind “that was also on display in the United States in 2016.” He never explains precisely what he’s referring to in that latter case, but I’m pretty sure it’s not the release of the “Access Hollywood” video in which candidate Trump boasted about groping women. Records of private conversations, written down or recorded, have, after all, been part of political intrigue in many democracies.
Snyder structures this wildly erratic book around a contrast between what he calls the “politics of inevitability” (represented by neoliberal optimists in the United States and the European Union who allegedly find it impossible to imagine alternatives to what already exists) and the “politics of eternity” practiced by certain authoritarians: “Whereas inevitability promises a better future for everyone, eternity places one nation at the center of a cyclical story of victimhood. Time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past.”
Got it? So, according to Snyder, Leonid Brezhnev “buried the Marxist politics of inevitability, and replaced it with a Soviet politics of eternity.” Brezhnev wasn’t Stalin, to be sure, but this way of defining their differences makes no sense. And for all his faults, does Trump really qualify as a practitioner of “eternity politics,” as Snyder would have us believe? Trump is a demagogue, but his boundless solipsism is so fluid that “eternity” seems like the least useful way to describe it. “Eternity rises from inevitability like a ghost from a corpse,” Snyder writes. Good to know.
This is especially sad because Snyder comes equipped with just the tools — an impressive knowledge of languages and a deep background in European history — that might help us make sense of his story. His description of the pro-Europe, pro-democratic Maidan Revolution in Kiev in 2014, which he witnessed first hand, is quite good. He also traces useful continuities between Kremlin disinformation campaigns and Trump’s shameless mendaciousness: “Trump adopted the Russian double standard: he was permitted to lie all the time, but any minor error by a journalist discredited the entire profession of journalism.” Russia, Snyder argues, has effectively transformed international affairs by waging a systematic war on the very concept of truth.
Other sections are less successful. Snyder attributes some of Putin’s most cynical acts to the Russian fascist theoretician Ivan Ilyin. I’m not quite convinced, though, that the Russian president really spends his spare time perusing philosophy — and he certainly didn’t need to read a book to come up with a plan for invading Ukraine. The idea that Crimea, which Putin snatched away from Kiev in 2014, naturally belonged to Russia was a fixture of public discussion when I lived in Moscow in the 1990s; the first politician to make hay with it was not Putin but Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.
Nor would many Russians need to consult Ilyin to decide that Russia and Ukraine are essentially the same country, since that has long been a staple of Russian nationalist thought. The French historian Marlene Laruelle argues that Ilyin is just one of a crop of Russian thinkers (some of them relatively liberal, such as Nikolai Berdyaev) that Putin dips into whenever he needs to put a noble frosting on one of his mafia moves. At one point, Snyder leans on Ilyin’s philosophy to assert that Putin’s response to a crisis was “to imagine Russia as a virginal organism troubled only by the threat of foreign penetration.” Funny thing, but I don’t recall hearing that in any of the Russian president’s speeches.
Rather intriguingly, while Snyder seems to conclude that Putin is a thoroughgoing totalitarian, Albright doesn’t seem to agree: “Putin isn’t a full-blown Fascist because he hasn’t felt the need,” she observes. I suspect that Snyder is closer to the truth. But I wish that he’d done a far more straightforward job of making the case.
By Madeleine Albright
Harper. 288 pp. $27.99
By Timothy Snyder
Tim Duggan. 359 pp. $27