Cohen on Finchelstein, 'A Brief History of Fascist Lies'
Federico Finchelstein. A Brief History of Fascist Lies. Oakland: University of California Press, 2020. 152 pp. $19.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-34671-0.
Reviewed by Joshua Cohen (University of Leicester) Published on H-Socialisms (February, 2021) Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55795
Federico Finchelstein's A Brief History of Fascist Lies seeks to explain what is intrinsically untruthful about fascism. The book is less concerned with the expediency that drives the postwar Far Right to abjure the "fascist" label and more focused on lying as a core element of fascist ideology, dating back to its interwar development.
Fascism has been described as inherently duplicitous. John Richardson's recent discourse analysis of British fascism explores the dissonance between textual surface—what fascists say they stand for, including as they cynically manipulate an electoral path to power—and their true ideology. This builds on the work of Michael Billig, who analyzed the British National Front of the 1970s. Both authors reveal an esoteric fascist ideology operating at the heart of postwar "racial populism," giving a signal to cadres that the legacy of Hitler and Mussolini has not really been abandoned. Fascism's ability to build a mass movement, Richardson argues, is directly proportional to the degree to which it must disguise its sinister, true intentions toward democracy, the labor movement, and human rights.
For Finchelstein, lying is a special feature of fascism and not only a disguise for its intentions and enormous crimes. He writes that "organised lying defines fascism." While lies are present in other political movements, such as liberalism, they are "incidental" to their core ideology. Here, the author centers on the idea of the charismatic leader who expresses and shapes the organic will of the national or racial community: "only facts (and lies) prescribed by the leadership could be accepted as truth" (p. 15). This concept, speaking to fascism as political religion, calls into question what are "lies" in the commonly understood sense of deliberate falsehoods and what are fanatically believed-in mythic fantasies, which are viscerally "true" for the believers. Finchelstein addresses this question ("do liars believe their own lies?") and asks, rhetorically, whether, when Joseph Goebbels said that Hitler was omniscient and a creative instrument of divine destiny, the Nazi propagandist had a "reality-based notion of knowledge" (p. 11). This book does deal with the invention or manipulation of "facts," but Finchelstein's focus is really on "belief in a truth that transcended facts" (p. 12). The author is making an important contribution by getting to grips with fascism's fundamental challenge to empirical truth, but in a way that is perhaps inadequately conveyed by the book's title.
Finchelstein deepens our understanding of fascist rhetoric. Where before "Mussolini is always right" might have been understood as bluster, Finchelstein shows that actually the claim profoundly drew on "the core divine truths of the mythic ideology" of the infallible leader (p. 41). And since it was the fascist leader who personified eternal truth, it was the leader's critics and antifascists who became "enemies of truth" (p. 32). For Hitler, "lies" were the ideologies, political systems, and values that contradicted his racist worldview and conspiracy theories. Crucially for Finchelstein's argument, this conception rested on "a notion of truth that did not need empirical verification ... what is true for most of us (the result of demonstrable causes and effects), was potentially fake for him [Hitler]" (p. 12). To fascists, the leader principle was the true form of democracy, while liberal democracy was inherently false in its disconnection from the popular will and its irrational, pre-conscious driving forces. This is one of many examples in Finchelstein's book of fascists not operating as liars in the simplest sense but instead fanatically believing in themselves as champions of a "natural" truth.
Finchelstein goes beyond "fascist lies" when he says, correctly, that "fascism does not altogether speak the untruth when it refers to its own irrational powers, however faked the mythology which ideologically rationalizes the irrational" (p. 27). The author deals very well with the implications of this, which are that fascist "truth" replaced empirical truth, and "fiction displaced reality and became reality" (p. 21). For example, Finchelstein describes the antisemitic lie, expressed in Nazi propaganda such as the film Der ewige Jude (1940), with its footage of Polish ghettoes, that Jews were biologically prone to be dirty and contagious. The empirical reality was, in fact, a self-fulfilling prophecy: the Nazis created the very conditions of overcrowding and inadequate sanitation that made diseases such as typhus a reality.
This book draws heavily on fascism's irrational (indeed, antirational) basis and on the powerful myths it used to galvanize a mass movement. In recognizing the centrality of myth, Finchelstein aligns with prevailing views on fascism, including Roger Griffin's argument that the "mythic core" of fascism lies in its palingenetic ultranationalism. Finchelstein notes, for example, that Mussolini described Bolshevism as a "rival myth," albeit an inferior one because it lacked the truth rooted in ultranationalism. Conversely, the Italian Fascist leader also believed that "reality could not represent an obstacle to myth" (p. 14). A Brief History of Fascist Lies is very good on the conflict between psychoanalysts, especially Freud, and the fascists over their conflicting views on the self: Finchelstein devotes a chapter to this topic. He shows that while Freud questioned the immutability of souls and critically analyzed the origins of the sacred, fascists drew from their understandings of pre-consciousness a notion of the mythic, violent, and, therefore above all, "true" self. Fascists saw themselves as a conduit for expressing the subconscious needs of the masses: the result was for them not a lie but "the moment when transcendental truth was finally revealed" (p. 21). This higher form of truth was liberated both from empirical evidence and history, being "intuitive affirmations that were ... expressions of transhistorical myths" (p. 26).
A problem for understanding fascism mainly as something that draws on myth is suggested by the scholarship that emphasizes the movement's economic, quasi-scientific, and "rational" motivations. This suggests that at least one aspect of fascism's active appeal was not solely, at least, about the flags, torchlight processions, salutes, and other mythic symbols. Ulrike Ehret, for example, argues that Nazi theory on population resettlement, the unproductiveness of surplus population, eugenics, and race science was much closer to prevailing "scientific" reasoning in the interwar years than it was to any "religion." Some explanations for the Holocaust see that genocide's motivations as more grubbily economic than anything suggested by Nazism's rhetoric about an eternal battle between Jewish and "Aryan" souls. David Cesarani, for example, argued that the genocide can be explained "rationally" in that it was self-financing, consumed few resources, and contributed greatly to the German war economy. Michael Burleigh sees fascism as a "deadly synthesis" of racial science and "the consolations of a religion." Read in the context of these other studies, A Brief History of Fascist Lies suggests the need for works that explore the intersections and contradictions between "rational" economic motives and the irrational aspects of fascism that Finchelstein concentrates on and is so good at explaining.
Finchelstein's key justification for writing this book is the contemporary relevance of fascist lying as "intellectual lineage" for Donald Trump (p. 9). Trump's presidency was marked by his accusations of "fake news," attempts to undermine the empirical scientific evidence on climate change, xenophobic accusations, and stoking of right-wing populist resentment around the palingenetic idea of "Make America Great Again." Finchelstein writes that "today lies are back in power. We need history to remind us how much violence and racism happened in such a short period" (p. 1). The author explains that he has written about the convergence of right-wing populism and fascism in his previous book, From Fascism to Populism in History (2017). We really need to have read this to properly anticipate the presentism of A Brief History of Fascist Lies. Without doing this, some contemporary illustrations suggest strong similarities between Trump's approach to the truth and those of fascists in history, but without always clearly setting out how fascist myth and transcendental truth have inflected Trumpism. The author does provide enough linkage to justify reaching into the present, including that "after winning, populism pretends that its elected leader impersonates the people and is their only true representative" (p. 95) and that the fascist conflation of mythic infallibility and truth surfaces in the views of people who saw Trump's 2016 victory as "God's work" (p. 94).
Fascism's cynical lies have enabled and disguised mass murder, such as offering workers a socialism freed from "international capitalism" only to ruthlessly crush the labor movement once in power, or pretending that Theresienstadt was a "model camp" in the midst of exterminating Europe's Jews. Finchelstein's book is an important one because it returns to core fascist ideology to show that this contained a distorted view of reality operating at a deeper level than these odious lies, as catastrophic as they were.
A Brief History of Fascist Lies is a well-written and accessible book that will add to conceptual understandings of fascism. It is admirably transnational in scope: Finchelstein explores a range of mainly interwar fascist thought in Mexico, Argentina, China, Japan, and several other less commonly treated countries, as well as Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, as would be expected. To achieve a fuller understanding of the book's contemporary relevance, it needs to be read in conjunction with Finchelstein's earlier work on fascism and populism, and with the developing literature that presents a more complex analysis of the roots of Trumpism and its challenge to truth than Finchelstein provides here. Wendy Brown's recent In the Ruins of Neoliberalism (2019) is a good example, in that it situates the (mainly American) Far Right alongside a range of other anti-democratic forces galvanized in the wake of neoliberalism, and charts how neoliberalism's challenge to the idea of the state fosters antipathy to objective truth.
. John E. Richardson, British Fascism: A Discourse-Historical Analysis, Explorations of the Far Right Series (Stuttgart: Ibidem, 2017); Michael Billig, Fascists: A Social Psychological View of the National Front (London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978).
. Richardson, British Fascism, 42.
. Roger Griffin, ed. Fascism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 3.
. Ulrike Ehret, "Understanding the Popular Appeal of Fascism, National Socialism and Soviet Communism: The Revival of Totalitarianism Theory and Political Religion," History Compass 5, no. 4 (2007): 1236-67; 1246.
. David Cesarani, "A response to The Dark Side of Democracy," in "Debate on Michael Mann's The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing," John Breuilly et al., Nations and Nationalism 12, no. (2006); 389-411; 395.
. Michael Burleigh, "National Socialism as a Political Religion," Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions 1, no. 2 (2000): 1-26; 11.
Citation: Joshua Cohen. Review of Finchelstein, Federico, A Brief History of Fascist Lies. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. February, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55795This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.