by Katy Brown, Aurelien Mondon, and Aaron Winter
Discussion and debate about the far right, its rise, origins and impact have become ubiquitous in academic research, political strategy, and media coverage in recent years. One of the issues increasingly underpinning such discussion is the relationship between the far right and the mainstream, and more specifically, the mainstreaming of the far right. This is particularly clear around elections when attention turns to the electoral performance of these parties. When they fare as well as predicted, catastrophic headlines simplify and hype what is usually a complex situation, ignoring key factors which shape electoral outcomes and inflate far-right results, such as trends in abstention and distrust towards mainstream politics. When these parties do not perform as well as predicted, the circus moves on to the next election and the hype starts afresh, often playing a role in the framing of, and potentially influencing, the process and policies, but also ignoring problems in mainstream, establishment parties and the system itself—including racism.
This overwhelming focus on electoral competition tends to create a normative standard for measurement and brings misperceptions about the extent and form of mainstreaming. Tackling the issue of mainstreaming beyond elections and electoral parties and more holistically does not only allow for more comprehensive analysis that addresses diverse factors, manifestations, and implications of far-right ideas and politics, but is much-needed in order to challenge some of the harmful discourses around the topic peddled by politicians, journalists, and academics.
To do so, we must first understand and engage with the idea of the ‘mainstream’, a concept that has attracted very little attention to date; its widespread use has not been matched by definitional clarity or subjected to critical unpacking. It often appears simultaneously essentialised and elusive. Crucially then, we must stress two key points establishing its contingency and challenging its essentialised qualities. The first of these points is therefore that the mainstream is constructed, contingent, and fluid. We often hear how the ‘extreme’ is a threat to the ‘mainstream’, but this is not some objective reality with two fixed actors or positions. They are both contingent in themselves and in relation to one another. In any system, the construction and positioning of the mainstream necessitate the construction of an extreme, which is just as contingent and fluid. These are neither ontological nor historically-fixed phenomena and seeing them as such, which is common, is both uncritical and ahistorical. What is mainstream or extreme at one point in time does not have to be, nor remain, so. The second point is that the mainstream is not essentially good, rational, or moderate. While public discourse in liberal democracies tends to imbue the mainstream or ‘centre’ with values of reason and moderation, the reality can be quite different as is clearly demonstrated by the simple fact that what is mainstream one day can be reviled, as well as exceptionalised and externalised, as extreme the next, and vice versa. Racism would be one such example. As such, the mainstream is itself a normative, hegemonic concept that imbues a particular ideological configuration or system with authority to operate as a given or naturalise itself as the best or even only option, essential to govern or regulate society, politics and the economy.
One of the main problems with the lack of clarity over the definition of the mainstream is that its contingency is masked through the assumption that it is common sense to know what it signifies, thus contributing to its reification as something with a fixed identity. Most people (including academics) feel they have a clear idea of what is mainstream; they position themselves according to what they feel/think it is and see themselves in relation to it. We argue that a critical approach to the mainstream, which challenges its status as a fixed entity with ontological status and essentialised ‘good’ and ‘normal’ qualities, is crucial for understanding the processes at play in the mainstreaming of the far right.
To address various shortcomings, we define the process of mainstreaming as the process by which parties/actors, discourses and/or attitudes move from marginal positions on the political spectrum or public sphere to more central ones, shifting what is deemed to be acceptable or legitimate in political, media and public circles and contexts.
The first aspect we draw attention to is the agency of parties and actors in the matter. Far-right actors are often positioned as agents, either unlocking their own success through internal strategies or pushing the mainstream to adopt positions that would otherwise be considered ‘unnatural’ to it. While we do not wish to dismiss the potential power of far-right actors to exert influence, it is essential to reflect on the capacity of the mainstream to shift the goalposts, especially given the heightened status and power that comes from the assumptions described above. What we highlight as particularly important is that shifts can take place independently and that the far right is not the sole actor which matters in understanding the process of mainstreaming. A far-right party can feel pressured or see an opportunity to become more extreme by mainstream parties moving rightward and thus encroaching on its territory. However, a far-right party can also be made more extreme without changing itself, but because the mainstream moves away from its ideas and politics. The issues associated with the assumed immovability and moderation of the mainstream have led towards a lack of engagement with the role of this group. It is therefore imperative to challenge these assumptions and capture the influence of mainstream elite actors, particularly with regard to discourse, in holistic accounts of mainstreaming.
This leads on to one of the core tenets of our framework, which places discourse as a central feature with significant influence across other elements. Too often, discourse has been swallowed up within elections, seen solely as the means through which party success might be achieved, but we argue that it can stand alone and that the mainstreaming of far-right ideas is not something only of interest and concern when it is matched by electoral success. Our framework highlights the capacity of parties and actors from the far right or mainstream (though the latter has greatest influence) to enact discursive shifts that bring far-right and mainstream discourse closer or further from one another.
Problematically, we argue, discourse is often seen solely in terms of its strategic effects for electoral outcomes. While we do not deny its importance in this regard, we suggest that discursive shifts may not always be connected in the ways we might expect with elections, and that the interpretation of electoral results can itself feed into the process of normalisation. First, changes at the discursive level do not always lead to a similar electoral trajectory, nor do the effects stop at elections: the mainstreaming of far-right ideas and narratives (including in and as policies) has the potential to both weaken the far right’s electoral performance if mainstream politicians compete over their traditional ground or bolster such parties by centring their ideas as the norm. Whatever the case, we must not lose sight of the effects on those groups targeted in such exclusionary discourse. The impact of mainstreaming does not stop at the ballot box. This feeds into the second key point about elections, in that the way they are interpreted can further contribute to normalisation, either through celebrating the perceived defeat of the far right or through hyping the position of far-right parties as democratic contenders. Certainly, this does not mean that we should not interrogate the reasons behind examples of increased electoral success among far-right parties, but that we must do so in a nuanced and critical manner. We must therefore guard against simplistic conclusions drawn from electoral, but also survey, data which we discuss at length in the article. Accounts of the electorate, often referred to through notions of ‘the people’ or ‘public opinion’, have tended to skew understandings of mainstreaming towards bottom-up explanations in which this group is portrayed as a collection of votes made outside the influence of elite actors. Through our framework, we seek to challenge these assumptions and instead underscore the critical role of discourse through mediation in constructing voter knowledge of the political context.
Far from being a prescriptive framework or approach, our aim is to ensure that future engagement with the concept, process and implications of mainstreaming is based on a more critical, rounded approach. This does not mean that each aspect of our framework needs to be engaged with in great depth, but they should be considered to ensure criticality and rigour, as well as avoid both the uncritical reification of an essentially good mainstream against the far right, and the normalisation and mainstreaming of the far right and its ideas. We believe it is our responsibility as researchers to avoid the harmful effects of narrower interpretations of political phenomena which present an incomplete yet buzzword-friendly picture (i.e. ‘populist’ or ‘left behind’), often taken up in political and media discourse, and feed into further discursive normalisation.
This brings us to the more epistemological, methodological, and political reason for the intervention and framework proposal: the need for a more reflective and critical approach from researchers, particularly where power and political influence are an issue. It is imperative that researchers reflect on their own role in contributing to the discourse around mainstreaming through their interpretations of related phenomena. This is important in the context of political and social sciences where, despite unavoidable assumptions, interests and influence, objectivity, and neutrality are often proclaimed. Necessarily, this demands from researchers an acknowledgement of their own positionality as not only researchers, but also as subjects within well-established and yet often invisibilised racialised, gendered, and classed power structures, notably those within and reproduced by our institutions, disciplines, and fields of study.
by Taras Kuzio
The roots of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine are to be found in the elevation of Tsarist imperial nationalist and White Russian émigré views, which deny the existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians. The Soviet Union recognised Ukrainians as a people separate but close to Russians. Russian imperial nationalists hold a Jekyll-and-Hyde view of Ukraine. While denigrating Ukraine in a colonial manner that would make even Soviet-era Communist Party leaders blush, Russian leaders at the same time claim to hold warm feelings towards Ukrainians, whom they see as the closest people to them. In this light, ‘bad’ Ukrainians are nationalists and neo-Nazis who want their country to be part of Europe; ‘good’ Ukrainians are obedient Little Russians who know their place in the east Slavic hierarchy and want to align themselves with Mother Russia. In other words, ‘good’ Ukrainians are those who wish their country to emulate Belarus. In practice, during the invasion, cities such as Kharkiv and Mariupol that have resisted the Russian incursion have been pulverised irrespective of the fact they are majority Russian-speaking. In turn, the fact of this resistance means to Russia’s leaders that these cities are inhabited by ‘Nazis’, not Little Russians who would have greeted Russian troops—and who should therefore be destroyed.
Without an understanding of the deepening influence of Tsarist imperial nationalism in Russia since 2012, and especially following Crimea’s annexation in 2014, scholars will be unable to grasp or explain why Putin has been so obsessed with returning Ukraine to the Russian World—a concept created as long ago as 2007 as a body to unite the three eastern Slavs, which underpinned his invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Putin’s invasion did not come out of nowhere, but had been nurtured, discussed, and raised by Putin and Russian officials since the mid-2000s in derogatory dismissals of Ukrainians, and in territorial claims advanced against Ukraine. Unfortunately, few scholars took these at face value until summer 2021, when Putin published a long 6,000-word article detailing his thesis about Russians and Ukrainians constituting one people with a single language, culture, and common history. Ukrainians were a ‘brotherly nation’ who were ‘part of the Russian people.’ ‘Reunification’ would inevitably take place, Putin told the Valdai Club in 2017.
The overwhelming majority of scholarly books and journals have dismissed, ignored, or downplayed Russian nationalism as a temporary phenomenon. Richard Sakwa claimed Putin was not dependent upon Russian nationalism, ‘and it is debatable whether the word is even applicable to him.’ Other scholars described it as a temporary phenomenon that had disappeared by 2015–16. A major book on Russian nationalism published after the 2014 crisis included nothing on the incorporation of Tsarist imperial nationalist and White Russian émigré discourse that dismissed the existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine backed by Russian nationalist rhetoric has led to many Western academics suggesting that the Russian forces have ended up—or will end up—with egg on their faces. Why they felt the need to take this angle has varied, ranging from elaborate political science theories popular in North America about the nature of the Russian regime to the traditional Russophilia found among a significant number of Euro-American scholars writing about Russia. As Petro Kuzyk pointed out, in writing extensively about Ukrainian regionalism, scholars have tended to exaggerate intra-Ukrainian regional divisions.  This has clearly been seen during the invasion, when Russia has found no support among Russian-speakers in cities such as Kharkiv, Mariupol, Odesa, and elsewhere. Furthermore, the prevailing consensus prior to the invasion among scholars and think tankers was eerily similar to that in Moscow; namely, that Ukraine would be quickly occupied, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy would flee, and Kyiv would be captured by Russian troops. That this did not happen again shows a a serious scholarly miscalculation about the strength of Ukrainian identity, and an overestimation of the strength of Russian military power.
Nationalism in Putin’s Russia has integrated Tsarist imperial and Soviet nationalisms into an eclectic ruling ideology that drives the invasion. Putin, traditionally viewed as nostalgic for the Soviet Union, has also exhibited some pronounced anti-Soviet tendencies, above all in criticising Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin for creating a federal union of republics that included ‘Russian lands’ in the south-east, and artificially creating a ‘fake’ Ukrainian people. Putin’s invasion goal of ‘denazification’ aimed to correct this mistake by destroying the ‘anti-Russia’ nurtured by the West.
Both scholars and Russian leaders have been baffled as to how to understand and explain the tenacity of Ukrainian identity that has fought the Russian army to a standstill, and is now in the position of launching counterattacks. What is particularly difficult for Russian political leaders and media journalists to explain is how a people that supposedly does not exist (Ukrainians) could greet the ‘special military operation’ (Putin’s dystopian term for the invasion of Ukraine) not with bouquets of flowers but met it with armed resistance.
Instrumentalism: Russian Nationalism as a Temporary Phenomenon
Sakwa writes that ‘the genie of Russian nationalism was firmly back in the bottle’ by 2016. Pal Kolstø and Marlene Laruelle, along similar lines, write that the nationalist rhetoric of 2014 was novel and subsequently declined. Meanwhile, Henry Hale also believes Putin was only a nationalist in 2014, not prior to the annexation of the Crimea or since 2015. Laruelle concurs, writing that by 2016, Putin’s regime had ‘circled back to a more classic and pragmatic conservative vision’. Laruelle describes Putin’s regime as nationalistic only in the period 2013–16, arguing that ‘since then [it] has been curtailing any type of ideological inflation and has adopted a low profile, focusing on much more pragmatic and Realpolitik agendas at home and abroad.’ Paul Chaisty and Stephen Whitefield write, ‘Putin is not a natural nationalist’ and ‘[w]e do not see the man and the regime as defined by principled ideological nationalism.’ Sakwa is among the foremost authors who deny that Putin is a nationalist, describing him as not an ideologue because he remains rational and pragmatic—which sharply contrasts with an invasion that most commentators view as irrational. Allegedly, moreover, there has been a ‘crisis’ in Russian nationalism. Other scholars, meanwhile, believed that Putin ‘lost’ nationalist support.
In reality, the opposite took place. Russian imperial nationalism deepened, penetrated even further into Russian society and became dominant in Putin’s regime during the eight years between the invasions of Crimea and Ukraine. Russian imperial nationalist denials of the existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians became entrenched and have driven the invasion of Ukraine.
Patriots and Conservatives - Not Nationalists
Scholars described Russian nationalists as ‘patriots’ and western-style ‘conservatives.’ In the same year that the constitution was changed to allow Putin to remain president until 2036, Laruelle writes ‘the Putin regime still embodies a moderate centrist conservatism.’ Petro, Sakwa, and Robinson analogously describe a ‘conservative turn’ in Russian foreign policy.
If contemporary British conservatives annexed part of Ireland and denied the existence of the Irish people, “conservatism” would no longer fully capture the ideology they represented. By the same token, the Putin regime’s annexation of Crimea and denial of the existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians has sharply steered Russian conservatism towards the conceptual centrality of imperial nationalism.
In their analyses, Sakwa and Anna Matveeva could only identify ‘militarised patriotism’ or elites divided into ‘westerners’ and ‘patriots.’ Following his 2012 re-election, Sakwa writes that Putin only spoke of ‘Russian identity discourse’ and Putin’s ‘conservative values’ which he believes should be not confused with a Russian nationalist agenda.
Sakwa has generally avoided using the term ‘nationalist’ when discussing Russian politicians. This created problems in explaining why a ‘non-nationalist’ Putin might choose to support a wide range of far-right and a smaller number of extreme left political movements in Europe and the US, ranging from national-conservatives, populist-nationalists, irredentist imperialists to neo-Nazis in Europe. Sakwa attempts to circumvent this conundrum by relying on a portfolio of euphemistic alternatives, describing these far-right and extreme left movements as ‘anti-systemic forces,’ ‘radical left,’ ‘movements of the far right,’ ‘European populists,’ ‘traditional sovereigntists, peaceniks, anti-imperialists, critics of globalisation,’ ‘populists of left and right,’ and ‘values coalition.’
Putin’s Imperial Nationalist Obsession with Ukraine
The Soviet regime recognised a separate Ukrainian people, albeit one that always retained close ties to Russians. The Ukrainian SSR was a ‘sovereign’ republic within the Soviet Union. In 1945, Joseph Stalin negotiated three seats at the UN for the USSR (representing the Russian SFSR), Ukrainian SSR, and Belarusian SSR. In the USSR, there was a Ukrainian lobby in Moscow, while this has been wholly absent under Putin.
Soviet nationality policy defined Ukrainians and Russians as related, but nevertheless separate peoples; this was no longer the case in Putin’s Russia. In the USSR, Ukraine, and the Ukrainian language ‘always had robust defenders at the very top. Under Putin, however, the idea of Ukrainian national statehood was discouraged.’ Although the USSR promoted Russification, it nevertheless recognised the existence of the Ukrainian language. For a decade prior to the invasion, the Ukrainian language was disparaged by the Russian media and political leaders as a dialect that was artificially made a language in the Soviet Union.
Russian nationalist myths and stereotypes underpinning the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine had been raised, discussed, and threatened for over a decade prior to the ‘special military operation’. When Putin returned as president in 2012, he portrayed himself as the ‘gatherer of Russian [i.e., eastern Slavic] lands.’ Ukraine’s return to the Russian World, alongside Crimea and Belarus, was Putin’s unfinished business that he needed to accomplish before entering Russia’s history books. Ukraine, as a ‘Russian land’, should fall within the Russian World and remain closely aligned to Russia. Ukrainians, on this account, had no right to decide their own future.
Russia sought to accomplish Ukraine’s return to the Russian World through the two Minsk peace agreements signed in 2014–15. Ukrainian leaders resisted Russian pressure to implement the agreements because they would have created a weak central government and federalised state where Russia would have inordinate influence through its proxy Donetsk Peoples Republic and Luhansk Peoples Republic.
The failure of Russia’s diplomatic and military pressure led to a change in tactics in October 2021. Early that month, former President Dmitri Medvedev, now deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, penned a vitriolic attack on Ukrainian identity as well as an anti-Semitic attack on Jewish-Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, ruling out further negotiations with Kyiv. Medvedev claimed Ukrainian leaders were US puppets, and that therefore the Kremlin needed to negotiate directly with their alleged ‘puppet master’—Washington. Meanwhile, Russia would ‘wait for the emergence of a sane leadership in Ukraine,’ ‘who aims not at a total confrontation with Russia on the brink of war…but at building equal and mutually beneficial relations with Russia.’ Medvedev was revealing that Russia’s goal in any future military operation would be regime change, replacing an ‘anti-Russia’ leadership with a pro-Kremlin leader.
In early November 2021, Russia’s foreign policy machine mobilised and made stridently false accusations about threats from Ukraine and its ‘Western puppet masters.’ Russia began building up its military forces on the Ukrainian border and in Belarus. In December 2021, Russia issued two ultimatums to the West, demanding a re-working of European security architecture.
The consensus within Euro-American commentary on the invasion has been that this crisis was completely artificial. NATO was not about to offer Ukraine membership, even though Ukraine had held periodic military exercises with NATO members for nearly three decades, while the US and NATO at no point planned to install offensive missiles in Ukraine. The real cause of the crisis was the failure of the Minsk peace process to achieve Ukraine’s capitulation to Russian demands that would have placed Ukraine within the Russian sphere of influence. After being elected president in April 2019, Zelenskyy had sought a compromise with Putin, but he had come round to understanding that this was not on offer. The failure of the Minsk peace process meant Ukraine’s submission would now be undertaken, in Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s words, by ‘military-technical means’—that is, the ‘special military operation’ that began on 24 February 2022.
Russian Imperial and White Émigré Nationalism Captures Putin’s Russia
Downplaying, marginalising, and ignoring Russian nationalism led to the ignoring of Russian nationalism’s incorporation of Tsarist and White Russian émigré denials of the existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians. Marginal nationalism in the 1990s became mainstream nationalism in Russia in the 2000s under Putin when the ‘emergence of a virulent nationalist opposition movement took the mainstream hostage.’ The 1993 coup d’état against President Boris Yeltsin was led by a ‘red-brown’ coalition of pro-Soviet and far-right nationalists and fascists. The failure of the coup d’état and the electoral defeat of the Communist Party leader Gennadiy Zyuganov in the 1996 elections condemned these groups to the margins of Russian political life. At the same time, from the mid 1990s, the Yeltsin presidency moved away from a liberal to a nationalist foreign and security approach within Eurasia and towards the West. This evolution was discernible in the support given to a Russian-Belarusian union during the 1996 elections and in the appointment of Yevgeny Primakov as foreign minister. Therefore, the capture of Russia by the Soviet siloviki began with the Chairman of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), Primakov, four years before the chairman of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Putin, was elected president. Under Primakov, Russia moved from defining itself as part of the ‘common European home’ to the country at the centre of Eurasia.
Under Putin, the marginalised ‘red-brown’ coalition gradually increased its influence and broadened to include ‘whites’ (i.e., nostalgic supporters of the Tsarist Empire). Prominent among the ideologists of the ‘red-white-brown’ coalition was the fascist and Ukrainophobe Alexander Dugin, who has nurtured national-Bolshevik and Eurasianist political projects. In the 2014 crisis, Dugin, then a professor at Moscow State University, stated: ‘We should clean up Ukraine from the idiots,’ and ‘The genocide of these cretins is due and inevitable… I can’t believe these are Ukrainians. Ukrainians are wonderful Slavonic people. And this is a race of bastards that emerged from the sewer manholes.’
During the 2000s the ‘red-white-brown’ coalition came to prominence and Putin increasingly identified with its denial of Ukraine and Ukrainians. Tsarist imperial nationalism was integrated with Soviet nostalgia, Soviet traditions and symbols and historical myths, such as the Great Patriotic War. Since the mid 2000s, only five years into his rule, Putin spearheaded the rehabilitation of the White Russian émigré movement and reburial of its military officers, writers, and philosophers in Russia. These reburials took place at the same time as the formation of the Russian World Foundation (April 2007) and unification of the Russian Orthodox Church with the émigré Russian Orthodox Church (May 2007). These developments supercharged nationalism in Putin’s Russia, reinforced the Tsarist element in the ‘red-white-brown’ coalition and fuelled the growing disdain of, and antipathy towards Ukraine and Ukrainians that was given state support in the media throughout the two decades before the invasion.
Putin personally paid for the re-burial of White Russian émigré nationalists and fascists Ivan Ilyin, Ivan Shmelev, and General Anton Deniken, who called Ukraine ‘Little Russia’ and denied the existence of a separate Ukrainian nation. These chauvinistic views of Ukraine and Ukrainians were typical of White Russian émigrés. Serhy Plokhy writes, ‘Russia was taking back its long-lost children and reconnecting with their ideas.’ Little wonder, one hundred descendants of White Russian émigré aristocrats living in Western Europe signed an open letter of support for Russia during the 2014 crisis.
Putin was ‘particularly impressed’ with Ilyin, whom he first cited in an address to the Russian State Duma as long ago as 2006. Putin recommended Ilyin to be read by his governors, senior adviser Vladislav Surkov, and Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev. The intention was to use Ilyin’s publications in the Russian state programme to inculcate ‘patriotism’ and ‘conservative values’ in Russian children. Ilyin was integrated into Putin’s ideology during his re-election campaign in 2012 and influenced Putin’s re-thinking of himself as the ‘gatherer of Russian lands;’ that is, integrating Belarus and Ukraine into the Russian World, and specifically his belief that the three eastern Slavs constituted a pan-Russian nation.
Laruelle has downplayed the importance of Ilyin’s ideology, writing that he did not always propagate fascism, and that Putin only quoted him five times. Yet Putin has not only cited Ilyin, but also asked Russian journalists whether they had read Deniken’s diaries, especially the parts where ‘Deniken discusses Great and Little Russia, Ukraine.’ Deniken wrote in his diaries, ‘No Russian, reactionary or democrat, republican or authoritarian, will ever allow Ukraine to be torn away.’
In turn, Tsarist imperial nationalist and White Russian émigré denials of Ukraine and Ukrainians were amplified in the Russian media and in its information warfare for over a decade prior to the invasion. Ukraine and Ukrainians were mocked in the Russian media in a manner ‘typical in coloniser-colonised relationships.’ Russia and Russians were cast as superior, modern, and advanced, while Ukraine and Ukrainians were portrayed as backward, uneducated, ‘or at least unsophisticated, lazy, unreliable, cunning, and prone to thievery.’ As a result of nearly two decades of Russian officials and media denigrating Ukraine and Ukrainians these Russian attitudes towards Ukraine and Ukrainians ‘are widely shared across the Russian elite and populace.’ This is confirmed by a March 2022 survey conducted by Russia’s last remaining polling organisation, the Levada Centre, which found that an astronomical 81% of Russians supporting Russian military actions in Ukraine. Among these supporters, 43% believe the ‘special military operation’ was undertaken to protect Russophones, 43% to protect civilians in Russian-occupied Donbas, 25% to halt an attack on Russia, and 21% to remove ‘nationalists’ and ‘restore order.’
Russian Imperial Nationalist Denigration and Denial of Ukraine and Ukrainians
Russian imperial nationalist views of Ukraine began to reappear as far back as the 2004 Ukrainian presidential elections, when Russian political technologists worked for pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych’s election campaign, producing election posters designed to scare Russian speakers in south-eastern Ukraine about the prospect of an electoral victory by ‘fascist’ and ‘nationalist’ Viktor Yushchenko. This was when Russia revived Soviet ideological propaganda attacks against Ukrainian nationalists as ‘Nazi collaborators.’
Putin’s cult of the Great Patriotic War has been intricately linked to the promotion of Russia as the country that defeated Nazism in World War II (this is not true as all the Soviet nations contributed to the defeat) and which today is fighting contemporary Nazis in Ukraine, Poland, the three Baltic states, and beyond. Ukraine’s four de-communisation laws adopted in 2015 were despised in Moscow for many reasons. The most pertinent to this discussion was one law that equated Nazi and Soviet crimes against humanity (which contradicted Putin’s cult of Stalin) and another law that moved the terminology of Ukraine’s wartime commemorations from the 1941–45 ‘Great Patriotic War’ to ‘World War II’ of 1939–45.
One of the 2004 election posters, reproduced below, imagines Ukraine in typical Russian imperial nationalist discourse as divided into three parts, with west Ukraine as ‘First Class’ (that is, the top of the pack), central Ukraine as ‘Second Class’ and south-eastern Ukraine as ‘Third Class’ (showing Russian speakers living in this region to be at the bottom of the hierarchy).
Poster Prepared by Russian Political Technologists for Viktor Yanukovych’s 2004 Election Campaign
Text:Yes! This is how THEIR Ukraine looks. Ukrainians, open your eyes!
The map of Ukraine in the above 2004 election poster is remarkably similar to the traditional Russian nationalist image of Ukraine reproduced below:
Map of Russian Imperial Nationalist Image of Ukraine
Note: From right to left: ‘New Russia’ (south-eastern Ukraine in red), ‘Little Russia’ (central Ukraine in blue), ‘Ukraine’ (Galicia in orange), ‘Sub-Carpathian Rus’ (green).
Putin’s Growing Obsession with Ukraine Ignored by Scholars
Imperial nationalism came to dominate Russia’s authoritarian political system, including the ruling United Russia Party. Putin’s political system copied that of the late USSR, which in turn had copied East European communist regimes that had created state-controlled opposition parties to provide a fake resemblance of a multi-party system. In 1990, the USSR gave birth to the Liberal Democratic Party of the Soviet Union, becoming in 1992 the Liberal Democratic Party of the Russian Federation (LDPRF). Led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the LDPRF repeatedly made loud bellicose statements about Ukraine and the West. The LDPRF’s goal has always been to attract nationalists who would have otherwise voted for far-right political parties not controlled by the state. In the 1993 elections following the failed coup d’état, the LDPRF received 22.9% - more than the liberal Russia’s Choice Party (15%) and the Communist Party (KPRF). Under Putin, these state-sponsored political projects expanded to the extreme left through the national-Bolshevik Motherland Party, whose programme was written by Dugin, and the Just Russia Party, which was active in Russian-occupied Donbas.
Putin’s authoritarian regime needs internal fifth columnists and external enemies. Domestically, these include opposition leaders such as Alexei Navalny, and externally ‘anti-Russia’ Ukraine and the West. Changes to the Russian constitution in summer 2020 extended the ability of Putin to remain president for fifteen years, but in effect made him president for life. Political repression and the closure of independent media increased after these changes, as seen in the attempted poisoning of Navalny, and grew following the invasion of Ukraine. In 2017, The Economist said it was wrong to describe Russia as totalitarian; five years later The Economist believed Russia had become a totalitarian state.
A similar evolution has developed over whether Putin’s Russia could be called fascist. In 2016, Alexander J. Motyl’s article declaring Russia to be a fascist state met with a fairly tepid reception. and widespread scholarly criticism. Laruelle devoted an entire book to decrying Russia as not being a fascist state, which was ironically published a few weeks after Russia’s invasion. By the time of the invasion, all the ten characteristics Motyl had defined as constituting a fully authoritarian and fascist political system in Russia were in place:
Fascists rely on projection; that is, they accuse their enemies of the crimes which they themselves are guilty of. This has great relevance to Ukraine because Russia did not drop its accusation of Ukraine as a ‘Nazi’ state even after the election of Zelenskyy, who is of Jewish-Ukrainian origins and whose family suffered in the Holocaust. Indeed, civilian and military Ukrainians describe Russian invaders as ‘fascists,’ ‘racists’, and ‘Orks’ (a fictional character drawn from the goblins found in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings). After shooting and severely wounding a Ukrainian civilian, the Russian soldier stood over him saying ‘We have come to protect you.’ Another Russian officer said to a young girl captive: ‘Don’t be afraid, little girl, we will liberate you from Nazis.’
Putin and the Kremlin’s justification for their ‘special military operation’ into Ukraine was based on many of the myths and chauvinistic attitudes to Ukraine and Ukrainians that had been disseminated by Russia’s media and information warfare since the mid 2000s. Of the 9,000 disinformation cases the EU database has collected since 2015, 40% are on Ukraine and Ukrainians. The EU’s Disinformation Review notes, ‘Ukraine has a special place within the disinformation (un)reality,’ and ‘Ukraine is by far the most misrepresented country in the Russian media. Russia’s information warfare and disinformation has gone into overdrive since the 2014 crisis. ‘Almost five years into the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the Kremlin’s use of the information weapon against Ukraine has not decreased; Ukraine still stands out as the most misrepresented country in pro-Kremlin media.’
Since the mid 2000s, Russian media and information warfare has dehumanised Ukraine and Ukrainians, belittling them as unable to exist without external support. In colonialist discourse, Ukrainians were mocked as dumb peasants who had no identity, did not constitute a real nation, and needed an ‘elder brother’ (US, Russia) to survive. Such discourse was reminiscent of European imperialists when discussing their colonies prior to 1945.
Ukraine was repeatedly ridiculed as an artificial country and a failed, bankrupt state. Putin first raised this claim as far back as in his 2008 speech to the NATO-Russia Council at the Bucharest NATO summit. Ukraine as a failed state is also one of the most common themes in Russian information warfare. In 2014, the Ukrainian state allegedly collapsed, requiring Russia’s military intervention. The Ukrainian authorities were incapable of resolving their problems because Ukraine is not a real state and could not survive without trade with Russia.
Russian disinformation claimed that Ukraine’s artificiality meant it faced territorial claims from all its neighbours. Central-Eastern European countries would put forward territorial claims towards western Ukraine. Russia has made territorial claims to south-eastern Ukraine (Novorossiya [New Russia] and Prichernomorie [Black Sea Lands]) since as far back as the 2008 NATO summit and increased in intensity following the 2014 invasion of Crimea. Putin repeatedly condemned Lenin for including south-eastern Ukraine within the Soviet Ukrainian republic, claiming the region was ancient ‘Russian’ land.
Another common theme in the Russian media was that Ukraine was a land of perennial instability and revolution where extremists run amok, Russian speakers were persecuted, and pro-Russian politicians and media were repressed and closed. Ukrainian ‘nationalist’ and ‘neo-Nazi’ rule over Ukraine created an existentialist threat to Russian speakers. Putin refused to countenance the return of Ukrainian control over the Russian-Ukrainian joint border because of the alleged threat of a new ‘Srebrenica-style’ genocide of Russian speakers. Putin used the empirically unsubstantiated claim that Russian speakers were subject to an alleged ‘genocide’ as justification for the ‘special military operation.’ On 16 March, the UN’s highest court, the International Court of Justice, threw out the Russian claim of ‘genocide’ and demanded Russia halt its war.
Putin and the Kremlin adopted the discourse of an artificial Ukrainian nation created as an anti-Russian conspiracy. Putin said: ‘The Ukrainian factor was specifically played out on the eve of World War I by the Austrian special service. Why? This is well-known—to divide and rule (the Russian people).’ Putin and the Kremlin incorporated these views of Ukraine and Ukrainians a few years after they had circulated within the extreme right in Russia. The leader of the Russian Imperial Movement, Stanislav Vorobyev said, ‘Ukrainians are some socio-political group who do not have any ethnos. They are just a socio-political group that appeared at the end of the nineteenth century by means of manipulation of the occupying Austro-Hungarian administration, which occupied Galicia.’ Vorobyev and Putin agreed with one another that ‘Russians’ were the most divided people in the world and believed Ukrainians were illegally occupying ‘Russian’ lands.
These nationalist myths were closely tied to another, namely that the West created a Ukrainian puppet state in order to divide the pan-Russian nation. Russia’s ‘special military operation’ is allegedly not fighting the Ukrainian army but ‘nationalists,’ ‘neo-Nazis and drug addicts’ supported by the West. Putin has even gone so far as to deny that his forces are fighting the Ukrainian army at all, and has called on Ukrainian soldiers to rebel against the supposed ‘Nazi’ regime led by Zelenskyy—an especially cruel slur given that several generations of the latter’s family were murdered during the Holocaust.
The Russian nationalist myth of a Ukrainian puppet state is a reflection of viewing it as a country without real sovereignty that only exists because it is propped up by the West. Soviet propaganda and ideological campaigns also depicted dissidents and nationalists as puppets of Western intelligence services. Russian information warfare frequently described former President Petro Poroshenko and President Zelenskyy as puppets of Ukrainian nationalists and the West. 
These Russian nationalist views have also percolated through into the writings of some Western scholars. Stephen Cohen, a well-known US historian of Russia and the Soviet Union, described US Vice President Joe Biden as Ukraine’s ‘pro-consul overseeing the increasingly colonised Kyiv.’ President Poroshenko was not a Ukrainian leader, but ‘a compliant representative of domestic and foreign political forces,’’ who ‘resembles a pro-consul of a faraway great power’ running a ‘failed state.’ Cohen, who was contributing editor of the left-wing The Nation magazine, held a derogatory view towards Ukraine as a Western puppet state, which is fairly commonly found on the extreme left in the West, and which blamed the West (i.e., NATO, EU enlargement) for the 2014 crisis, rather than Putin and Russia.
Soviet propaganda and ideological campaigns routinely attacked dissidents and nationalist opposition as ‘bourgeois nationalists’ who were in cahoots with Nazis in the Ukrainian diaspora and in the pay of Western and Israeli secret services. Ukraine has been depicted in the Russian media since the 2004 Orange Revolution as a country ruled by ‘fascists’ and ‘neo-Nazis.’ A ‘Ukrainian nationalist’ in the Kremlin’s eyes is the same as in the Soviet Union; that is, anybody who supports Ukraine’s future outside the Russian World and USSR. All Ukrainians who supported the Orange and Euromaidan Revolutions and are fighting Russia’s ‘special military operation’ were therefore ‘nationalists’ and ‘Nazis.’
Between the 2004 Orange Revolution and Putin’s re-election in 2012, Russian imperial nationalism rehabilitated Tsarist imperial and White Russian émigré dismissals of Ukraine and Ukrainians into official discourse, military aggression, and information warfare. In 2007, the Russian World Foundation was created and two branches of the Russian Orthodox Church were re-united. Returning to the presidency in 2012, Putin believed he would enter Russian history as the ‘gatherer of Russian lands’ which he proceeded to undertake with Crimea (2014), Belarus (2020), and Ukraine (2022).
The origins of Putin’s obsession with Ukraine lie in his eclectic integration of Tsarist imperial and Soviet nationalisms. The former provides the ideological bedrock for the denial of the existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians while the latter provides the ideological discourse to depict as Nazis all those Ukrainians who resist being defined as Little Russians. Putin believed his military forces would be greeted as liberators by Little Russians eager to throw off the US imposed nationalist and neo-Nazi yoke, the artificial Ukrainian state would quickly disintegrate, and the country and capital city of Kyiv would be taken within two days. Russian troops brought parade uniforms to march down Kyiv’s main thoroughfare and victory medals to be awarded to troops. This was not to be, because Putin’s denial of a Ukrainian people is—put simply—untrue. The Russo-Ukrainian war is a clash between twenty-first century Ukrainian patriotism and civic nationalism, as evidenced by Zelenskyy’s landslide election, and rooted in a desire to leave the USSR behind and be part of a future Europe, and nineteenth-century Russian imperial nationalism built on nostalgia for the past.
Unfortunately, many scholars working on Russia ignored, downplayed, or denied the depth, direction, and even existence of nationalism in Putin’s Russia and therefore find unfathomable the ferocity, and goals behind the invasion of Ukraine. This was because many scholars wrongly viewed the 2014 crisis as Putin’s temporary, instrumental use of nationalism to annex Crimea and foment separatism in south-eastern Ukraine. Instead, they should have viewed the integration of Tsarist imperial and Soviet nationalisms from the mid 2000s through to the invasion as a continuous, evolutionary process that has led to the emergence of a fascist, totalitarian, and imperialist regime seeking to destroy Ukrainian identity.
 See Taras Kuzio, Russian Nationalism and the Russian-Ukrainian War: Autocracy-Orthodoxy-Nationality (London: Routledge, 2022).
 Vladimir Putin, ‘Pro istorychnu yednist rosiyan ta ukrayinciv,’ 12 July 2021. http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66182?fbclid=IwAR0Wj7W_7QL2-IFInLwl4kI1FOQ5RxJAemrvCwe04r8TIAm03rcJrycMSYY
 Y.D. Zolotukhin, Bila Knyha. Spetsialnykh Informatsiynykh Operatsiy Proty Ukrayiny 2014-2018, 67-85.
 Vladimir Putin, ‘Speech to the Valdai Club,’ 25 October 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvY184FQsiA
 Anna Matveeva, A. (2018). Through Times of Trouble. Conflict in Southeastern Ukraine Explained From Within (Lanham, MA: Lexington Books, 2018), 182, 218, 221, 223, 224, 277.
 Richard Sakwa, Russia Against the Rest. The Post-Cold War Crisis of World Order. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 125.
 Pal Kolsto, ‘Crimea vs. Donbas: How Putin Won Russian Nationalist Support—and Lost It Again,’ Slavic Review, 75: 3 (2016), 702-725; Henry E. Hale, ‘How nationalism and machine politics mix in Russia,’ In: Pal Kolstø and Helge Blakkisrud eds., The New Russian Nationalism. Imperialism, Ethnicity and Authoritarianism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 221-248, at p.246; Marlene Laruelle, ‘Making Sense of Russia's Illiberalism,’ Journal of Democracy, 31: 3 (2020: 115-129.
 P. Kolstø and H. Blakkisrud eds., The New Russian Nationalism. Imperialism, Ethnicity and Authoritarianism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016).
 For a full survey see T. Kuzio, ‘Euromaidan Revolution, Crimea and Russia-Ukraine War: Why it is Time for a Review of Ukrainian-Russian Studies,’ Eurasian Geography and Economics, 59: 3-4 (2018), 529-553 and Crisis in Russian Studies? Nationalism (Imperialism), Racism, and War (Bristol: E-International Relations, 2020), https://www.e-ir.info/publication/crisis-in-russian-studies-nationalism-imperialism-racism-and-war/
 See Petro Kuzyk, ‘Ukraine’s national integration before and after 2014. Shifting ‘East–West’ polarization line and strengthening political community,’ Eurasian Geography and Economics, 60: 6 (2019), 709-735/
 T. Kuzio, ‘Putin's three big errors have doomed this invasion to disaster,’ The Daily Telegraph, 15 March 2022. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2022/03/15/putins-three-big-errors-have-doomed-invasion-disaster/
 ‘Do not resist the liberation,’ EU vs Disinfo, 31 March 2022. https://euvsdisinfo.eu/do-not-resist-the-liberation/
 T. Kuzio, ‘Inside Vladimir Putin’s criminal plan to purge and partition Ukraine,’ Atlantic Council, 3 March 2022. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/inside-vladimir-putins-criminal-plan-to-purge-and-partition-ukraine/
 R. Sakwa, Russia Against the Rest, 159.
 P. Kolsto, ‘Crimea vs. Donbas: How Putin Won Russian Nationalist Support—and Lost It Again’ and M. Laruelle, ‘Is Nationalism a Force for Change in Russia?’ Daedalus, 146: 2 (2017, 89-100.
 H. E. Hale, ‘How nationalism and machine politics mix in Russia.’
 M. Laruelle, ‘Making Sense of Russia's Illiberalism,’126.
 M. Laruelle, ‘Ideological Complimentarity or Competition? The Kremlin, the Church, and the Monarchist Idea,’ Slavic Review, 79: 2 (2020), 345-364, at p.348.
 Paul Chaisty and Stephen Whitefield, S. (2015). ‘Putin’s Nationalism Problem’ In: Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska and R. Sakwa eds., Ukraine and Russia: People, Politics, Propaganda and Perspectives (Bristol: E-International Relations, 2015), 165-172, at pp. 157, 162.
 R. Sakwa, Frontline Ukraine. Crisis in the Borderlands (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015) and Russia Against the Rest.
 Robert Horvath, ‘The Euromaidan and the crisis of Russian nationalism,’ Nationalities Papers, 43: 6 (2015), 819-839.
 P. Kolsto, ‘Crimea vs. Donbas: How Putin Won Russian Nationalist Support—and Lost It Again’ and H. E. Hale, ‘How nationalism and machine politics mix in Russia.’
 M. Laruelle, ‘Making Sense of Russia's Illiberalism,’126.
 R. Sakwa, ‘Is Putin an Ism,’ Russian Politics, 5: 3 (2020): 255-282, at pp.276-277; Neil Robinson, ‘Putin and the Incompleteness of Putinism,’ Russian Politics, 5: 3 (2020): 283-300, at pp.284-285, 287, 289, 293, 299); Nicolai N. Petro, ‘How the West Lost Russia: Explaining the Conservative Turn in Russian Foreign Policy,’ Russian Politics, 3: 3 (2018): 305-332.
 A. Matveeva, Through Times of Trouble, 277 and Sakwa, Russia Against the Rest, 119.
 R. Sakwa, Russia Against the Rest, 125, 189.
 Ibid., 60, 75, 275, 276.
 Mikhail Zygar, All the Kremlin’s Men. Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin (New York: Public Affairs, 2016), 87.
 Taras Kuzio, ‘Medvedev: The Russian-Ukrainian War will continue until Ukraine becomes a second Belarus,’ New Eastern Europe, 20 October 2021. https://neweasterneurope.eu/2021/10/20/medvedev-the-russian-ukrainian-war-will-continue-until-ukraine-becomes-a-second-belarus/
 Charles Clover, Black Wind, White Snow. The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2016), 287.
 M. Laruelle, ‘The three colors of Novorossiya, or the Russian nationalist mythmaking of the Ukrainian crisis,’ Post-Soviet Affairs, 3: 1 (2016), 55-74.
 Mykola Riabchuk, ‘On the “Wrong” and “Right” Ukrainians,’ The Aspen Review, 15 March 2017. https://www.aspen.review/article/2017/on-the-wrong-and-right-ukrainians/
 Anders Aslund, ‘Russian contempt for Ukraine paved the way for Putin’s disastrous invasion,’ Atlantic Council, 1 April 2022. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/russian-contempt-for-ukraine-paved-the-way-for-putins-disastrous-invasion/
 Serhy Plokhy, Lost Kingdom. A History of Russian Nationalism from Ivan the Great to Vladimir Putin (London: Penguin Books, 2017), 327.
 Ibid., 332.
 M. Laruelle, ‘In Search of Putin’s Philosopher,’ Intersection, 3 March 2017. https:// www.ponarseurasia.org/article/search-putins-philosopher
 S. Plokhy, Lost Kingdom, 326.
 Alena Minchenia, Barbara Tornquist-Plewa and Yulia Yurchuk ‘Humour as a Mode of Hegemonic Control: Comic Representations of Belarusian and Ukrainian Leaders in Official Russian Media’ In: Niklas Bernsand and B. Tornquist-Plewa eds., Cultural and Political Imaginaries in Putin’s Russia (Leiden and Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2018), 211-231, at p.225.
 Ibid, 25 and Igor Gretskiy, ‘Lukyanov Doctrine: Conceptual Origins of Russia’s Hybrid Foreign Policy – The Case of Ukraine,’ Saint Louis University Law Journal, 64:1 (2020), 1-22, at p.21.
 T. Kuzio, ‘Stalinism and Russian and Ukrainian National Identities,’ Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 50, 4 (2017), 289-302 .
 Anna Oliynyk and T. Kuzio, ‘The Euromaidan Revolution of Dignity, Reforms and De-Communisation in Ukraine,’ Europe-Asia Studies, 73: 5 (2021), 807-836.
 Masha Gessen is wrong to call Russia a totalitarian state,’ The Economist, 4 November 2017.
 ‘The Stalinisation of Russia,’ Economist, 12 March 2022. https://www.economist.com/leaders/2022/03/12/the-stalinisation-of-russia
 Alexander J. Motyl, ‘Putin’s Russia as a fascist political system,’ Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 49: 1 (2016), 25-36.
 I was guest editor of the special issue of Communist and Post-Communist Studies and remember the controversies very well as to whether to publish or not publish Motyl’s article.
 M. Laruelle, Is Russia Fascist ? Unraveling Propaganda East and West (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2022).
 Olga Kryshtanovskaya and Stephen White, ‘Putin's Militocracy,’ Post-Soviet Affairs, 19: 4 (2003), 289-306.
 Zelenskyy is the grandson of the only surviving brother of four. The other 3 brothers were murdered by the Nazi’s in the Holocaust.
 Yuriy D. Zolotukhin Ed., Bila Knyha. Spetsialnykh Informatsiynykh Operatsiy Proty Ukrayiny 2014-2018 (Kyiv: Mega-Pres Hrups, 2018), 302-358.
 T. Kuzio, Russian Nationalism and the Russian-Ukrainian War,1-34.
 ‘Putin fears second “Srebrenica” if Kiev gets control over border in Donbass,’ Tass, 10 December 2019. https://tass.com/world/1097897
 V. Putin, ‘Twenty questions with Vladimir Putin. Putin on Ukraine,’ Tass, 18 March 2020. https://putin.tass.ru/en
 V. Putin, ‘Ukraina – samaya blyzkaya k nam strana,’ Tass, 29 September 2015. https://tass.ru/interviews/2298160
and ‘Speech to the Valdai Club,’ 25 October 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvY184FQsiA
 ‘Putin references neo-Nazis and drug addicts in bizarre speech to Russian security council – video,’ The Guardian, 25 February 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2022/feb/25/putin-references-neo-nazis-and-drug-addicts-in-bizarre-speech-to-russian-security-council-video
 Stephen Cohen, War with Russia?: From Putin & Ukraine to Trump and Russiagate (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2019), 145.
 Ibid., p. 36.
by Nicolai von Eggers
The presidency of Donald Trump and the rise of far-right movements and politicians across the globe has triggered a resurgence in the use of the concept of fascism to describe our contemporary political situation. Former US foreign minister, Madeleine Albright, wrote “a warning” about the similarities between Trump and former fascist leaders, while philosopher Jason Stanley published a bestseller on the tell-tales of fascist discourse. Both books focused on discourse and the role of the leader, while less attention was given to forms of organisation, political ideology, or more ingrained cultural factors.
But while both books got a lot of attention, they were also widely criticised by critics who held that we are by no means living in a fascist moment, that Trump and similar acts by no means possess the kind of mass organisations that enabled fascism, and that for all of their ultra-populist shortcomings these leaders did not hold ‘core-fascist’ beliefs or aspirations to totalitarian rule.
The mainstream debates over the nature of fascism and whether it is a useful category for understanding contemporary politics reflects a wider debate within the study of fascism and political ideologies more widely. Is fascism an ideology on a par with the other ideologies such as liberalism, socialism, and conservatism? Or is it a rather a subset or perversion of one or more of these ideologies? Or is it something entirely different, like a purely negative ideology—antiliberal, anticommunist—as Noberto Bobbio once argued? Such debates over the exact definition of fascism may seem overly academic, but they are nonetheless important, for the way we define fascism has consequences for how we understand fascism today—whether it exists, whether it should be taken seriously, how widespread it may be said to be, how much of a danger it consequently poses, and ultimately how it should be fought. This discussion, however, often makes little sense in the abstract and only becomes concrete through contextualised analyses of concrete movements, political situations, and the ideological output of specific currents.
One ideological current that has received some attention in recent years is the so-called European New Right, which has influenced not only currents such as the alt-right and the Identitarians but also political parties and public debate more widely. Specific identifiably far-right talking-points and language, such as ‘the great replacement’ and a ‘ethnopluralist’ way of speaking about ‘tradition’, ‘cultural difference’, and ‘defence of European values’ have increasingly moved out of the fringe culture of the far right and into mainstream discussions.
Researchers have long debated how exactly this current should be understood. Most researchers have settled on the somewhat vague definition of the European New Right as ‘neo-fascist’, which some use to emphasise the current’s ideological relation to fascism (thus emphasising the fascist part) while others argue that the current is better understood as something altogether new and different (thus emphasising the neo part). One of the main reasons for doing so is the lack of reference to biological race theories, the lack of reference to white supremacy (which was substituted for the idea of ethnopluralism), and, most importantly, the lack of references to a uniformed mass movement led by a Führer or Duce and a concomitant imperialist-nationalist agenda. Within New Right ideology this has been replaced by the idea of federalism and a ‘Europe of a hundred flags.’ Thus, Steve Bastow argued some time ago that the New Right’s turn to federalism took the movement out of fascist ideological space more broadly construed.
The question, however, is how exactly we should understand federalism as it is promoted by the New Right. One way to answer this is to look more closely at how the key ideologue of the European New Right, Alain de Benoist, has defined, understood, and deployed the concept of federalism.
A key point of reference for Benoist’s conception of politics, I argue in a recently published article, is the French Revolution. Positioned thoroughly within the reactionary, counter-revolutionary tradition of political thought, Benoist sees the French Revolution as the Fall, the moment in which European society went decisively awry. According to Benoist, the French Revolution saw the rise of two opposed movements, two opposed logics of politics and societal organisation. One, he calls ‘Jacobinism’, by which he understands a modernising, rationalising project based on individual liberties and the rights of man, centralising administration, and governing through universal laws and standardised systems of administration. This also entails a culturally unifying and homogenising project, which seeks to render all members of society equal independently of gender, language, status, occupation, and area of origin. Thus, in France, ‘Jacobinism’ introduced universal education, a universal language (French), and universal laws, all animated by a central, singular entity: the French state.
Against Jacobinism, and what Benoist sometimes calls ‘the ideology of the Same’, Benoist argues that an antagonistic counter-project of federalism was born. Benoist identifies this counter-revolutionary, federalist tradition with the anti-revolutionary uprising in the Vendée and, more generally, with the aristocratic counter-offensive against the revolution. But federalism first and foremost signifies a much deeper logic of society and politics. Unlike the ideology of the Same, federalism is an ideology of difference, according to Benoist. Thus, Benoist champions the causes of local ‘peoples’, such as Bretons, Flemings, Catalans, and so on, to preserve their own language, culture, and identity in the face of ‘Jacobin’ encroachments. Benoist does not deny the existence of France and Frenchness, but he is critical of what he views as its tendency to wipe out local identity. Thus, Benoist rather views ‘nationalist’ identity as one of scale: local identity, national identity, and regional (i.e. European) identity. Thus, it is possible to be both Breton, French, and European.
What is not possible, however, is to be both ‘foreign’ and French and European. To believe so would be to succumb to the ideology of Sameness. What is at stake for Benoist and the New Right is instead to understand identity as fundamentally based on difference: Difference between various regional peoples who are nonetheless members of the same national and regional ‘family’, and difference between Europeans and non-Europeans who are different on a much more fundamental level.
This conception of identity is based on a mythico-historical—but ultimately essentialist—conception of human beings, which conflates culture, politics, and ethnicity. According to Benoist, it can meaningfully be said that an Indo-European ethnicity exists. In some of his texts, Benoist even lends credence to the so-called Hyperborea-Thule-thesis, which is quite widespread among some segments of the far right, and which is a polygenetic theory of human evolution holding that the Indo-European ‘race’ originated in Northern Europe and was only later, and only partially, mixed with other races originating in the South. Benoist weighs his words carefully, but it is clear that these texts toy with a conception of ethnic purity as the road towards happiness and the good life. And in less esoteric texts, Benoist still argues that there is a direct connection between ethno-cultural roots and values and political systems. Thus, Benoist has argued that “unlike the Orient, absolute despotism has been rare in Europe”, and that in “Indo-European societies, kings were usually elected”. This quote precedes a paragraph in which Benoist goes on to praise the electoral processes of the Germanic tribes described by Tacitus, while in other places Benoist refers to the Icelandic Althing as proof that a democratic culture was deeply embedded in premodern European life.
Benoist’s political model is therefore not one of a mass-party led by a Führer engaged in expansionist, militarised politics. What he envisions instead is a federalist Europe of purified local peoples that will govern themselves in accordance with their supposed ‘original’ political culture, and which will furthermore federalise on a European level in order to draw up agreements and protect themselves against a foreign, non-European enemy. In contrast to an ideology of the Same, which according to Benoist “annihilates” differences between peoples, the federalist project is to be built on an ideology of difference that respects these ‘original’ ethno-cultures.
Does federalism then take the New Right out of the fascist space, as Steve Bastow has argued? I will argue that it does not. The federalist element only provides the New Right with a specific version of core fascist beliefs, not something different from them. I here largely agree with Roger Griffin that fascism should be defined as the attempt to bring about the rebirth of mythical ‘nation’ through struggle, which also entails purifying it of contaminating elements. Thus, as Griffin has emphasised elsewhere, “the single party, the secret police, the public displays of Caesarism, even the presence of the Führer are not necessarily attributes of fascism”. This also means that many “features highlighted in the ‘check-list’ definitions of fascism . . . have been ‘accidental’, contingent on the way the vision of the total politico-cultural renewal of the ‘people’ was conceived in the unique conditions of interwar Europe”. There are, in this sense, various contemporary forms of fascist ideology, and I believe the notion of ‘federalist fascism’ best captures the specific New Right tendency.
There are three reasons as to why I think the notion of ‘federalist fascism’ is a useful category when it comes to understand the ideology of the New Right.
First, ‘federalist fascism’ incorporates a term—federalism—that Alain de Benoist himself sees as the best description of his own political-ideological beliefs. It goes a long way to describing the adherents of the political ideology of the New Right in the same terms in which they understand themselves. Further, ‘federalist fascist’ is a promising way to redescribe the potentially misleading term ‘ethnopluralist’. Ethnopluralist language, which speaks about the right to defend local identity against modernity, often confuses what is really at stake— namely, ethnic cleansing and the belief that the true nature of a people can only be realised through living in ethno-cultural, homogenous, traditional communities (which is clearly an essentialist and fascist conception of human beings and the good life). ‘Federalist fascist’ is much clearer in that regard, because it emphasises that we are not dealing with standard notions of white supremacy, biological racism, and imperialist ambitions but rather a more defensive project, ‘protecting’ European values and the ‘Europe of a hundred flags’. The notion of ‘federalist fascism’ thus has the double function of describing the New Right ideology partially in terms that lie at the heart of the New Right’s own self-understanding (federalist), while at the same time refusing to rely on that self-description entirely and consequently also redescribing the movement in terms of a social-scientific assessment that uses a widely accepted and well-established typology of political ideologies (fascism).
Second, the notion of ‘federalist fascism’ points in the direction of what we might call the political (organisational, governmental) aspect of the New Right. As we have already seen, the party, secret police, Caesarism, and the Führer are more incidental or contingent expressions of fascism. In other words, the specific political form of fascism may vary according to specific political situations— historically, geographically, culturally, etc. The question then is what political form fascism takes today. It does not necessarily take one single form, and the form it does take can be malleable, in the sense that the question of what political form to take often depends on what is strategically feasible. Still, when it comes to the New Right, the political form is closely linked to the notion of ‘federalism’. This means potentially arguing in favour of some level of democracy, of focusing on inter-regional and international collaboration (against the common enemy of the Other, often identified with Muslims and the Arabic world), and having a flatter movement structure than was the norm under traditional fascism. Identifying fascism too closely with the Führer principle, dictatorship, the mass party, and military hierarchy can make it hard to identify real fascists who do not quite fit this mould, and thus to understand what exactly is going on. The more fine-grained notion of ‘federalist fascism’ works better, I believe, when trying to understand who can meaningfully be described as fascist and who cannot.
Third, the notion of ‘federalist fascism’ underlines the direct links the New Right has to the fascist tradition. It has been argued that the New Right is not really fascist, or not directly fascist, because it does not invoke figures such as Hitler or Mussolini and the politics they stood for. But this is a very narrow definition of the fascist project and overlooks the fact that many currents of various beliefs assembled under the banner of fascism for a variety of reasons. Furthermore, the New Right does in fact draw explicitly on an avowedly fascist tradition—namely, what we may call the ‘aristocratic-intellectual’ current within the larger tent of the fascist movement. This included intellectuals such as Julius Evola, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Martin Heidegger, Ernst Jünger, and Carl Schmitt. Especially the former is a key point of reference for the New Right. What these thinkers have in common is a critique of many of the völkisch aspects of actually-existing fascism as well as the mass political nature of the fascist project. What they championed instead was an aristocratic fascism that emphasised spiritual races and the leadership of an elite, drawing on the traditionalist idea of a priestly warrior caste of officers. The ideal here is not the Führer embodying the vulgar spirit of the people but that of intellectual aristocracy taking care of politics. This intellectual current is what is widely known as ‘the conservative revolution’, a term coined by the Swiss fascist, Armin Mohler, who after World War II tried to delink this part of the broader fascist movement from actually-existing fascism. Mohler, who worked as Jünger’s secretary and since became a major influence on the New Right, explicitly referred to ‘federalism’ as one of the “fundamentals of conservatism”, of the revolutionary (i.e., aristocratic, fascist) kind he himself promoted. The New Right is thus a direct descendent of the conservative revolution, which was an integral part of the broader movement that made up actually-existing fascism. Referring to it as ‘federalist fascism’ highlights this connection.
Overall, ‘federalist fascism’ is a better concept for understanding New Right ideology than the concept of ‘neo-fascism’, which remains diffuse and insufficiently clear in its indications of what exactly is ‘neo’ about new forms of fascism, such as that of the New Right. ‘Federalist fascism’ has the merit of highlighting the ethnopluralist ideas of the new right, its tendency to experiment with organisational and potentially governmental forms that are different from the hegemonic current within traditional fascism, while retaining the key insight that we are dealing with a fascist ideology which believes in ethno-cultural homogeneity as a prerequisite for the good life. In this way, the notion of ‘federalist fascism’ can contribute to the debate on what fascism is in the 21st century, what forms it takes, and how best to counter it.
 Madeleine Albright, Fascism: A Warning (HarperCollins, 2019), Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works (Random House, 2018).
 Dylan Riley, “Introduction to the Second Edition” in The Civic Foundations of Fascism in Europe (Verso, 2019), pp. xxii-xxx; Enzo Traverso, The New Faces of Fascism (Verso, 2019), p. 21l; Ross Douthat, “Is Donald Trump a Fascist?” in New York Times, 3 December 2015.
 Norberto Bobbio, ’Lïdeologia del fascismo’ in Daæ fascismo alla democrazia (Baldini & Castoldi, 1997).
 Amongst the former is Tamir Bar-On Where Have All the Fascists Gone? and Rethinking the French New Right; Thomas Sheehan, focusing on the early period of the New Right, argues in favour of employing the notion of fascism, see Thomas Sheehan, ‘Myth and Violence: The Fascism of Juluis Evola and Alain de Benoist,’ Social Research 48, no. 1 (1981): 45-73; Roger Griffin, ‘Between Metapolitics and “Apoliteia”: The Nouvelle Droite’s Strategy for Conserving the Fascist Vision in the “Interregnum”,’ Modern and Contemporary France 8, no. 1 (2000); Nigel Copsey with reference to Bar-On opts for defining the New Right as a ‘revisionist permutation of neo-fascism’ see Nigel Copsey, ‘“Fascism… But with an Open Mind”: Reflections on the Contemporary Far Right in (Western) Europe,’ Fascism: Journal of Comparative Fascist Studies 2, no. 1 (2013): 13. Somewhat more hesitant to employ the notion of fascism are Pierre-André Taguieff, Sur la Nouvelle droite ; 351-168; Alberto Spektorowski, ‘The French New Right: Differentialism and the Idea of Ethnophilian Exlcusionism,’Polity 33, no. 2 (2002) and ‘The New Right: Ethno-Regionalism, Ethnopluralism and the Emergence of a Neo-Fascist Third Way,’ Journal of Political Ideologies 8, no.1 (2003): 111-130.
 Steve Bastow, “A Neo-Fascist Third Way: The Discourse of Ethno-Differentialist Revolutionary Nationalism,” Journal of Political Ideologies 7:3 (2002).
 Nicolai von Eggers, “Federalist Fascism: The New Right and the French Revolution,” Fascism: Journal of Comparative Fascist Studies 10, pp. 298-322, available online via open access:
 For this tradition, see Zeev Sternhell, The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition (Yale University Press, 2009) and Darrin McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2001).
 Benoist’s project is decidedly anti-modern, and the mythical nation that is to be revived is that of tribal, pre-statal Europe. Benoist himself is a pagan because he sees Christianity as a perversion of European culture, and his writings are sprinkled with references to Georges Dumézil and his theory of an ‘original’ tripartite division of society into priests, warriors, and commoners (the so-called trifunctional hypothesis). Benoist furthermore draws on Julius Evola’s esoteric belief that it is the rule of a spiritually superior warrior caste that will redeem society and cast of the yoke of modernity. Such ideas provide an identity for members of the new right who see themselves as warriors fighting to implement the ‘original’ social structure of Indo-European societies, and is reflected in the Generation Identity’s use of the symbol ‘lambda’, which for them represents the Spartan military class and its self-sacrifice in defending ‘Europe’ against the ‘Barbarian’ enemy at Thermopylae.
 Alain de Benoist, Indo-europeans: In Search of a Homeland (Arktos, 2016) and Runes and the Origins of Writing (Arktos, 2021).
 Alain de Benoist, ‘Democracy Revisited,’ Telos, no. 93 (1993), 66-67.
 Alain de Benoist, ‘Jacobinisme ou fédéralisme?’ from alaindebenoist.com, no date (ca. 2000). All translations from French and German are mine.
 Roger Griffin, The Nature of Fascism (Pinters Publisher, 1991) and for a good discussion of this definition in relation to the current state of the art ‘Studying Fascism in a Postfascist Age: From New Consensus to New Wave?’ Fascism: Journal of Comparative Fascist Studies 1, no. 1 (2012).
 Roger Griffin, ‘Introduction,’ in Where Have All the Fascists Gone?, Tamir Bar-On (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), xi; Griffin, ‘Studying Fascism in a Postfascist Age,’ 17.
 Griffin, ‘Between Metapolitics and “Apoliteia”,’ 38.
 Following Mohler, Benoist himself has made this argument on several occasions, as has Pierre-André Taguieff and Paul Piccone, who in the 1990s and 2000s as editor of the journal Telos published a series of articles by Benoist alongside a series of articles discussing his works and related topics. Similar lines of argumentation often pop up in public debate and, to a lesser extent, in the academic literature.
 Armin Mohler, Die Konservative Revolution in Deutschland 1918-1932: Ein Handbuch (Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1972), p. 236.
by Marta Lorimer
Far-right parties are frequently, and not without cause, painted as fervent Eurosceptics, or even ‘Europhobes’. Ideologically nativist, and usually placed at the margins of the political system, these parties appear as almost naturally inclined to oppose a supranational construction generally supported by mainstream actors. But how accurate is this narrative? Are far-right parties really naturally ‘Eurosceptic’, and what does it even mean to be ‘Eurosceptic’?
A cursory look at the history of the far right should give one reason for pause. For starters, several of the parties that are today seen as Europhobes started off as pro-EU and have also generally benefitted enormously from the EU’s existence. Take the French Rassemblement National (RN, previously, Front National) as an example. In the 1980s, long before Marine Le Pen spoke about Frexit, her father made his first appearance on the national scene in European elections and insisted that Europe ‘shall be imperial, or shall not be’. More broadly, knowing how these parties feel about the EU tells us very little about what they think about Europe beyond the narrowly construed project of the EU. Indeed, their language is replete with references to a European (Christian) civilisation worth protecting, claims seemingly at odds with the rabid opposition by many of them to the European Union.
In my research on the relation between the far right and Europe, I attempt to make sense of these tensions by analysing how far-right parties conceive of Europe through ideological lenses, and the effects that approaching Europe in a certain way has. I advance two key arguments: first, I hold that the depiction of far-right parties as ‘naturally’ Eurosceptic is misleading. Second, I posit that these parties’ positions on European integration served the broader purpose of legitimising them by making them appear more palatable to a general public. These claims are developed empirically through the in-depth study of how the Italian Social Movement/Alleanza Nazionale (MSI/AN) in Italy and the Rassemblement National in France integrated Europe in their ideological frames over the period 1978-2017, and to what effects.
What do they talk about when they talk about Europe?
Let us start with the first of the two claims, namely, that the depiction of far-right parties as ‘naturally’ Eurosceptic is misleading. To develop this point, it is pertinent to take a step back and ask first ‘but what do far-right parties talk about when they talk about Europe’?
One way to address this question is to analyse the concepts that these parties commonly associate with Europe in their party literature. In the MSI/AN and RN’s ideology, three in particular stand out: the concepts of identity, liberty, and threat. In each of these key concepts, the parties express an ambivalent view of Europe at odds with the term ‘Eurosceptic.’
The concept of identity refers to a category of identification that allows groups to define who they are, through considerations of the positive (and negative) aspects of the group they belong to. The MSI/AN and RN rely on this concept to define Europe as a distinct civilisation. The MSI, for example, spoke in favour of European unity conscious of the ‘community of interests and destinies, of history, of civilisation, of tradition among Europeans’, while Jean-Marie Le Pen spoke of Europe as ‘A historic, geographic, cultural, economic, and social ensemble. It is an entity destined for action’. This understanding is not one that is strictly time-bound, and as late as 2017, Marine Le Pen could affirm that for her party ‘Europe is a culture, it’s a civilisation with its values, its codes, its great men, its accomplishments its masterpieces […] Europe is a series of peoples whose respective identities exhale the fecund diversity of the continent’. Importantly, both the MSI/AN and RN consider themselves as part of this civilisation and view it as compatible with their national identity. As the MSI/AN put it, ‘Individuality (in this case national) and community (in this case European) are not in opposition but in reciprocal integration and vivification’.
In addition to approaching Europe through the prism of identity, the MSI/AN and RN also rely on the concept of liberty to define it. Liberty, as it is understood in their discourse, is an essential attribute of the nation and corresponds to central principles of autonomy, self-rule, and power in the external realm. It is also understood as a collective term: the bearer of ‘liberty’ is not the individual, but the nation intended as a holistic community. The relation between liberty and Europe, however, changes significantly through time. In the 1980s, the RN and the MSI spoke of Europe as a space in need of ‘liberty’ in face of the ‘twin imperialisms’ of the USA and the USSR. This was also associated with the need to re-establish Europe as an international power which could not only defend its nations, but also, reinforce their global influence. From the end of the 1980s, however, and particularly for the RN, ‘liberty’ shifted from being an attribute of Europe to being an endangered part of the national heritage. The introduction of the Single European Act and the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty contributed significantly to this shift (although they are not the only factors). These treaties did little to make the EU into a strong international actor, as they privileged economic integration over integration in matters of foreign policy and defence. Furthermore, by setting the EU on an increasingly federal path, they were at odds with the RN’s view that European unity should happen in the form of a vaguely-defined (but clearly confederal) ‘Europe of the Nations’. As a result, the RN starts speaking increasingly about ‘sovereignty’ as a ‘collective form of liberty’ endangered by the EU.
The final concept that the parties draw upon to define Europe is that of threat, with Europe presented as a community endangered by a variety of threats such as the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s, the USA in the 1980s and 1990s, and decline and migration throughout. While the nature of threats varies across parties and across time, Europe and its nations always appear to be threatened by some evil force that requires swift intervention. As with liberty, however, the relation between Europe and threat changes over time: whereas in the 1980s, Europe was mainly an endangered community (and indeed, a potential source of protection from external threats), since the 1990s, Europe in the shape of the EU has become a threat in and of itself. This is particularly true for the RN, which since the 1990s has identified globalisation as a growing threat, and the EU as its vector. Europe, in this sense, went from being an instrument which could protect from ‘others’, to an ‘other’ which could facilitate the demise of nation states by facilitating the instauration of a new, globalised world order.
As will have become evident, the MSI/AN and RN’s approach to Europe shows more nuance than the term ‘Eurosceptic’ fully captures, and ‘Euro-ambivalence’ seems to be a better descriptor of their positions. Whereas the EU has frequently been an enemy (although more so for the RN than for the MSI/AN), this was not always the case, and ‘Europe’ remained a positively valued concept throughout. This ambivalence is grounded in three elements:
First, political ideologies are notoriously flexible: while one might expect some degree of continuity, they are also deeply contextual and can evolve over time and depending on historical and national circumstances. In this sense, ambivalence emerges both synchronically across countries and diachronically over time depending on contextual changes.
Second, the European Union is a complex construction in constant evolution. Whereas it started as a small economic union of Western European countries, it has evolved into a deeply political construction encompassing a large part of the European continent. Far-right parties’ ambivalence therefore partially depends on which aspect of the EU they are looking at, and at what phase of its historical development.
Finally, for as much as the EU tries to equate the two, ‘Europe’ and the EU remain two different constructions. The EU is but one embodiment of the idea of Europe, and the far right’s ambivalence about Europe also derives from swearing allegiance to ‘Europe’ while rejecting the political construction of the EU. As the party statutes of the far right ‘Identity and Democracy’ group in the European Parliament show, far-right parties are willing to acknowledge that Europeans share a common ‘Greek-Roman and Christian heritage’ and consider that this heritage creates the bases for ‘voluntary cooperation between sovereign European nations.’ However, they also reject the EU and its attempts to become ‘a European superstate’.
Summing up, while today we tend to see far-right parties as Eurosceptic, this was not always the case, and neither does the term fully capture the complexity of their positions. Ambivalence about Europe is an important part of the far right’s approach to Europe, and can help us understand why far-right parties can collaborate transnationally in the name of ‘another Europe’ different from the EU.
Europe as ideological resource
In addition to being ambivalent about Europe, far-right parties also have a marked tendency to benefit from it. The EU has, in fact, provided these parties with symbolic and material resources that have helped them become established actors. Electorally, the proportional system of representation employed in EU elections made it easier for far-right parties to gain representation. This has also come with a gain in resources which could be used to improve their standing in domestic elections. Far-right parties have also sought to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the EU, for example by employing alliances in the European Parliament to enhance legitimacy at home.
One might ask how speaking about Europe in a certain way may have helped the far right. A plausible answer to this question is that Europe presented an ideological resource for far-right parties looking for legitimation because it allowed them to reorient their ideology in a more acceptable fashion and speak both to their traditional electorate and to new supporters.
An ideological resource, as I define it, is a device that offers political parties an opportunity to revise and reframe their political message in a more appealing way. Europe is one such resource. As a relatively new political issue, and one which has no clear ideological answer, it leaves parties, including far-right ones, with some leeway in determining the position they adopt. As such, it makes it possible for them to craft a position that is appealing to their traditional voters and to new voters alike. In addition, the divisiveness of European integration can benefit far-right parties because it makes dissent more acceptable. Because European integration has divided political parties and electorates alike, it is a topic on which disagreement is acceptable and where it may be easier for parties to present a more widely appealing political message.
To illustrate this argument, it is worth looking at two specific discourses employed by the RN in association with the previously discussed concepts of identity and liberty: its claim to be ‘pro-Europe and anti-EU’ and its growing focus on questions of sovereignty, autonomy, and independence.
As discussed earlier, the RN has since the 1980s claimed to be ‘pro-European’, however, since the end of the 1980s it has also increasingly pitted its support for Europe against the European Union. For example, a 1991 party guide draws a distinction between ‘two Europes’ holding that
‘The first conception is that of a cosmopolitan or globalist Europe, the second is that of a Europe understood as a community of civilisation. The first one destroys the nations, the second one ensures their survival. The first one is an accelerator of decline, the second an instrument of renaissance. The first is the conception of the Brussels technocrats and of establishment politicians, the second is our conception.’
More recently, Marine Le Pen has claimed that ‘even though we are resolutely opposed to the European Union, we are resolutely European, I’d go as far as saying that it is because we are European that we are opposed to the European Union’.
The claim to be pro-Europe but anti-EU serves the dual purpose of attracting new voters by presenting them a ‘softer’ and less nationalist face, all the while maintaining the old ones by relying on the notion of a closed identity that is key to traditional RN discourse. Speaking of Europe in these terms, then, makes it possible for the RN to construct a more legitimate image, without, however, losing the support of its existing electoral base.
The RN’s reliance on ideas of sovereignty, independence, and autonomy to criticise the EU serves a similar purpose. When the party says things like ‘A nation’s sovereignty is its ability to take decisions freely and for itself. It refers then to the notions of independence and exercise of political power by a legitimate government. The entire history of the European construction consists of depriving States of their sovereignty’, it is both speaking about elements that are perfectly compatible with its own nationalist ideology, and drawing on more common discourses about the nation that may carry broader appeal. These critiques also resonate with critiques of the EU presented by actors with no association with the far right, an element which may provide them with an additional ‘ring of truth’.
In sum, while opposition to European integration is frequently presented as a marker of marginalisation for parties, when well phrased it can in fact function as a powerful tool for legitimation that far-right parties can seize upon.
Where to for the far right and Europe?
Simplification is often necessary in the social sciences; however, it is worth remembering that even seemingly straightforward associations can be more complicated than one thinks. The link between far-right ideology and opposition to ‘Europe’ is one of these associations that seems intuitive, but which conceals a more variegated picture made of a history of support for European integration, attachment to a different ‘Europe’, and a penchant for benefitting from a project it explicitly rejects.
Understanding and appreciating the ‘Euro-ambivalent’ nature of far-right parties can help make sense of some recent phenomena such as the transnational collaboration of nationalists. Because many of these parties share a common vision of Europe, they can leverage it to justify their collaboration on an international scale as part of a project to defend Europe from the EU. They have also been able to collaborate because they found cooperation beneficial: namely, it served to portray them as a unified and growing movement, carrying ever greater political weight and forming the main axis of opposition to the cosmopolitan elites.
Crucially, however, one should not assume that a far-right takeover or destruction of the EU institutions is in the making or ever likely to happen. On the one hand, while far-right parties do benefit from some ideological flexibility, the nation and the national interest remain their guiding principles. Thus, while the far right may be able to argue that they are both nationalists and Europeans, in case of conflict, it is unlikely that their commitment to Europe will ever trump the nation.
In the improbable event that far-right parties did engineer a takeover of EU institutions, it is also doubtful that they would actively seek to dismantle them. Europe, after all, has its uses, and it is likely that they will be willing to take advantage of some of them. More likely, the far right would try to transform the EU into something more compatible with their own worldview; however, what this ‘Europe of the Nations’ would look like, or how it would function, remains mostly unclear.
What is more problematic for the EU in the short term is that much of the far right’s criticism contests core assumptions about the EU institutions, and runs counter some of the solutions brought forward to tackle its own legitimacy deficit. For example, the centrality of the concept of Identity to far-right parties’ definition of Europe raises questions about the feasibility of promoting a ‘European identity’ as a solution to the EU’s legitimacy issues.
At the same time, the far right’s claims to be ‘pro-Europe but anti EU’ bring to the fore the contestedness of the concept of Europe, and create a counter-narrative of Europe which questions the very premise that the EU is the embodiment of Europe. Reopening that equation to contestation removes one of the EU’s legitimising narratives, suggesting that the way ahead for the EU will remain paved with opposition.
In sum, even if far-right parties may not be able to coalesce to dismantle the EU or orchestrate a takeover of its institutions from the inside, they can still rock it to its very core.
 J.-M. Le Pen, J. Brissaud, & Groupe des Droites européennes. (1989). Europe: discours et interventions, 1984-1989 (Issue Book, Whole). Groupe des Droites européennes.
 M. Lorimer. (2019). Europe from the far right: Europe in the ideology of the Front National and Movimento Sociale Italiano/Alleanza Nazionale (1978-2017). London School of Economics and Political Science.
 Movimento Sociale Italiano. (1980). Il Msi-Dn dalla a alla zeta : principii programmatici, politici e dottrinari esposti da Cesare Mantovani, con presentazione del segretario nazionale Giorgio Almirante . Movimento sociale italiano-Destra nazionale, Ufficio propaganda.
 J.-M. Le Pen. (1984). Les Français d’abord. Carrère - Michel Lafon.
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 Movimento Sociale Italiano, 1980.
 M. Lorimer. (forthcoming) ‘The Rassemblement National and European Integration,’ in Berti, F. and Sondel-Cedarmas, J., ‘The Right-Wing Critique of Europe: Nationalist, Sovereignist and Right-Wing Populist Attitudes to the EU’, London: Routledge.
 Identity and Democracy. (2019). Statutes of the Identity and Democracy Group in the Europeaan Parliament. https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/kantodev/pages/102/attachments/original/1582196570/EN_Statutes_of_the_ID_Group.pdf?1582196570; M. Lorimer. (2020b). What do they talk about when they talk about Europe? Euro-ambivalence in far right ideology. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 44(11), 2016–2033. https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2020.1807035.
 E. Reungoat. (2014). Mobiliser l’Europe dans la compétition nationale. La fabrique de l’européanisation du Front national. Politique européenne, 43(1), 120–162. https://doi.org/10.3917/poeu.043.0120; J. Schulte-Cloos. (2018). Do European Parliament elections foster challenger parties’ success on the national level? European Union Politics, 19(3), 408–426. https://doi.org/10.1177/1465116518773486
 D. McDonnell & A. Werner. (2019). International Populism: The Radical Right in the European Parliament. Hurst; N. Startin. (2010). Where to for the Radical Right in the European Parliament? The Rise and Fall of Transnational Political Cooperation. Perspectives on European Politics and Society, 11(4), 429–449. https://doi.org/10.1080/15705854.2010.524402.
 M. Lorimer. (2020a). Europe as ideological resource: the case of the Rassemblement National. Journal of European Public Policy, 27(9), 1388–1405. https://doi.org/10.1080/13501763.2020.1754885.
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 A point perceptively made by McDonnell and Werner, 2019 as well.
by Peter Staudenmaier
In September 2018, a perceptive article in the left-leaning British magazine New Statesman offered a rare glimpse of the obscure milieu of explicitly racist environmentalism: an anonymous “online community” of “nature-obsessed, antisemitic white supremacists who argue that racial purity is the only way to save the planet.” Made up largely of younger enthusiasts of the far right, this new generation of self-described “eco-fascists” identifies strongly with deep ecology, animal rights, and veganism, opposes industrialisation and urbanisation, and denounces immigration, “overpopulation” and “multiculturalism” as dire threats to the natural world. They celebrate “blood and soil” and look back on Nazi Germany as a paragon of environmental responsibility, casting the Third Reich’s obsession with “Lebensraum” in ecological terms.
Within months, this incongruous ideology burst the boundaries of internet anonymity and made headlines around the world. Two horrific anti-immigrant attacks in 2019, in Christchurch and El Paso, showed that such ideas could have lethal consequences. Both atrocities, which claimed a total of 74 victims, were motivated by environmental concerns. The Christchurch perpetrator declared himself an “eco-fascist.” In the wake of these massacres it became harder to dismiss right-wing ecology as a marginal set of far-fetched beliefs confined to online forums; the combination of environmentalism, nationalism, and anti-immigrant violence proved too virulent to ignore. It nonetheless remains difficult to understand. More thorough consideration of the historical background to right-wing ecology and its contemporary resonance can help make better sense of an enigmatic phenomenon, one that disrupts standard expectations about both environmentalism and right-wing politics.
Though environmental issues have been conventionally associated with the left since the 1960s, the longer history of ecological politics is far more ambivalent. From the emergence of modern environmentalism in the nineteenth century, ecological questions have taken either emancipatory or reactionary form depending on their political context. Early conservationists in the United States often held authoritarian, nationalist, and xenophobic views linked with the predominant racial theories of the era. As a standard study observes, “The conservation movement arose against a backdrop of racism, sexism, class conflicts, and nativism that shaped the nation in profound ways.” Already in the 1870s, American environmental writers blamed “the influx of immigrants” for the decline of natural rural life. For eminent figures like George Perkins Marsh and John Muir, racial biases and hostility toward immigration went hand in hand with protecting the natural world.
Such stances hardened by the early twentieth century. In his 1913 classic Our Vanishing Wild Life, William Temple Hornaday portrayed immigrants as “a dangerous menace to our wild life.” Hornaday, who has been called the “father of the American conservation movement,” was a friend and colleague of Madison Grant, an equally influential conservationist, race theorist, and zealous proponent of eugenics. Racial anxieties were a constituent element in the development of environmentalism in the US. “Perceiving a direct link between the decline of America’s wildlife and the degeneration of the white American race, prominent nature advocates often pushed as hard for the passage of immigration restriction and eugenics legislation as they did for wildlife preservation. For these reformers the three movements became inextricably linked.” This legacy continued throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, impacting everything from wilderness campaigns to pollution regulation to global population programs. Today, “racial narratives are deeply embedded in American environmentalist approaches to international population policy advocacy.”
In Germany, where the term “ecology” was first introduced, early environmental movements shared a similar history. Sometimes considered the homeland of green politics, Germany experienced rapid industrialisation and urbanisation in the decades around 1900, with attendant forms of environmental dissent. Many of these proto-green tendencies incorporated authoritarian social views along with powerful national and racial myths. From vegetarianism to organic agriculture to nature protection organisations, race was an essential part of the search for more natural ways of life. Proponents of the “life reform” movement mixed appeals for animal rights, natural health, and alternative nutrition with racist and antisemitic themes. This is the tradition that latter-day “ecofascists” hope to reclaim.
For some contemporary advocates of right-wing ecology, Nazi Germany represents the epitome of environmental ideals in fascist form. In light of the Nazi regime’s appalling record of human and ecological destruction, this adulation strikes many observers as grotesque. As paradoxical as it may seem, however, Nazism included several significant environmental strands. Historians of the Third Reich have increasingly come to recognise “the links between antisemitism, eugenics, and environmentalism that became integral to National Socialism.” To admirers, Nazism’s “green” achievements were embodied above all in the figure of Richard Walther Darré, who served as Hitler’s minister of agriculture and “Reich Peasant Leader” from 1933 to 1942. Far right author Troy Southgate characterises Darré as Nazi Germany’s “finest ecological pioneer,” a committed environmentalist who was “truly the patriarch of the modern Greens.” Southgate writes:
"At Goslar, an ancient medieval town in the Harz mountains, Darré established a peasants’ capital and launched a series of measures designed to regenerate German agriculture by encouraging organic farming and replanting techniques. […] But Darré’s overall strategy was even more radical, and he intended to abolish industrial society altogether and replace it with a series of purely peasant-based communities."
Though thoroughly distorted, this tale contains a kernel of truth. Darré did promote organic agriculture during the final years of his tenure; after initial opposition, he became one of the major Nazi patrons of the biodynamic movement, the most successful variant of organic farming in the Third Reich. But he was hardly the only Nazi leader to do so. Rudolf Hess supported biodynamics more consistently, and even Heinrich Himmler and the SS sponsored biodynamic projects. By the time he adopted the biodynamic cause, moreover, Darré had effectively lost power to rival factions within the party.
Organic farming initiatives nevertheless found many backers in various parts of the Nazi apparatus, at local, regional, and national levels, from interior minister Wilhelm Frick to antisemitic propagandist Julius Streicher. Sustainable agriculture offered fertile ground for ideological crossover and practical cooperation. As a Nazi “life reform” official explained in 1936: “Artificial fertilisers interrupt the natural metabolism between man and his environment, between blood and soil.”
Despite his stature among devotees of right-wing ecology today, Darré was not the most effective example of ecofascism in action in the Nazi era. That dubious honor belongs not to the Reich Peasant Leader but to his sometime ally Alwin Seifert, who bore the equally grandiose title of Reich Advocate for the Landscape. Seifert oversaw a corps of “landscape advocates” with responsibility for environmental planning on Nazi public works projects, most famously the construction of the Autobahn system. As with Darré, Seifert’s position has often been misunderstood. A recent account claims that “the barest minima of ecological politics” were “completely missing” from Nazism, offering this description of Seifert’s team:
"A group of designers with Heimat ideals, called ‘landscape advocates’, imagined that they were embedding the motorways in the landscape, drawing the curves gently, adorning the concrete and asphalt with local stone and freshly planted native flora: perhaps the original greenwashers. Their advice was neglected nearly all the time, and Hitler would not hear of valuable forest groves slowing down his roads. If any peacetime project rode roughshod over conservation, it was the autobahn."
This one-sided image simplifies a complex history and misconstrues the political context. Unlike traditional conservationists, Seifert and his colleagues used their work to advance modern principles of ecological restoration, rehabilitating degraded environments and applying organic techniques across a wide range of landscapes.
Their remit extended far beyond the Autobahn, encompassing rivers and wetlands, reforestation projects, urban green space and rural reclamation, military installations, and “settlement” activities in the occupied East. From France to Ukraine, from Norway to Greece, the environmental efforts of the landscape advocates were woven into the fabric of Nazi occupation policy, which aimed to remake Eastern European lands racially as well as ecologically. Under the auspices of the Third Reich, Seifert and his cohort fused environmental ideals with Nazi tenets and put them into practice in hundreds of concrete instances. They were not alone. Endorsing Seifert’s work, German naturalists proclaimed that ecology was “a true science of blood and soil.” The experience of both the biodynamic movement and the landscape advocates between 1933 and 1945, in the shadow of Germany’s war of annihilation, shows that Nazi ecology was not an oxymoron but a historical reality.
In spite of a growing body of research examining the details of this history, many misconceptions persist about the environmental aspects of Nazism and about the political evolution of green endeavors worldwide. The problem is not new. A quarter of a century ago, ecological philosopher Michael Zimmerman pointed out that “most Americans do not realise that the Nazis combined eugenics with mystical ecology into the perverted ‘green’ ideology of Blut und Boden.” It was not merely a historical question, he explained, but crucial for our future: “in periods of ecological stress and social breakdown, preachers of a ‘green’ fascism might once again find a sympathetic audience.” The attacks in Christchurch and El Paso have tragically confirmed his point, demonstrating that some of those inspired by such ideas are willing to turn words into deeds.
But the breadth of right-wing environmental politics is not reducible to the single category of fascism. Many elements on the established right, particularly in the English-speaking world, maintain a stance of climate change denial and denounce green concerns as frivolous, even as younger and more dynamic forces on the far right push for growing appropriation of environmental themes. In this context, ecofascism is best seen as an especially aggressive tendency within the broader continuum of right-wing ecology. Since most of the right is not fascist, there are relatively few outright ecofascists in most times and places. This does not mean we can safely ignore them. When historical conditions change, currents that were previously marginal can quickly become powerful. For societies like the contemporary US, that is a sobering lesson to keep in mind.
How can scholars respond to this challenge? Resisting the revival of blood and soil politics and countering the appeal of anti-immigrant arguments in green garb calls for informed and reflective participation in public debates. This will involve critically re-examining inherited assumptions about ecology and its social significance. The protean nature of environmental politics, viewed in historical perspective, presents a remarkable spectrum of possibilities, and those concerned about the climate crisis and our broader ecological plight will eventually need to decide where to stand. Alongside the legacy of right-wing environmentalism, there has always been a lively counter-current, an anti-authoritarian, inclusive, and radically democratic strand within ecological thought and practice.
That alternative tradition of environmental politics has many proponents within today’s climate movement, and it points toward a promising future in spite of the bleak present. An ecological approach that affirms social diversity across borders and actively welcomes all communities can withstand the resentments and anxieties of the current moment. Against the callous retreat into exclusion, scarcity, and fear, it advances a profoundly different vision of sustainability and renewal, one that offers hope for people and for the planet we share.
 Sarah Manavis, “Eco-fascism: The ideology marrying environmentalism and white supremacy thriving online” New Statesman 21 September 2018. The article signaled renewed media attention to a previously neglected subject. Another thorough analysis was published a month later: Matthew Phelan, “The Menace of Eco-Fascism” New York Review of Books Daily 22 October 2018.
 Natasha Lennard, “The El Paso Shooter Embraced Eco-Fascism: We Can’t Let the Far Right Co-Opt the Environmental Struggle” The Intercept 5 August 2019; Bernhard Forchtner, “Eco-fascism: Justifications of terrorist violence in the Christchurch mosque shooting and the El Paso shooting” Open Democracy 13 August 2019; Susie Cagle, “The environmentalist roots of anti-immigrant bigotry” The Guardian 16 August 2019; Joel Achenbach, “Two mass murders a world apart share a common theme: ‘Ecofascism’” Washington Post 18 August 2019; Sam Adler-Bell, “Eco-fascism is fashionable again on the far right” New Republic 24 September 2019.
 For recent international coverage see Neil Mackay, “Eco-fascism: how the environment could be a green light for the far right” The Herald 18 April 2020; Daniel Trilling, “How the far right is exploiting climate change for its own ends: Eco-fascists have donned green garb in pursuit of their sinister cause” Prospect Magazine 28 August 2020; Emma Horan, “Eco-Fascism: A Smouldering, Dark Presence in Environmentalism” University Times 23 October 2020; Louise Boyle, “The rising threat of eco-fascism: Far right co-opting environmentalism to justify anti-immigration and anti-Semitic views” The Independent 20 March 2021; Francisca Rockey, “The dangers of eco-fascism” Euronews 21 March 2021; Andy Fleming, “The meanings of eco-fascism” Overland 9 June 2021.
 Adrian Parr, Birth of a New Earth: The Radical Politics of Environmentalism (Columbia University Press 2018), 84; see the full chapter “Fascist Earth” (65-90) for her larger argument.
 Dorceta Taylor, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection (Duke University Press 2016), 9.
 Ibid., 89; see also 213-19 on anti-immigrant resentment as a core feature of the US conservation movement in the early twentieth century. For an influential instance from the latter half of the century see John Tanton, “International Migration as an Obstacle to Achieving World Stability” Ecologist July 1976, 221-27.
 See the fine overview by Carolyn Merchant, “Shades of Darkness: Race and Environmental History” Environmental History 8 (2003), 380-94.
 William Temple Hornaday, Our Vanishing Wild Life (Scribner’s 1913), 100. Similar anti-immigrant passages can be found in Hornaday’s 1914 Wild Life Conservation in Theory and Practice. Scholars from a variety of fields have noted the role of racial beliefs within his environmental worldview: “Hornaday’s conservation was closely linked to his racism and sense of Anglo-Saxon superiority. He viewed Native Americans, Mexicans, blacks, and immigrants as major threats to wildlife, and he began showing disdain for nonwhites early in his career.” Robert Wilson, American Association of Geographers Review of Books 2 (2014), 48-50.
 Miles Powell, Vanishing America: Species Extinction, Racial Peril, and the Origins of Conservation (Harvard University Press 2016), 83. Powell shows that turn of the century conservation leaders “developed racially charged preservationist arguments that influenced the historical development of scientific racism, eugenics, immigration restriction, and population control, and helped lay the groundwork for the modern environmental movement.” (5) Compare Lisa Sun-Hee Park and David Naguib Pellow, The Slums of Aspen: Immigrants vs. the Environment in America’s Eden (New York University Press 2011); John Hultgren, Border Walls Gone Green: Nature and Anti-Immigrant Politics in America (University of Minnesota Press 2015); Carl Zimring, Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States (New York University Press 2016)
 Jade Sasser, “From Darkness into Light: Race, Population, and Environmental Advocacy” Antipode 46 (2014), 1240-57, quote on 1242. Cf. Jael Silliman and Ynestra King, eds., Dangerous Intersections: Feminist Perspectives on Population, Environment, and Development (South End Press 1999); Rajani Bhatia, “Green or Brown? White Nativist Environmental Movements” in Abby Ferber, ed., Home-Grown Hate: Gender and Organized Racism (Routledge 2004), 194-213; Jade Sasser, On Infertile Ground: Population Control and Women’s Rights in the Era of Climate Change (New York University Press 2018); Jordan Dyett and Cassidy Thomas, “Overpopulation Discourse: Patriarchy, Racism, and the Specter of Ecofascism” Perspectives on Global Development & Technology 18 (2019), 205-24; Diana Ojeda, Jade Sasser, and Elizabeth Lunstrum, “Malthus’s Specter and the Anthropocene: Towards a Feminist Political Ecology of Climate Change” Gender, Place & Culture 27 (2020), 316-32.
 Examples include Gustav Simons, “Rasse und Ernährung” Kraft und Schönheit 4 (1904), 156-59; Hermann Löns, “Naturschutz und Rasseschutz” in Löns, Nachgelassene Schriften vol. 1 (Leipzig 1928), 486-91; Paul Krannhals, Das organische Weltbild (Munich 1928); Werner Altpeter, “Erneuerung oder Rassetod?” Neuform-Rundschau January 1934, 8-10.
 Compare Joseph Huber, “Fortschritt und Entfremdung: Ein Entwicklungsmodell des ökologischen Diskurses” in Dieter Hassenpflug, ed., Industrialismus und Ökoromantik: Geschichte und Perspektiven der Ökologisierung (Wiesbaden 1991), 19-42; Ulrich Linse, “Das ‘natürliche’ Leben: Die Lebensreform” in Richard van Dülmen, ed., Erfindung des Menschen (Vienna 1998), 435-56; Bernd Wedemeyer, “‘Zurück zur deutschen Natur’: Theorie und Praxis der völkischen Lebensreformbewegung” in Rolf Brednich, ed., Natur – Kultur: Volkskundliche Perspektiven auf Mensch und Umwelt (Münster 2001), 385-94; Jost Hermand, “Die Lebensreformbewegung um 1900 - Wegbereiter einer naturgemäßeren Daseinsform oder Vorboten Hitlers?” in Marc Cluet and Catherine Repussard, eds., “Lebensreform”: Die soziale Dynamik der politischen Ohnmacht (Tübingen 2013), 51-62.
 See the extended argument in Peter Staudenmaier, “Right-wing Ecology in Germany: Assessing the Historical Legacy” in Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier, Ecofascism Revisited (New Compass 2011), 89-132.
 Robert Gellately, Hitler’s True Believers: How Ordinary People Became Nazis (Oxford University Press 2020), 22; cf. Simo Laakkonen, “Environmental Policies of the Third Reich” in Laakkonen, ed., The Long Shadows: A Global Environmental History of the Second World War (Oregon State University Press 2017), 55-74; Charles Closmann, “Environment” in Shelley Baranowski, ed., A Companion to Nazi Germany (Wiley 2018), 413-28.
 Troy Southgate, “Blood & Soil: Revolutionary Nationalism as the Vanguard of Ecological Sanity” in Southgate, Tradition & Revolution (Arktos 2010), 74-84, quotes on 78-79. Southgate’s account draws heavily on the work of Anna Bramwell, whose 1985 book Blood and Soil: Richard Walther Darré and Hitler’s ‘Green Party’ is the source of a number of legends about Darré. Among other fundamental problems, Bramwell’s book downplays Darré’s fervent antisemitism and denies his role in promoting expansionist aims in Eastern Europe.
 Peter Staudenmaier, “Organic Farming in Nazi Germany: The Politics of Biodynamic Agriculture, 1933-1945” Environmental History 18 (2013), 383-411.
 Franz Wirz quoted in Corinna Treitel, Eating Nature in Modern Germany: Food, Agriculture and Environment, c. 1870-2000 (Cambridge University Press 2017), 212. Nazi enthusiasm for organic practices was not as surprising as it may appear. “In early twentieth century Germany,” Treitel notes, “ecological agriculture and its biological approach to farming belonged decisively to the right.” (188) The same pattern can be traced in France, Britain, Australia, and elsewhere, with significant overlap between the early organic milieu and the far right.
 Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective, White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism (Verso 2021), 462 and 466. They insist that “no ecological Nazism could possibly have existed” (470).
 For a detailed view of the current state of research see Peter Staudenmaier, “Advocates for the Landscape: Alwin Seifert and Nazi Environmentalism” German Studies Review 43 (2020), 271-90. Some of the existing scholarship on Seifert and his associates displays a curious tendency to portray these figures as either not really environmentalists or not really Nazis, reluctant to acknowledge that they were both at once.
 Karl Friederichs, Ökologie als Wissenschaft von der Natur (Leipzig 1937), 79.
 Michael Zimmerman, “The Threat of Ecofascism” Social Theory and Practice 21 (1995), 207-38, quotes on 222 and 231. “Blut und Boden” is the original German phrase meaning “blood and soil.”
 As Bernhard Forchtner and Balša Lubarda aptly observe, “eco-fascism should not dominate our understanding of the wider radical right’s relationship with nature.” (Forchtner and Lubarda, “Eco-fascism ‘proper’” Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right 25 June 2020) For a range of perspectives on these complex questions compare Efadul Huq and Henry Mochida, “The Rise of Environmental Fascism and the Securitization of Climate Change” Projections 30 March 2018; Betsy Hartmann, “The Ecofascists” Columbia Journalism Review Spring 2020, 18-19; Hilary Moore, Burning Earth, Changing Europe: How the Racist Right Exploits the Climate Crisis and What We Can Do about It (Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung 2020); Sam Knights, “The Climate Movement Must Be Ready To Challenge Rising Right-Wing Environmentalism” Jacobin 16 November 2020; Balša Lubarda, “Beyond Ecofascism? Far-Right Ecologism as a Framework for Future Inquiries” Environmental Values 29 (2020), 713-32.
 On the US see Blair Taylor, “Alt-right ecology: Ecofascism and far-right environmentalism in the United States” in Bernhard Forchtner, ed., The Far Right and the Environment: Politics, Discourse and Communication (Routledge 2019), 275-92; Kevan Feshami, “A Mighty Forest Is Our Race: Race, Nature, and Environmentalism in White Nationalist Thought” Drain Magazine February 2020; Beth Gardiner, “White Supremacy Goes Green” New York Times 1 March 2020; Daniel Rueda, “Neoecofascism: The Example of the United States” Journal for the Study of Radicalism 14 (2020), 95-125; Alex Amend, “Blood and Vanishing Topsoil: American Ecofascism Past, Present, and in the Coming Climate Crisis” Political Research Associates 9 July 2020; April Anson, “No One Is A Virus: On American Ecofascism” Environmental History Now 21 October 2020.
Fascism as a recurring possibility: Zeev Sternhell, the anti-Enlightenment, and the politics of an intellectual history of modernity
by Tommaso Giordani
Examining the development of Zeev Sternhell’s work yields a precise impression: that of a movement from the particular to the general, from an intellectual history rooted in precise contexts to increasingly broad studies dealing with larger and less narrowly contextualised traditions of thought.
His first monograph, published in 1972, was titled Maurice Barrès et le nationalisme français and examined the role of Barrès in transforming a French nationalism which was originally “Jacobin, open, grounded in the doctrine of natural rights” into an “organic nationalism, postulating a physiological determinism”. In the decade between 1978 and 1989, Sternhell publishes the three works which created his reputation as one of the world’s most important historians of fascism: Ni droite ni gauche, La droite révolutionnaire, and Naissance de l’idéologie fasciste. Though still maintaining a focus on France, these studies—especially the last one—cannot be reduced to contributions to French history. They are instead an attempt to outline a theory of fascism centred on the importance of the ideological element, something which naturally brought the Israeli historian and his collaborators beyond the borders of the hexagon.
Following this interpretative line, we can identify a third phase of Sternhell’s work starting from the 1996 collective volume The intellectual revolt against liberal democracy. Having first moved beyond the examination of French nationalism towards a more general theory of fascism, in this third phase Sternhell leaves the question of fascist ideology behind, embedding it in a larger narrative embracing the last three centuries of European intellectual history and revolving around the dichotomy between Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment ideas. The high point is represented by his last and most ambitious study, Les Anti-Lumières, in which the Israeli historian traces the development of what he calls a “different modernity”, consisting in a “comprehensive revolt against the Enlightenment’s fundamental views”.
There is obviously a great deal of truth in this way of reading the Israeli historian’s trajectory, especially given the substantial growth of the materials treated and the enlargement of both chronology and geography. And yet, there is an important way in which this reading is wrong, namely if it is taken to claim that the large, meta-historical categories of “Enlightenment” and “Anti-Enlightenment” are inductive generalisations, synthesising decades of work in intellectual history and emerging from Sternhell’s previous studies. A summary look at Sternhell first book reveals, instead, that these categories have informed his work since the beginning.
Maurice Barrès et le nationalisme français is, as we have pointed out, not a simple intellectual biography, but a work which sees the significance of Barrès through the wider lens of a study of the transformation of French nationalism. Upon closer inspection, however, it is clear that even the framework of French nationalism is a very reductive description of Sternhell’s perspective, for it is a nationalism which is embedded in a wider current of ideas, both spatially and temporally. Spatially, Barrès participates in a tradition of thought which is continental. He is cast by Sternhell much more as a European than as a Frenchman. Barrès is “the child of his century: Baudelaire and Wagner fascinate him, he calls himself—and is—a disciple of Taine and Renan; he has read Nietzsche, Gobineau, and Dostoevsky. For his first trilogy, he claims to have been inspired by Schopenhauer, by Fichte, and by Hartmann”. Temporally, this continental tradition to which Barrès belongs is cast as deploying itself over a broad chronology, as can be evinced by Sternhell’s insistence on its similarities with “another movement of revolt against the status quo: pre-1830, post-revolutionary romanticism”. Without denying the decisive role of European fin de siècle culture, Sternhell finds common traits between this “neo-romanticism” and the older movement. In both cases, we have a “resurgence of irrational values”, the “cult of sentiment and instinct” and, finally, “the substitution of the ‘organic’ explanation of the world to the ‘mechanical’ one”. Even if the connections are merely sketched, it is clear that the temporality in which Sternhell places his object is that of modernity. Barrès, in other words, is significant not just as a French nationalist, but as a member of a tradition marked by the “systematic rejection of the values inherited from the eighteenth century and from the French Revolution”.
Granted, the term “Anti-Enlightenment” does not appear in this work, and comparison of this initial sketch of the tradition with later versions yields some differences, such as a greater role he later ascribes to German and Italian historicism, as well as a tendency to read this current of ideas in an increasingly static and monolithic way. And yet, beyond these small differences, substantial similarities emerge: the broad chronology, the continental extension, and the dichotomous division of the last two centuries of European intellectual history into the two opposing camps of the Enlightenment and its enemies.
This dichotomy informs virtually the entirety of Sternhell’s works in the history of political ideas. We see it at work in his trilogy on fascist ideology, and it is subtly yet unmistakeably active in his analysis of Zionism, in which Jewish nationalism is characterised, inter alia, as a “Herderian” response to the “challenge of emancipation”. Underlying historical enquiry on particular political ideologies, in other words, is a theory of European modernity revolving around the opposition between what Sternhell came to label the universalistic “Franco-Kantian Enlightenment” and its particularistic opponents.
Methodologically, the advantages of this approach are many: it allows the writing of a profoundly diachronic history of ideas, capable of embracing a multitude of contexts and spaces, and in theory able to trace the evolution of traditions of thought without losing sight of the underlying continuities. At the same time, various critics have underlined its limits. Sternhell has been accused of not having learnt the lessons of postmodernism, and of reconstructing the intellectual history of European modernity in the form of a “Manichean struggle” between Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment. General accusations of Manicheanism, approximation, and teleology are, in fact, amongst the most common directed against Sternhell. Shlomo Sand gives a more precise way to consider the limits of this approach, identifying the problem in Sternhell’s use of “narrow, static, unhistorical definitions”, that is, of meta-historical categories.
Here we come to the crux of the question: Sternhell’s way of proceeding is indeed marked by the use of categories of analysis which transcend the contexts in which historical actors developed their thought. Is this, however, enough to methodologically invalidate his analysis? The use of categories transcending narrow historical contextualisation is a necessity for any work with diachronic ambitions. Tracing the development of any tradition of thought over time, in other words, implies the use of descriptions and definitions which would have appeared bizarre to the thinkers of the time. The employment of a meta-language, and the anachronism, teleology, and de-contextualisation that come with it, are, to a point, a necessity of any genealogy, of any historical enquiry which aims to do more than simply take a synchronic snapshot of the past. Therefore, it seems incorrect to identify the problem in the mere use of categories such as Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment.
The problem lies not in the mere presence of these meta-historical tools of analysis, but, rather, in the way in which Sternhell has come to employ them over time. As we have seen, in Maurice Barrès the anti-Enlightenment tradition was sketched with a certain nuance, insisting on its internal transformations over time, and paying attention to the crucial distinction between the work of an individual and its reception. Over time, however, much of this nuance disappears, and passages from his later works do seem, at times, to interpret two centuries of European intellectual history through the prism of what is, after all, a not too dynamic dichotomy between French universalistic culture and German romantic particularism.
Take Sternhell’s analysis of Georges Sorel’s revision of Marxism at the beginning of the 20th century, for example. For the Israeli historian, it constitutes a crucial step towards the creation of fascist ideology. According to him, the key element of Sorelian revisionism is the destruction of the connection between the industrial working class and the revolution, something capable of altering “Marxism to such an extent that it immediately transformed it into a neutral weapon of war that could be used against the bourgeois order not only by the proletariat but by society as a whole”. Sorelian revisionism thus consists in the removal of Marxian categories of analysis based on social antagonisms grounded in the positioning in the productive structure of society, which are then replaced by antagonisms grounded in an opposition to the decadence of bourgeois civilisation. As Sternhell puts it, “history, for Sorel, was finally not so much a chronicle of class warfare as an endless struggle against decadence”. It follows that if the proletariat is unable to fulfil its struggle against bourgeois decadence, there is no reason why another historical agent, such as the national community, should not engage in the same struggle. The result is fascism.
The problem with this reading is that, despite its apparent plausibility, it is historically inaccurate. Real Sorelian revisionism consists in a number of texts published in the 1890s in which the main thrust is epistemological and social scientific more than political. Its consequences are opposite to those drawn by Sternhell. Animated by the desire “show to sceptics that… socialism is worthy of belonging to the modern scientific movement”, Sorelian revisionism revolved around three main points: (1) the refusal of historical determinism; (2) the rejection of economic determinism; and consequently, (3) a vision of Marxism not as a predictive social science but as the intellectual articulation of the historical experience of the workers’ movement. Even if this revisionism is much more concerned with Marxism as a social science than with Marxism as a political project, its political uptake is not the breaking of the connection between proletariat and revolution, but its strengthening. A Marxism which renounces its predictive capacity and the very idea of a necessary historical development cannot but evolve into what Sorel later called a “theory of the proletariat”. The removal of historical necessity means that the transition to socialism can only be yielded by the agency of the revolutionary subject—the proletariat. It should thus not be surprising that, as early as 1898, Sorel insists on working class autonomy, arguing that “the entire future of socialism resides in the autonomous development workers’ unions”.
The revision of Marxism does not exhaust Sorel’s production and there are parts of his trajectory, and of those of some of his disciples, which are more in line with Sternhell’s analysis. And yet, the fact remains that this analysis completely overlooks contexts which are crucial to Sorelian revisionism, resulting in an historically inaccurate picture. The point is not merely to underline the many substantial imprecisions which characterise Sternhell’s reading of Sorelian revisionism, but to emphasise how these misreadings derive directly from the indiscriminate use of the abovementioned meta-historical categories. “Marxism” writes Sternhell “was a system of ideas still deeply rooted in the philosophy of the eighteenth century. Sorelian revisionism replaced the rationalist, Hegelian foundations of Marxism with Le Bon’s new vision of human nature, with the anti-Cartesianism of Bergson, with the Nietzschean cult of revolt, and with Pareto’s most recent discoveries in political sociology”. But is it plausible to speak of a rejection of Hegel for someone so profoundly influenced by Antonio Labriola, who represented one of Europe’s main Hegelian traditions? Is it correct to speak of the “Nietzschean cult of revolt” for a figure who wrote over 600 texts and yet discusses Nietzsche virtually only in a handful of pages in the Reflections on violence? Is it historically acceptable to suggest proximity to Paretian elitism for a political thinker who wrote vitriolic pages against the leadership of French socialism by bourgeois intellectuals?
These misreadings derive from the fact that Sternhell’s dualistic approach, if taken rigidly, cannot make space for Sorelian revisionism, for that would imply accepting the possibility of a Marxism capable of incorporating elements of romanticism without ipso facto becoming a sworn enemy of the Enlightenment. But Marxism, for Sternhell, is “rooted in the philosophy of the eighteenth century”, and any deviation from this particular philosophical outlook is to be classified as anti-Enlightenment thought. Strictly speaking, for Sternhell, Sorelian revisionism is a betrayal. But here are the limits of Sternhell’s rigid application of his categories, limits which emerge not only in relation to Sorel, but also to Marxism more in general. Marxism is, from its beginnings, a politico-philosophical tradition which is transversal to the dichotomy between Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment. The mere suggestion of reading a tradition derived from Hegel and Marx as in opposition to German romanticism shows the dangers of overreliance on these categories. The appropriate historical context for understanding Sorelian revisionism is the battle, internal to Marxism, between positivistic and humanistic interpretations of Marx’s work. Against Sorel’s insistence on the impossibility of historical laws there is Lafargue who advocates their existence; against Antonio Labriola who struggles to free historical materialism from positivism there is Enrico Ferri who goes in the opposite direction. To miss this transversality of the Marxist tradition cannot but yield serious mistakes. How would Sternhell judge Gramsci’s claim that Marxism is “the continuation of German and Italian idealism, which in Marx had been contaminated by naturalistic and positivistic incrustations”? Would he see a voluntaristic cult of revolt in the affirmation that “the main determinant of history is not lifeless economics, but man”?
Why, in the face of much criticism, did Sternhell never even go close to admitting the risks of a certain way of employing an approach based on meta-historical categories? Why did he not only stick with it, but began using it in an increasingly rigid and passionate manner? To answer these questions, a preliminary point must be clarified. If the Enlighenment/anti-Enlightenment dualism is the conceptual centre of Sternhell’s work, its existential core is the question of fascism. Orphaned and turned refugee by anti-Semitic violence in his native Poland during World War II, Sternhell has always been very clear on the fact that for him the study of fascism went far beyond purely academic interest. Anyone who has read the pages he has written will be aware of the urgency of his prose, of the passionate tone of warning which permeates most of them, especially those on fascism. “Thinking about fascism” he wrote in 2008 “is not a reflection on a regime or a movement, but a reflection on the risks that might be involved for a whole civilisation when it rejects the notion of universal values, when it substitutes historical relativism for universalism, and substitutes various communitarian values for the autonomy of the individual”. Aside from clarifying the relationship between fascism and anti-Enlightenment in Sternhell’s thought—with the former political option becoming possible only in an environment in which the latter’s ideas are present—this quotation sheds much light on Sternhell’s insistence on the Enlightenment/anti-Enlightenment duality.
To frame fascism as a political possibility enabled by the existence of certain anti-Enlightenment ideas means adopting a view of fascism as a recurring possibility of modernity. Fascism is thus not an abstract and a-historical ideal type, but neither is it an historical particularity inextricably linked to the specific, and unrepeatable, conditions of interwar Europe. To embed fascism in a theory of modernity, in other words, allows one to see it as a living political culture, perhaps at times dormant, but constantly capable of making the leap from cultural contestation to political project, at least as long as the particularistic ideas of the “alternative modernity” of the anti-Enlightenment continue to inform European intellectual life. Sternhell’s dismissal of the decisive role of World War I and his insistence that the fascist synthesis was already achieved in the belle époque substantiate this reading.
The Enlightenment/anti-Enlightenment framing, in short, stems from the fiercely held conviction that fascism is not a thing of the past, but of the present. It is a framing, thus, that at once emerges from the need for public engagement and simultaneously enables a mode of public intervention which could not as easily be sustained through a narrower contextualism or a taxonomical approach. Recent years have brought, together with the electoral victories of right-wing forces in Europe and the United States, a flurry of analyses on the return of fascism. Whether through taxonomies, historical parallels between the present and the interwar period, or analyses of fascist mentality, this literature has been animated by the same conviction that has long animated Zeev Sternhell’s work: that fascism is not a thing of the past. Eschewing these strategies, however, Sternhell has long pioneered a different way of thinking about fascism: not an historical particularity, not a mentality, not a list of criteria that regimes must possess, but instead a constant potentiality of European modernity, embedded in two centuries of anti-Enlightenment thought.
By way of conclusion, a tentative answer to the obvious question: from where does Sternhell’s conviction that fascism is always possible emerge? It is true that the defeat of 1945 has not been the historical caesura one unreflectively imagines, and that fascism has continued to exist, in less ideologically assertive forms, in many countries of southern Europe. At the same time, before the recent, possibly short-lived, resurgence of the fascist spectre, academic analyses of fascism were rarely animated by this urgent conviction of its relevance. The answer to this conundrum is to be found in Sternhell’s political engagement in his country, Israel. In March 1978, together with other reservists of the Israeli army, Sternhell signed an open letter to then Prime Minister Menachem Begin, warning that a policy “which prefers settlements beyond the Green Line to terminating the historic conflict” was a dangerous one, which could “harm the Jewish-democratic character of the state”. The letter established the organisation Peace Now, in which Sternhell continued to be active for the rest of his life.
Over the years, the evolution of the political situation made the positions Sternhell supported increasingly minoritarian. But the Israeli historian did not back down. On the contrary, he continued to put forward his positions. This earned him a pipe bomb attack at his home in Jerusalem in 2008, from which he emerged substantially unscathed. Flyers offering over 1 million shekels to whoever killed a member of Peace Now found near his home left little doubt as to the motivations behind it. After Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009, Sternhell became increasingly vocal, denouncing what he saw as a dangerous evolution of Israeli society. In his many public interventions, he uses the language with which we have been dealing here, that of the anti-Enlightenment. He saw the rise of the Israeli right as that of a “power-driven national movement, negating human rights, and rejecting universal rights, liberalism and democracy”. In a 2014 interview in which he denounced signs of fascism in Israeli society, he framed that political option in familiar terms: as a “war against enlightenment and against universal values”. In 2013, he was called as an expert witness in a defamation case put forward by the nationalist association Im Tirzu against some activists who had labelled it as fascist. In an exchange with Im Tirzu’s lawyer, we see, again, the same language: “…they are not conservatives, but revolutionary conservatives. What they seek is a cultural revolution. ‘Neo-Zionism’ as they define it is an anti-utilitarian, anti-western, anti-rational cultural revolution.”
Examples of this kind could be multiplied, but the point should by now be clear. Certain methodological options may seem puzzling when judged uniquely by the standards of academic practice, but the rationale for their employment may become more understandable when they are seen as connected to a concrete historical situation. The Enlightenment/anti-Enlightenment dichotomy, with all the limits that Sternhell’s passionate use involved, is one such case: it must, at least partially, be seen as emerging from the imperative of engagement. Still, Sternhell’s historical works are not political pamphlets. Even if sometimes they possess the urgent tone of that genre of writing, they remain contributions to the study of European intellectual history, and should be judged also according to those standards. And yet, the separation of these two layers, engagement and scholarship, is not easy and, to a point, not desirable. To effect this separation would be to misunderstand the work of a scholar for whom the two were intertwined. As he argued in the most articulate defence of his method, “through contextualism, particularism, and linguistic relativism, in concentrating on what is specific and unique and denying the universal, one necessarily finds oneself on the side of anti-humanism and historical relativism”.
The author would like to thank Or Rosenboim for discussions on the Israeli context and for help with translations from Hebrew. All other translations from French and Italian sources are the author's. Research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council under Grant Agreement No. 757873 (project BETWEEN THE TIMES).
 Zeev Sternhell, Maurice Barrès et le nationalisme français , 3rd ed. (Paris: Fayard, 2016), 251.
 Zeev Sternhell, The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition, trans. David Maisel (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 1.
Sternhell, Maurice Barrès, 56.
 Ibid., 42.
 Ibid., 43.
 Ibid., 41.
 Zeev Sternhell, The Founding Myths of Israel. Nationalism, Socialism, and the Making of the Jewish State, trans. David Maisel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 12.
 David D. Roberts, ‘How not to think about Fascism and ideology, intellectual antecedents and historical meaning’, Journal of Contemporary History 35, no. 2 (2000): 189.
 Shlomo Sand, ‘L’idéologie Fasciste en France’, L’Esprit, September 1983, 159.
 Zeev Sternhell, Maia Asheri, and Mario Sznajder, The Birth of Fascist Ideology. From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution., trans. David Maisel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 37.
 Ibid., 38
 Sorel to Croce, 20/12/1895, in Georges Sorel, ‘Lettere di Georges Sorel a Benedetto Croce’, La Critica 25 (1927): 38.
 Georges Sorel, ‘L’avenir socialiste des syndicats’, L’humanité Nouvelle 2 (1898): 445.
 Sternhell, The Birth of Fascist Ideology, 24.
 Antonio Gramsci, ‘La rivoluzione contro il Capitale’, Avanti! 24 November 1917.
 Zeev Sternhell, ‘How to Think about Fascism and Its Ideology’, Constellations 15, no. 3 (2008): 280.
 Open letter to Prime Minister Menachem Begin, March 1978, https://peacenow.org/entry.php?id=2230#.YK5yjKGEY2w
 Zeev Sternhell “Does Israel still need democracy”, Haaretz, 17 November 2011
 Gidi Weitz, ‘Signs of fascism in Israel reached new peak during Gaza op, says renowned scholar’, Haaretz, 13 August 2014.
 Oren Persico, “Analyzing with an ax”, Ha-ain ha-shvi’it, 12 May 2013, https://www.the7eye.org.il/62652
 Sternhell, The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition, 35.
by Aristotle Kallis
For centuries ‘civilisation’ has been a loaded, unstable, and ambiguous term. It has been used as a description of the present but also as an aspirational projection of a process that promises to lead to perfection. It could be seen to designate a positive process and trajectory, as well as a desired destination in the future; or conversely it could be suggestive of liberation from the ghosts of a supposedly primitive and barbaric prior human state. At times claimed to be objective or subjective, absolute or relative, universal or culture-specific, permanent or temporary and reversible, ‘civilisation’ has proved to be a formidable discursive formation that thrives in controversial polysemy.
If ‘civilisation’ is hard to pin down, its dialectical opposites too has eluded specificity. Was civilisation the antithesis or overcoming of barbarism or did it co-exist with it in a state of unity of opposites? Was it all about a zero-sum game, whereby gains in civilisation presupposed broadly equivalent distancing from a state of barbarity, and vice versa? And, perhaps more importantly, was the ‘civilising’ trajectory linear, progressive, and path-dependent or could it become subject to unpredictable movements in the opposite direction?
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Exhibit number 1. In 1939, the German sociologist Norbert Elias, by that time living in Britain after having fled his home country in the wake of Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in 1933, published his mammoth treatise Über den Prozess der Zivilisation (translated in English as The Civilizing Process). Elias saw both courtoisie—deliberate references to courtly life—and civilité as the ancestors of civilisation; but it was the middle stage (civilité), he claimed, that witnessed the cultural embedding of civility in everyday behaviour as the key driver of the ‘civilising process’. Elias also identified the gradual monopolisation and strict regulation of violence by the various institutional appendages of the modern state as conducive to a longer-term shift from externally imposed control of behaviour to individual self-restraint. The ‘civilising process’ then was the historical engine room of ‘civilisation’, the latter analysed by Elias as the cumulative outcome of deeper, sedimented over the long(er) term, changes in society (sociogenesis) that in turn effected, over time, appreciable transformations in individual and collective human behaviour (psychogenesis). This historical translation of sociogenetic/structural changes into psychogenetic/behavioural shifts underpinned and explained the gradual move towards more individual self-discipline and pacification—both qualities that Elias identified as critical to the ‘civilising process’.
It took more than three decades for Elias’s work to gain international recognition (courtesy of its translation and updated publication in English in 1969). During this long hiatus between the publication of the original German text and its English translation, his interpretive schema had been put to an extreme stress test by the atrocities of WW2 and the revelation of the full horror of the Holocaust. The interwar crisis, and the rise of National Socialism in particular, had already left a mark on the original 1939 edition, when Elias observed that the 1920s and 1930s represented a challenge to his overall historical schema:
"in the period following World War I, as compared to the pre-war period, a ‘relaxation of morals’ appears to have occurred. A number of constraints imposed on behaviour before the war have weakened or disappeared entirely. Many things forbidden earlier are now permitted. And seen at close quarters, the movement seems to be proceeding in the direction opposite to shown here."
Nevertheless this and other ‘fluctuations … criss-cross movements, shifts and spurts’ in history ought not to ‘obscure the general trend’. The ‘civilising process’, he argued, ‘does not follow a straight line’ and is prone to ‘very slight recession(s)’. More than half a century later, Elias revisited his original ‘civilising process’ thesis, this time confronting the full dystopian panorama of Nazi brutality, including of course the Holocaust and the institution of the industrialised death camp. In the face of such a devastating ‘counter-spurt’, Elias conceded that the ‘final solution’ constituted a callous reversal of the ‘civilising process’ and evidence of decivilisation that pointed, in his view, to the ‘deepest regression into barbarism’.
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Exhibit number 2. When interviewed in 1991 about his early life in 1930s Shanghai, the author J G Ballard observed wryly:
"Many people have said to me, ‘What an extraordinary life you’ve had’, but of course my childhood in Shanghai was far closer to the way the majority of people on this planet, in previous centuries and in the 20th century, have lived than, say, life in Western Europe and the United States. It’s we here, in our quiet suburbs and our comparatively peaceful cities, who are the anomalies."
For Ballard ‘civilisation’ is skin-deep, fragile, transient and unpredictable, more akin to a randomly generated pattern than to a temporal arrow pointing purposefully towards the promise of a ‘better’ future. In his view, under the thin veneer of civilised society contradictory human passions continue to seethe and even intensify because of their proscribed, taboo status, at every moment threatening the comforting fantasy of purposeful collective progress. Civilisation was like the ‘thin crust of lava spewed from a volcano’, its apparent stability being more a wishful projection than an empirically validated condition. ‘If you set foot on it’, he continued, ‘you may feel the fire (underneath)’. Unsurprisingly perhaps to anyone familiar with Ballard’s dystopian fiction, his message was pessimistically cautionary: ‘we have to admit that humanity is not completely civilisable’ and therefore, as ‘the real hurricanes are starting to blow more strongly … (a)nd the wind in our heads is getting stronger day by day’, humankind had to accept that whatever we may celebrate as ‘civilisation’ was fragile, contingent, cancellable. Rather than bending inexorably towards progress, the arch of history in the Ballardian universe remained decidedly crooked.
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Exhibit number 3. Zygmunt Bauman’s analysis of the Nazi ‘final solution’ as ‘rare, yet significant and reliable, test of the hidden possibilities of modern society’ involved a stinging critique of the ‘civilising process’. Bauman called it a ‘myth’ constructed on the wobbly foundations of a ‘morally elevating story of humanity emerging from pre-social barbarity’:
"in view of this myth (civilising process) … we do not have as yet enough civilisation. The unfinished civilising process is yet to be brought to its conclusion. If the lesson of mass murder does teach us anything it is that the prevention of similar hiccups of barbarism evidently requires still more civilising efforts. There is nothing in this lesson to cast doubt on the future effectiveness of such efforts and their ultimate results. We certainly move in the right direction; perhaps we do not move fast enough."
Rather than viewing the Nazi spasm of genocidal violence as a deviation from a normative historical path and a gross aberration of (Enlightenment) ‘civilisation’ (a view that historians often put forward post-WW2), Bauman contended that uncivility and violence were intrinsic to modern ‘civilisation’. He argued that modernity has provided the crucial wherewithal—technological, organisational, moral—to use violence in peerlessly extreme and devastating ways, not to mention at the service of chillingly brutal ends. Therefore, far from being a hallowed state at the end of a supposedly meaningful historical development, ‘civilisation’ was in no way antithetical to ‘barbarism’; in fact, very often the line separating the two was agonisingly thin and twisted.
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The civilisation–barbarism conundrum posed in different ways by the three authors above highlights the contested meaning of ‘civilisation’ itself. For Elias civilisation was the historical mean of a particular—and fortuitous—constellation of (western) modernity that gradually took hold and generated powerful ‘civilising’ path dependences in the development of societies. It may have been a story without start or linear progression but it had produced a range of structural, attitudinal, and behavioural shifts whose effect he viewed as positive and in sharp ethical contrast to its antithesis, ‘barbarism’. Responding to the darkest episodes of the twentieth century that he lived through and experienced in a profoundly personal way, Elias concluded reluctantly that the ‘civilising process’ was not a failsafe guarantee against ‘barbarism’—but the latter was presented as the temporary or partial exception on a micro-historical sense that did not threaten the macro-historical direction of travel.
Bauman, on the other hand, narrated a very different story about modernity, this time one in which modern civilisation was potentially generative of unpredictable and uncontrollable excess. This potential for excess, reaching one of its most devastating spasm in the ‘final solution’, was no deviation from modern civilisation, no ‘counter-spurt’ in an assumed civilisational mainstream as per Elias’s own terminology, but structurally intrinsic to it. Thus Bauman’s ‘civilisation’ was a protean construct, capable of the ‘civilising’ and the ‘barbaric’ all at once, as well as evidently prone to excess, violence, and transgression when safeguards and regulation failed:
"the most vaunted accomplishments of modern civilisation failed as safeguards against barbarism. Civilisation proved incapable of guaranteeing moral use of the awesome powers it brought into being."
Ballard’s views on ‘civilisation’-versus-‘barbarism’ shared Elias’s understanding of the former as something positive and the latter as its inversion. He also echoed Bauman’s ambivalence vis-à-vis modernity as an essentially Janus-faced project, capable of generating both positive and devastating potentialities. Where Ballard stood on his own, however, was in his pessimistic view of the balance between civilisation and barbarism: if for Elias the latter was the short-term exception to the former, and for Bauman its alter ego, Ballard saw civilisation as a short, always fragile islet in the midst of multiple flows of fiery lava. He thus effectively inverted Elias’s image of exception: it was civilisation, not barbarism, that resembled a quirky and unpredictable counter-spurt. Violence and rupture, on the other hand, were never too far away, never contained, let alone tamed. To Bauman’s warning about barbarism as a mere potentiality towards which society could drift, Ballard revealed how violent excess inhered in a million everyday ‘normalities’, behaviours, and sedimented habits untouched (perhaps even untouchable?) by civilisation or modernity. That violence appeared so contained and inconspicuous in comparison to the past was not because it had now become uncommon but because it has mutated into a pervasive new normality. Thus the seeming absence of violence as the benchmark of modern civilisation was little more than a collective cultural blind spot: it appeared rare and exceptional because it had become more and more widely pervasive and routinised that it barely registered on the standard-resolution monitors of everyday life.
I am arguably exaggerating the difference between the three ‘exhibits’ because I wish to draw attention to a critical element that, in spite of their different vantage points, Elias, Ballard, and Bauman shared: the belief that the apparent drift to violence was the upshot of some kind of comprehensive systemic failure (Elias: ‘many things forbidden earlier are now permitted’; Bauman: ‘the most vaunted accomplishments of modern civilisation failed as safeguards against barbarism’; Ballard: ‘a continuous decline had been taking place for some time, a steady erosion of standards … a falling interest in civilised conventions of any kind’). The sobering message was that ‘civilisation’ was best understood as a social and moral stratagem to re/design norms of behaviour and—crucially from the point of view of self-preservation—delineate boundaries of (un)acceptability. These two components--norms and outermost boundaries--determine the ‘mainstream’ space of a society at a given point in time and space. Norms indicate desirable cognitive, attitudinal, and behavioural standards. Boundaries mark two critical thresholds that in theory ensure the very ‘safeguards’ that Bauman spoke about: first, the all-important boundary between legality and illicitness; and second, the more subtle and elusive (though at least as important) line that distinguishes tolerable from unacceptable social behaviour. Taken together, norms and boundaries map a vast and heterogeneous space of moral gradations from positive aspiration to the outermost fringes of tolerability and permissibility, with the overwhelming majority of a society’s members roaming the in-between spaces between the two poles.
It is the more elusive second boundary of (un)permissibility—the threshold of shame qua Elias—that presents the biggest challenge. Situated in the fuzzy hinterlands of mainstream society, it marks a constructed set of cultural and social fortifications against the kind of behaviour that, while openly challenging or even defying and subverting a society’s norms, is hard to delegitimise as stricto sensu illegal. Societies have always devised and promoted a set of norms in both positive/aspirational and negative/inhibitory iterations. Thus in many ways the obverse of the positive norm was (and is) not obvious illegality but a different, more vague kind of transgression of the threshold of tolerability.
The concept of taboo comes very close to capturing the essence and function of this threshold. It refers to a strong prohibition that is ethical rather than strictly juridical. There are sacred and secular taboos; taboos seemingly fixed and enduring or taboos that are pliable and more amenable to change or that—at a certain point in time and place—become even delegitimised; taboos so embedded in cultural and social practice that appear forbiddingly unquestionable and taboos with a shorter, more contested history that has rendered them less effective, less accepted, and thus more vulnerable to challenge. Taboos are negative norms and thus a particular society’s constructed taboos mirror to a significant extent its constructed norms and vice versa. Changes in one very often echo and reinforce changes in the other. When previous taboo prohibitions come under scrutiny or attack, it is usually because the positive assumptions and conventions that underpinned them have also lost their normative status in the eyes of social majorities or at least significant minorities.
However not all taboos are made equal. Some are universally operative and remain broadly unquestioned. Others rely more on the regularity and strength with which prohibition is directly and indirectly (through effectively aligning them with repugnance and the shame triggered by transgression) regulated. While some taboos have, over time, become embedded and reproducible without scrutiny, others are—or come to be seen in certain conditions—as imposed, undesirable, alien or counter-productive when it comes to the pursuit of other positive goals. Thus while taboos may become hard-coded into a society’s everyday practices and may appear unassailable most of the time, they may also come under scrutiny, be transgressed, abrogated or eroded, whether temporarily and conditionally or more permanently. As Georges Bataille observed, taboo and its transgression were in necessary—indeed relational—coexistence and mutual dependency.
Elias, unlike Bauman, made numerous references to the functions of ‘taboo’ prohibitions, whether directly enforceable or implicitly invoked, in his Civilizing Process. He understood a taboo as a social construct that marked and enforced the qualitative threshold of repugnance and shame. In many respects his entire ‘civilising process’ was the story of the gradually ‘expanding threshold of repugnance’ in modern (western) societies. This stretched from everyday manners and attitudes to bodily functions to broader moral questions such as attitudes to violence and empathy towards others. Here it was possible to observe the transition from sociogenesis to psychogenesis: what was initially enforced as either legal sanction or formal rebuke (shame) gradually became so deeply embedded in social and cultural practices that it was internalised and quasi-automatically reproduced by individuals and communities in the form of voluntary self-restraint. It was also in this macro-historical process that Elias grounded the entire ‘civilising process’ as positive path dependence: the forbidding net of repugnance became both thicker (stronger condemnation) and wider (extending in adjacent areas of social conduct). ‘Counter-spurts’ could be neither ruled out nor ignored for their devastating effects on the civilising process; yet they were not part of this story—hence the significance of the Eliasian imputation of ‘decivilising’ effect.
With this in mind it is perhaps easier to understand Elias’s earlier tendency to single out the experience of National Socialism and especially the Holocaust as extreme historical ‘regressions’ and lapses into ‘barbarism’. His trope of a ‘decivilising counter-spurt’ deployed the full armour of exception—a double negative in the civilising process used to intensify the negation of, and divergence from, ‘civilisation’ itself. While dealing in his later—post-WW2—work with the challenge posited by the full horror of totalitarianism and of the Nazi ‘final solution’, Elias imbued his earlier schema of the civilising process with more nuance. He did not question his earlier conviction that, over time, structural shifts became culturally embedded and effected behavioural changes. In his attempt to explain the National Socialist ‘regression’ from the canon of the civilising process, he treaded a delicate and sometimes awkward path between (German) exceptionalism and broader critiques of modernity qua Bauman. He therefore conceded that, on the one hand, the drift to extreme violence in interwar Germany was also facilitated by ‘common conditions of contemporary societies’ and that the ideas that nurtured National Socialism and ensured its social appeal in the 1930s were far from unique to Germany or even the interwar crisis.
"Few of the social and, especially, the national myths of our age are free of similar falsehoods and barbarisms. The National Socialist doctrine shows, as if in a distorting mirror, some of their common features in a glaring form." 
Still the historical specificities in the case of German history did matter because, in his view, they went a long way towards explaining the depth and severity of the Nazi ‘counter-spurt’. The problem with interwar Germany, Elias claimed, was that short-term contingencies intersected with, and intensified, longer-term peculiarities (late unification, middle-class weakness, anachronistic social structures, and so on). Sociogenetic idiosyncrasies or shortfalls graduated into allegedly irregular psychogenetic traits. The overall translation schema (from structure to behaviour) still worked as a macro-historical interpretation; the issue with modern/interwar Germany was with the particular long-term social and political trajectory that had produced the particular structures in the first instance. Taboos were in place and the threshold of repugnance had been raised, very much in line with the precepts of the ‘civilising process’. Yet at a certain point the taboos proved—perhaps, more accurately, they were revealed to be—not strong enough to regulate and enforce the prohibition, let alone to embed it as standard social practice.
Elias was only too keen to highlight how the transgression of the taboo of violence formed the backbone of the Nazi ‘regression’ into ‘barbarism’. The taboo prohibition of violence directed at other humans may be arguably rooted in the (universal) ‘animal pity by which all normal men are afflicted in the presence of human suffering’; but it can also be relativised, qualified, and effectively transgressed in a seemingly normative, legitimate and authorised disguise. The formula ‘transcending without suppressing’ identified by Bataille underlined how a taboo can be fully operative in 'normal’ times but can legitimately be transgressed when a perceived crisis, threat or emergency generated the possibility of exception—an exception within or alongside the prohibition itself. Back to the 1930s and the German case, it must be remembered that the regime headed by Hitler operated as a ‘normal’ constitutional arrangement for just twenty-nine days. In the wake of the arson attack that destroyed the Reichstag building in late February 1933 the declared ‘state of exception’ granted the executive extraordinary legal and political powers with which to counter the alleged emergency. Of course exception was not per se an illegal deviation from the constitutional order: Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution that Hitler instrumentalised in 1933 had already been used by the liberal Chancellor Gustav Stresemann in September 1923 in order to confront the Ruhr crisis. Yet while Stresemann’s use of constitutional emergency powers lasted five months, Hitler’s proved a prelude to a permanent exception and licence for transgression. The trope of crisis beget exception and exception beget the theoretically open-ended potential for deeper and wider authorised transgression. In a similar way to violence as authorised transgression in a state of war, Nazi violence was uniquely transgressive as an exception to the otherwise affirmed taboo prohibition as ‘normal’ condition.
From this point of view, what Elias saw as the ‘deepest regression into barbarism’ in the 1930s and 1940s, in Germany but arguably elsewhere as well, was not the product of failing taboos regarding civility, let alone intra-human violence. The paradox of the National Socialist violent spasm was it was peerless in the brutality of its logic, methods, and effects yet strikingly banal as an ‘exception’ and unremarkable as a step-by-step justification. Exception was practised on every level and in the name of national self-defence not in order to abrogate the taboo of violence but in order to suspend it in a limited and conditional way—only against particular groups of ‘others’, only in specific spaces, only under the guise of an ‘external war’, only for as long as it was deemed necessary in order to eliminate the claimed ‘threat’. Extreme, transgressive violence against the existentially threatening ‘other’ cohabited with intense group self-love. The problem was not only, not even primarily excess or violation per se but their conditional sanctioning and normalisation. If taboos are indeed negative norms, if they correspond to a large extent to positive projections, then the Nazis did very little to disrupt the symmetry on either end. The ‘civilising process’ carried on in principle—but for the exclusive benefit of the ethnic/racial majority. By redefining the community, ostracising a host of allegedly dangerous ‘others’, and invoking the necessity of exception, the Nazi authorities could also generate zones of authorised conditional taboo-breaking excess. Even in the darkest days of the war, the two—the taboo of violence and its extreme transgression—continued to cohabit in the same abode but in strictly quarantined rooms.
Therefore it may be that Elias posited the ‘civilising process’ in a way that was too tidy and arguably too normative. The upshot of this was he was often forced to reckon with false positives and felt the need to resort to the awkwardly dualistic explanation of ‘regression to barbarity’ in order to defend the historical validity of his overall theory of civilisation against violent ‘counter-spurts’. By comparison, Ballard’s conception of ‘civilisation’ was a much less tidy space riddled with contradictions and zigzags, where both ‘civilising’ movements and ‘decivilising’ spurts constantly fought it out without definitive winner or overall plot. Whereas Elias encountered the threshold of the taboo prohibition as the furthermost outpost of civilisation, and Bauman approached it as the point of the critical equilibrium between two anti-diametrical potentials inherent in ‘civilised’ modernity, Ballard saw it as a brittle and inevitably short-lived truce. Such an ambivalent and pessimistic view may be unsettling for it hypothesises a different kind of ‘civilisation’—one that is often self-contradictory and morally directionless, where individual self-restraint, empathy, and civility coexist incongruously with uncivility, violent excess, and taboo-breaking transgression, whether as norm or as exception or more often both. Rather than viewing the ‘civilising process’ as a story of meaningful advancement in which every ‘counter-spurt’ needs to be tagged with ‘decivilising’ effect and treated as aberrant, we may instead approach it less as ‘civilising’ (that is, conducive to ‘civilisation’ as an index of progress) and more as an essentially direction-less ‘process’ of negotiating and balancing—always precariously and inconclusively—a multitude of contradictory impulses and ’spurts’.
 Florence Delmotte and Christophe Majastre, “Violence and Civilité: The Ambivalences of the State in Norbert Elias’s Theory of Civilizing Processes”, 9th EISA Pan-European Conference (2015), 55-80.
 Bryan S. Turner, “Weber and Elias on Religion and Violence: Warrior Charisma and the Civilizing Process”, in Steven Loyal and Stephen Quilley (eds.), The Sociology of Norbert Elias (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 245–64.
 François Dépelteau, Enio Passiani, and Ricardo Mariano, “Ariel or Caliban? The Civilizing Process and Its Critiques”, in François Dépelteau and Tatiana Landini (eds.), Norbert Elias and Social Theory (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2013), 41–59.
 Dépelteau and Landini, 20-40.
 Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 157.
 Norbert Elias, The Germans: Power Struggles and the Development of Habitus in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Cambridge: Polity, 1996), 308–15.
 Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Cambridge: Polity, 2000), 12-13.
 For example, Friedrich Meinecke, The German Catastrophe: Reflections and Recollections (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1963).
 Jeffrey Herf, Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
 John Keane, Violence and Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 54–88.
 Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust, 111.
 Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 2000).
 Cristina Bicchieri, Norms in the Wild: How to Diagnose, Measure, and Change Social Norms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
 Aristotle Kallis, “When Fascism Became Mainstream: The Challenge of Extremism in Times of Crisis”, Fascism 4(1) (2015), 6–11.
 Chaim Fershtman, Uri Gneezy, and Moshe Hoffman, “Taboos and Identity: Considering the Unthinkable”, American Economic Journal: Microeconomics 3(2) (2011), 139–64.
 Bicchieri, Norms in the Wild, viii.
 Benjamin Noys, Georges Bataille: A Critical Introduction (London: Pluto Press, 2000), 84–6.
 Elias, The Civilizing Process, 71–99.
 Stephen Mennell, “Decivilising Processes: Theoretical Significance and Some Lines of Research”, International Sociology 5(2) (1990), 205–23; Jonathan Fletcher, “Towards a Theory of Decivilizing Processes”, Amsterdams Sociologisch Tijdschrift 22(2) (1995), 283–96.
 Stephen Mennell, “The Other Side of the Coin: Decivilising Processes”, in Thomas Salumets (ed.) Norbert Elias and Human Interdependencies (Montreal, QC: McGill–Queen’s University Press, 2001), 32-49; Mennell, “Decivilising processes”.
 Elias, The Germans, 302–3, 315.
 Eric Dunning and Stephen Mennell, “Elias on Germany, Nazism and the Holocaust: On the Balance Between ‘Civilizing’ and ‘Decivilizing’ Trends in the Social Development of Western Europe”, The British Journal of Sociology 49(3) (1998), 339; cf. Moses on Elias, 'The Germans: Power Struggles and the Development of Habitus in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries’, H-German, February 1999, available at https://networks.h-net.org/node/35008/reviews/43630/moses-elias-germans-power-struggles-and-development-habitus-nineteenth
 Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2006), 106.
 Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 15.
 Agamben, State of Exception, 3.
 Georges Bataille, Death and Sensuality (New York, NY: Walker and Co, 1962), 71–80; Stuart Kendall, Georges Bataille (London: Reaktion Books, 2007), 151–8.
 Karel Plessini, The Perils of Normalcy: George L. Mosse and the Remaking of Cultural History (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), 93–130.