James Foley

James Foley

Madeleine Albright’s Anti-Fascism

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Reviewing a book by the late US empire-builder Madeleine Albright, James Foley argues US state-backed ‘anti-fascism’ is a trap for anyone on the radical left.

Did the late Madeleine Albright call Donald Trump a fascist? While the marketing of her Fascism: A Warning tantalised angry liberals with this promise, Albright ultimately declined to play the tune the audience paid to hear. Despite structuring the book to imply it, despite advancing a heroically broad, catch-all definition of fascism, despite many insinuations, she falls, in the end, on the side of intellectual restraint. Donald Trump isn’t a fascist, and yet this is a book, by all appearances, about fascism, and about Trump.

To illustrate what she does say in the book, her key indictment of Trump reads like this:

Decades ago, George Orwell suggested that the best one-word description of a Fascist was “bully,” and on the day of the Normandy invasion, Franklin Roosevelt prayed to the Almighty for a “peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men.” By contrast, President Trump’s eyes light up when strongmen steamroll opposition, brush aside legal constraints, ignore criticism, and do whatever it takes to get their way.

While this might feel emotionally satisfying, as definitions of fascists go, “bully” is not among the best, and carries obvious risks: the idea that fascism is merely a form of advanced nastiness, for one thing, detracts from the more worrying fact that well-adjusted “ordinary” people are capable not just of conforming but even, at times, of leading under fascism regimes. And while many fascists are bullies, it would be a different moral universe if all bullies were fascists.

Nonetheless, the passage gives a good illustration of Albright’s characteristic mode of teasing her liberal readers with indictments based on guilt-by-association. Officially, Fascism: A Warning is a warning about fascism; more accurately it’s a series of sketches implicitly structured around stylistic resemblances between Donald Trump and various historical enemies of America, some fascist, some not fascist even by Albright’s expansive definition of the term.

In the Orwell original that forms the basis of Albright’s indictment, he does indeed use “bully” as a synonym for fascist. Sort of. But Albright’s “bully” allusion, with its unembarrassed appeal to an anti-totalitarian authority figure, refers to an essay that largely laments the stupidity of tarring political opponents with the fascist brush. Orwell strikes a much more cautious tone when it comes to condemning more banal adversaries by association.

“When we apply the term ‘Fascism’ to Germany or Japan or Mussolini’s Italy, we know broadly what we mean,” Orwell writes. “It is in internal politics that this word has lost the last vestige of meaning. For if you examine the press you will find that there is almost no set of people — certainly no political party or organized body of any kind — which has not been denounced as Fascist during the past ten years…”

This common usage, Orwell suggests, had basically destroyed the word’s significance. ”It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless…I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.”

Orwell reverts to the “bully” definition in the spirit of ironic defeat. Yes, he says, ultimately fascism is a distinct social and economic order, and one day, in less heated circumstances (he was writing in 1944), historians will need to define it properly. But the term is so abused in everyday journalism and conversation and coloured by ideological narrowness in intellectual debate that we might as well just admit what ordinary people mean when, in sheer frustration at some officious bureaucrat, they yell “Fascist!”

“Even the people who recklessly fling the word ‘Fascist’ in every direction attach at any rate an emotional significance to it,” he notes. “By ‘Fascism’ they mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class.” Nonetheless, he ultimately returns to conclude his essay with a sharp note of caution: “all one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.”

Nobody should worry that calling Donald Trump, Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage a fascist might hurt their feelings. Nor should we agonise over whether the insults we throw at them are fair or unbiased, as if they are even-handed in their rhetoric about minorities and immigrants. The logic of “they go low, we go high” has clearly failed, so the above are fair game for name-calling.

There is also no denying that, in the shape of Golden Dawn and Jobbik, genuinely fascistic elements have stalked European politics in recent years. The fact that Albright shows no interest in these movements (presumably because they don’t have a celebrity, bully-boy leader figure and thus do not conform to her theory) should not disguise the fact that genuinely fascist successor elements do exist, right down to the neo-pagan symbolism, and there should be no shying away from combatting their thuggery on the streets or within politics and the security state.

What Orwell said then is still true now. When people throw the word around in everyday conversation – “Britain is going fascist”, “Trump’s fascist America” – we know what they mean. Our countries are led by unpleasant characters who appeal to low, ugly, and racist sentiments. There is something joyful about calling a bully a fascist, and if Albright was merely trolling some unpleasant nationalists, that would be infinitely better. But Fascism is not written for Donald Trump. This book exists for the broadly defined “progressive” marketplace, as a solemn warning from history seeking to awaken urgency in the professional class and “the left”, and it should be judged on those terms.

The question, then, is whether a logically coherent account of “fascism” really matters. There are two main reasons why it should, and why Albright’s book is a backwards step for progressive politics. On the one hand, by pointing to or insinuating the risk of fascism everywhere, by indiscriminately using it to label every bigot or authoritarian conservative who holds office, the risk is cynicism and indifference. Fascism loses its evil aura, its sense of being extra-ordinary, and becomes an ironic protest symbol, like Stalinist iconography to irony-poisoned teenagers.

Alternatively, the sheer horrors of historical fascism – particularly in its Nazi form – may present opposite risks. Here, fascism is an emergency of such terrible proportions that rationality must be suspended and humanity as such must declare for abstract unity against abstract evil, obliterating all other political differences and nuances, as if we were faced with an alien invasion. In the process, all earlier ideological disagreement are suspended in defence of society as such. This has been the prevailing mode of reasoning among erstwhile leftists who have suspended their critical distance from liberalism.

Paradoxically, this illustrates precisely why we should read Fascism, because Albright’s book illustrates the dangerous repercussions of signing up to any old anti-fascist crusade. Even beyond the throwaway “bully” line, Albright defines fascism broadly enough to indict almost any global leader – Trump included – as a fascist, and, if that broad thesis was explored to rigorous limits, it would make for a rather more interesting book. But this is Madeleine Albright, a figure of global significance, part of the furniture of geopolitical liberalism. So, while Fascism’s methodology implies a maverick rereading of history, this radical logic rarely intrudes on a predictable narrative.

Her book embroils America’s foreign policy elite in precisely zero self-examination. Her targets, invariably, are standard geopolitical enemies. The radically broad definition of fascism is thus merely a micro-logic for indicting US adversaries and other geopolitical riffraff, while involving domestic Republicans in guilt by association. Put simply, it’s an exercise in “double standards”, or, more bluntly, hypocrisy.

Thus, for Albright, we need to talk about fascism – or, more precisely, leaders with fascistic tendencies – as it pertains to Hugo Chavez, Kim Jong-Un, Putin, and Erdogan (the book having emerged, of course, after his initial Obama bromance turned sour). By contrast, fascists do not include, say, the Generals Mobutu, Pinochet, and Suharto, or contemporary strategic associates like Saudi Arabia, Colombia, or, heaven forfend, Israel (who could accuse the IDF of bullying behaviour?).

And, in building up alarm over Trump’s role in inspiring illiberal democrats, Albright absolves the rest of American domestic and (more importantly) geopolitical history. There are some astonishing passages:

I am drawn again to my conclusion that a Fascist is someone who claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is utterly unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use violence and whatever other means are necessary to achieve the goals he or she might have. Throughout my adult life, I have felt that America could be counted on to put obstacles in the way of any such leader, party, or movement. I never thought that, at age eighty, I would begin to have doubts. The shadow looming over these pages is, of course, that of Donald Trump…Trump is the first anti-democratic president in modern U.S. history.

This is worth reading twice. Albright has asked the reader to believe that, throughout the Cold War and its aftermath (Albright’s adult life), America always stood opposed to authoritarian, bullying leaders, so much so that she never harboured a single doubt about America’s democratising credentials – until 2016. Moreover, she considers this point so self-evident that she makes no effort to consider counterarguments and examples.

Albright, remember, has occupied the upper reaches of the American geopolitical establishment since the 1970s. The US quite openly sponsored a range of authoritarian dictatorships and unsavoury nationalist regimes throughout Albright’s lifetime (in one solitary sentence, she seems to acknowledge this with a long list of Cold War ‘whoopsies’, presented as a list of countries rather than names of the despots who led them with American support; but the implications of this list for her overall thesis are not explored).

Thus, the US-backed juntas (and death squads) throughout Latin America – Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, and so on – took the Fascist regimes of 1930s Southern Europe as their blueprint. Certainly, by Albright’s minimalist definition all these regimes are unarguably fascist. By the much stricter academic schools for studying fascism as a phenomenon, whether on materialist or idealist theoretical grounds, they are still plausibly fascist. Democratic freedom fighters they were not, unless liberals suddenly subscribe to the Oliver North school of history.

Suharto’s regime in Indonesia, which began by slaughtering millions of political opponents before moving on to genocide in East Timor, is almost certainly fascist by any definition, rigorous or woolly; it enjoyed generous US backing for much of Albright’s adult life. The Shah of Iran was little better, and Saddam Hussein, at his most murderous and fascistic, enjoyed America’s backing (strangely, he gets little or no mention, presumably to avoid the uncomfortable and divisive topic of ‘what happened in Iraq’, most especially her own infamous assertion that the lives of 500,000 dead Iraqi children was “worth it” to maintain a sanctions regime that only strengthened Hussein).

As a narrative of American involvement in history, Fascism is an exercise in bad faith, designed to soothe post-2016 guilty consciences, presenting Trump as a ‘foreign invader’ or ‘outside agitator’ who disrupted an otherwise virtuous legacy. Unless you emotionally incline to an extreme notion of Uncle Sam the honest broker and all-round good egg, Fascism is the crudest form of ideology, instrumentalising history to rescue feel-good patriotism from a feel-bad presidency.

Albright never has the chutzpah to simply state that Stalinism is fascism. However, she takes pains to point out fascism has left-wing and right-wing forms – this thesis is simply asserted rather than defended – and a large part of this book on fascism is dedicated either to Communist regimes or to left populists such as Chavez. This, again, utilises the methodology of superficial resemblances. For example:

In 1923 in Bavaria, Hitler attempted a putsch that flopped due to lack of military support. In 1992 in Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, then an ambitious lieutenant colonel, tried something similar, sending tanks and troops to assault the presidential palace…Like Hitler, he had essentially committed treason and yet was released within two years. Like Hitler, Mussolini, and Perón, he graduated from prison to politics.

As if this wasn’t damning enough, the evidence mounts: Chavez “referred to the wealthy as putrid oligarchs, spoiled brats, pickpockets, and pigs; called business leaders vampires and worms; and denounced Roman Catholic priests as perverts.” Most incriminating of all, “notwithstanding his cordial encounter with Bill Clinton and me, he regularly insulted the United States for no apparent reason other than to have an enemy to rail against, and, perhaps, to please his new mentor in Havana, Fidel Castro.”

Yet, just as hysteria is about to descend, Albright’s cautious instincts intrude. Innuendo hinting at the worst is balanced by passages that paint Chavez in an almost positive light. “He did all he could to tilt the political process in his favor, but that is not the only reason he won election after election—four in all”, she observes.

During his tenure, his countrymen received better health care than before and ate more, paid less for gasoline and cooking oil, earned higher wages, and could afford nicer apartments. Just as important, Chávez allowed Venezuelans in humble circumstances to feel that they were an integral part of the country. He spoke directly to them, appointed them to community action councils, gave them decision-making power in farming cooperatives and factories, begged for their votes, answered their requests, asked them about their children, and listened to their stories.

Overall, she seems to summarise, “The presidency of Hugo Chávez was both an authentic expression of democracy and a danger to it.” If she stopped it there, this would be a reasonable conclusion, especially given the subsequent experience of Maduro. But, just as the chapter draws to a close, the red mist descends: “Chávez yearned for a place alongside Bolívar in the pantheon of his country and region. That lofty wish brought him to the outskirts of Fascism.” With a Mussolini-esque capital F.

This is no defence of Chávez per se, but, while he was winning election after election, largely by legitimate means, in neighbouring Colombia minority leaders and critical journalists and academics were being murdered with impunity at the rate of hundreds per year by the army or forces close to the government. “Plan Colombia”, which lavishly funded branches of the armed forces linked to far-right paramilitary death squads, was designed under Albright’s watch, when she was America’s leading foreign policy figure. She does mention Colombia in Fascism, but only to say that its minimum wage was higher than in Chavez’s Venezuela.

Trump and fascism are the surface elements, but the true theme is something deeper. This is a book about the value of myth, specifically the myth of American good intentions and moral exceptionalism: the unstated thesis is that the world needs the fantasy of American virtue to keep democracy alive. Even as America sponsored dictators and death squads, belief in the essential moral character of the President, as the personification of state power, was dutifully observed amid party-political squabbling. Trump’s crime, in that regard, is to pull the curtain aside, to display in manners and style the vulgarity, bigotry and might-makes-right cynicism that was always inherent in the American mode of statecraft.

In an earlier era, America fought the Cold War under the banner of democratic values that were nearly always betrayed in practice. Hardened foreign policy cynics, of the Samuel Huntington variety, would have argued that such values were better honoured in the breach than in the observance. But the old cynicism fell from fashion as the Soviet enemy collapsed, leading to a dominant discourse where all barriers were collapsing under the popular pressure of globalisation, as the world moved ineluctably to embrace globalisation. For a while, dictatorships, Suharto’s and Pinochet’s included, seemed to fall. American “interventions” continued, but, with the end of the Cold War, there was now a greater requirement to defend these in “humanitarian” terms. Any lingering liberal doubts about American power started to recede.

Yet the dissolution of old regimes did not herald a “borderless world” safe for liberal values and American capital. Enforced privatisations in Russia left economic collapse that paved the way for Putin’s nationalist revival. Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the moral emptiness of free market reform made it easy prey for authoritarian conservatives. The showpiece overthrow of old fashioned Arab nationalist dictators Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi left chaos and a breeding ground for nihilistic terror cults. India, the world’s largest democracy, abandoned cosmopolitan pretences and embraced Hindu nationalism. China’s brutal state capitalism thrived and was the only true beacon to developing states in the neoliberal world economy. The 2008 crisis and its aftermath brought the legitimacy crisis home to the most established capitalist states in Euro-America.

Then Donald Trump came along, simultaneous with Brexit, and even the most optimistic liberals knew that ‘end of history’ optimism was over. American liberalism was a drugged-up party at 7am: most of the partygoers have long gone, some are asleep on the sofa, a dedicated hardcore of revellers yell for one more tune, while neighbours threaten to call the police.

For all that Trump lies and lies and lies again, his true crime, in liberal eyes, was to tell cynical, taboo-breaking truths. Once, a liberal journalist asked him about Putin’s practice of killing journalists, and Trump responded, “I think our country does plenty of killing also”. This drew immediate outrage, though nobody explained precisely why the claim was so outrageous. If Trump’s claim was ‘fake news’ or ‘misinformation’, it only illustrates the dirty truth about those terms: that ‘fakeness’ is less about the truth of statements than about their danger, the risk that the wrong information in the wrong hands might embolden nebulously defined enemies.

‘Fascism’, in Albright’s hands, plays a similar instrumental function. It has been degraded, not to a simple swear-word, as Orwell warned, but rather to the purpose of rationalising the universalist purposes of a retreating Empire. That comes with its own risks. Albright was neither the best nor the worst of her type: for any US Secretary of State, part of the job is defending the indefensible, so the worst indictment of Albright is not her complicity in atrocity, per se, but the fact that, by the evidence of this book, she drew only self-serving lessons from those experiences.

But the true problem here is the vacuum of an autonomous left. The decline of organised socialism and the consequent rise of moralistic liberal formations orbiting power leaves gaping holes in historical memory. ‘Anti-fascism’ can thus serve the purposes of the ultra-powerful, most especially the American security state who, through much of Cold War and post-Cold War history, have been among the main sponsors of the radical right worldwide. And barely anyone seems to care about these little details, because Donald Trump, after all, is a very bad man.

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