British historian Ian Kershaw once wrote that »trying to define ›fascism‹ is like trying to nail jelly to the wall.« In The New Faces of Fascism: Populism and the Far Right, Enzo Traverso offers a nuanced approach to the slippery and unstable manifestations of post-fascism, characterized by the alt-right, white nationalism, and right-wing extremism, among contemporary movements. Describing both »the present as history« and »history in the present,« Traverso analyzes the »unfinished mutations« of the far right against the century-long backdrop of fascism in Europe, focusing on its ongoing transformation and metastasis across the continent and worldwide, its inherent contradictions notwithstanding.

Excerpt from Enzo Traverso, The New Faces of Fascism: Populism and the Far Right, Verso, 2019 — Jun 22, 2021

If »populism« is often defined as a form of »anti-politics,« one has to understand what this term really means. For Pierre Rosanvallon, populism is a »pathological« form of politics, that is, the »pure politics of the unpolitical« (la politique pure de limpolitique).1 The triumph of the »unpolitical« (or anti-politics) simply means that representative democracy is paralysed and ultimately »vampirized« by »counterdemocracy,« a set of counterpowers that is both needed by democracy and susceptible to killing it. This could appear as a naïve return to Rousseau, but instruments for evaluating and putting checks on power – referendums, transparency, permanent controls, elimination of any intermediate bodies between the citizens and power – may destroy democracy when they bring the principle of representation itself into question. According to Rosanvallon, these counterpowers create a gap »between civic-civil society and the political sphere« that can be both fruitful and dangerous: on the one hand, »social distrust can encourage a salutary civic vigilance and thus oblige government to pay greater heed to social demands«; on the other, »it can also encourage destructive forms of denigration and negativity.«2

»Postfascism does not want to rebuild colonial empires or foment war, and its opposition to Western wars in the Middle East on first glance looks like »pacifism.««

The philosopher Roberto Esposito defines »the impolitical« (impolitico) as a disillusioned approach to politics that reduces it to pure »factuality,« to pure materiality: the classic Schmittean vision of modern politics as a secularized form of the old political theology has become obsolete.3 Modern politics consisted of the sacralization of secular institutions – first of all the state sovereign power, then the Parliament and the Constitution – as a substitute for the old monarchy based on divine right. The emblems and the liturgies of absolutism were replaced by republican rituals and symbols. In this vision, political forces embody values; political representation has an almost sacred connotation and pluralism expresses a conflict of ideas, a powerful intellectual commitment. Today’s statesmen universally consider themselves good pragmatic (and, most important, »postideological«) managers. Politics has ceased to embody values and has instead become a site for the pure »governance« and distribution of power, of the administration of huge resources. In the political field, they no longer fight for ideas, but instead build careers. The »impolitical« reveals the material reality that underlies political representation. What today is usually called »anti-politics« is the reaction against contemporary politics, which has been divested of its sovereign powers – mostly subsisting as empty institutions – and reduced to its »material constitution« – the »impolitical« – that is, a mixture of economic powers, bureaucratic machines, and an army of political intermediaries. Viewed as the embodiment of »anti-politics,« populism has countless critics. But these critics are mostly silent on its real causes. Anti-politics is the result of the hollowing out of politics. In the last three decades, the alternation of power between center-left and center-right governments has not meant any essential policy change. For the alternation of power means a change in the personnel who are administrating public resources, each using his or her own networks and patronage structures, rather than any change of government policies. This development is combined with two other significant transformations in both civil society and state politics. On the one hand, we see the growing reification of public space – the site of a critical use of reason in which the authorities’ actions are analyzed and criticized4 – for this space has been absorbed by media monopolies and the communications industry. On the other hand, the traditional separation of powers is put into question by a continuing shift of prerogatives from the legislative to the executive power. In this permanent state of exception, parliaments are dismissed from their original function of making laws and compelled to simply ratify laws that have already been decided by the executive. In such a context, it is inevitable that »anti-politics« will grow. The critics who denounce populist »anti-politics« are often the same people responsible for these transformations: pyromaniacs disguised as firemen.

Postfascism no longer has the »strong« values of its 1930s ancestors, but it purports to fill the vacuum that has been left by a politics reduced to the impolitical. Its recipes are politically reactionary and socially regressive: they involve the restoration of national sovereignty, the adoption of forms of economic protectionism, and the defense of endangered »national identities.« As politics has fallen into discredit, the postfascists uphold a plebiscitary model of democracy that destroys any process of collective deliberation in favor of a relationship that merges people and leader, the nation and its chief. The term »impolitical« has a long history dating back to Thomas Mann, one of the leading representatives of the Conservative Revolution in Germany at the end of World War I.5 But contemporary forms of anti-politics do not only belong to the right. In Italy, the Five Star Movement incarnates a regressive critique of representative democracy, but it is also able to canalize the search for an alternative to the current crisis of politics. Nonetheless, it is clear that any attempt to stigmatize »anti-politics« by defending actually existing politics is doomed in advance.

The new forces of the radical right certainly do have some features in common – first and foremost, xenophobia, with a renovated kind of rhetoric. They have abandoned the old clichés of classical racism, even though their xenophobia is indeed directed against immigrants or populations with postcolonial origins. Second, Islamophobia, the core of this new nationalism, has replaced anti-Semitism. We shall return to this point. They certainly also have other themes in common, but nationalism, anti-globalization, protectionism, and authoritarianism can be embodied in very different ways, with certain ideological shifts. The National Front no longer calls for the reintroduction of the death penalty, but it demands a strong government and a sovereign state that refuses to submit to the power of finance: it proposes an authoritarian, autarchic nationalism.

There is a certain coherence to such discourse, even if no longer grounded in a strong ideology. The militarist and imperialist rhetoric of Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco is no longer credible. Postfascism does not want to rebuild colonial empires or foment war, and its opposition to Western wars in the Middle East on first glance looks like »pacifism.« Of course, even classical fascism was characterized by incoherence, tension, and conflict. Italian Fascism and German Nazism brought together a variety of tendencies, from the futurist avant-garde to conservative romanticism, from agrarian mythologies to eugenics. As we shall see, French fascism was a galaxy of political forces, »leagues« and groups far beyond Marshal Pétain’s »National Revolution.« In the 1920s and 1930s, however, ideology played a very important role in this galaxy – and certainly far more so than it does among the forces of the radical right today. Behind the National Front we do not see intellectual figures comparable to the Action Française leaders Maurice Barrès and Charles Maurras, or to Robert Brasillach and Henri de Man, the exponents of collaborationism in Nazi-occupied Paris and Brussels.


This is an additional symptom of an unfinished mutation, which puts into question the traditional categories used to analyze the far right. Beyond the differences between the French, Italian, and German cases, the ambition of classical fascism was to ground its politics in a new project and a new worldview. It purported to be »revolutionary«; it wanted to build a new civilization and sought a »third way« between liberalism and communism.6 Today, this is no longer the concern of the radical right. Historically, fascist nationalism needed to set itself in opposition to some sort of Other. First came the Jew, the mythical vision of a sort of anti-race, a foreign body that sought to corrupt the nation. Added to this was a sexist and misogynous worldview in which women would always remain submissive. Women were considered the reproducers of the race; they had to take care of the home and raise children and not play a role in public life.7 One could point to cases like Italian fascist Minister of Culture Margherita Sarfatti (who was also Jewish) or the propagandist Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, but they were exceptions. Homosexuality was another figure of the anti-race, the embodiment of the moral weakness and decadent mores that stood at odds with the fascist cult of virility.8 Today, all this rhetoric has disappeared, even if homophobia and anti-feminism are very much widespread among the radical right voters. In fact, such movements often claim to be defending women’s and gay rights against

Islamism. Pim Fortuyn and then his successor Geert Wilders in the Netherlands are the best-known examples of this LGBT conservatism, but they are not exceptions. In Germany, Alternative für Deutschland is opposed to gay marriage, but its speaker in the Bundestag is Alice Weidel, a lesbian. Florian Philippot, the former secretary of the National Front, does not hide his homosexuality, and Renaud Camus is an icon of French gay conservatism.


Postfascism starts out from antifeminism, anti-Black racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia; the radical right continues to bring these impulses together. The most obscurantist layers vote for the National Front, but at the same time, the latter adopts wholly new themes and social practices, which do not belong to its own genetic code. Thus, Marine Le Pen’s ambiguous position on gay marriage and the Manif pour tous is not simply a tactical choice. It reflects a historical change that the far right has been forced to acknowledge, in order to avoid becoming marginalized. The European societies of the early twenty-first century are not what they were in the 1930s: today, advocating the relegation of women to the domestic sphere would be as anachronistic as demanding the return of French colonial rule in Algeria. Marine Le Pen is herself a product of this change and is well-aware that remaining bound to old ideological clichés would mean alienating wide layers of the population.

»In fact, such movements often claim to be defending women’s and gay rights against Islamism.«

What was most striking with the Manif pour tous (beyond the idiosyncratic and ultrareactionary aspect of certain groups) was the fact that conservative opinion, which we often call the »silent majority,« was now taking over the streets. And this occupation of public space involved the adoption of aesthetic codes that come from the left – think of the posters of May ’68 – and whose meaning the protestors had inverted. This appropriation and diversion of symbols and slogans that do not belong to their own history reveals a certain degree of »emancipation« from the right-wing »canon,« as well as a general redefinition of the intellectual landscape.9

The main feature of today’s postfascism is precisely the contradictory coexistence of the inheritance of classical fascism with new elements that do not belong to its tradition. Wider developments have encouraged this change. The National Front is engaging in politics in today’s world, a world in which both the public sphere and the political field have experienced a deep metamorphosis. The twentieth century had its great mass parties, which had their own ideological bedrock, their own social base, a national structure, and deep roots in civil society. None of this exists anymore. Political parties no longer need an ideological arsenal. Across Europe, governing parties of both left and right no longer need to recruit intellectuals; they instead recruit experts in advertising and communications. This is also true of the National Front, which assiduously manicures its image, its slogans, and its talking points. Political style is becoming ever more important, precisely insofar as ideology is disappearing.

Faced with this new context, nationalism no longer seeks to define the national community in racial, cultural, or religious terms, but rather in terms of resistance against the threat of globalization.

  1. Pierre Rosanvallon: Counter-Democracy: Politics in an Age of Distrust, Cambridge UK 2008, p. 22.

  2. Ibid., p. 253, p. 24.

  3. Roberto Esposito: Categories of the Impolitical, New York  2015; Carl Schmitt: Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, George Schwab (ed.), Chicago 2006.

  4. Jürgen Habermas: The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Cambridge, UK 1991.

  5. Thomas Mann: Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man. Walter D. Morris (ed.), New York 1983.

  6. George L. Mosse: The Fascist Revolution: Toward a General Theory of Fascism, New York 2000.

  7. Claudia Koonz: Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family, and Nazi Politics, New York: St. Martin Press, 1987; Victoria de Grazia: How Fascism Ruled Women, Berkeley 1993.

  8. George L. Mosse: The Image of Man: The Invention of Modern Masculinity, New York 1998.

  9. Camille Robcis: »Catholics, the ›Theory of Gender,‹ and the Turn to the Human in France: A New Dreyfus Affair?,« in: Journal of Modern History, 87, 2015, pp: 893–923.