SLOBODAN MILOSEVIC has opened the way to a fascist dictatorship, according to Milovan Djilas, the veteran former Communist who turned against Tito's regime in Yugoslavia. If he is right, Serbia will be the first fascist state to be set up in Europe since the Second World War, an extremely sinister development.
But does the label apply? It has been devalued by excessive use on the left as a general term of abuse for anyone with right-wing or authoritarian tendencies. In fact, it is more specific. As a political movement, it was invented by Benito Mussolini in Italy in 1919. The name derives from the Latin fasces, the bundle of rods around an axe that was an insignia of authority in ancient Rome. Mussolini wanted to revive that empire.
In so far as he had a political philosophy, it owed less to Rome than to more modern thinkers who put the state above the individual, power above liberty, such as Fichte and Hegel of Germany, Auguste-Maurice Barres of France and Gaetano Mosca of Italy. In practice, however, fascism was mainly about power. 'Our programme is simple,' he said, with disarming frankness. 'We wish to govern Italy.'
Fascism became a popular creed in the turmoil and hardship of Europe between the wars. Mussolini ruled from 1922-1943. Fascism flourished in Hungary, Romania, Croatia, Spain, Portugal, and Germany. Japan also acquired something like a fascist regime in 1936, and there were fascist movements in most democracies, including Britain. Fascism shared many traits with its arch enemy, Communism, primarily the subordination of the individual to the collective, but it did not not demand state ownership of the means of production. Nor did it postulate historical inevitability or pay lip service to equality. For fascists, history belonged to the strong.
Several criteria are necessary before a state can be defined as fascist. The principal ones are that the political system must be based on power imposed by violence in the name of a single strong leader. Martial virtues must be exalted. All opposition and human rights must be suppressed, ostensibly in order to meet threats from within and without. There must be a strong element of racism, preferably combined with mystical romanticism. It helps if there is also a major historical grievance to be redressed by defying the outside world.
The Serbia of Slobodan Milosevic scores quite well against this checklist. Opponents are intimidated and, if necessary, beaten up by members of Mr Milosevic's large private army and ubiquitous secret police. Much of the crumbling economy is controlled by the state, having been taken over by former Communist officials who still serve the regime, itself dominated by former Communists. A fanatical racist nationalism with long historical roots is the driving force of the regime, fomented and manipulated by the leadership. The outside world is seen as fundamentally hostile. Economic sanctions are taken as confirmation of this, thereby contributing to the siege mentality.
If Serbia has yet to become fully fascist, this is largely because it has not developed a coherent ideology. The leadership question also is not wholly resolved. And Serbia is inefficient. Of Mussolini it used to be said that he made the trains run on time. Hitler cured unemployment by building his war machine and the roads to carry it. Serbia, in contrast, is close to economic collapse.
That may simply demonstrate the one thing common to all fascist states, which is that in the long run they do not work. It would, however, be risky for the outside world to rely on an acceleration of history to bring the end of Serbian fascism before it is fully established. Its virulent nastiness may still have some way to run, and could easily spread; Croatia is certainly susceptible. Fascism has always fed off the weakness and confusion of the democracies.
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