Fascism I: What Is Fascism, and Is Trump It? – Modern History

TRIGGER WARNING: Politics. Today we explore what characterized early 20th-century fascism, and then ask whether it’s fair to call Trump fascist.

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Time/place: Worldwide, early 20th cen. CE

Dead Idea: Fascism

Co-hosts: Nick and Anna

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Main Sources

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3 thoughts on “Fascism I: What Is Fascism, and Is Trump It? – Modern History

  1. Regarding the japanese nationalists:
    I have not heard them grouped in with fascists before; there are some key differences between them and the european-style fascists.

    There are some key things to know about the japanese side:
    1. The empror, though the symbol of power and divinity, has not held any power since at least the 6th century AD. It’s always been some usurper ruling in the emperor’s name. To legitimize the rule, they always go back to the myth-history written by the imperial clan way, way back, which states that the emperor is the diorect decendant of the sun goddes, and therefor divine. It also claims that this is the ONLY divine monarchy in the world.
    2. The nationalist government (1868 – 1945) was yet another one of these usurper governments. It played heavily on the nationalism and divine-emperor stories, but then the nationalism slipped out of the grasp of the oligarchs that ruled in the emperor’s name, and spiralled down the ultranationalistic drain. (The fanatics even murdered one sitting prime minister, whom they did not consider nationalistic enough.)
    3. It was not until the government was sucked down into the maelstrom of ultra-nationalism that the nationalists became overtly racist and xenophoiobic. Sure, they had always considered themselves better than everybody else, but not to the point of enslaving and mass-murdering other peoples. They did not have any background in antisemitism and as a consequence, did not treat jews any worse than they did other peoples. This was apparent both in Japan proper and in the colonies.

    The socialist movement denied all the myth-histories and wanted to abolish the imperial system itself, which made them a direct existensial threat to the nationalists. I believe that this is the reason for why the japanese nationalists were the most anti-socialist of all the right wing movements.

    1. I agree. The Meiji “restorers” were attempting to create an imperial centered state, even if the emperor himself was not necessarily involved in the direct day-to-day events of the government. In fact, they are usually attempted to isolate him from politics and statecraft as a means to protect him if something went wrong. That said I still believe Hirohito had responsibility for the war. If he had said “no we’re not attacking Pearl Harbor” they would not have attacked Pearl Harbor. That said I still believe Hirohito had responsibility for the war. If he had said no we’re not attacking Pearl Harbor they would not have attacked Pearl Harbor

      As you mentioned, socialists in the 19 century were very much antimonarchical. So, for the leaders of the so-called Meiji restoration they constituted a threat and in fact the socialist party in Japan was suppressed almost as soon as they open their doors (and arguably that has affected their electoral competence even to this day). There was also a leftist inspired attempt on Meiji’s life. As a result, Japan took on a hard line anti-socialist/communist position. They were anti-liberal/anti-constitutional monarchy because of how the leaders of the restoration admired how imperial Germany was run.

      As mentioned in the episode, Russia was what the Japanese considered their most pressing geo-political threat, even in the days when both countries had emperors. The two contested for control of northern China and Korea which led them onto a collision course in 1904 and even after Japan had asserted dominance in the region they still considered Russia to be a major threat. Even worse was that after the Russian revolution and ideology, which the Japanese leaders had assumed to be existentially threatening to Japan, would take over in Russia. In fact, the Japanese sent more soldiers to Siberia than Britain and America combined during the brief attempt to support the so-called white Russian forces in the Civil War. In fact, the Japanese made attempts at annexing parts of Siberia however that failed and they had to settle for increased dominance over Korea and eventually Manchuria. Arguably, The brief border skirmish that occurred in the night 1930s between Japan and the soviet union was simply an extension of the previous 30 years of conflict. In fact, what Lord of the Russians into declaring war on Japan after Hiroshima and Nagasaki was promises that Truman made that would suggest that Russia would gain control over Manchuria and Korea.

      Hirohito himself does not really fit the mold of a fascist leader. As you noted his claim to the throne was the fact that he was a descendent of the sun goddess. This actually fits and more with a theocracy as Japanese ideology at the time stated that he had a divine right to rule over the islands as he was in fact a divine being. Combine this with the fact that Shintoism to go on a more well defined ideology that was explicitly nationalistic and imperial centric. Furthermore, the emperor had not delivered any public speeches until he announced Japan’s intent to surrender on the NHK. only a select group of people had ever heard his voice prior to that and he was never a particularly gifted or charismatic speaker.

      I also believe that the imperial state actually suppressed a fascist movement. And rebellion known as the “2-23” incident, several charismatic junior officers who were arguably promoting fascist ideas attempted a military coup from within the ranks of the imperial army. The result of their failure was that it became more of a military dominated state. The generals and admirals, who had subverted Japan’s brief attempt at democracy in the 1920s, entrenched power to them selves and we’re further out of control of any other authorities. However, for the Japanese context they would be better described as conservative authoritarians rather than fascists. Tojo also did not come to power by means of revolution or coup. In fact, the prime ministership basically fell on him largely because his predecessors got stuck in the morass of government in fighting. For Imperial Japan, Tojo had not had a remarkably unique or distinct career. Nor did he ever make claims that he embodied the will of the Japanese people or stake has legitimacy on populism. He ultimately believed that he served at the emperor’s pleasure which was, in fact true.

      Ironically, racial equality was one of the driving forces of the imperial state especially after World War I. Much of Japanese thinking have been premised on the humiliations experienced during the period of the unequal treaties so much of the driving force behind their modernization and militarization was an attempt to show the west that they were in fact equals. That’s not to say, however, that there weren’t some elements that could have been influenced by fascist type thinking. A lot of that was bound up in the ideology known as “Kokutai” 国体. Kokutai does seem to suggest a specialness for Japan and the Japanese, and they make a claim to superiority over other East Asians, especially the Koreans and the Chinese many of whom were still living in conditions not changed in hundreds of years within their countries, while Japan represented a country on par with modern states of Western Europe. Throw in the fact that the islands had never been successfully invited, and the last attempt was supposedly defeated thanks to the intervention of the gods, do you have a kind of recipe for a certain type of chauvinistic nationalism.

      Most fascist states tend to argue that their leader not only embodies the will of the people but he is also the culmination of all of their history. That is to say, the person is the nation and the nation is the person. That much was arguably true in their ideology about the office of the emperor, however, the Japanese were also aware that the office pre-dated Hirohito and would also live on beyond him, whereas Hitler portrayed himself as a singular almost messianic person. The emperor was a link to the past and the future. Throw in the fact that the islands have never been successfully invaded, and the last attempt was supposedly defeated thanks to the intervention of the gods, you have a kind of recipe for a certain type of chauvinistic nationalism.

      Anti-semitism was never a part of Japanese ideology. Granted very few Jewish people actually lived in Japan, until Japan took over the city of Harbin, China which was home to a large Jewish population of people who are attempting to flee both the czar and the Soviets. The Japanese encountered and believed the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” but they seemed to think that if Jewish people were so powerful it was best to get on their good side and that controlling banks and media was something to aspire to. Japan wasn’t really into the conspiracy mongering that their Nazi allies were.

      Also Mao wasn’t really on their radar screen until the 1940s. Stalin actually preferred Chiang but ultimately Cold War politics drove them apart. As for who put up the most effective resistance during the war, that’s the most controversial question in the scholarship of World War II. The KMT, communists, the Japanese and various political factions in the US all have their own opinions. But that’s a subject of a different rant.

  2. Great discussion! I agree that Japanese Imperialism feels like an odd duck in the context of fascism. I have seen them placed in that camp, but I could be persuaded otherwise. The odd things that stick out to me are both things you guys have touched on: 1) that it was a monarchy rather than a proper dictatorship in the modern sense, and 2) that Hirohito, while more than just a figurehead, did not command the personal power of a Hitler or a Mussolini, and many major decisions were in fact made by government high-ups as part of their infighting. On the other hand, their pursuit of autarchy, embrace of modernism, contempt for communism, expansionism, and glorification of a mythic past are all factors that do fit a fascist mold. But like I said, I could be persuaded to parse the categories finer and consider them conservative authoritarian but not necessarily fascist.

    Thanks especially to both of you for pointing out the root of Japanese anti-socialist sentiment! 🙂

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