The Drama of Our Time
Fascism, for reasons that should not be difficult to divine, has been very much on my mind of late. My bedside table has borne a stack of books about the growth, nature, and origins of fascism, mixed in with the novels, for the last six months or so, and understanding the similarities and differences between fascism and its kissing cousins totalitarianism and authoritarianism has seemed like a critical mission since the rise of Donald Trump to the American presidency. I’m still not convinced that Trump truly deserves to be called the f-word, or that conditions in America are likely to lead to a transformation from our current capitalist plutocracy to an Orwellian police state, but we’re certainly hearing openly fascist and white-supremacist voices talking louder and more comfortably than we have in generations.
There is no better American writer on the subject of fascism than the historian and political scientist Robert O. Paxton, who taught for nearly 30 years at Columbia University before his retirement. He has been much in demand since then, a development that no doubt caught him by surprise; his books Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order and The Anatomy of Fascism are required reading in today’s political environment, as is his excellent essay — and essential distillation of his central theses — “The Five Stages of Fascism”. But the book I’ve just finished, less known but just as important, is critical not because of the light it sheds on the once-successful governments of Spain, Germany, Italy, or Japan, but rather what it has to say about a fascist movement that never quite got off the ground. That book is 1997’s French Peasant Fascism: Henry Dorgères’ Greenshirts and the Crises of French Agriculture.
Like most countries, France was wracked with economic and social chaos during the 1930s because of the ravages of the Great Depression. And, like most countries, farmers and growers were particularly devastated. Fascism in Europe tended to take root in rural areas, and the farmers of France, Italy, and Germany were especially vulnerable to the rhetoric of demagogues, but France, because of its vast agricultural production and a national character that tended to glorify the peasant class as especially indicative of its essence, stood out. The governments of France did not ignore the vulnerability of farmers, but there were two warring tendencies to which they had to respond: the urban industrial class demanded cheap food so they could survive on low wages, while the rural agricultural class demanded sufficient compensation for their labor to make it worth doing.
Into this void of contradiction strolled Henry Dorgères. Like most fascist leaders, he was a colorful and curious figure: he wasn’t actually a farmer himself, though he came from a rural agricultural background, and made his living as a journalist. He changed his name from Henri-August d’Halluin to a more memorable pseudonym. He strutted through the streets of Paris — his preferred habitat, despite his constant railing against predatory urban elites — in the company of his own personal Gestapo, the spangled Greenshirts, blaming communists for poisoning the minds of rural youth and Jews for robbing farmers blind with unfair trade deals. (One of his favorite targets was the man he called “King Two-Louies” — Louis Louis-Dreyfus, the trader and financier who made millions speculating in the wheat market. His granddaughter is the actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus.)
Dorgères’ story is a fascinating one. Though little documentation exists of his actual work during the rise of the French rural fascist movement, a historian’s dilemma that Paxton compensates for admirably, he was by all accounts intelligent and calculating, a compelling public speaker, and a gifted writer with a knack for mobilizing the uneducated. He also had the advantage of not being entirely wrong: like many authoritarian demagogues, he was flamboyantly opposed to democracy and in favor of rule by force, he peppered his speech with racism and anti-Semitism, and he blamed the left at every opportunity for the woes of the state. But he was correct that the peasant class of France had been ill-used by the capitalists of the day, and that the lion’s share of their production was being literally eaten up by speculators who took too much of their money and urbanites who cared nothing about their predicament. Dorgères managed to mobilize the resentment and anger of the rural working class into a force to be reckoned with in the crucial period of the mid- to late 1930s.
More important than the details of Dorgères’ movement, though, is the question of why it did not succeed. For all its similarities to the political climates of Germany, Spain, Italy, and Japan in the years following the Great Crash 0f 1929, France did not see its government fall to an internal fascism. Dorgères was a failure in France, just as Oswald Moseley was in England, Léon Degrelle in Belgium, and other fascist leaders across the globe prior to the Second World War. But why? Paxton provides a number of answers: the urban industrial areas of France never took Dorgères seriously, thinking him a one-issue crank; the French government never allowed rural farmers to go into complete free-fall in the way Germany and Italy did; socialist and communists party power was able to make more inroads amongst the French peasantry; and the rural elites — some left over from the days of the aristocracy, and some merely wealthy landowners — still exerted enough control over their regions to keep his Greenshirts in check.
Even this complex answer understates the many factors that separated one failed fascism from another. But Paxton lays out his case with precision, detail, and powerfully clear analysis, and in so doing, he not only tells us what to look for in the search for emergent native fascisms, but also what not to look for, and how to tell the difference. He also makes a compelling argument that the same nationalist self-perception that France built up in the 1930s helped the Vichy government take root during the war, and still colors France’s view of itself today — an invaluable lesson that will help us understand the class and economic divides, and national self-images, that are still driving right-wing insurgent movements in America and the rest of the world today. French Peasant Fascism is not only a great piece of historical research, but a piece in a puzzle we badly need to solve.