Review- Finchelstein, “Transatlantic Fascism”

Federico Finchelstein, “Transatlantic Fascism: Ideology, Violence, and the Sacred in Italy and Argentina, 1919-1945” (2010) – My former professor at the New School, Federico Finchelstein, stakes several interesting claims in this work of transatlantic history. He intervenes in several ongoing debates in fascist studies, among them the question of whether fascism even belongs as a term to anything outside of 1919-1945 Italy, whether there’s such a thing as non-European fascism, and the dreaded “fascist minimum.” His lens on these questions is the relationship between, and comparisons betwixt, Italian fascism and Argentine nacionalismo. The vistas this perspective opens up prove to be interesting ones.

Italy and Argentina had a special relationship in the early twentieth century, as something like forty percent of all Argentines were of Italian descent, product of a massive immigration wave beginning in the last decades of the nineteenth century. When Mussolini took power in Italy, he and other fascists saw Latin America in general and Argentina in particular as potential growth fields. Like a lot of fascist plans, this was more hazy projection than thought out plan, but the Italian foreign service did distribute propaganda in Argentina and try to help its far right along. Here, it was impeded by the parochialism of fascism- convinced of Italian superiority and the superiority of their form of fascism, the Italian fascists failed to make meaningful connections to the far right burgeoning in Argentina in and around the Uriburu dictatorship of 1930-1932. Various pressures kept Argentina out of World War II until it was almost over, but that was the most the country would do to help fascism.

Argentine nacionalismo was influenced by Italian fascism, Finchelstein argues, but didn’t look that much like it, and was sufficiently independent, dedicated to Argentina’s specific mission in the world, to remain an independent force. This is enough to discredit the idea — prevalent with both fascists and, according to Finchelstein, Argentine antifascists — that fascism is a purely imported idea, that Latin American fascism was purely imitative. Argentine nacionalismo had enough of its own features to be its own thing under the sun, though Finchelstein still sees it as part of the fascist spectrum of ideologies and worth being denoted as such. Among other things, nacionalismo, while believing in singular leadership as a principle, didn’t have a singular leader, in part because the first right wing dictator Uriburu died early of natural causes. This led to a cult of the dead leader whose mantle others would pick up. Argentine nacionalismo was also much more Catholic than most other fascisms, though imagined less direct role for the clergy than the Austrian or Spanish regimes.

Finally, Finchelstein argues that while nacionalismo never came to power directly in Argentina, it did definitively shape the Argentine right and the country’s future dictatorships. This includes the peculiar left-right mishmash of Peronism, but more so the military regimes before and after it. In particular, nacionalismo’s emphasis on the enemy as utterly abject, which it has in common with other fascisms like Nazism, found its way into the torture and disappearance regimes for which Argentina became notorious.

In his introduction, Finchelstein places himself as perpendicular to antifascist historiography, and I remember him doing so in the classroom as well. He saw it as distortive in its own right- he opposes fascism, but attempts to understand it in a way antifascists supposedly don’t. I’m not sure what I think of that. I’ve certainly seen some pigheaded intellectual attitudes on the part of antifascists but by and large the ones I’ve worked with have been welcoming of finely grained attempts to understand the enemy. Maybe I just know good ones? Either way, as a practicing antifascist, I recommend this book highly. Contemporary American fascism draws a lot from Latin American models, as their admiration for Pinochet attests, and especially their treatment of enemies as abject beings, so it’s good stuff for people to know about. *****

Review- Finchelstein, “Transatlantic Fascism”

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