The Global Right in the World Revolutions of 1917 and 20xx[1]

Image result for fascism 1975 National Front

Chris Chase-Dunn, Jennifer S.K. Dudley and Peter Grimes

Institute for Research on World-Systems; University of California-Riverside

 v. 10-12-18 9407 words

This is IROWS Working Paper #118 at 

Abstract: An understanding of the current global resurgence of right-wing national and transnational “neo-fascist” social movements can best be understood by comparing the recent movements with the global political circumstances happening in the first half of the 20th century. Such a comparison can help us understand the similarities and differences between then and now to gain insights about what could be the consequences of the reemergence of populist nationalism and fascist movements. This paper uses the comparative evolutionary world-systems perspective to study the global right from 1900 to the present. We see fascism as a hybrid of capitalism and a tributary mode of accumulation that co-evolves with capitalism and socialism. The point is to develop a better understanding of 21st century fascism, populist nationalism and authoritarian practices and to help construct a praxis for the New Global Left.


The world-system literature on world revolutions has tended to focus on the rebellions and social movements of the Left to see how these clustered assemblages of collective behavior from below have been related to changes in the larger structural and institutional context of world politics and capitalist development. The constellations of social movements from below have been analyzed and compared with one another in order to understand their political ideologies and social constituencies and the effects that they have had on the evolution of global institutions and regimes. But reactionary and right-wing movements have largely been left out of this analysis.

The exception is W.L. Goldfrank’s (1978; 1990) analysis of fascism in world historical perspective, a valuable review of the theories and comparative literature on 20th century fascism that builds on the approach developed by Karl Polanyi to flesh out an analysis at the level of the global system.  Goldfrank sees 20th century fascism as a reaction to the crises of the capitalist world-economy, employing Polanyi’s idea of the double-movement in which societies become over-commodified and then react against commodification. But the rise of right-wing sects, movements and parties in the last few decades and obvious similarities between populist nationalisms and the use of symbols and tactics taken from the playbook of 20th century fascism require an update and rethinking of Goldfrank’s seminal work that also takes more recent scholarship into account.


The comparative evolutionary world-systems perspective

The world-systems perspective presents a structural interpretation of the cycles and trends that have constituted the expansion and evolution of global capitalism (Arrighi 1994; Wallerstein 2011; Chase-Dunn and Lerro 2016). It focuses on the global core/periphery hierarchy and global class relations (Amin 1980).[2] This holistic structural approach in which the whole global system is the unit of analysis allows us to see both the similarities and differences between the contemporary world historical period and earlier similar periods. The expansion and deepening of capitalism have created the rise and fall of hegemonic core powers; waves of colonization in which European powers subjugated most of Asia, the Americas and Africa using military and economic power to mobilize peripheral capitalism based on coerced labor (slavery and serfdom); and the reactive waves of decolonization leading to the juridical incorporation of these former colonies into the original European system as sovereign states. The expansion and deepening of capitalist production and the increasing size of the nation-states that played the role of hegemons were driven by movements of resistance that were located both within core polities and in the periphery and the semiperiphery.

Each of the capitalist hegemons (the Dutch in the l7th century, the British in the 19th century and the United States in the 20th century) were themselves once formerly semiperipheral states that rose to core status in struggles with contending great powers. Their successes were partly based on their abilities to deal with resistance from below more effectively than their competitors, as well as on comparative advantages in production and institutional innovations (Wallerstein 1984).

            It is important to accurately grasp both the structural similarities and the differences between the current world historical period and earlier periods that were similar but also dissimilar. The United States has been in decline in terms of hegemony in economic production since 1945 and this has been similar in many respects to the decline of British hegemony in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Chase-Dunn et al 2011). Giovanni Arrighi (2006) noted that the period of British hegemonic decline (1870-1914) moved rather quickly toward military interimperial rivalry because economic challengers such as Germany and Japan were developing powerful military capabilities that were used to contest the Pax Britannica. The U.S. hegemony differed because the post WWII United States ended up as the single military superpower, a status that was amplified by the demise of the Soviet Union. After World War II, Japan and Germany could not play the military card because they were stuck with the consequences of having lost the last World War. And they benefited economically by allowing the U.S. to provide security. This, and the immense size of the U.S. economy, slowed the process of hegemonic decline compared to the British, but the decline of U.S. hegemony has itself invigorated counter-hegemonic movements of both the Left and the Right that are opposed to the contemporary world order. 

The declining power of the U.S. poses huge challenges for global governance. Newly emergent national economies such as India and China need to be integrated into the global structure of power but, as in the 19th century with Germany and Japan, this is a complicated and conflictive process. The unilateral use of military force by the Bush administration and America-Firstism of the Trump administration have further delegitimized the institutions of global governance and increased the possibility of serious interimperial rivalry.

These developments parallel, to some extent, what happened a century ago, increasing the likelihood of another Malthusian correction such as what occurred in the first half of the 20th Century. At the beginning of the 20th Century the global population was 1.65 billion, whereas in 2018 there are 7.7 billion humans on Earth. At the beginning of the 20th century fossil fuels were becoming less expensive as oil was replacing coal as the major source of energy (Grimes 1999, 2003; Podobnik 2006). It was this use of inexpensive non-renewable energy that facilitated the abolition of slavery and serfdom and made the geometric expansion and industrialization of humanity possible.

Now we are facing global warming as a consequence of the spread and rapid expansion of industrial production and energy-intensive consumption. None of the existing alternative technologies offer low cost energy of the kind that made the past expansion possible. Many believe that overshoot has already occurred in terms of how many humans are alive, and how much energy is being used by some of them, especially those in the Global North. Global climate change is already increasing the problems of global governance and inequalities in ways radically different than during the decline of British Hegemony in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  And this contextual difference is likely to produce altered forms of counter-hegemonic movements. For example, the New Global Left has seen the rise of an important climate justice movement (Bond 2012). And right-wing populist politicians have denied the existence of anthropomorphic (human-caused) global warming and have advocated the dismantling of those environmental regulations that have been intended to reduce global warming and pollution.

World Revolutions

The rise and fall of the hegemonic core powers over the past four centuries have produced institutional changes that have made possible the successive global waves of capitalist accumulation (Arrighi 1994). One example is the expansion of global production, which required accessing raw materials to feed the new industries, and food to feed the expanding populations, each already adding to global warming (Bunker and Ciccantell 2005). Hegemonic core powers knew that coercion is a very inefficient means of domination, so they sought legitimacy by proclaiming leadership in advancing civilization and democracy. But the ideals contained in these claims were also appropriated by those below who sought to protect themselves from exploitation and domination. So, the contending core powers had to adapt to and address the claims of challengers within their home societies and in the Global South. World orders are not just coercive; they also require normative and institutional legitimacy (Boswell and Chase-Dunn 2000: 53-64; Linebaugh and Redicker 2000).  There has been an ideological and political struggle in both the Europe-centered world-system and in the East Asian world-system[3] for centuries, sometimes fueling strong social movements, regime changes and wars of national liberation from colonialism.

            The idea of world revolution is a broad notion that encompasses all kinds of acts of resistance to hierarchy that occur relatively close to one another in time, but usually distant from one another in space. In past centuries local rebels were often unaware of one another, but they were indirectly connected via the coordinated knowledge of the colonial empires and their foreign services.

Most histories have led us to define revolutions as a national scale events in which new social forces came to state power and restructured social relations (Goldstone 1997; 2014). Yet at the world-system level this concept does not easily apply. There is no global state to take over. But there is a global polity, a world order composed of competing and cooperating states and other actors. exists. It is that world polity or world order that is the arena of contestation within which world revolutions have occurred and that world revolutions have restructured.[4]

 Boswell and Chase-Dunn (2000) designated periods of global rebellions that had long-term consequences for changing world orders in the Europe-centered system. Years that symbolize these major world revolutions (after the Protestant Reformation) are 1789, 1848, 1917, 1954, 1968 and 1989. Arrighi, Hopkins and Wallerstein (1989) analyzed the world revolutions of 1848, 1917, 1968 and 1989. [5] They observed that the demands put forth in a world revolution did not usually become institutionalized until a later consolidating revolt had occurred. So, the revolutionaries appeared to have lost in the failure of their most radical demands, but later enlightened conservatives managing hegemony incorporated some of these demands as reforms to cool out resistance from below and to legitimate their own leadership claims.

This view of the modern world-system as having constituted a single arena of political struggle and economic competition since the long sixteenth century implies that there has been an evolving global civil society since then (Kaldor 2003). Global civil society includes all the actors who consciously participate in world politics. In the past, it consisted primarily of statesmen, religious leaders, scientists, financiers, cosmopolitan literary figures[6] and the owners and top managers of chartered companies such as the Dutch and British East India Companies. These elites saw the global arena of political, economic, military and ideological struggle as one unit (Braudel, 1984). They promoted religious and secular social movements in which masses were sometimes mobilized, as in the Protestant Reformation. In turn, reactions such as the Catholic Restoration constituted part of the Global Right. The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) was an early instance of a consciously transnational political party (Chase-Dunn and Reese 2007).  Since the world revolution of 1789 non-elites began consciously participating in world politics. A series of “global left” transnational social movements arose. Though the Haitian revolution of 1804 was mainly a revolt of slaves on the sugar plantations in Haiti, some of the leaders were literate former slaves that had been inspired by the ideas of the French and American revolutions (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000; Dubois 2004).

While global civil society is still a small minority of the total population of the earth, the falling costs of communication and transportation have enabled more non-elites to become transnational political actors and increased the extent to which local revolts have been able to communicate and coordinate with one another. But local revolts have always played a role in world revolutions because colonial powers reacted to them. Global consciousness is not necessary for global consequences. An objective global interaction network of indirect connections existed long before most people became aware of it. But the spread of global consciousness has made globalization an increasingly contentious aspect of world politics.

Our earlier research focused on what Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2006) called the “new global left” and compared it with earlier incarnations of the global left (Chase-Dunn and Kaneshiro 2009; Chase-Dunn and Niemeyer 2009; Smith et al 2014).  This movement of movements includes environmentalists, feminists, workers organizations, the peace movement and many smaller movements. The global left is part, but not all, of global civil society. Other important contemporary transnational political actors are the forces organized around the World Economic Forum, and the new reactionary populist and neo-fascist movements and the jihadists (Anderson, 2005; Zuquete and Lindblom 2005; Moghadam 2009; Bond 2013).

Another world revolution has been brewing since the last decades of the 20th century.  Chase-Dunn and Niemeyer (2009) have called it the world revolution of 20xx (because it is not yet clear what the key symbolic year should be). They claim that it began with the anti-International Monetary Fund riots in the 1980s and the Zapatista revolt in Southern Mexico in 1994.

World revolutions are hard to study and difficult to compare with one another because they are very complex “events”. The time periods and places to include (and exclude) are hard to judge.  They each have had different mixes of social movements, rebellions and revolutions, and counter-movements.  And they have occurred unevenly in time and space.  What have been the bases for cooperation and competition uniting these diverse movements? How did they influence each other?[7]  How did the revolts and resistances affect the struggles among the elites in their efforts to maintain their positions or gain new advantages?  The scientific study of world revolutions is yet in its infancy but in this article, we are raising a new issue:  what has been the nature of the global right in the 20th and 21st centuries, and how was the 20th century version similar or different from what is emerging now in the 21st century?

Evolutionary Logics of Accumulation

The comparative evolutionary world-systems perspective sees human prehistory and history as having evolved from a kin-based mode of accumulation that regulates interaction by means of consensually held norms to tributary modes that add institutionalized and organized coercion over the top of kin-based forms, to the capitalist mode that is based on accumulation of profits from commodity production and financial services. 

The tributary modes of accumulation have directly used state power (institutionalized coercion based on the law and its enforcement) to extract surplus product from populations through taxes, tribute, serfdom and slavery. States that mainly employ tributary accumulation have usually been controlled by military, priestly and land-owning elites whose wealth in mainly based on this form of accumulation. The tributary states emerged during the Bronze Age out of kin-based chiefdoms. They engaged in military competition with one another for territorial conquest and tribute.  In contrast, capitalism accumulates surplus value by making profits on the production of commodities and financial services. Although early capitalism grew in areas beyond tributary control, the growth of system-wide trade in the Iron Age, promoted by semiperipheral capitalist city-states, encouraged the internal commercialization of tributary empires (Sanderson 1995).  Since the 16th century CE capitalism has become the predominant logic of the Europe-centered (modern) world-system in a series of waves in which nation-states have increasingly come to be controlled by capitalists and market forces and money have deepened and geographically expanded their influence. But the tributary modes have continued to reassert themselves during periods of crisis and have co-evolved with capitalism. The Hapsburg Empire, the Napoleonic episode, 20th century state communism (the Soviet Union and the Chinese Peoples Republic) and the fascist movements and regimes of the 1930s and 1940s were all resurgences of the tributary modes in which institutionalized coercion in different forms was the main backbone of accumulation.

We can now see Fascism in the larger view of world history, as a hybrid of capitalism and the tributary mode of production that emerged after economic institutions had evolved high levels of commodification. Twentieth century fascism emerged as a reactionary populist-nationalist movement in a context of economic and political crises, which was then joined by big capitalist land-owners and industrialists who sought to use it to counter the radical challenges coming from the left. It became authoritarian state control of the economy and the polity at the behest of privately-owned large corporations.   Fascism is the latest hybrid form that the tributary modes have taken, and it continues to evolve, as seen in the differences between 20th and 21st century fascism discussed below.

Definitions of Fascism and World Historical Comparisons

            It is important to review the efforts of social scientists to define fascism to go beyond the use of this term as an expletive. W. L. Goldfrank (1978) and Michael Mann (2004) noted that fascism as a unitary phenomenon is difficult to define because it was not uniform but varied greatly by location and context and it evolved over time. It is particularly hard to define fascist ideology because the leaders were often extremely pragmatic and inconsistent in their choice of ideologies. One of the key features of fascism – hypernationalism— was constructed differently in dissimilar locations, which produced locally specific internal and external enemies.[8]  Definitions of fascism in the scholarly literature vary in width, choice of characteristics and in emphasis on different characteristics.  Some emphasize the nature of deeds (e.g. Paxton 2004) while others focus more on ideology (e.g. Griffin 1991). Michael Mann (2004: 13) strikes a good balance between these:

I define fascism in terms of the key values, actions and power organizations of fascists. Most concisely, fascism is the pursuit of a transcendent and cleansing nation-statism through paramilitarism.

Both Mann’s (2004) and Robert Paxton’s (2004) excellent studies realize that this definition may not exactly fit somewhat similar phenomena that have emerged since 1945, but they are both willing to examine the nature of late 20th and early 21st century fascisms to tease out the similarities and the differences. A working definition of fascism and its traits helps both researchers and opponents to identify emergent contemporary fascist and similar threats. One or two of the characteristic features may not be present in a contemporary right-wing movement but it may still be accurate to designate it as neo-fascist.

            Our studies of the new global left have used survey research to study the network of linked movements that have emerged as the global justice movement in the World Social Forum process (Smith et al 2014; Chase-Dunn and Kaneshiro 2009; Chase-Dunn et al 2014; Almeida and Chase-Dunn 2018; 2019).  The assumption that the participants in the Social Forum process were representative of the transnational social movements of the Left in the whole world is somewhat problematic (see Reese et al 2015). But trying to locate a single venue for the global right is even harder. The only venues that might help such a study would be the World Economic Forum (WEF) or the Bilderberger Group. But researchers are not allowed to carry out surveys at these gatherings, precluding research. Nevertheless, we will try to prehend the structure of the contemporary global right and to estimate its structure and nature in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

            We use Mary Kaldor’s (2003) definition of global civil society: all the actors who are consciously engaged in contesting power and ideology on a global scale, though our definition includes groups that go beyond most definitions of civility (e.g. terrorists).  Our view of the global polity is organized around Immanuel Wallerstein’s (2012) study of the rise of centrist liberalism in the 19th century.[9] We see the neoliberal globalization project that emerged in the 1970 as a recent expression of the centrist liberalism that emerged in the 19th century.[10]

Neoconservatism emerged in the last decade of the 20th century as a response to the decline of U.S. economic hegemony.  So, neoliberalism is in the center with the global right and the global left on each flank. Inspired by Kaldor, our conception of the contemporary global right includes neo-conservatives, conservative and reactionary think-tanks and media outlets, populist nationalists, anti-immigrant movements, neo-fascists, male supremacists, racial supremacists, and reactionary religious fundamentalisms (radical jihadists, Hindu nationalists and Christian identity groups).  This broad constellation of contemporary counter-hegemonic far right groups suggests comparisons with analogously diverse players in the world revolution of 1917 (WR1917). We know from studies of fascism that in some countries fascism was posed as secular national socialism and syndicalism, whereas in others it was formulated in religious terms. Italian and German fascisms were anticlerical. However, religion-based fascism did exist.  A perceived “ideological crisis within the state” was tied to the rise of fascism in Turkey. Paxton (2004: 203) cites examples of religious fascism such as the “Falange Española, Belgian Rexism, the Finnish Lapua Movement, and the Romanian Legion of the Archangel Michael”. [11] But how did other religious fundamentalisms (Islam, Christianity, etc.) interact with the social movements of the right and the left in WR1917?

Immanuel Wallerstein (2017) explains the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as a reaction to the economic downturn of the 1970s, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the failure of the movements of the world revolution of 1917 to produce a more humane and sustainable global society, and so their loss of popular support. He contends out that religious identities became less and less important in politics from the Protestant Reformation until 1970.[12] He also points out the ambiguous relationship that religious fundamentalism has had with states. God’s law is higher than state law, but the fundamentalists try to take state power to impose god’s law.  

 Religious fundamentalism since the 1970s has also been a reaction against the world revolution of 1968, further commodification of traditional functions formerly handled by families or communities, gains for gender and racial equality and individual freedom (disempowering traditional tribal authority). Religion plays an important role in contemporary right-wing social movements as a force for mobilization, cohesion-building and the effort to restore the authority of patriarchal families and religious leaders. Religions provide frames and imagined golden ages that are used by many right-wing movements to build their ideologies (Whittier 2014). One reason why religious fundamentalism became counter-hegemonic after 1970, but was not very important in the world revolution of 1917, is that fundamentalism became a functional counter-hegemonic substitute for revolutionary Marxism and related Leftist ideologies that had been the basis of the Global Left in the 20th century (Grimes, 2003). Wallerstein contends that one of the causes of the recent rise of political/religious fundamentalism was the perceived failure of secular counter-hegemonic movements.  It is as if there is an ideological menu embedded in the geoculture from which individuals and groups take frames, and when one appears to have been discredited others are selected.  

In the U.S., Bible study groups provided the backdrop for recruitment to right-wing groups, while right-wing rhetoric “mourns” the movement away from white, Christian roots (Polletta and Callahan 2017: 6). A conquest narrative and premillennial apocalypticism are bound together by a blood rhetoric, all tied directly to religious sources in Hebrew, Islamic and Christian scriptures (Gorski 2017). Religious boundaries are transformed into racial ones, synthesizing religious and ethnic nationalism. These narratives have come to life, sometimes literally as in the Puritan conquest of the native peoples of North America, and sometimes allegorically as a way to reinforce racial boundaries and harken back to a day of white, Christian primacy (Gorski 2017). Islamic neo-fundamentalism mirrors its Christian counterpart. A global rise in militant Islam, tied to calls for a return to strict adherence to religions tenets, has emerged as a reaction to the neoliberal globalization project. Reactionary movements reject traditional Muslim and modern Western culture, globalization, and universalizing secular modernism and commodification.  

Fascist movements and regimes in the 20th century were authoritarian attacks on democracy and the rule of law, but their hyper-nationalism further institutionalized nationalism as an important form of modern collective solidarity, and they served to provoke a cosmopolitan reaction against extreme forms of nationalism that became embedded in the geoculture and the international institutions that emerged after World War II (the United Nations and the international financial institutions).

Comparing the Global Right with the Global Left

            Our construction of the geoculture as an evolving constellation of contending ideologies of the right, center and left notes that these assemblages interact with one another as well as reflecting the changing contexts formed by the institutional structure of the modern world-system (Nagy 2017).  One obvious difference between much of the global right and the global left is with respect to nationalism. The global left in the World Revolution of 1917 was explicitly internationalist.  Most socialists, communists and anarchists believed in proletarian internationalism and condemned nationalism as false consciousness that was promoted by capitalists to undermine the class struggle and to get workers to go to war. This was an important instance of secular global humanism and cosmopolitanism, though it was mainly understood as international class solidarity. It came to grief when the German state tricked the German socialists into voting for war credits at the outbreak of World War I, thus abrogating an agreement among the national parties of the Second International to not go to war and kill each other at the behest of their national capitalists. It was this development that sealed Vladimir Lenin’s disgust with the labor movements of the core and provoked his turn to the “Third Worldism” of the Third International (Claudin, 1975).  Internationalism, transnational humanism and Global Southism (formerly Third Worldism) continue to be important characteristics of the New Global Left in the World Revolution of 20xx (Steger, Goodman and Wilson 2013; Carroll 2016). 

Fascist movements before and after World War I attacked the workers movements and socialist parties both because the fascists opposed class struggle in favor of organic nationalism and because they opposed the internationalism and pacifism of the Left (Paxton 2004). Attacking peasant unions and labor unions also gained the fascists the support of land owners and some large capitalists, and this became an important source of powerful elite support and finance for those fascist sects that were able to move on to become mass movements and to take over national regimes. But hypernationalism was also an obstacle to transnational and international cooperation and organization.  The fascists did try to organize a fascist international during the late 1920s and the 1930s (Laqueur and Mosse 1966), but their own commitment to the myths of nationalism stood in the way (Paxton 2004: 20, Fn. 83).  This was, and still is, an important difference and conflict between the global right and the global left.[13]

Dani Rodrik (2018) contends that two kinds of populism have arisen to contest the neoliberal globalization project. In Latin America in the 1980 and the 1990s the structural adjustment policies of the International Monetary Fund that required austerity and privatization were supported by neoliberal national politicians who attacked the labor unions and parties of formal sector workers, but this produced a populist reaction in many countries in which progressive politicians were able to gain election by campaigning against these policies and by mobilizing the residents of the “planet of slums” (Chase-Dunn et al 2015). This phenomenon was called the “Pink Tide.”  Regimes based on left-wing populism emerged in most Latin American countries, and Rodrik rightly sees this as a reaction against the neoliberal globalization project. Right wind populism emerged, and is still emerging, in countries of the Global North in which neoliberal globalization produced deindustrialization and many workers lost their jobs.  This occurred in contexts in which it was easier for politicians to blame immigrants and minorities than to point the finger at the big winners of global capitalism. And some of the big winners provided support for the politics of hypernationalism, zenophobia, racism and sexism that are the working muscles of right-wing populism and neofascism.

Right-wing populist politicians exploit cleavages along cultural lines, rallying individuals against foreigners and minorities. Left-wing populist movements, on the other hand tended to garner support based on economic cleavages. They pointed to the wealthy and large corporations as responsible for economic shocks. The ease of mobilization around these cleavages depends on the salience of the issue for constituents. Individuals who feel their jobs and public services have been threatened by immigrants and minorities are easier to mobilize along ethno-national and cultural cleavages.  

The cultural cleavages Rodrik describes are becoming easier to exploit in areas impacted most by massive migrations and economic relocation and divestment. Global warming has led to declining agricultural output, declining peripheral state revenue to purchase the loyalties of competing local constituencies, natural disasters, and the collapse of peripheral states leading desperate people to flee local conflicts and poverty by seeking refuge elsewhere. In the north, automation has led to unemployment among skilled and unskilled workers (Grimes,1999). Right-wing politicians have been able to prey on the fears of the economically insecure individuals in the Global North, who see waves of migrants as threats to their social and economic way of life.


Comparing the Contemporary Global Right with the Global Right in WR1917

            The global right in WR1917 was composed of reactionary conservatives still resisting the rise of centrist liberalism and the remains of a few far-right sects that had emerged in the late 19th century, especially during economic downturns. The fin de siècle intellectual climate was tired of parliamentary debates and stalemates among contending parties. Romanticism and transcendent ideologies were becoming more popular. Countries that were new to mass politics had relatively weak regimes that could not effectively deal with the problems caused by World War I or the problems that came along with the global financial collapse of 1929. These crises were opportunities for anarchists, socialists, communists and fascist sects to become mass parties, especially in locations in which the left was becoming powerful and threatening.  The important point here is that fascism was itself a popular movement at first and that it was only later that it was supported by traditional agrarian and capitalist elites who saw it as preferable to dispossession by communists.  Michael Mann (2004: 21) contends that the elites often overreacted to perceived threats to their interests from leftist movements that were not actually powerful enough to dispossess them. But the result was that fascist parties were embraced by some of the old conservatives and were enabled to take state power in Italy and Germany. These, and the militarist authoritarian regime in Japan, mounted a global challenge to liberal capitalism from the right.

            One feature common to the German, Japanese, and Italian attempts to build domestic support was in their respective efforts to create new empires.  The Germans sought to conquer Europe, the Italians sought colonies in Africa, and the Japanese attempted to conquer all of East Asia and the Pacific. The U.S. hegemony that emerged after World War II was justified as a centralist liberal “free world” regime that had been formed in the struggle against colonialism, communism, fascism and Japanese imperialism.

The second world war shows that fascists need enemies to attack, but the internal and external enemies they chose varied depending on their national and international context.  Many 20th century fascists were anti-Semitic, yet Mussolini only accepted anti-Semitism as a condition for his alliance with the Nazis.  Nazism was racial, but Italian fascism was a form of cultural hypernationalism that did not require racial purity. The global right of the first half of the 20th century also contained movements and regimes that were authoritarian, but not fascist.

The difference between the two that matters here was described by Goldfrank (1978). There he defined a truly fascist regime as one emerging from, and expressing, a genuine popular movement from below, in contrast to an authoritarian regime that is imposed upon the populace by the elites.  According to this distinction the Vargas regime in Brazil and the Peron regime in Argentina were not fascist, and nor was the militaristic authoritarian regime in Japan. These are instead better understood to have been non-democratic coups from above in which state power was used to mobilize development, expansion and resistance to the economic domination of the Great Powers in the core (Goldfrank 1978). These were non-fascist, but authoritarian statist responses to the crises of global capitalism and should be considered to have been part of the global right. They sometimes made use of fascist symbols and ideas, but they were not mainly based on ultranationalist movements from below.

            The contemporary global right is composed of rather different reactionary groups. Jihadists (and Muslims in general) are a favorite enemy of the neo-fascists who have announced that sharia law will be enacted in the United States because decadent liberals and multiculturalists are encouraging Muslims to take over. Jihadists attack commercialized global youth culture, which they see as individualist, consumerist and sexually immoral. The good news here is that the jihadists and the neo-fascists are unlikely allies. So, the contemporary global right is far from unified.

Neo-Fascist Movements

Most neo-fascist movements do not simply regurgitate the rhetoric of the early 20th century fascist movements. They are shaped by the contemporary socio-political-economic context (Paxton 2004; Alvarez 2019)). Neo-fascist movements have not (yet) been as violent, and nor have they glorified violence, as much their 20th century predecessors. They are generally covert and adaptive, attempting to capture public spaces.  In the old days that meant streets, villages and newspapers. In recent decades it has meant cheap rural television and radio venues, the internet and online social networks.  

Harris et al (2017) claim that the leadership of neo-fascist movements relies on misdirection, and on their supporters’ comfort with alternative facts so that they can survive in a globalized economy while pushing isolationist and racist agendas. As with the New Global Left, they are a reaction to the neoliberal globalization project, but instead of proposing an alternative form of democratic and multicultural globalization they propose reactive nationalism, he-tooism, xenophobia, protectionism and making x great again.  

Paxton (2004) recognized a series of events that presaged the growing popularity of contemporary right-wing movements:

…ethnic cleansing in the Balkans; the sharpening of exclusionary nationalisms in postcommunist eastern Europe; spreading ‘skinhead’ violence against immigrants in Britain, Germany, Scandinavia, and Italy; the first participation of a neofascist party in a European government in 1994, when the Italian Alleanza Nazionale, direct descendant of the principal Italian neofascist party, the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), joined the first government of Silvio Berlusconi; the entry of Jörg Haider’s Freiheitspartei (Freedom Party), with its winks of approval at Nazi veterans, into the Austrian government in February 2000; the astonishing arrival of the leader of the French far Right, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in second place in the first round of the French presidential elections in May 2002; and the meteoric rise of an anti-immigrant but nonconformist outsider, Pym Fortuyn, in the Netherlands in the same month. Finally, a whole universe of fragmented radical Right ‘grouplets’ proliferated, keeping alive a great variety of far-Right themes and practices (2004:173)

            Another difference between the earlier and more recent versions of fascism is the attitude toward the national state. Most of the earlier versions glorified the state as an instrument of the purified nation. The realities of state control were more complicated in both Italy and Germany, but at the level of ideology “statism” was an important fascist value.  Contemporary neo-fascist movements do not glorify the state. They favor more authoritarian and interventionist state actions, but they do not glorify the state as such. This difference is one reason why some scholars prefer the term “populist nationalism” over “neo-fascism.” Another important difference is about military expansionism. Glorification of military expansionism was an important part of both Italian and German fascism, Japanese authoritarianism, Argentinian efforts to reclaim the Malvinas, and current Russian military annexation of the portions of Ukraine required to access the strategic port of Sevastopol. But no neo-fascist movement or party has endorsed such a policy, at least so far.  The decolonization of the whole periphery and the establishment of international organizations such as the United Nations that oppose conquests and support the sovereignty of member states has effectively delegitimized formal colonialism.  Clientelism and covert interventions continue to be the main modes of exercising power in geopolitics. It is likely that neo-fascist regimes would not hesitate to employ these, but a return to military conquest seems unlikely.

            Though many of the earlier fascist movements embraced syndicalism and were anti-capitalist in their early phases, most neo-fascists and right-wing populists now strongly support capitalism and oppose state intervention into the economy (Hochschild 2016; Skocpol and Williamson 2012).[14] This appears to be part of a continuing reaction against the welfare state that was pioneered by the rise of neoliberalism in 1970s and 1980s and continues to be an important theme in right-wing populist and neo-fascist movements.

            Pro-capitalist popular authoritarianism, and even fascism, are experiencing growing popularity in some Asian and Latin American countries. Docena (2018) cites three inter-related crises as the catalyst for this growth—crises of neoliberal capitalism, liberal democracy, and anti-systemic or leftist radical-democratic movements. These conditions are found more in areas deeply penetrated by global capitalism and where liberal-democratic elites have already replaced dictatorships. These elites have continued the policies of their predecessors, such as export-oriented development, loosened business restrictions, attacks on labor, reduced social spending, and stalled redistribution. As unemployment and poverty increase, people see symbols of unattainable wealth spring up around them in the form of shopping malls and luxury condominiums. In response to the ineffective leftist anti-systemic movements and perceived corruption of the Pink Tide populist regimes, the people in these areas are turning towards an authoritarian solution as opposed to an anti-elite, anti-neoliberal response.


Reactions to Globalization and the Future of the Global Right

            At present an “interlocking set of new enemies” is are seen as tearing at the status quo, including “globalization, foreigners, multiculturalism, environmental regulation, high taxes, and the incompetent politicians” (Paxton 2004: 181).  The neoliberal globalization project has led to a transformation of the world economy, thereby providing “a new fertile terrain for far-right mobilizations” (Saull 2013: 631). The fragmented, insecure precariat no longer gathers in membership-based collective organizations (Standing 2011). A globalized economy provides opportunities to blame immigrant labor, finance capital, foreign investment, labor-outsourcing, and ineffective politicians for local economic dislocations (Saull 2013).

Spektorowski (2016) claims that racial ethno-regionalism is supplanting nationalism in the global political-economy. He argues that post-national European fascism may be the next stage in the evolution of fascism in transnational regions with a focus on preserving an “ethnic federation of European people” in the form of a “strong, dominant, and productive conglomeration” (Spektorowski 2016: 126). But this vision of transnational racial struggle is undermined by the rise of hypernationalism.

Classical fascist rhetoric claimed to transcend class struggle (Mann 2004). But a divide now exists between those qualified for open sector, internationally competitive jobs and those stuck in sectors that are unable to compete globally (Kriesi et al 2006). Globally-minded liberals and progressives have become the enemy of locally-focused traditionalists (Hochschild 2016). Individuals can only vote in their local and national elections. The European Parliament is a partial exception, but international organizations such the United Nations are lacking in their institutional ability to directly represent citizens (Monbiot 2003).

New Right movements seek to demonize characteristics of centrist liberalism such as “materialism, individualism, the universality of human rights, egalitarianism and multiculturalism” (Griffin 2004: 295). These movements claim to restore the primacy and purity of ethno-national groups, now threatened by globalization and immigration. The immigration issue is not likely to go away soon. Population continues to grow in eight countries in the Global South in which prospects for economic development and job growth are bleak. The peak wave of 2015 has receded, but economic forces, political disruptions, and civil wars are likely to continue to make South/North immigration a contentious issue for the next few decades (Mason 2015).

Western Europeans and Americans have known mostly “peace, prosperity, functioning democracy, and domestic order” (Paxton 2004: 187) since World War II. Right-wing populist politicians who are trying to build a mass movement usually distance themselves from the political violence of their most ardent supporters.[15]  The neo-fascist fringe groups do use forceful confrontation as a tactic and this is reminiscent of the fascists of the 20th century, but, at least so far, lethal violence appears to have been restricted to mentally challenged individuals inspired by the rhetoric of others.

Some neo-fascist organized actions have displayed considerable political savvy in framing and coordinating their street tactics. The demonstrations against “sharia law” claimed that it legalizes female genital mutilation, thereby attempting to mobilize women and feminists to support anti-Moslem and anti-immigrant causes.  

            The energy that some neo-fascist groups have shown and the apparent rapid spread of authoritarian rightist populism and neofascist movements across the globe is disturbing. The currently low unemployment rate, the revival of housing construction and the real estate market and the Trump-induced stock market bump slowed these movements down. But a new financial crisis and/or an economic slowdown will increase the level of frustration and support for these neo-fascist sects and movements. This, combined with a global ecological crisis, could lead to the “perfect storm” theorized by Glenn Kuecker (2007).

Conclusions and Speculations

            This project is yet incomplete. Our effort to reconstruct the constellation of right wing reactionary movements that were players in the World Revolution of 1917 needs more work.  We surmised that religious fundamentalism was not as big a force in but this issue needs more thought and historical study for purposes of comparing 20th and 21st centuries global rights. We also see a need to look more closely at the issue of fascist international coordination and organization both in the first half of the 20th century and in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. And we are also interested in the role of finance capital in the rise of fascism in the 20th century and its potential involvement in the 21st century. Because the story is unfolding before our eyes, our efforts to characterize the nature of 21st century neo-fascism and its similarities and differences with earlier incarnations remains provisional, but our characterization of similarities and differences suggest what to keep an eye on. An ironic hypothesis is suggested by our comparisons so far. Fascism in the Age of Extremes [the first half of the 20th century] was importantly a reaction against the strength of the rising international labor movement and socialist, anarchist, and communist organizations that were promoting proletarian internationalism and threatening the property of the rich. Now the Left is decidedly weak, but it might gain new strength and more articulation and organization in response to the threat posed by 21st century neo-fascism. Something like this occurred in the 1930s when anarchists, socialists, and communists were driven to organize united fronts to combat fascism.  A democratic eco-socialist movement network with an articulated global organizational instrument might yet emerge to take up the job of confronting the rise of neo-fascism (Amin 2018). Regarding the future of fascism, our observation that fascism has come in waves and what we said about the co-evolution of tributary modes, capitalism, and socialism implies that new forms of fascism and authoritarianism are likely to emerge in the 21st and 22nd centuries as humanity struggles to implement a sustainable and humane form of global society.



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[1]An earlier version was presented at the meeting of the Global Studies Association, Berkeley, June 14-16, 2017 on a session organized by Tom Reifer on “Polanyi's Double-Movement, Fascism and the Capitalist World-Economy: The Contributions of Walter L. Goldfrank and the Challenges of the 21st Century.”  A translation of the earlier version of this article into Estonian is at  Thanks to Karolin Lohmus for translating it. 

[2] In this paper we use both traditional world-system terminology (core-semiperiphery-periphery) and the more generic Global North and Global South. The semiperiphery and the periphery are in the Global South. We also use the comparative evolutionary world-systems perspective developed by Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) to discuss how tributary modes of accumulation have operated in modern and premodern world-systems.

[3] The East Asian world-system was largely autonomous from the Europe-centered system until the 19th century. Before that both systems experience a sequence of world revolutions that had consequences for dynastic change and the structure of geopolitical power (Hung 2011).

[4] For purposes of comparing the modern world-system with earlier world-systems the idea of global governance can refer to the structures and institutions of power that exist in each system. The modern system has been mainly one of global governance organized by a series of hegemons interspersed by periods of interimperial rivalry. We are probably headed back into a period of mulitipolarity as U.S. hegemony continues to decline and challengers continue to rise.

[5] Colin Beck (2011) used Charles Tilly’s coding of contentious political events in Europe to study waves of rebellion. 

[6] The republic of letters was a group of enlightenment scholars from different European countries who corresponded with one another. Whiteneck (1996) studied the international “epistemic communities” that promoted the ideology of free trade in the 19th century.

[7] We have examined the links that anarchists (Aldecoa et al 2019) and indigenous rights activists (Chase-Dunn et al 2019) have with other movements that participate in the Social Forum process.

[8] Goldfrank (1978:78) says “In contrast to the varieties of communist parties and states, the differences among the fascisms are mandated, as it were, by nationalist principles rather than mere adaptations to local traditions or political exigencies.”

[9] Wallerstein (2012) uses the term “geoculture” to characterize what we call world politics.

[10] The Weberian construction of this center of the geoculture as the expansion of formal rationality and the empowering individuals, organizations and nation-states is portrayed by John W. Meyer (2009).


[11] Even when fascism was secular it was usually formulated as a mystical essence based on either race or culture and on topophilia (sacred soil and place). 

[12] While counter-hegemonic ideologies became increasingly secular, religion continued to play an important part in politics. Mike Davis (2018) notes that Catholic political parties played an important role in undermining socialist parties in Europe in part by championing family values. And Linda Gordon’s (2017) study of the movement of the Klu Klux Klan to northern U.S. cities in the 1920s championed “true Americanism,” racial purity, religious intolerance and opposition to immigration. 

[13] Its current main manifestation is about the treatment of migrants. The 2018 meeting of the World Social Forum in Mexico City focusses on the plight and rights of migrants.


[14] But see Minkowitz (2017)

[15] An exception was Donald Trump’s mention of “the Second Amendment people” during the U.S. presidential campaign of 2016.