There are reasons for optimism


IMAGE/Thrift Books

John Nichols: When you were ten years old, you wrote a short essay on your concerns about the rise of fascism. You were writing after the fall of Barcelona to Francisco Franco’s fascist forces in the closing days of the Spanish Civil War. The Americans who fought in that war, as members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, were disparaged as “premature anti-fascists,” as they dared to raise arms against the allies of Hitler and Mussolini before the US entered World War II on December 8, 1941. At ten, you aligned yourself with the antifascists. Do you recall the article?

Noam Chomsky: The article was for the fourth-grade newspaper. I was the editor and the only reader as far as I recall, aside from maybe my mother. Luckily for me, she didn’t save anything. I’m sure it would be quite embarrassing. All I remember about it is the first sentence, which described what I was thinking at the time. The first sentence was: Austria falls, Czechoslovakia falls, Toledo falls and now Barcelona falls.

I was writing after the fall of Barcelona, February 1939. And it just seemed at the time that the spread of fascism was inexorable. Nothing was going to stop it. The article was concerned with what was going on in the world, which was frightening. I was old enough to listen to Hitler’s speeches at the Nuremberg Rallies — not understanding the words, but it was easy enough to pick up the tone. You could just see what was happening as this plague spread all over Europe and seemed to have no end.

When Barcelona fell that was not only pretty much the end of the Spanish liberal democratic state but, for me, more importantly it was the end of the social revolution. [The Spanish Civil War] wasn’t just a simple war between fascism and liberal democracy; there was an amazing social revolution going on in a large part of Spain and it was crushed by … the joint efforts of the Communists, the fascists, and the liberal democracies. They didn’t agree on much, but they agreed that the social revolution had to be crushed. Barcelona was just the last symbol at that point. People just kind of fled to France if they could get away.

JN: Was it clear to you that a greater war was coming?

NC: Well this, as I say, seemed like it was unstoppable. This was going to spread over all of Europe, over the world. I learned much later that US planners, at the same time, were already meeting — the State Department, the Council on Foreign Relations — and had study groups working on what the war would be like and what the postwar period would be like.

And by this period, 1939, they were already anticipating that the war would end with a split between two worlds, a US-dominated world and a German-dominated world. That was the picture. So my childish perception was not entirely unrealistic.JN: Was your perception informed by your own experience growing up in Philadelphia?
It was connected with local experiences. We happened to be the only Jewish family in a mostly German and Irish neighborhood. And the Irish hated the British and the Germans liked the Germans … and I can remember beer parties when Paris fell. The kids in the street went to a local Jesuit school and I hate to think what they were being taught there, but they came out raving antisemites. It took a couple of hours before they’d calm down and you could play ball in the streets and that sort of thing.

So it did combine personal experiences, which incidentally I never mentioned to my parents. They had no idea about it to the day of their death; it’s just that, in those days, you just didn’t talk to your parents about things like that. That’s personal. But it was a combination of these things that led to this [article].

JN: With the experience of commenting on fascism for eighty years, what’s your sense of where we stand today? There’s a great deal of discussion of fascism, and fascist threats. Stacks of books are being written on the topic. How should we think about what’s going on now

NC: Well, I’m a little reluctant to use the word “fascism.” It’s used quite loosely now. It’s used to refer to anything hideous. But fascism really meant something back in the thirties. In fact, it’s worth remembering that even liberal opinion had a kind of a moderate appreciation of fascism. So, for example, Roosevelt described Mussolini, the original Fascist, as “that admirable Italian gentleman.”

The fascists had succeeded in crushing the labor movement and the social-democratic and the Communist left, and that was something that Western opinion was pretty much in favor of. Western business and the State Department in 1937 was describing Hitler as a moderate and George Kennan, our consulate in Berlin at the time and later one of the most respected statesmen of the post-period, was writing back from Berlin that we shouldn’t be too tough on these guys. There are things wrong with them, but they’re doing some things that are pretty good, so we can probably get along with them.

Fascism was understood as something different back then. It wasn’t just anything horrible, it had a particular social and economic policy. It was to be a powerful state which would coordinate all sectors of society. It would dominate; business would flourish but under the control of a powerful state. Labor would be accommodated as a subsidiary of this overall system. It’s not what we refer to as fascism today.

JN: What’s your sense of what people refer to as fascism today

NC: What’s called fascism today is anything rotten.

JN: That’s a broad definition.
Broad definition.

Is there any place, when you look around the world today, and I know you do, where you see threats emerging in stark terms?

Well I think Brazil maybe is the most extreme case right now. Brazil is in the hands of the new president [Jair Messias Bolsonaro]. Bolsonaro has taken over. Brazil, as you know, had a horrendous military dictatorship: torture, murder. Bolsonaro praises the military dictatorship. To the extent that he does criticize it, he says the military dictatorship in Brazil didn’t kill enough people. They should have been like the Argentines, who had the worst of these kind of neo-Nazi national security states. They killed 30,000 people.

Z Communications for more

Comments are closed.