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The Cambridge Union discusses whether we are witnessing a fascist resurgence



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The Cambridge Union welcomed a selection of academics, writers and activists to discuss the motion: This House Believes That We are Witnessing a Global Fascist Resurgence, on Thursday, April 29.

The exterior of the Cambridge Union. Picture: Keith Heppell
The exterior of the Cambridge Union. Picture: Keith Heppell

Citing Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, among others, as examples, the debate - which was held on Zoom and live-streamed via the Union’s YouTube channel, free for all to attend - was chaired by Joel Rosen, Union president for Easter 2021.

Opening the proceedings for the proposition was the Filipino academic and activist, Professor Walden Bello, who was jailed by American authorities in 1978 for leading a non-violent takeover of the Philippine consulate in San Francisco.

He offered a five-point criteria to determine whether a movement could be considered ‘fascist’:

  • They show a disdain or hatred for democratic principles and procedures
  • They tolerate or promote violence
  • They have a heated mass base that supports their anti-democratic thinking or behaviour
  • They scapegoat or support persecution of certain social groups
  • They are led by a charismatic figure who exhibits or normalises all of the above

Bello talked of establishment "complacency", drawing upon the examples of Mussolini and Hitler, who were initially dismissed as oddities.

Opening the case for the opposition was the professor of history and Italian studies at New York University, Professor Ruth Ben Ghiat. Ben Ghiat argued that authoritarianism, like all political systems, undergoes change, and that fascism was the first stage in this narrative.

To suggest that today’s "electoral autocracies" are reflective of a "fascist resurgence" is ahistorical, she argued. Ben Ghiat thus settles on referring to leaders like Trump as "authoritarians" as the term doesn’t refer to a specific historical period.

The inside of the newly refurbished bar area of the Cambridge Union. Picture: Keith Heppell
The inside of the newly refurbished bar area of the Cambridge Union. Picture: Keith Heppell

The second speaker for the proposition was Isabel Hernandez, a third-year philosophy student at Newnham College. She referred to a quotation from the leader of the supposedly centre-right Partido Popular (PP) in Madrid, where she said that to be called a fascist means that you are on the right side of history.

Hernandez also noted the way in which far-right parties, such as Vox in Spain, have appropriated the concept of "freedom" in political discourse.

Furthering the case for the opposition was Sam Rubinstein, a second year history student at Trinity College, Cambridge. Sam pointed out the ease with which we use the term "fascist" in contemporary politics, suggesting that it has become a byword for "political evil".

Rubinstein pointed to important intellectual differences between the fascism of the 1930s and 40s, from the populism, authoritarianism and demagoguery of today.

Oscar Wilde and George Orwell debate at the Cambridge Union on January 23, 2020
Oscar Wilde and George Orwell debate at the Cambridge Union on January 23, 2020

Closing the debate for the proposition was Masha Gessen, who has worked as a staff writer for The New Yorker since 2017. Gessen pushed back against the characterisation of today’s populist regimes as "authoritarian", since historically this would be reflected in the collapse of the public sphere, and a move to the private sphere.

Gessen noted that they first started using the term "fascist" in relation to Donald Trump, when he used military force to disperse peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square, Washington DC.

Closing the debate for the opposition was the historian Sir Richard Evans. Evans stressed the fundamentally militaristic nature of "fascism" in the wake of World War I. He argued that it is very difficult to regard today’s strongmen as militarist in the mould of Mussolini, Hitler and other fascists.

The motion was carried with 38 votes in favour, 28 against, and 2 abstentions.

The exterior of the Cambridge Union. Picture: Keith Heppell
The exterior of the Cambridge Union. Picture: Keith Heppell

For more information on the Cambridge Union, visit cus.org.

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