Saturday, May 30, 2015

Sparta and Fascism

You knew this was coming, didn't you?

Modern-day fascism has been a short-lived phenomenon. Mussolini, first of the fascists, came to power in 1922 and was dismissed in 1943.  Even considering Italian fascism to have endured to the end of the war, it continued less than 25 years.  Hitler came to power in 1933 and fell in 1945, a period of 12 years.  All other possible fascist regimes were puppets installed for a brief time during WWII.  All of which means that, while we have seen what Communism looks like when its revolutionary fervor is spent, no one knows what mature fascism would look like.*  Sparta has been called communist or socialist.  Could it be taken as an example of what mature fascism would look like?  To answer the question, we would have to look not just at classical Sparta, but at the origins of the regime to see to what degree they resemble the origins of fascist governments.  Given that the origins of the Spartiate regime come from a time before reliable records, when history is extremely difficulty to distinguish from legend, this calls for a lot of guesswork.

Please take all this with the strong qualification that there is at least one very important difference. Fascism as we have known it was a dictatorship.  Mature fascism might have taken the form of a continued dictatorship, or an informal oligarchy.  Mature, post-Stalinist Communism is probably better described as an informal oligarchy than a true dictatorship.  Sparta was a formal oligarchy.  As such, it allowed a degree of democracy within its narrow citizen body that would not be allowed in a dictatorship or an informal oligarchy masquerading as a dictatorship.

So, here goes.

A middle class populist movement that predominantly kicks down, but also punches up:  Clearly the citizen body was "middle class" in the sense of being above the large population of non-citizens and therefore had people to kick down at.  And clearly the regime was based on kicking down at non-citizens.  Did it also punch up?  To some degree, yes, at least according to the legend, the Spartan aristocracy was divided by extreme inequalities in wealth, but Lycurgus, founder of the Spartiate regime, distributed it equally and instituted a radically egalitarian lifestyle among all citizens.  But did Lycurgus punch up and kick down in a populist style?  In other words, did he rabble rouse?  Did he fire the poorer citizens up, both against the richer citizens and against the helots and Messenians?  Nothing in the legend suggests it.  Presumably if he had done so, he would have forfeited the admiration of classical historians, who did not approve of rabble rousing.  I will finally note that classical Sparta was not noted for its populists, but I would expect a mature fascism to lose its populism over time.  Rabble rousing pays off for a while, but the rabble gets tired over time.

Driven by both fear and ambition, but mostly fear:  It is my opinion that fear was what lay at the whole basis of Spartan society, specifically fear of rebellion from below.  This is its single most fascistic trait.  Perhaps its founding was also based on the ambition of the poor members of the elite for equality with the richer ones.  Nothing suggests that Lycurgus had any particular lust for power.

A paramilitary party that has seized (or aspires to seize) power and claims (or aspires to claim) an effective monopoly on political power:  It seems implausible that Lycurgus could have imposed such radical measures on a society without resorting to force, and, indeed, there are stories of his having lost an eye in one such scuffle.  But the legend makes him king, not some rabble-rousing politician contesting matters through the usual political process but playing unfair and using a private paramilitary to intimidate opponents.  Most likely it was revolts and the threat of destruction that led to such a measure.  In classical Sparta, the eligible participants formed the elite core of the army, with demoted citizens and subject people as lesser troops.  This army had to devote a great share of its resources to domestic security and might in that sense be considered a paramilitary.  To the extent that it was a secret police, the crypteia might be considered a paramilitary.  But Sparta did not have anything like a paramilitary party.  They had contested elections and factions, but never a faction using force to intimidate the others.

Fascist negations:

Anti-radical:  Well, the Spartiate regime's origins were very radical in the sense of upturning well-established lifestyles and distribution of wealth.  But to the extent that anti-radical means the fear of a dominant, or semi-dominant class of revolution from below (and this has been a major factor in modern fascism), then it is fair to say this was a constant theme running throughout Sparta's history, from the regime's origins to its classical form.  

Anti-liberal: I take this to mean opposition to expanding the circle of people who morally matter, opposition to placing justice to outsiders ahead of loyalty to insiders, and opposition to any openness to new ideas.  By any of these standards, the Spartiate regime was anti-liberal both in its origins and in its mature form.

Anti-conservative:  I would call the regime's origins right wing, in the sense of upholding the privileges of an entrenched elite, but not conservative in the sense of upholding traditional lifestyles. It made, after all, extremely radical changes, but all in the interest of preserving existing dominance. This would make the Spartiate regime's origins a genuine case of being simultaneously anti-radical, anti-liberal, and anti-conservative, which is quite unusual.  Of course, by the time we get to classical Sparta, the regime had been in power for a long time and become conservative.  Such is the fate of all successful revolutions.

Ideology and goals:
  • Creation of a new nationalist authoritarian state based not merely on traditional principles or models 
  • Organization of some new kind of regulated, multiclass, integrated national economic structure, whether called national corporatist, national socialist, or national syndicalist 
  • The goal of empire or a radical change in the nation’s relationship with other powers 
  • Specific espousal of an idealist, voluntarist creed, normally involving the attempt to realize a new form of modern, self-determined, secular culture.
Except for the part about empire, these are anachronisms in classical times.  They are based on the assumption that the society and the citizenry are the same.  Spartan society was all about maintaining the dominance of citizens over non-citizens.
As for empire, the Spartiate regime is best seen as the end of empire, while fascism is the beginning.  Recall that what we call Sparta today was usually known to contemporaries as Lacedaemonia. The city of Sparta conquered the broad fertile plain of Laconia or Lacedaemon and then crossed over the mountains to conquer the fertile plain of Messenia.  It then found itself holding down a hostile population and had the sense not to expand any more.  Thucydides regularly speaks of the Spartans, not as aggressive and warlike, but as reluctant to go to war, sluggish, torpid, and perhaps even timid.

Style and organization:

Emphasis on aesthetic structure of meetings, symbols, and political choreography, stressing romantic and mystical aspects:  I don't see anything to suggest they differed from other Greeks in this regard.  This is a populist trait, and Spartans appear to have lacked the populism of fascism.

Attempted mass mobilization with militarization of political relationships and style and with the goal of a mass party militia:  Yes, in the sense of turning the citizen body into an army, and of leaving its eligible participants no private life outside of service to the state.  This sort of forced participation and suppression of independent organizations outside the control of the state is a defining feature (perhaps THE defining feature) of modern totalitarianism.  So Sparta had some definite totalitarian features.  But it was not fully totalitarian in the modern sense in that it had genuine contested elections, referendums, etc.  And, needless to say,  mass mobilization was limited to the small citizenry.  Non-citizens were best kept as passive as possible.

Positive evaluation and use of, or willingness to use, violence:  The narrow citizenry was certainly willing to use violence to maintain its dominance.  But unlike modern fascism, the Spartan state did not use violence to intimidate the citizenry.  As for how the regime was established, well, see the part on paramilitary above.

Extreme stress on the masculine principle and male dominance, while espousing the organic view of society:  Sparta was actually less this way than the rest of Greece.

Exaltation of youth above other phases of life, emphasizing the conflict of generations, at least in effecting the initial political transformation:  No.  There was very strong emphasis on the education and training of the young, but respect for elders was also very strongly emphasized.

Specific tendency toward an authoritarian, charismatic, personal style of command, whether or not the command is to some degree initially elective:  Well, the origins of the regime are attributed (accurately or not) to a charismatic leader, but otherwise the Spartans deeply distrusted and discouraged charismatic leaders.  (Of course, I regard the charismatic leader as a left-wing phenomenon anyhow).

Robert Paxton's Nine Mobilizing Passions:

A sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions:  The whole Spartiate regime appears to have arisen out of a genuine crisis, a revolt by Messenia, so the sense of overwhelming crisis was accurate and the severity of the crisis no doubt goes a long way to explain the resort to non-traditional solutions.  Of course, this is one thing that would not be sustainable in a mature fascist state.  But the basic fear, real and rational, of revolt from below seems to have been constantly with the Spartans and informed their actions.

The belief that one's group is a victim, a sentiment which justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against the group's enemies, both internal and external:  I don't think the Spartans established or maintained their regime out of a sense that they were victims so much as a fear that they might become victims if they ever let their guard down.

Dread of the group's decline under the corrosive effect of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences:  Yes, very much so.

The need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary:  Not in the same sense and modern fascism, but basically yes. Certainly, they sought a very closely integrated (citizen) community and were anxious to keep out anything that might be seen as polluting.  In fact, the Spartans ultimately made it so easy to take away citizenship and so hard to bestow it that they had serious problems with a shrinking citizen body.  They did not resort to exclusionary violence to keep their citizen body pure or tightly integrated, only to maintain its dominance.

The need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group's destiny:  Once again, no, the Spartans seem to have distrusted charismatic leaders.

The superiority of the leader's instincts over abstract and universal reason:  Certainly not in the sense of favoring one-man rule.  To some extent in the semi-despotic powers they gave the ephors to maintain law and order.  But definitely not in matters of relations with other states.

The beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group's success:  Certainly they did not hesitate to use violence to maintain their dominance.  But I don't think there was anything like the semi-pornographic fascist glorification of violence and domination so much as deep seated fear.

The right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group's prowess in a Darwinian struggle: Certainly the Spartans believed in their right to dominate and were willing to resort to nefarious means that most Greeks would have seen as violations of human and divine law.  But this was on a domestic, rather than an international basis.  And I don't think this was glorified in the sense that fascists glorified it, so much as seen as a grim fact of life.

In short, I would say that the Spartans had some proto-fascist traits, particularly intense fear of revolution from below, militarization of society, and a circle-the-wagons sort of outlook and all that goes with it. But I don't think that they were populists, or that they trusted charismatic leaders, or that they had the sort of enthusiasm for all this that the fascists  had.  And, of course, there were genuine democratic features in their government within the confines of the oligarchy.

Now, I will once again give Ancient Greece a rest on this blog until I have reached the end of Thucydides.

*Although some would suggest the Franco government in Spain or the government of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal.

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