Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Coup of the 400 and Fascism

All right, now for the question you have all been waiting for.  To what extent could the coup of 411 B.C. be seen as the precursor to modern fascism?  Running down the various traits of fascism, the results are interesting.

A middle class populist movement that somewhat punches up, but predominantly kicks down.  No.  The 400 were neither middle class nor populist.  They were, quite simply, oligarchs trying to exclude the common people from power.  Admittedly they did make some attempt to simultaneously appeal to and intimidate the middle class by promising to extend a full share in government to some 5,000 eligible participants.  But they were emphatically not rabble rousers.  They were members of the upper class who thought that they should hold exclusive power.  I should make one interesting qualification here.  Theramenes and the other moderate members of the 400 apparently did take the talk of the 5,000 seriously and want to include the middle class.  Theramenes proved himself to have at least some ability to rabble-rouse,* stirring up the middle class hoplites to revolt against the oligarchy when he considered the oligarchy to be on the verge of treason.  In theory, it would be possible to imagine Theramenes making a career as a right-wing populist, stirring the hoplites up against the poor and urging them not to share citizenship with such riffraff.  But the fact remains that he did not.  Indeed, Theramenes does not seem like a good candidate to be a rabble-rouser.  He was apparently from one of Athens' most aristocratic families; his father, Hagnon, was a prominent general and the founder of the colony Amphipolis.

Driven by both fear and ambition, but fear predominates.  Well, as discussed before, fear got the whole plot started in the first place, fear of military disaster.  Alcibiades promised assistance from Persia if the democracy was overturned,  But here is the thing.  The Athenian people -- Assembly, army, and navy alike -- had all agreed to suspend the democracy if necessary to preserve their country.  No coup, no campaign of terror and intimidation, was necessary if fear was all that was at work.  That can only be considered the work of ambition.  Then again, as the oligarchy's position weakened, fear became stronger and stronger -- fear of how a vengeful democracy would treat them. Certainly, the coup of the 400 was not like the case of Corcyra where the oligarchs, though beaten and exiled, returned and burned their boats to cut off all hope of escape and force themselves to fight until conquest or destruction.  That is pure ambition in its rawest state.  Here, I would say there was a considerable mixture of fear, but ambition predominated.

Paramilitary party claiming a monopoly on political power.  Here is where we do see something that looks like a precursor to modern fascism.  Yes, the political clubs that seized power do look a good deal like a paramilitary party.  Each club by itself might be better seen as a legislative caucus rather than anything like a political party in the modern sense.  But when the clubs joined forces they did, indeed, begin to look something like a political party as we might understand the term.  They were a group of participants sharing a common ideology, organized together to pursue their objectives.  They participated in the normal democratic process, making speeches, proposing measures, and taking part in debates.  But they did not play fair.  They had bully boys to terrorize and assassinate opponents, so that no one dared speak against them.  The forms of the democracy remained, but the substance had been overthrown well before the coup.  It is certainly possible that other failures of democracy may have involved paramilitaries taking part in the democratic process but not playing fair.  The instances of Peisistratus and Corcyra strongly suggest it.  But here is one fall of democracy where we know enough to confidently say yes, this was a paramilitary party.  And it did claim a monopoly on power.  It showed more internal democracy than modern totalitarian parties, but that was the case in all oligarchies.

And now the old standbys:

The fascist negations.

Anti-radical:  No, not really.  There is nothing to suggest that the 400 were driven by any fear of violent revolution from below or from the Left.  Possibly this could have been at work since the moral panic following the mutilation of the herms, but there is nothing in the record to suggest it.

Anti-liberal:  In the sense of seeking the narrow the circle of people who matter, absolutely.  That is the nature of oligarchic revolution.

Anti-conservative:  The 400 apparently did their best to maintain the outward forms of legality, continuity and tradition, so I see no real reason to see them as anti-conservative.

Ideology and goals.

  • Creation of a new nationalist authoritarian state not merely based on traditional principles or models
  • Organization of some new kind of regulated, multiclass, integrated national economic structure, whether called corporatist, national socialist, or national syndicalist
  • Empire or 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.
The oligarchy of the 400 were seeking empire only in the sense of wanting to preserve as much of it as they could.  Their only desire for a "radical change in the nation's relationship with other powers" was a desire to get out of the war on the best terms they could obtain.  As the oligarchs' domestic position weakened, the terms they were willing to accept became less and less favorable, until they end they were (apparently) willing to accept foreign conquest in the interest of preserving the oligarchy.  This might seen antithetical to the belligerent nationalism of modern fascism except for one thing.  All across Europe, in country after country, those belligerent nationalists of fascism turned out to be a pack of traitors!  So maybe the 400 weren't so different after all.  As for the other goals, they are quintessentially modern, and any attempt to apply them in Classical Antiquity is simply an anachronism.

Style and organization.

Emphasis on aesthetic structure of meeting, symbols and political choreography, stressing romantic and mystical aspects.  I see no sign of it.  This looks like part of the populist nature of fascism, which was absent.

Attempted mass mobilization with militarization of political relationships and style and with the goal of a mass party militia.  You could say that was true within the very narrow confines of the oligarchy. But to most people "mass mobilization" and "mass party militia" sound incompatible with limiting this mobilization and militia to a very narrow oligarchy.

Positive evaluation of, and willingness to use violence.  Yes.  Hence the terror and assassination, and the coup.

Extreme stress on the masculine principle and male dominance.  No more than any other Greeks.

Exaltation of youth above all other phases of life, emphasizing conflict of generations.  We see some of that at work here, insofar as it was the young men, the "Hellenic youth" who carried on the violent aspects of their work.  Plutarch certainly (and presumably accurately) speaks of a conflict of generations between the younger men who favored the Sicilian expedition and the older men who opposed it.  But it differs from modern fascism in a very important aspect.  It was the men who opposed the Sicilian expedition who were most likely to favor the coup, and the ones who favored the expedition who were the most likely to champion democracy.

Specific tendency toward an authoritarian, charismatic style of leadership, whether or not the command is to some degree elective.  I would say no.  Certainly Alcibiades wanted to be a charismatic leader, but he was passed over.  Peisander was perhaps also a candidate for charismatic leader, but it seems unlikely that others, particularly the behind-the-scenes chessmaster Antiphon would have allowed it.  Thucydides remarks that oligarchic conspiracies are most unlikely to succumb a charismatic leader; they all want to be the leader:
For the instant an oligarchy is established the promoters of it disdain mere equality, and everybody thinks that he ought to be far above everybody else. Whereas in a democracy, when an election is made, a man is less disappointed at a failure because he has not been competing with his equals.
He goes on to say that the members of the moderate faction did not expect to oligarchy to survive and began maneuvering each to position himself as champion of the common people when it fell. Thermanenes, as we have seen, did so with some success, but ultimately that role had already been taken by Alcibiades.

The mobilizing passions of fascism.

A sense of overwhelming crisis, beyond the reach of any traditional solutions.  Very much so.  In fact, there was such a crisis ongoing in the form of a desperate military situation.  But here is the thing.  People outside of the conspiracy agreed that there was such a crisis, beyond the reach of traditional solutions.  In fact the Assembly had agreed to suspend the democracy if necessary for Persian aid.  Yet the conspiracy proceeded anyhow, even after it became clear that no such aid would be forthcoming.  I do not think this factor played quite the role here that it did not modern fascism.

The primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether universal or individual, and the subordination of the individual to it.  Well, the conspirators were oligarchs who wanted their group to rule over the common people, so to some extent this applies.  But I see nothing to suggest that sort of subordination of the individual to the group.  Quite the contrary, see Thucydides' comment about individual ambition above.

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.  There may have been some of this, to the extent that the oligarchs, who defined themselves as "the best citizens," "the good and the honorable," and so forth and firmly believed that they would offer better government that the democracy.  Perhaps they saw themselves as victimized by their exclusion from power.  But I don't think that it went this far.  This is the mark of lashing out in fear, rather than of raw ambition.

Dread of the group's decline under the corrosive effect of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences.  Probably to some extent, under the democracy, but that, too, is more fear-based that the 400 appeared to be.

The need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary.  This applies to all oligarchic coups in the sense that the oligarchs want to "purify" the citizen body by excluding everyone they do not consider "the best citizens" or "the good and the honorable," etc.  But it does not apply in the same was as in modern fascism, i.e., to all residents.  The 400 wanted closer integration of a purer citizen body, but they never imagined that the citizen body and all inhabitants of the city would be the same.

The need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group's destiny.  See my previous comments about charismatic leaders. Thucydides' conclusion is that the 400 did want a charismatic dictator to lead them; they each wanted to be that dictator and since that, of course, was not possible, they were doomed to break apart into individual power struggles.  The most likely prospect for such a leader was in Alcibiades leading the common people against the 400.

The superiority of the leader's instincts over abstract and universal reason.  No.  This goes with a sort of leader worship foreign to the 400.

The beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group's success.  Well, the 400 obviously showed themselves willing to use violence to advance their group.  But I don't see anything like the pornographic glorification of violence that you see in modern fascism.

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.  Clearly, as oligarchs the 400 believed in their right to dominate the common people, and they were prepared to use lawless violence and ultimately treason to achieve their goals.  Another way of putting this one, I suppose, is a narrowing of the circle of people who morally "matter" to the point that outsiders are allowed no weight whatever in the group's moral calculus.  I think the best answer is that we do not have enough evidence, and that I am unwilling to convict the 400 in this regard without it.

*I do not consider rabble-rouser to be necessarily an insult.  Some rabble need rousing.

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