American conservatives contemplating ‘soft’ fascism

Over the last couple of years, some American conservatives have been going public on their admiration for the former Portuguese fascist dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970). Sometimes characterised as an example of ‘soft’ fascism.

Convinced that democracy as presently constructed isn’t working in their favour, they’ve wondered whether a more illiberal approach to enforcing conservative values wouldn’t be out of the question.

I’m not indifferent to this debate as I’m half Portuguese and grew up with the name of Salazar being mentioned favourably and unfavourably around me all my life. As late as 2007, a Portuguese TV poll asked the public to name the greatest Portuguese hero of all time. There was incredulous horror, when Salazar got 40% of the popular vote. I was utterly dismayed myself.

It may seem incredible now, but Portugal and Spain had fascist dictatorships stretching from the 1930s through to the 1970s. On 25 April, 1974, Portugal erupted into revolution and overthrew the dictator. By that time it was Salazar’s successor Marcello Caetano at the helm. Salazar had suffered a stroke after his deckchair collapsed under him in 1968 before dying in 1970.

How did these dictators survive the Second World War after the demise of Hitler and Mussolini? Well, the answer is the Cold War. With Hitler out of the way, the post-war era saw the United States and the Soviet Union squaring off against each other. Fear of communism overrode distaste towards the politics of Salazar in Portugal and General Franco in Spain.

DISCOVER: The Portuguese revolution of 1974

Salazar was a fascist – and proud of it

Contrary to some of the nonsense I’ve read on certain websites, Salazar was ideologically aligned with the prime objective of fascism. To terminate liberal democracy in order to crush communism and defend private property. His style was hugely different from the swagger of Mussolini and he didn’t embrace the genocidal policies of Hitler, but he indisputably recognised himself as part of the fascist wave that swept across Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.

Don’t take my word for it – read what Salazar himself said.

“Our dictatorship clearly resembles the fascist dictatorship in the reinforcement of authority, in the war declared against certain principles of democracy, in its accentuated nationalist character, in its preoccupations with social order”

As a bookish academic and with a burning hatred of liberal democracy, Salazar knew exactly what he was doing. The structure of his ‘new state’ – the Estado Novo – bore a close resemblance to the corporate state of Mussolini. With ‘vertical’ unions and organisations that sought to unify the ‘nation’ as opposed to the class-based ‘horizontal’ organisations of the socialists, communists and trade unions.

The fascism of Salazar and Mussolini was at root the same in terms of substance – even if the style differed. Some people today are confusing form and content. Salazar certainly didn’t.

Salazar and Mussolini – nationalism and globalism

There are two variants on the fascist right that are well recognised. The ultra-nationalist and reactionary mindset versus the global new order. Salazar was more the former. His instincts were always opposed to change and anything that smacked of disruption. He was not looking towards a brave new world but the reawakening of a mythical glorious past.

Salazar adopted the stance of a grim and sombre patriarch bringing an unruly family into line. He referred to the Portuguese people as ‘children’ who needed a stern father figure. There was no Mussolini-style swagger or Hitlerite screaming from the podium. Salazar bored the nation into submission. Tedium was his preferred weapon. But under the dining room table, his right hand held a big stick.

Portugal was run like a stifling, over-disciplined Victorian family. Not for Salazar what he termed the ‘Pagan Caesarism’ of Mussolini. Unlike his Italian counterpart, Salazar had never gone through an anti-clerical phase. The Portuguese people would attend mass on Sunday. Women would know their place in the kitchen. Men would be the breadwinners. And children would be strictly obedient.

Salazar’s fascism was essentially an ultra-nationalist, socially reactionary dead hand laid firmly on the country. He was suspicious of progress, rising living standards and modernism. Church, landlords and industrialists were the right people to run the country with enforced deference from the rest of the population.

That deference was guaranteed by a secret police – the PIDE – modelled to a degree on the Gestapo. The PIDE tapped into a culture of ‘denunciation’ that some historians have suggested is a psychological scar inflicted by the activities of the Inquisition in past centuries. An internal 1964 report by the PIDE revealed that in the northern Portuguese town of Guarda, people had no qualms about snitching on young men avoiding military service and other alleged misdemeanours.

Every factory had a director whose job was to discipline bolshy workers. I know because, regrettably, one of my cousins (long dead) performed this role at a workplace near the city of Porto. This was not dissimilar to the German Labour Front set up by the Nazis to replace the free trades unions.

Salazar building a fascist movement

Unlike Mussolini and Hitler, Salazar came into government in 1926 as finance minister without a ready made fascist party behind him. The government in question was a military dictatorship that had just overthrown democracy in Portugal. Its inability to get a tight grip on society convinced Salazar of the fascist approach.

From 1930, he built a political force called the National Union which may not have emulated the street-based thuggishness of the National Socialists in Germany but two years later became the only legal political party in Portugal. That would remain the case until 1974.

In 1932, Salazar became prime minister. This was the title he held throughout his unelected dictatorship. One of Salazar’s first acts was the creation of a distinct secret police force that came to be known as the PIDE. It had responsibilities around immigration and counter-espionage – but its key fascist function was political repression.

In 1936, Salazar allowed the creation of a compulsory membership youth movement called the Mocidade Portuguesa which was closely modelled on the Hitler Youth. My mother, at school in the 1930s and 1940s was pressured to join but my grandmother destroyed her uniform as my grandfather had been imprisoned by the Salazar regime in its first years.

Just as Hitler had his own hotheads with the brown shirts of the SA, Salazar faced a group of ‘blue shirts’ called the National Syndicalists who wanted a much more overtly fascist state in Portugal. They adopted Nazi-style attire but instead of a swastika, bore the Templar-style cross of the Portuguese Order of Christ on their arm.

If you recall, at the urging of the German establishment, Hitler drowned the SA in their own blood during the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. Salazar didn’t have to resort to such a violent purge but he arrested and exiled members in 1935. It’s hard not to see a parallel here.

Goodbye democracy, hello Salazar

To Salazar, the democracy Portugal experienced after the end of the monarchy in 1910 up until the military takeover in 1926 had been one of chaos and disorder. And indeed, the military dictatorship wasn’t much less chaotic. To understand Salazar you have to grasp his complete aversion to any form of instability which to him included parliamentary debate, questioning of state and church authority, liberal values and intellectual inquiry.

His fascism – and I paraphrase him – was about the systematic infantilising of the nation. Politics was for Daddy. The rest of you just shut up and behave. On several occasions, Salazar made it clear that only he truly understood the challenges Portugal faced. And when he resolved how to meet these challenges – he expected total compliance.

Social organisation would be influenced by the papal encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI. Presented as documents outlining Vatican concern for the plight of the working classes, what these pontiffs really wanted was an end to class conflict. Pius XI – who signed a concordat with Mussolini creating the Vatican state – argued for medieval style guilds where employers and employees were required to work together in compulsory harmony. Music to the corporatist ears of both Mussolini and Salazar – no matter what their style differences.

Thanks to Salazar, Portugal was subjected to political chloroform for decades. The National Assembly (parliament) would be ‘apolitical’ (just one party) and social organisations like unions and guilds would represent all classes along nationalist and ultra-conservative lines. The Catholic church would determine the moral values of the nation and the history taught to children would be one heroising the Portuguese navigators of the 16th century and emphasising Portugal’s ‘civilising mission’ in its colonies – especially Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau.

This ideology would be used to justify the catastrophic colonial war in those three African countries that raged throughout the 1960s and 1970s and in which most of my relatives aged over 70 today were required to fight. Unless of course they wanted to discuss their conscientious objections in a secret police cell with electrodes attached to their body. These wars, fought as Britain and France were giving their colonies independence, would eventually gobble up half of Portugal’s GDP.

Salazar and balanced budgets

Those lauding Salazar today always mention his budget balancing acumen. There was healthy economic growth in the post-war boom and what had been a very rural society saw increasing industrialisation. But the creation of an ever larger urban working class was always viewed as a potential threat by Salazar.

Other hallmarks of his economic policy included protectionism. This meant dumping Portuguese goods on its African colonies. Foreign investment in those same colonies was also discouraged and raw materials were extracted on favourable terms for the mother country.

Incredibly, Coca-Cola was banned in Portugal until 1977. For different political reasons, the Communist Party continued opposition to this ‘imperialist’ product after the 1974 revolution. I was at a disco in 1979 aged 16 and innocently slurping a Coke when a girl marched up to me and announced that I was drinking ‘the dirty water of imperialism’. Sounds better in Portuguese: agua suja do imperialismo!

The legacy of protectionism was hard to ditch. Intended by Salazar to protect his rich friends’ businesses, it then became a policy for protecting workers’ jobs.

Salazar’s budget balancing miracle was achieved by predictable means. Raising taxes that hit the urban poor and colonial populations hardest, driving up the cost of food and cutting public expenditure on the civil service and pensions. With no free trade unions and opposition parties to object – it really didn’t matter what anybody thought.

Where Salazar did spend money on infrastructure, it was to create public buildings from town halls to railway stations that conformed to ‘authentic’ Portuguese styles. Not for Salazar the futurism of Mussolini.

As a child, I visited Portugal under the Salazar and Caetano years. Coming from Britain – where my mother had emigrated to in 1959 – the poverty was glaring and untreated diseases were very evident. There was no public health service until after the 1974 revolution (in 1979).

For a visitor, there were plenty of charming scenes in those days. The peasant women clad in black gathering seaweed off the rocks on the beach to fertilise their family owned farm plots. The crudely made farm carts drawn by oxen with great big lumps of wood for wheels. Villages that seemed lost between the Middle Ages and modern times. Around 1972, I stayed in a stone house where my ground floor bedroom was right next to a hog pen.

I’ve got heaps of fond memories but even then was aware that there was a stark contrast between me in my Harlem Globetrotters T-shirt and new flared jeans and kids walking around in rags.

American conservatives and Salazar – the face of ‘soft’ fascism

If Salazar today is viewed as a gentle, thoughtful and mild authoritarian ruler who simply wanted to protect his people with conservative family values – then that is a victory for his propaganda machine. And it’s a victory that keeps giving beyond the grave.

Because right now, Salazar is going through yet another rehabilitation. Especially on the American conservative right. He is portrayed as a ‘benevolent autocrat’. And despite his closing down of liberal democracy, banning of all parties except his, creation of a corporate state and a secret police – he has been unfairly described as a fascist according to one new biography.

This recently published life story of Salazar includes an ominous statement that a similar kind of leader may be called upon in the future.

American conservative publications and pundits have increasingly invoked Salazar as a credible alternative approach to liberal democracy. To do this, they have to first remove the ‘fascist’ tag. So Salazar’s stated differences with Mussolini are transformed into outright opposition to fascism – which is utterly ridiculous. There is no doubt that Salazar saw his regime as part of the fascist wave but with a distinctive Portuguese flavour.

Towards the end of the Second World War – both Salazar and Franco rapidly pivoted towards the US and UK. Not on principle – but to survive. However not without a good deal of teeth gnashing on both sides. Salazar, for example, bitterly resented the pressure put on him to give Portugal’s colonies independence.

And this makes a laughing stock of one current claim doing the rounds that Salazar had no expansionist ambitions – unlike Hitler and Mussolini. Indeed, he may not have invaded new countries – but he spent half the nation’s GDP trying to hold on to big chunks of Africa.

Salazar’s alleged anti-Nazi credentials are ‘evidenced’ by the Hollywood movie ‘Casablanca’ (1942) on the grounds that the protagonists are trying to get to the neutral city of Lisbon, capital of Portugal. Seriously. That is offered as proof of Salazar opposing the Nazis. My advice… Try finding a full-throated condemnation of Hitler from Salazar instead because you may have difficulty!

As regards claims that Salazar was not anti-Jewish, the huge number of visas issued to Jewish refugees by Portuguese consulate around Europe during the Second World War is cited as proof Salazar wasn’t anti-Semitic. An illuminating corrective to this is the story of one diplomat, Aristedes de Sousa Mendes. Issuing Portuguese visas to Jews fleeing Hitler was explicitly banned by Salazar. Mendes, based in Bordeaux, continued to do so and not only lost his job but had his life wrecked.

There’s also a spurious claim that Salazar wiped out illiteracy in Portugal. This is not not backed up by the adult illiteracy campaigns that were launched after the 1974 revolution to tackle what was an endemic problem. One British diplomat in the 1950s succinctly summed up Portugal as a country where the middle classes lived off colonial war profits and the poor were “miserable and destitute”. It was a country of vast inequality where many left school early and without any qualifications.

Yet American conservatives write this about Salazar:

If we Americans lack the self-discipline necessary for self-government, if liberalism is off the table, the only alternative to a tyrant like Lenin or Hitler may be a man like Salazar: a paternalistic traditionalist, a philosopher-king.”

Or how about this:

“…the Estado Novo and its supporters did not treat its enemies with kid gloves. They were not limited by self-defeating notions of “principle.” Hostile and revolutionary elements—whether domestic Communists, fascist syndicalists, internal political factions, or international high finance—were treated as equal potential dangers.”

We’ve lived through a phase of democratically elected ‘strong men’ in recent years. Many of them have subverted democratic institutions to increase their grip on power. There is a logic to moving to the next stage. Why bother with democracy at all?



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