Fascism had been creeping back into European and North American politics for many years before the word regained its currency in mainstream discourse as an alarming description of present trends. In 2004, historian Enzo Traverso wrote of the “unsettling phenomenon” of “the rise of fascist-inspired political movements in the European arena (from France to Italy, from Belgium to Austria).” Many of those far-right movements have come very close to winning power, as in Austria and France’s recent elections, or have done so, as in Italy’s.
And while the sudden rise of the far right came as a shock to many in the US, political commentators frequently point out that the erosion of democratic civil rights and liberties has been a decades-long project, coinciding with the financialization of the economy, the privatization of public goods and services, the rise of the mass surveillance state, and the extraordinary war powers assumed, and never relinquished, by the executive after 9/11, creating a permanent state of exception and weakening checks on presidential power.
This is not even to mention the autocratic regimes of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, which are tied to other anti-democratic movements across the West not only geopolitically but also philosophically, a subject that gets far less press than it deserves. When analysis of the philosophical underpinnings of neo-fascism comes up, it often focuses on Russian academic Alexander Dugin, “who has been called,” notes Salon’s Conor Lynch, “everything from ‘Putin’s brain’ to ‘Putin’s Rasputin.’” (Bloomberg calls Dugin “the one Russian linking Putin, Erdogon and Trump.”)
Dugin’s fusion of Heideggerian postmodernism and apocalyptic mysticism plays a significant role in the ideology of the globalized far right. But Yale historian Timothy Snyder—who has written extensively on both Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany—points to an earlier Russian thinker whom he says exercises considerable influence on the ideology of Vladimir Putin, the fascist philosopher Ivan Ilyin.
Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn called Ilyin “Putin’s philosopher” in a Foreign Affairs profile. Ilyin was “a publicist, a conspiracy theorist, and a Russian nationalist with a core of fascistic leanings.” David Brooks identified Ilyin as one of a trio of nationalist philosophers Putin quotes and recommends. Snyder defines Ilyin’s philosophy as explicitly “Russian Christian fascism,” describing at the New York Review of Books the Russian thinker's prolific writing before and after the Russian Revolution, a synthesis of German idealism, psychoanalysis, Italian fascism, and Christianity.
In brief, Ilyin’s theoretical works argued that “the world was corrupt; it needed redemption from a nation capable of total politics; that nation was unsoiled Russia.” Ilyin’s, and Putin’s, Russian nationalism has had a paradoxically global appeal among a wide swath of political parties and movements across the West, as Snyder writes in his latest book The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. “What these ways of thinking have in common,” write The Economist in their review of Snyder's book, “is a quasi-mystical belief in the destiny of nations and rulers, which sets aside the need to observe laws or procedures, or grapple with physical realities.”
Snyder summarizes Ilyin’s ideas in the Big Think video above in ways that make clear how his thought appeals to far right movements across national borders. Ilyin, he says, is “probably the most important example of how old ideas”—the fascism of the 20s, 30s, and 40s—“can be brought back in the 21st century for a postmodern context.” Those ideas can be summarized in three theses, says Snyder, the first having to do with the conservative reification of social hierarchies. “Social advancement was impossible because the political system, the social system, is like a body… you have a place in this body. Freedom means knowing your place.”
“A second idea,” says Snyder, relates to voting as a ratification, rather than election, of the leader. “Democracy is a ritual…. We only vote in order to affirm our collective support for our leader. The leader’s not legitimated by our votes or chosen by our votes.” The leader, instead, emerges “from some other place.... In fascism the leader is some kind of hero, who emerges from myth.” The third idea might immediately remind US readers of Karl Rove’s dismissal of the “reality-based community,” a chilling augur of the fact-free reality of today’s politics.
Ilyin thought that “the factual world doesn’t count. It’s not real.” In a restatement of gnostic theology, he believed that “God created the world but that was a mistake. The world was a kind of aborted process,” because it lacks coherence and unity. The world of observable facts was, to him, “horrifying…. Those facts are disgusting and of no value whatsoever.” These three ideas, Snyder argues, underpin Putin’s rule. They also define American political life under Trump, he concludes in his New York Review of Books essay.
Ilyin “made of lawlessness a virtue so pure as to be invisible,” Snyder writes, “and so absolute as to demand the destruction of the West. He shows us how fragile masculinity generates enemies, how perverted Christianity rejects Jesus, how economic inequality imitates innocence, and how fascist ideas flow into the postmodern. This is no longer just Russian philosophy. It is now American life.” There are more than enough homegrown sources for American authoritarianism and inequality, one can argue. But Snyder makes a compelling case for the obscure Russian thinker as an indirect, and insidious, influence.