The Third Republic and Today
Shortly after the January 6th capitol mob I wrote to historian Robert Paxton and asked him if he thought the event made it appropriate to use the term “fascism” in regards to Trump and his movement. Here is part of what he wrote me:
…As you know I have been reluctant to use the F word for Trumpism, but yesterday's use of violence against democratic institutions crosses the red line.
There is a spookily close parallel with an event that occurred in the late French Third Republic - the attempt by right-wing militants to march on the Chambre des députés in the night of February 6, 1934. In the street fighting between police and marchers on the bridge that links the Place de la Concorde to the Chambre sixteen people were killed. That demonstration and the polarization that it reflected and deepened are often considered to mark the beginning of the process that led to the fall of the Republic and arrival of the Vichy regime. I couldn't help but think of that last evening as we watched the unbelievable images on TV…
This particularly struck me, because I’ve thought for a long time that the Third Republic (1870-1940) was a better analog to the politics of the contemporary U.S. than the Weimar Republic or even Reconstruction. Unlike, Weimar, the Third Republic was a fully established democracy in a country with a long-standing indigenous republican tradition. I also think the dynamics of racism mirror more closely the situation in the Third Republic than Reconstruction. After the end of slavery there was a clear economic motive to continue the repression of black people in the South: the continued exploitation of their labor. Now we face a racism brought about integration: blacks and other minorities are represented more and more in public and professional settings, and asserting their claims to recognition in those contexts, and it’s this process of integration is what’s generating resentment and a sense of competition, much in the same way France’s Jews, emancipated since the Revolution, were increasingly visible and prominent in the civil society of the nation. It’s notable, for instance, that Trump’s rise came after Obama’s election, not during fears about black crime and “the welfare underclass” of the 1980s and 1990s. At the same time, in both cases there was an economic transformation taking place: instead of the destructive process of industrialization and capitalism had the patterns of rural life and smallholding, artisanal craft-making and shopkeeping, now we have deindustrialization and globalization disrupting the old patterns of manufacturing jobs with generous benefits and decent salaries. In both the Third Republic and the contemporary United States, this economic transformation became associated with the increased visibility of ethnic minorities in the new social and economic regime and those ethnic groups became symbols of and take the blame for the disruption. And in both, there’s a radical, anti-democratic right that began to creep into the traditional electoral basis of the democratic left with a populist, anti-establishment, but also often racist program. And in both cases, even during times of relative stability or prosperity, conservatives became obsessed with themes of national decadence and decline, often blaming these on the cultural depredations brought about by both liberals and ethnic minorities and religious minorities.
To kick off my Substack, I am going to take a look in a multi-part series at two crises of the Third Republic: first, the Dreyfus affair around the turn of the century, which gave birth to an insane form of conspiratorialism and a reactionary nationalism with racial underpinnings, according to some scholars the first hints of what would become fascism, and then the February 6 crisis of 1934, which still generates a controversy whether it was a failed fascist coup or the somewhat farcical demonstration of a disorganized radical right. I may also interrupt the series with more topical observations, but I will try to return to it when possible. I may look at collaboration under Vichy if I get good feedback about this series. Anyway, please subscribe! I am making it very cheap at $1 dollar at first and if it doesn’t work. I may have to make it more, but let’s see if we can keep it cheap.
UPDATE: Apparently you cannot make it 1 dollar a month, so I had to set it on 5, the lowest setting.