Friends may enjoy two reviews of my book The New Authoritarians which have been published in the last week.
Jeff Sparrow had published a very detailed, thoughtful, article in the Sydney Review of Books which goes through half a dozen recent books on fascism, rereading them in the light of last week’s horrific events in Christchurch: including books by Madeleine Albright, Jason Stanley, Roger Eatwell and Mathew Goodwin, Alexander Reid Ross and Mark Bray.
Albright and Stanley, Sparrow argues, are unconvincing when they portray Trump as fascist: they lurch from treating the events of 2016 as a kind of apocalyptic crisis to politics as normal. It can’t be both. They’re not wrong to see Brenton Tarrant as the product of a right wing milieu; they are wrong to minimise the differences between people whose politics are electoral and those with guns.
Eatwell/Goodwin, he argues, have an apologetic relationship to the right.
Reid Ross he finds more impressive. Sparrow accepts, in particular, the risk of far right tropes finding their way into the left in some of its more eclectic or populist places – eg the green or anti war lefts. On the other hand, he insists, if you look at Tarrant (whose manifesto claims that he journeyed from Communist to libertarianism to the far right), the influence of the left – even on his account – was very slight: he wants to kill the left, he doesn’t want to be any part of it.
Bray’s historical approach to antifascism, Sparrow likes and wants more of and cites the interesting, developing thinking that’s apparent in several of Brays interviews. On the other hand, what Jeff Sparrow is trying to comprehend is fascism, and that’s just not the main focus of Brays book.
He has some nice things to say about my new book:
“Renton’s analysis possesses the great advantage of starting from what Brecht might call the ‘bad new days’: the situation as it is today rather than how we might be more comfortable in discussing it.”
Sparrow’s conclusion draws heavily on The New Authoritarians –
“Renton says that, while Trump’s not a fascist, he is a racist – and should be identified as such. Defeating the new right mean, then, challenging the various forms of bigotry on which it depends. He suggests that the alliance between the centre right and the far right remains unstable and thus susceptible to fracture. Conventional conservatives must be held accountable for the company they now keep. Demonstrations remain important, particularly in splitting the ‘street’ right from their respectable allies.
Most of all, though, the left must provide a genuine alternative, in a context in which social democracy is rapidly losing its base.The left must be equally serious about speaking to an audience of tens and hundreds of thousands of people, to the unpolitical and the newly politicised. When the right presents itself as the champions of the dispossessed, its enemies cannot cede that ground by arguing that the workers are, in the terms used by Cinzia Arruzza, ‘racist and misogynistic uneducated losers’. Rather, what the left needs to do is expose the bizarre idea that only a group of millionaire right-wing politicians and property speculators can speak for workers and for the victims of welfare cuts.
Will that kind of political response prevent the emergence of another Breivik or Tarrant? In the short term, probably not. The anonymity of individual fascist terrorists, emerging from the online milieu into the real world, makes atrocities like those Christchurch very difficult to counter immediately. As has now become horrifyingly apparent, automatic weapons allow even an isolated misfit to cause tremendous damage.
But in the medium to long term, a resurgent left might, to borrow a phrase, drain the swamp from which men like Tarrant emerge. As anyone who has browsed 4chan, 8chan or similar platforms knows, the troll culture of the fascist right incubates in an atmosphere of nihilistic despair– hence the importance of the left making optimism a viable political alternative.
The construction of radical hope becomes particularly important given that, as Renton repeatedly stresses, the current conjuncture remains deeply unstable. At the present, post-9/11 Islamophobia is more politically palatable than old-school fascism. But the situation might rapidly change. ‘[A]nti-Muslim racism,’ he says, ‘is an ideology which kicks down, which condemns migrants and the racialised poor of the inner cities.’ By contrast, the insurrectionary program of pre-war National Socialism targeted ‘Jewish bankers’ as well as ‘ghetto Jews’, enabling a (phony) plebian rhetoric that facilitated mass support for the fascist cause.
In the years to come, as the far right struggles to consolidate its success, traditional fascism – with its hard rhetoric, revolutionary fervour and clear-cut goals – might become more attractive. Near the end of his manifesto, Tarrant includes a quotation from a man he describes as his biggest influence, the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley. ‘It will come,’ says Mosley, discussing the fascist revolution, ‘in one way and one way alone … It will come in a great wave of popularity, in a great awakening of the European soul.’
At present, that ‘great wave’ of enthusiasm for fascism seems a long way off. On the day that Tarrant embarked on his massacre, hundreds of thousands of young people marched all over the world in a global protest against climate change. Tarrant and his co-thinkers could only dream of marshalling similar support. Yet, as Renton notes, anyone who thinks back to the political events of 2016 and 2017 will remember ‘a widespread feeling that the victories of the far right were not simply the success of one party in a particular country, but the signs of epochal shift from one way of doing politics to another.’
The particular political shift that brought us into the epoch of Trump doesn’t preclude the possibility of an even more dangerous shift in the future.”
Rick Kuhn has also published a review in Red Flag:
Kuhn compared mine to another recent book by Enzo Traverso: “The New Authoritarians is a much more systematic and focused book.”
Judging again by his summary, I think Kuhn agrees with quite a lot of my core argument: “Renton provides a clear account of what fascism is. Prioritising street violence against opponents, fascism aims to transform state institutions in the interests of the nation, understood as a racial unit. This definition includes both the classic fascist parties between the world wars and contemporary organisations, most of which are small in the developed world, with a few exceptions such as Golden Dawn in Greece.
Fascists can therefore be distinguished from other far right, authoritarian currents, which rely more on existing institutions, especially the police and armed forces, and place a higher priority on achieving electoral success.
Early chapters in The New Authoritarians examine the mutations of conservative, far right and fascist currents, and their interactions in Italy, Britain, France and the US, which have led to the electoral advance of the far right.”
To which I’ll add: I didn’t want this to be a “party line” book – but something which is original, and pushed back at the consensus both among Marxist and other theorists.
I’m expecting friends to disagree with parts of the analysis: I like and welcome that. It is a relief however that the most substantial criticism seems to be that I reckon Corbynism as part of the answer rather than part of the problem. Which I do, but of course being part of the answer puts you in a position of responsibility, from which our new mass Labour Party needs to but hasn’t yet delivered…
Most other publications, I’m guessing, will hold back publishing their reivews till 16 April (when the book’s actually out). But for people who would like to pre-order it early, the link is here. And if you’d like me to speak at your discussion group, trade union meeting, etc – just ask. I’ll be speaking at events in the UK, New Zealand, Australia and the US – and touring the book until the autumn at least.