Fascism: a pre-review

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Over the weekend, I’ve published on this site “auto-reviews” of my last two books with a view to showing how they overlap, what my motives were in writing them and updating the analysis where needed.  Here I’m introducing a book which I wrote last winter, but which isn’t in print. It was due to be published this month but has been delayed by the lockdown and will now be out in December.

As with Never Again, Fascism: History and Theory is a re-written version of something I originally published a long time ago.

The original book was titled Fascism: Theory and Practice. Now “F:TP” is an old book: I was still in my 20s when I wrote it, and it bore very heavily the marks of the groups in which I’d been involved: the SWP, the Anti-Nazi League of the 1990s, etc. It used the jargon of my generation and time. At one point, sharing the analysis of the group to which I then belonged, I described the politics of the period as “the 1930s in slow motion”. One friend subjected that phrase to a very gentle but effective take-down.

I suspect many readers will remember F:TP mainly for an early chapter subjecting the then dominant approach in political science departments when understanding the far right (“fascism studies”), which I argued was philosophically idealist, unduly sympathetic to the ideas of A. J. Gregor, who had been a serious fascist activist before he became an academic, and wrong to understand fascism, as it were, “from the inside”. In that way, my book pre-empted what turned out to be a small wave of historical and sociological analyses of fascism (Paxton, Mann, etc) which were equally sceptical about defining fascism as an extreme form of nationalism.

My fear was that the likes of Roger Griffin, Roger Eatwell, Stanley Payne, etc, were writing a form of politics that would (against the authors’ intentions) tend to make life easier for emerging fascist movements. I had very much in mind the immediate example of Renzo de Felice whose biographies of Mussolini had undoubtedly been part of the growing success of the AN/MSI and feared something similar happening in Britain and the United States.

Hence the book’s title: my point was that the model of fascism people were being taught in universities (“theory”) was radically unlike fascism had actually behaved (“practice”) and that to understand it as a totality the place to begin was in the way fascist had used violence – in the developed world, even against the citizens of some of the world’s richest states. I argued that this made fascism distinctive within capitalist history and it was this, above all, which any compelling theory of fascism needed to explain.

That critique brought the book an audience – Griffin alone must have cited F:TP in fifty books and articles . I’m pleased to say here expressly that my prediction was wrong. Ever since, Griffin has been exemplary in not minimising far-right groups or activity, nor hiding the origins of their behaviour in the fascist tradition. As have those influenced by him.

While I’d stand by that part of F:TP, my criticisms now are more muted and more of a methodological than a political character. For that reason, when friends read Fascism: History and Theory you’ll see that my criticisms of fascism studies have been reduced to perhaps a page or so of material spread through several chapters of my book.

History first: theory after

I still believe that there’s a problem in the way many people understand fascism in history, and the first quarter or more of the book is intended to be a sharp, theoretically-informed retelling of what fascism was and did.

Some of the reason for that is that we’ve now lived through a period of far-right revival and just inevitably it teaches you to see the past differently. In The New Authoritarians, one of my arguments was that the right has benefited in our own time from a process in which – as far-right ideas have spread across borders – they have simultaneously becoming more confident and more aggressive. So that what might have been merely a political counter-revolution has taken on a greater economic and social character too. It’s possible to read the story of the 1920s and 1930s similarly: so that the diffusion of ideas, and competition between different fascist centres in Italy and Germany, brought about a qualititative change in what fascism was. The present can enables you to see the past differently, to grasp things which were always there but unnoticed. It’s no coincidence, for example, that the first historical study of Mussolini and Hitler’s relationship was published after Trump came to power.

Taking further ideas which were already in F:TP, I argue that at the heart of the historical experience of fascism was the sustained use of violence against racial enemies. And that this was novel in Western Europe, which had until then drawn a radical distinction between the colonial world where such violence was welcome and the richer countries where it was prohibited. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to know that among the books I was reading six months ago were the likes of Arendt, Fanon and Aimé Césaire (as well, of course, as other latter-day historians of fascism and Nazism who are influenced by them). I was also thinking about how fascism worked as a form of male violence. Gisela Bock and Klaus Theweleit are a much greater influence on me now than they were 20 years ago.

While fascism has hardly gone away, it is a smaller part of our collective consciousness than it was twenty years. It’s far more common to meet even serious political activists on the left who only have an incredibly vague sense of how Hitler or Mussolini ruled. I wanted to write for people who don’t know that past. I’ve described in this piece how watching the present can teach you to see the past differently, and that this can be done in a way which increases our shared knowledge. But the opposite can happen, when knowledge of the past is sacrificed for making political points in the present. It seems to me that the desire to make fascists out of Farage or Trump has already had the effect – when I read analyses which argue, for example, that Hitler was an evil man because he believed in economic autarky (look, just like Trump!) – they annoy me intensely. It doesn’t matter if the author subscribes to similar causes to the ones that motivate me, such narratives conceal the past and diminish the cruelty on which fascism thrived.

Fascists and anti-fascists

I’ve never been one to write about fascism independently of anti-fascists and I hope readers will enjoy the passages in which I identify what I argue was a key, recurring theme of anti-fascism and which can be dated back specifically to the 1920s. Namely the calculation that fascism was different from other forms of right-wing politics, and a much greater capacity to do harm, and therefore that it should be watched and confronted, even when there were other reactionary politics around it which had much greater support.

I hope readers will agree with me when I identify modes of thinking that are common to liberal, to mass, and to militant anti-fascism and which, I argue, all had their first expression among left-wing writers in the 1920s and 1930s.

A distinctive form of reactionary mass movement

Near the end of the book, I quote one Marxist writing in 1928, the Italian Communist Palmiro Togliatti. During one speech he declared:

It has become customary to use [the word ‘fascism’] to designate every form of fascism. A comrade is arrested, a workers’ demonstration is brutally dispersed by the police, a court imposes a savage sentence on some militants of the labour movement, a Communist parliamentary fraction sees its rights infringed or abrogated, in short whenever the so-called democratic freedoms sanctified by bourgeois constitutions are attacked or violated one hears the cry: ‘Fascism is here, fascism has arrived.’ It should be realised that this is not just a question of terminology. If someone thinks it is reasonable to use the term ‘fascism’ to designate every form of reaction, so be it. But I do not see the advantage we gain, except perhaps an agitational one. The actuality is something different. Fascism is a particular, specific type of reaction

I used the same word “specific”in F:TP, and the last third of the new book is dedicated to explaining which ideas about fascism were common to almost every Marxist or anarchist writer of any seriousness.

How did the generation which first confronted fascism understand it?

In inter-war anti-fascist theory, I argue, fascism belonged to a wider political family which also included the like of authoritarian military dictatorships in Poland and Spain.

In anti-fascist theory, I argue, fascism was recognisable not principally though ideas (although these were important) but in the sustained way it employed violence against its political and racial enemies

Fascism, as the likes of Benjamin or Trotsky saw it, wanted to raise the people in order to impose a dictatorship, and in doing so was chaotic and unstable – both capable of growing quickly (hence the need to sound the alarm) but also – if opposed on the same terrain of mass politics – capable of defeat.

There’s much more that I can and do say – I don’t want to spoil the book here, and will end by inviting you to order it and read it for yourselves.

2 responses »

  1. Very interesting comments. I never read the original version but was of course very familiar with the political milieu to which you belonged. I will get the new book although I still haven’t read the book on the Authoritarian Right which sits like so many on a pile of to be read when I finish my own project.

    • Thanks Pete, if you’ve got The New Authoritarians then I hope this would sit well beside it. I’m still thinking through – how much of the training we both received was useful, and how much wasn’t?

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