FTP: through the eyes of its reviewers

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When Fascism: Theory and Practice came out, back in 1999, it had three main purposes. One was to provide a simple, straightforward, account of how the interwar Marxists had understood fascism. That part of the account drew heavily on David Beetham’s Marxists in Face of Fascism, a book which had been published twenty years before but was then out of print (Haymarket have since brought it back into print). The other main ideas of the book were to summarise the main trend in English-language writing about fascism – the “new consensus” approach, and point out some certain methodological weaknesses in it. Both of these were then joined to a quite standard 1990s-SWP narrative about the risk posed by fascism.

People who know my writing well should be able to guess which parts of this I’ve kept in the new edition, and which have been radically rewritten. (There’s also a very large amount of new content – but I’ll leave that to readers to find for themselves).

All I wanted to do here was give a flavour of how FTP was received at the time: who liked it and why, as well as who didn’t.

A couple of people gave positive quotes for the book’s back cover: the historian David Baker, chosen because of his biography of the fascist writer AK Chesterton and the German socialist Florian Kirner. Coincidentally, both are now much better known as cultural producers – David as a digital collage artist, and Florian as the singer Prinz Chaos. I’m not quite sure what that says about me that I chose them!

A small number of reviewers actively disliked the book: Larry O’Hara because I hadn’t footnoted him, Martin Smith disapproved of its title, and Red Action, because it reminded them of the SWP , and that party’s shoddy dealings with them.

There were balanced by a further group of people who noticed the book and praised it actively while only making brief comments on it. Martin Blinkhown for example described my book as “forthright” and stated that he shared my disagreements with the new consensus school. The Routledge Companion to Fascism and the Far Right includes a list of the fifty major historians of fascism. On the basis of my book, I made the cut: “DAVE RENTON. Modern neo-Marxist whose Fascism: Theory and Practice is a useful guide to leftist interpretations of fascism…”.

One of the fullest reviews came in Revolutionary History, where the historian of Italian fascism Toby Abse welcomed the way in which, after a long period that leftist historians had been abandoning the study of fascism, finally we were writing about it again. “The principle merits of Renton’s book, Abse wrote, lie in its clear and concise exposition of the various Marxist theories of Fascism from 1920 to the present. “Although Renton predictably believes that Trotsky’s theory, whilst requiring further development, is the best one, he provides readers with a fair and balanced assessment of the merits and weaknesses of the theories put forward by Thalheimer, Gramsci, Silone and others, as well as engaging in the perennially necessary polemics against the Stalinised Comintern’s theoretical monstrosities.”

Abse was also kind about the passages in which I explained how and why I disagreed with the new consensus school: “Renton’s spirited attack on Roger Griffin, Stanley Payne, Roger Eatwell and Zeev Sternhell in the second chapter, ‘The Prison of Ideas’, is probably the first Marxist onslaught on the whole school of ‘Fascist Studies’, as distinct from individual practitioners of the genre, and could be regarded as required reading both for older Marxists unaware of the recent developments in bourgeois historiography and social science, and for any left-wing university students seeking an initial avenue for critical engagement with prescribed course texts.”

In the journal Extremism and Democracy, Stein Ugelvik Larsen summarised my critique of fascism studies as follows, “What they do (wrong) is focus on the pronounced ideology of fascism thus trying to understand fascism in the way the fascists themselves wanted to be seen. Ideology cannot be understood separated from political practice, Renton holds, and it is a gross misunderstanding to ‘read out’ political practice by studying programs and written proclamations etc.. When you study fascism as an independent variable i.e. what they did (the ‘effect of fascism’) you get the right understanding of what fascism was about, and then you can also transcend the problem of analyzing fascism from the fascists’ own premises.” While Larsen was not altogether convinced, he described my book as “fresh and useful” and expressed his agreement with its anti-fascist politics.

The review which I enjoyed best, and has shaped my own subsequent writing the most was a critical one from Chris Brooke in the pages of Voice of the Turtle (a non-sectarian left website – a precursor of the likes of Tribune or New Socialist today). It is still up on Brooke’s Academia.edu page. While at times praising what I’d written, Brooke staked out a serious and theoretical position one step closed to the socialist mainstream. “Dave rightly mocks the claim that fascism was in fact a variant of leftist or Jacobin politics,  but the affinities between left politics and fascism do run deeper than he is prepared to acknowledge.” The last three years would make me think that he’s right on that – there were battles which I thought had been won in terms of (eg) excluding anti-Semitism from ordinary left-wing discourse, which don’t feel nearly as won as they once did.

Brooke also chided me for using the metaphor (borrowed unreflexively from the SWP of which was a member) that the 1990s could be compared to the rise of fascism in the 1930s (“the film winds, but for the moment at a slower speed”). In turn, he reminded me of the famous opening to the Eighteenth Brumaire, and the point being made there that “Marx’s contemporaries reenacted the dramas of the 1790s, but the historical context had changed, changed utterly, and with it the meanings and implications of their otherwise-identical actions changed also.”

It took me nearly twenty years to do justice to his points – I had them very much in mind when writing The New Authoritarians which confronts exactly this question of repetition in history, and how traditions can fight and lose a battle, and then their successors came and they too fight – at once for the same goal, and for something different – and in any event under a new name.

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