Fascism, Theory and Practice: The Searchlight debate


As I’ve remarked in previous posts, we’re on the 21st anniversary, give or take, of the publication of my book Fascism: Theory and Practice (“FTP”). Later this month, I’m bringing out a substantially new edition of that book. Among other changes, the new version summarises in more detail the historical record of fascism in the interwar years, and set out with more care what exactly was the shared point of agreement around which most Marxist theories of fascism were based.

Here, though, I want to keep on with a discussion of how FTP was received in 1999, especially by historians and political scientists of fascism.

The anti-fascist magazine Searchlight organised a written debate around the arguments of the book, with contributors including myself, Roger Griffin the doyen of political scientists writing about fascism, David Baker and the historian of french fascism, Jim Wolfreys.

Before coming to the substance of what each of us argued, do bear in mind all the time that at this stage I was just 26 years old, this was more or less my first book (my Phd on fascism and anti-fascism in 1940s Britain had also been published, but few people had read it). While the other contributors had behind them years of thinking about fascism.

My own contribution (published in the August 1999 issue) was structured in two halves. In the first, I criticised the dominant “fascism studies” approach of the likes of Roger Griffin, Roger Eatwell and Zeev Sternhell, accusing them of the error of idealism. IE they exaggerated the coherence of ideas to fascism, and failed to integrate a focus on ideas with a focus on fascist acts (i.e. its style of organisation, its recurring bases of support, and its outcomes – war and genocide). I warned that we were in a moment when prominent theorists of fascism were portraying it in an increasingly positive light (here, I had in mind the writings of Mussolini’s biographer the former Communist turned anti-anti-fascist Renzo de Felice). In the second half I tried to summarise in a few sentences, my own basic approach of seeing fascism as a specific form of reactionary mass movement, in which the “reactionary” and the “mass” aspects of fascism were in a constant, dialectical tension:

“Fascism has been reactionary, in the sense that it has opposed all forms of democratic practice. Fascist parties have intimidated their opponents, threatening or physically attacking them. Fascist regimes have jailed or executed liberals and feminists, socialists, communists and trade unionists. The reactionary practice of fascism culminated in the Holocaust, with the murder of 6 million people simply because they were Jews. Meanwhile, fascism has also been a mass movement, or attempted to be one. Fascist leaders have employed a populist language, promising their supporters all manner of gains, while there never was any intention to deliver on these words.”

Roger Griffin went next, I think in September. He insisted that while his approach to understanding fascism took at face value fascism’s claim to be “revolutionary” and in that sense it understand fascism as “positive” (i.e. as an ideology with its own agenda and not merely a series of negative grudges, anti-capitalism, anti-communism, etc) – this did not mean that he or the other academics within the new consensus approach saw fascism itself as having anything worthwhile to say. He rejected the comparison with De Felice.

(And, at this point, I have to say that with 21 years hindsight, he was right and I was wrong – whatever capacity there might have been in the new consensus school to paint over some of fascism’s legacy – the overwhelming role played by the political scientists has been to articulate a principled non-fascist understanding of fascism. We never have seen in Britain the kind of revisionism that worried me).

Griffin took issue with my theory of fascism. He objected to the term “reactionary”, saying that the term had no content. Marxists saw themselves as revolutionaries and everyone else in history as a reactionary. It’s a point he and I have debated more than once since. He insisted that, whatever I had written to the contrary, I (and all Marxists) tended to collapse our understanding of the mass character of fascism into its reactionary politics, so that the latter always won out over the latter. We saw fascism as “essentially reactionary … simply an epiphenomenon of capitalism”.

The third contributor was David Baker. He spoke up for a kind of “methodological puralism”. He pointed out, for example, that the distant origins of the new consensus approach lie in the historical works of Ernst Nolte, in which capitalism played a significant part, as the source of the “cultural crisis necessary to give birth to and sustain [fascism’s] anti-liberal and anti-communist revolutionary actions”. This paralleled Marxist understanding to a greater extent than anyone was willing to acknowledge

Baker welcomed my arguments that “fascism, understood purely on its own intellectual terms, will sell itself short on violence and hatred and long on high-flown ideals and rhetoric, assisting in the collective power to forget its violent and genocidal past”. He also agreed with me that the new consensus “downplays the dynamics of the wider and impersonal forces of political economy in creating and sustaining fascism”.

Finally, Jim Wolfreys tried – very gently – to remind my critics that what I’d in my book wasn’t that fascism’s autonomous mass and revolutionary content was trivial, but that it was in constant tension with fascism’s politics and that it was this unresolved contradiction which enabled fascism to grow so fast. In his words:

“Once installed as a regime … there is no evidence to suggest that fascism acts as a revolutionary force … This is not to deny that the Nazis had a degree of autonomy. Indeed, it is this autonomy, in the shape of its armed wing, capacity for mass mobilisations and the extremism of its ideology, that gives fascism its specificity. But this autonomy does not extend to transforming existing property relations.”

I don’t want to set out here, how I try to integrate these varying perspectives into the new edition of my book, other than to say that I’ve not forgotten that debate. Rather it has continued to be a touchstone for my work. The issues continue to polarise researchers, because they reflect certain real and partial truths about how the far right organised, each of which need to be combined if we’re going to understand fascism.

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