Tag Archives: fascism: history and theory

Fascism: first readers’ responses

Standard

Many thanks to the people who’ve read my book on Fascism and reviewed it for Amazon . I do want to emphasise that these are reviews written by people who were looking out for the book, knew it would be published, and had an idea of its contents. While I trust they read the book fairly and independently, obviously such readers are likely to be relatively kind. That said, hopefully, they give you a flavour of the book.

Susan J. Sparks comments on the interwar theories of fascism to which I refer, not just the best-known figures but “Clara Zetkin, Karl Korsch, Bordiga, Wilhelm Reich, Rudolf Hilferding and Walter Benjamin and others, as well as the odd piece of fiction (Jack London’s The Iron Heel), and a 1924 Plebs League pamphlet about Italian fascism.”

N. Rogall emphasises the book’s applicability to events far beyond the US or the UK: “This is an excellent read for all those troubled by the rise of far right politics from the US to India, from Brazil to Eastern Europe.”

Phil G writes, “His focus is on the twentieth century, but he sets the stage for understanding the growth of the contemporary far right, a topic that he has examined in detail in another recent book, The New Authoritarians.”

Charlie Hore sets out the book’s debt to David Beetham’s Marxists in Face of Fascism (this is true!) and writes, “pleased to see the Martiniquan poet and communist Aimé Césaire quoted on how fascism drew on habits learned in the colonialism: ‘Colonisation works’, Césaire wrote, ‘to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred.’”

Thais Yanez speaks of the influence of anti-colonial writers and says that I highlight “the shortcomings of the Left on the urgency to work as a unified front and apply these theories in practice, the somewhat individualistic and even nationalistic approaches that prevented an internationalist workers’ response or revolution to defeat both capitalism and fascism that did not become a bureaucratic oppressive regime like Stalinism.”

I’m particularly glad that these readers noticed the way I tried to integrate colonialism into my arguments – far more so than in the first edition of this book 20 years ago. If there was one thing about the 1920s and early 30s which the pioneer Marxists missed, it was exactly this.

Even a writer as keen-eyed as Trotsky failed to integrate the Italian colonial wars into his account of fascism, or grasp that colonialism had trained key parts of the German state in habits of racialised exclusion and killing. So that when Trotsky wrote that war would result in the mass murder of the Jews – this is a brilliant insight – something which he was almost alone to admit. And yet you never feel that he was capable of explaining how or why that disaster was possible, save in the most general terms that Hitler was a racist and the Nazi revolution incomplete.

“Ordinary” book reviews should start appearing from next week.

Fascism; Theory and History – articles and events

Standard

For people who are interested in my new book on Fascism (which was formally published yesterday), I thought I’d share a quick set of links, just highlighting articles I’ve written for other sites about fascism, and about our present crisis:

RS21, 31 August, Fascism beyond Trump

Morning Star, 8 September, A new street movement

Tempest, 10 September, Right populism or neo-fascism

Pluto, The Anti-Fascist Wager

I’ll also be holding a couple of launch events for the book, as follows:

Independent Left, 23 September

London Anti-fascist Assembly, 25 September

Nottingham People’s Assembly / Five Leaves, 7 October

Radical Independence Edinburgh 14 October

If you’re interested in booking me for other events, drop me a line at davidkrenton [at] gmail [dot] com.

Finally, if you haven’t already, you can order the book here or here.

Fascism – a playlist

Standard

As part of the build-up to the launch of my new book on Fascism, I thought I’d make the book a playlist. For people who’ve got Spotify, I’ve also posted this playlist there (daver1917/My antifascist songs)

Joy Division, Atmosphere

Cabaret, Tomorrow Belongs To Me

Johnny Cash, Folsom Prison Blues

Stranglers, No More Heroes

Siouxse and the Banshees, Metal Postcard

Elvis Costello, Night Rally

Jan Delay, www hitler de

Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit

British Sea Power, Something Wicked

Ana Tijoux, Mi Verdad

A letter to my readers

Standard

In a week’s time (on September 20th), I’ll be publishing a new book called Fascism. If you follow this blog then you’ll know already that it isn’t altogether new.

Twenty year ago, I published a first ‘Fascism’ book, and it remains one of my books of which I’m the proudest. Among the people who read it and corresponded with me where people I’ve known ever since: friends from Glasgow and Belfast and Dunedin. Friends from uni whose ideas, whether about fascism or about the crisis of our own times, I’m still grappling with. The idea, that we might be living in a world whose constituent parts were heading towards fascism, was taken up by readers. I received letters from Tehran. I saw the book behind passed from hand to hand in Grahamstown in South Africa. Maoists in India invited me to write for their magazines.

It was my real first book, and for any writer that’s a moment to remember: you make yourself naked before the whole world. And you wait, and you watch, and you hope you don’t look ridiculous.

From the 20th, I’m hoping that reviews will start appearing. When they do, I’ll share them here.

In advance of then, I wanted to explain what’s different about this edition.

First of all, the book is now called Fascism: History and Theory. Last time, I began with the theory, this time I begin with history. In the last four years, more English-speaking writers have been talking about whether we are returning to a moment like the 1930s than at any stage in my lifetime. And the people most animated by this possibility aren’t even the far left. They’re Judges for the Booker prize, they’re Barack Obama, they’re advocates of American power like Madeleine Albright.

The political activist in me understands why you need to ask the question. Occasionally, I’ve been asking it too.

But the more that people fix on that possibility, the more they seem to invoke the least important parts of fascism. So fascism is now said to be a movement which creeps into power. (No movement in history shouted more or crept less). Or it is evil because it promoted separate routes of national development rather than an international order (when for four hundred years capitalism has alternated between periods of “autarky” and of “globalisation”). Or because it directed some of its appeals to workers. (Without that, how would any right-wing party win an election?).

For that reason, my book doesn’t say very much at all about the analogy between the 1930s and today, rather it focuses on explaining fascism was, in its own historical context. Maybe afterwards, people will say “sure, we’re heading that way”, or maybe not – either answer is capable of satisfying me. But neither answer can be convincing unless both sides have a shared understanding of the past and one which is true to the past. Unless you’ve got that shared understanding – unless you understand for example both the scale of the Holocaust and its origins in older forms of colonial rule – then both sides are just talking past each other.

Second, I try to explain in more detail than in any other book I’ve read what the sharpest left-wing theories of fascism had in common. (The book is essentially about “Marxism”, but you’ll find in the book Marxist-feminists, Black Marxists, Socialist, Communists, dissident Marxists, even anarchists).

To put that explanation together I’ve had to think hard about certain things I left vague twenty years ago. About debates between Trotsky and Thalheimer. About Walter Benjamin and his critique of a certain kind of productivist thinking, and where that leaves “Marxism“.

I don’t want to be more specific than that here – these issues are what the book’s about, and will determine whether people are still reading it in five or ten years’ time.

Last, the book – in it’s opening pages, talks about anti-fascism as well as fascism. It tries to explain what people do when they adopt an anti-fascist consciousness, and the wager they make to themselves. And the thought processes which are common to almost all anti-fascism.

Hope too, I hope you’ll find ideas which speak to you.

[The book itself can be ordered here or here].

Fascism, Theory and Practice: The Searchlight debate

Standard

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.

FTP: through the eyes of its reviewers

Standard

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.

Fascism: a pre-review

Standard

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.