Fascism: History and Theory

| 4th November 2020 |

Hitler saluting Nazi troops. 

The German Federal Archive
We need to understand the threat of eco-fascism - and therefore fascism. Sam Moore reviews David Renton's latest book, Fascism: History and Theory.

It becomes an exemplary book, and well worth reading. 

Fascism is extreme. This shouldn’t need stating, but the term has gained such wide applicability that reminding ourselves, occasionally, as David Renton does, of this fact is a useful corrective.

Fascists think, say and, ultimately, do murderous things. And, where other forms of political movement have started violently before moderating their positions, fascism - in its Italian and Nazi forms - didn’t. It became more and more destructive.

This was not a destructiveness or an extremity that mostly took place in the realm of ideas or signs, either.

Fanatical

It was not Mussolini's willingness to taunt and threaten his opponents - for which we could find plenty of comparisons in politics - that matters, but his willingness to actually kill them. And keep killing them, once he had power.

It is unique destructiveness - in its two main types, Italian fascism and Nazism - that David Renton's book Fascism is most focused on explaining.

Extremity is not a position from which one can readily start.

Many within the Nazi party and the Italian fascists were no doubt 'fanatical' - in the terms that Victor Klemperer noted became an endlessly invoked term of praise in the Third Reich.

But a focus on the intentions and ideas of a relatively small group of fascists and Nazis doesn't explain how fascism became, in both its major examples, so utterly destructive.

Power

The question then is, 'How did fascism, which was vicious and destructive as a movement, stay vicious and destructive when it was in power?'

But even this question is not quite enough. For Nazism, in particular, did not just stay as destructive as it had been as a movement when it attained power, but actually became more so.

How might a repeated self-radicalisation have taken place within fascism in its state form?

Renton's answer is a compelling one. Fascism was not, in the terms of the 'left theory’ that Renton details, an instrument of the bourgeoisie which did its bidding in crushing the organised power of the working class.

Nor was it a mass movement, a society-wide form of viciousness, in the terms given by the 'right theory'.

Swastikas

It was, Renton argues, both. This, he names the ‘dialectical’ theory.

And it was this combination of - or the tension between - the 'top-down' and the 'bottom-up' that leant fascism its capacity for repeated violent radicalisation.

However, the story cannot begin or end there.

Daniel Guérin returned to Germany in April 1933, to discover that trade union offices were already bedecked in swastikas.

We might ask - before the self-radicalisation process that Renton describes - how did fascism come to saturate life?

Destructive

The 'massness' of the movement - one side of Renton's dialectical intertwinement - itself need explaining.

Renton brings in various theories: Klaus Theweleit, Erich Fromm and arguments about the pull of militarism all make an appearance, but the decision between them is left up to the reader. There is thus an 'open-ended' beginning to the theory.

It is also somewhat open-ended at its extreme, later, end.

When it comes to the most destructive manifestation of fascism - the Holocaust - Renton suggests that fascism, unable to transform society in the way that it had claimed it could, offered what it could - war, violence, and conquest.

It is here that taking fascism as a single type starts to seem a little peculiar. This is perhaps a consequence of the book's central analytic conceit: that it is mostly the work of Marxists in the 1920s and 30s which provide the best handholds on fascism.

Auschwitz

Although we find out that Leon Trotsky, a leader in the Russian revolution of 1917, grasped - sooner than perhaps anyone else - the capacity that Nazism had for this new level of killing, we don't find out why it was that the Nazis perpetrated the Holocaust and the Italian fascists didn't.

The Holocaust, despite involving a dizzying array of personnel, was not quite an act of the masses. Nor was it an act of a group of people with anything like a unified class position.

The book outlines a sophisticated theory of extremity without an entirely satisfying explanation of the specific content of that extremity.

Renton's book then forms a highly sophisticated account of the middle chunk of the path from the First World War to Auschwitz.

Compelling

This is no small achievement. But it is less decisive on its outer edges. Part of this is that Renton’s engagement with theories that fall outside of the domain of class-analysis is brought less into the debate, and sometimes juxtaposed rather than integrated.

It's a shame that we rarely find out how they might relate to the central thrust of the book, because the dialogue, left implicit here, between the various theories - psychological, sociological, class-based, and otherwise - would be fascinating.

The highly compelling core argument - and Renton's skill in making it - doesn’t quite come into contact with its - dare I say, dialectical - others.

However, this ambiguity also makes for one of the book's strongest elements. Renton's subtly in highlighting and condensing those other theories allows it to shine in its other, implicit, function as an introduction to theories of fascism.

Humankind

It is here that it becomes an exemplary book, and well worth reading.

Fascism is also exacting in its attention to the necessity of a critical stance towards fascism. However, this is not the naive opposition of someone who believes fascism to be easy to spot, or historically stable, or around every corner.

Instead, fascism places itself inside one of the most enduring, but also most dynamic, features of capitalism: class conflict.

Renton's account here thus achieves the exact analytic balance required for what he calls 'the anti-fascist wager'. It is neither inflationary, not complacent. It forms an essential part of the collective investigation in this most pronounced enemy of humankind.

This Author

Sam Moore is one half of '12 Rules for WHAT', a podcast about the far right from the perspective of the left. Their first book, Post-Internet Far Right, will be published in early 2021 and their second, The Rise of Ecofascism, later that year. @12rulesforwhat

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