Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday, 22 November 2020

MATERIALISM VS. HISTORICISM IN STUDIES OF REVOLUTIONARY MOVEMENTS

 

Like all historiography, theories of totalitarian dictatorship and of the revolutionary movements (Jacobin, fascist, bolshevist) from which they emerge involve a melange of discrete approaches to social and historical studies that privilege either materialist or historicist factors as the prime movers of social reality. The former invariably emphasize the primacy of economic forces in the aetiology of social development, whereas the latter lay stress on cultural influences and practices to account for the political choices and orientations of societies. The materialist approach is couched ultimately on a conception of human need or necessity, leading to a seemingly determinist “science” of social organization and development, whereas the historicist approach advances a hermeneutic understanding of social outcomes that gives greater sway to the human will or spirit. Bluntly put, historical materialism canvasses the sphere of necessity, whilst historicism ponders about the sphere of freedom. In between these two extremes lies a variety of historiographical combinations depending on whether the theory favours a pessimist or realist or eristic exegesis of human action or a more optimist and humanist or co-operative version. Historicist theories of totalitarian dictatorship object to a separate concept of totalitarianism because their reliance on the idiosyncrasy of human decisions and the primacy of qualitative cultural expression is incompatible with the comparative approach of materialist theories which base themselves instead on the homogeneity and homologation of quantitative human material needs. (We use the term historicism with a meaning diametrically opposed to that of Karl Popper in The Poverty of Historicism. Two of the best accounts of historicism as a theory of history originating in Classical German Idealism can be found in F. Meinecke, Historism, and in A. Negri, Studi sullo storicismo tedesco.)

As can be easily discerned from our foregoing initial study of theories of revolutionary movements, we prefer a periodization of these movements that tends to shift the focus and weight of historical aetiology from the materialist to the historicist depending on the specific phase or stage of their development. Remarkably (great minds think alike!), we have recently discovered that this is the approach taken by Robert Paxton in his The Anatomy of Fascism – with a periodization in five stages to our more compact one comprising only three. We object, however (great minds often disagree!), to Paxton’s description of his learned and compendious survey of the literature and the evidence as an “anatomy”, because anatomies are necessarily syn-chronic and not dia-chronic as all historical studies must be. Indeed, we may go further and argue (as we did in our study of Joseph Schumpeter’s “evolutionary economics”) that anatomies exclude historical time altogether because they place each anatomical item in a functional relation to the others such that these relations are purely classificatory in a functional sense wholly unrelated to their physio-logical evolution.

Evolution is necessarily historical for the simple reason that it is not pre-determined; it is physio-logical, in other words, it involves a physis (nature) that is open to human interpretation either as a telos, a destiny, or as pure contingency, as an a-methodon hyle (form-less matter). It is therefore incongruous to speak of the anatomy of fascism for the simple fact that fascism is a historical category – and therefore a fluid living reality that cannot be reduced or reified into a series of structures or members or organs or limbs in a purely classificatory and functional or mechanical sense. Paxton’s great merit, in our view, is to have placed the study of fascism as a historical phenomenon in a far more disciplined context than most other studies between the materialist and the historicist extremes.

Yet another divergence from Paxton’s approach is less a disagreement than a difference of emphasis and, more seriously, an inversion of the analytical perspective regarding the historicist interpretation of fascism. Paxton’s study itself offers a salutary corrective to the extreme historicism of the “cultural analysis” that has prevailed recently in this area of historical study, possibly as a reaction to the excessive determinism of more materialist, and particularly Marxist, theories of fascism. Nevertheless, due partly to his innate eclecticism and genuine gallantry, we feel that Paxton has failed to confront the historicist approach with a firm critique of its exceedingly idealist or idiographic bias. This bias is epitomised in G. L. Mosse’s important studies on the origins of “the fascist revolution” which hinge on what he calls “the nationalization of the masses”. This is clearly from the outset a “cultural” interpretation of fascism because it lays stress on the importance of nationalism as a political philosophy, on a par with racism to which it is implicitly ideologically tied, as the root cause of the propagation of inchoate and incipient fascist ideology in “the masses”.

Evidently, then, to speak of “the nationalization of the masses” already prejudges the issue of the social causation of the origins and formation of fascist movements because this phrase leaves out the question of who exactly – what social agency – promoted this nationalization and, secondly, it leaves out the question of why and how “the masses” came to dominate social reality in advanced industrial capitalist societies. The inversion of the historicist approach that we are advocating will be immediately perceptible if we examine the converse phrase, “the massification of the nation”, which quite obviously inverts the arrow of causation from the spread of nationalist ideology to the formation of mass society. For whereas nationalism is clearly an ideological notion, which leaves open and unexplained the vital questions of how and why masses came into existence, how and why nationalism arises and, worse still, how and why nations have emerged in the first place, the notion of massification of the nation or mass society refers instead to the material economic developments that affect the production and reproduction of a society, and specifically those developments brought about by the spread of capitalist industry and the concentration of capitalist enterprise, both of which factors can explain how and why masses were formed, how and why nations emerged and, as a corollary of the establishment of nation-states, how and why nationalism could flourish as an ideology!

Long before “the masses” can be “nationalized”, both masses and nations must be brought into existence! It is likely therefore that a study of the causes of the creation of mass society will tell us much more about how nationalism arose; whereas no amount of studies on nationalism will ever be able to explain how a society came to be massified, be shaped into a nation, and thereafter become prone to the nationalist virus. The historicist approach assumes the existence of mass society and of the nation-state and then describes but does not explain how mass society was ideologically induced into nationalistic fervour. The reason why historicism cannot explain the rise of nationalism as a potent political ideology aimed quite obviously at asserting the domination of one nation-state over other nation-states is that any proper explanation of nationalism must account first of all for the rise of nation-states, as the name implies, and then for the formation of those popular “masses” without whose “nationalization” it would have no historical weight.

The trouble with “cultural” or historicist accounts of fascism and of nationalism as its precursor is that the very idiosyncrasy of the various nationalisms and fascisms – their singularity within separate nations – fails to explain why they arose contemporaneously in all the different European nations that then came into political conflict and open warfare. If indeed nationalism and then fascism was the result of cultural factors, it is then almost impossible to establish how national cultures that were so dramatically idiosyncratic as to be incomparable could give rise to political transformations and forms of national organization that were almost identical! From a cultural viewpoint, nationalism makes little sense because each nationalism is, from the perspective of inter-national conflict, so astoundingly similar to all other nationalisms! The cultural historicist theory of fascism is unsatisfactory for the simple reason that it claims to provide a theory of “fascism” when in fact it is from the outset constitutionally confined to the mere description of the different national fascisms as phenomena sui generis, as unique and distinct national experiences easy to contrast but almost impossible to compare.

On the contrary, the historical materialist theory explains how expanding capitalist industry led first to the formation of industrial cities and to a population explosion, then to the concentration of capitals by bourgeoisies that consolidated their politico-economic power around monarchic state apparatuses which then in turn metamorphosed into elaborate parliamentary regimes representing at first only bourgeois and aristocratic parties of notables until the rise of organized working classes forced the extension of mass electoral suffrage, resulting finally in the formation of mass political parties vying for the control of parliamentary government majorities.

Before we tackle the historical materialist theoretical perspective on fascism and totalitarian dictatorships, we ought to mention one more important foundation for the critique of “cultural” and historicist explanations founded overwhelmingly on the ideological notion of “nationalism”. Presumably, the entire rationale of attributing the rise of fascist movements to nationalism is to alert us against this ideological phenomenon. The problem with this rationale, however, is that the line between patriotism and nationalism is extremely hard to draw. Yet, in reality, where conflicts between nations and nation-states are involved, it is well-nigh impossible to counter one nation’s “nationalism” in its pejorative sense without a healthy dose of “patriotism” in the ameliorative sense – for the simple reason that when a nation resorts to brute force, little else other than countervailing and superior brute force will be able to quell the brutality of the opposing nation! With all due respect for the left-wing enemies of “nationalisms”, the reality remains that when we are confronted by evil – as in the case of totalitarian dictatorships – the only way for us to counter it is to be united in our patriotic resolve to defeat it decisively! The empty, powerless moralizing of opponents of “nationalism” is one more – and perhaps the greatest – criticism that can be moved against these kinds of tiresome and pathetic historical (hysterical, rather) exercises. (The literature on nationalism is almost as endless as it is tiresome and vacuous: see, generally, works by John Breuilly and Ernest Gellner. More fruitful perspectives are to be found in the work of E.J. Hobsbawm.)

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