Commentary on Political Economy

Monday, 16 November 2020



We insisted earlier on the periodization of totalitarian dictatorship, specifically as it applies either to advanced industrial capitalist societies or to societies  that - like Russia and China – may have degenerated into totalitarianism by transplanting the ideals of Western revolutionary movements of the Right and of the Left without a fully stratified class structure such as the West had developed. In the latter case, of course, the embryonic and undeveloped industrial proletariat was in open revolt against quasi-feudal social structures that had not developed a large middle class of “petty bourgeois” and was forced consequently to seek an alliance with large disenfranchised and impoverished peasantries.

There is a resemblance between the rise of fascism and the rise of communism: both are made possible by the existence of a relatively small, tightly-knit, and well-disciplined organization and both depend for their success on the widespread support of large masses of people who flock to the movement suddenly during a period of acute crisis. The differences are, however, more striking, especially for a student of social stratification. In the countries of advanced industrialization we have a large middle class which initially resists the revolutionary attempts from the Right and the Left, only to join the fascist movement when it is about to attain power. In the predominantly agrarian countries, where the communist movement has been successful so far, no such middle class exists; hence success must necessarily depend upon the support of other social groups, especially the peasants.21 (R. Bendix, “Social Stratification and Political Power”.)

The periodization - from embryonic revolutionary movement to party structure, to seizure of parliamentary power, to erection of a parallel Party-State, to dictatorship, and finally to totalitarian dictatorship – is rendered necessary by the transformation that occurs invariably in the nature of revolutionary mass movements from before their seizure of political power to after such seizure has occurred. It is the frequently profound difference between the two moments of the evolution of these movements that has led to the false debate over the validity or less of an independent concept of totalitarianism in the study of dictatorial regimes. The chief objection of those who oppose such a separate concept for historical analysis is that the term “totalitarian” does not apply to every stage of a dictatorship.

This is undoubtedly right, and it is a feature that we are emphasizing here; but this is not to say that the totalitarian stage is not one that is separable as a distinct political and historical category of analysis. Given our own theorization of the concept, it is evident that we oppose the extension of the category of totalitarianism to the early or embryonic phase of revolutionary movements. For instance, in our analysis it would be absurd or oxymoronic to speak of “totalitarian movements” – because by the time a “movement” has become “totalitarian” it is a Party-State, not a “movement” any longer! The usefulness of this separate treatment of totalitarianism is that, for instance, it allows what is an undoubtedly fruitful comparison of fascism and bolshevism or Hitlerism and Stalinism in terms of “the organization of the totalitarian state” (cf. Alberto Aquarone’s great work on the Italian fascist state by that title.) Mosse is quite entitled to insist on the inapplicability of the concept to the early histories of the fascist or bolshevist movements – precisely because, as we are arguing, these movements originate from very different historical sources and also because they undergo essential changes as they progress toward the formation of a totalitarian state.

Here is how Mosse tackles the similarities and differences between fascism and bolshevism and then reaches a conclusion consistent with our own approach:

Both movements were based on the ideal, however distorted, of popular sovereignty. This meant the rejection of parliamentary government and representative institutions on behalf of a democracy of the masses in which the people would in theory directly govern themselves. The leader symbolized the people; he expressed the “general will”—but such a democracy meant that, instead of representative assemblies, a new secular religion mediated between people and leaders, providing, at the same time, an instrument of social control over the masses. It was expressed on the public level through official ceremonies, festivals, and not least, the use of political imagery, and on a private level through control over all aspects of life by the dictates of the single political party. This system was common in various degrees to fascist and bolshevist movements. The danger inherent in subsuming both systems under the concept of totalitarianism is that it may serve to disguise real differences, not only between bolshevism and fascism but also between the different forms of fascism themselves. Moreover, the contention that these theories really compare fascism not with the early, more experimental years of bolshevism, but with Stalinism instead seems justified. Indeed, totalitarianism as a static concept often veils the development of both fascism and bolshevism. In Soviet Russia, for example, the kind of public ceremonies and festivals that mark the fascist political style were tried early in the régime but then dropped, and not

Toward a General Theory of Fascism / 3

resumed until after the Second World War, when they came to fulfill the same functions as they had for fascism earlier. In 1966, Pravda wrote that rallies, ceremonial processions, speeches, and music gave emotional strength to the political commitment of the people.2 Fascism, too, did not remain static, although even some critics of totalitarian theory apparently see it as unchanging. There is, for example, a difference between fascism as a political movement and as a government in power. (G L Mosse, The Fascist Revolution, pp.2-3)

But this is precisely the distinction we are making and which we submit justifies the categorical distinction between revolutionary movement, dictatorship, and totalitarian dictatorship, that is to say, the fact and reality that (a) “totalitarianism as a static concept often veils the development of both fascism and bolshevism”; and (b) that “there is… a difference between fascism as a political movement and as a government in power”! Here Mosse has practically conceded what we have maintained all along! Whereas the fascist and bolshevist movements – as embryonic revolutionary forces – are indeed very difficult to compare (as Bendix emphasized in the quotation above), once these movements proceed to the stage of totalitarian dictatorships the similarities quite simply overwhelm the differences, as we shall seek to demonstrate shortly. So much so, that these similarities become too great a source of political insights for us to fail to pursue them as historical and political analysts and, above all else, as social agents interested in the fate of our own societies.

Here is instead how Bendix makes a mistake with the opposite valence to Mosse’s. For, whilst agreeing with us that what we call “revolutionary movements” must be treated separately at different moments of their evolution, Bendix makes the grave error to speak of “totalitarian movements”, a phrase to which we object on the ground stated above that by the time a revolutionary movement evolves into a totalitarian state or dictatorship, it simply ceases to be a “movement” because it has become a Party-State, however much party-states may wish to maintain the propagandistic myth of remaining a  dynamic “movement”, as against a static State, aiming at achieving an overriding ideal goal. Here is Bendix, then:

Propositions concerning the conquest of power by a totalitarian movement have suffered repeatedly from a failure to distinguish the several elements of a successful totalitarian movement. One important distinction should be made between the description of a movement before its conquest of power and afterwards. (Bendix, loc.cit.)

Now, it ought to be utterly obvious that a “movement” that has still not achieved “its conquest of power” cannot by that very fact (!) be called a “totalitarian movement” for the simple reason that it has yet not attained the political power required for the exercise of totalitarian rule over its polity! Nevertheless, Bendix’s study is invaluable because it makes the distinction between revolutionary movements “before” and “after” their seizure of power, and because it proceeds to suggest also two other vital distinctions that elude most analysts:

A second distinction should emphasize the difference between the nucleus of leaders, their immediate entourage (subleaders), the party members, and the supporting or acquiescent masses. And a third distinction probably should refer to the reasons for the increasing weakness of established institutions rather than to the reasons for the strength of the totalitarian threat. Any analysis of a totalitarian movement should leave no doubt as to which aspect of the problem it is concerned with. (Bendix, loc.cit.)

Hence, the first distinction concerns the evolution of revolutionary movements from before to after the acquisition of political power. The second distinction refers to the essential transformation of the political leadership in terms of function and direction and personnel that is universally observable in the unfolding of these movements from embryonic to totalitarian status. And third there is a distinction to be made - one of paramount importance - about the “increasing weakness” of existing state and political institutions with respect to allowing the the revolutionary party to seize political power, and then to proceed virtually unchallenged to erect parallel state structures and mechanisms aimed at countering and eventually replacing those existing institutions!

There are then a number of lessons to be drawn from our critical review of the literature around totalitarian dictatorships. The first lesson is that it is quite incorrect and counterproductive to object to the formulation of a separate political category to describe totalitarianism: - incorrect, for the overwhelming reason that once party-state dictatorships proceed to the totalitarian stage they overcome their earlier ideological differences and in effect adopt political and even economic strategies and structures that are extremely similar if not indistinguishable; and counterproductive or misleading because failure to distinguish the various moments in the evolution of revolutionary movements leads their analysis to invert the order of importance of the factors that determine that evolution. This last point is an intricate one and deserves separate and careful treatment.

As Mosse pointed out in the earlier quotation, even studies critical of the separate treatment of totalitarianism treat fascism as a homogeneous and unchanging entity, when in fact there are decisive metamorphoses that occur in its political itinerary from movement to totalitarian party-state. We agree with Mosse, therefore, that the distinct moments of revolutionary movements need to be kept firmly in mind and that any theory of totalitarianism that seeks to smooth or erase these distinct qualitative moments must be rejected just as firmly. Where Mosse and nearly all other critics of totalitarianism go wrong, however, is firstly in considering that all theories of totalitarianism make this mistake – which is demonstrably false. Secondly, these critics of totalitarian theory invariably erase the differences that they say are important between the various stages of revolutionary movements by inverting the order of importance or significance of the social drivers of these movements.

Indeed, nearly all critics of totalitarian theory insist on the role of cultural factors – nationalism, racism, massification, religious liturgy, cultural and social regimentation, leadership cult, propaganda and terror – as being primary or wholly dominant at every stage of the evolution of revolutionary movements. What we are seeking to establish here, instead, is that this is entirely incorrect and misleading because in historical reality the overwhelming weight of evidence is that it is the economic factors and their concomitant or consequential social dislocation – “the social question” – that are unquestionably preponderant in determining the origin and formation of revolutionary movements. This is indeed in line with the Marxist or materialist historical theory that gives priority to the economic base (the reproduction of society) over the ideological superstructure in the aetiology of social and historical events. What happens at the totalitarian stage, however, is that the ideological superstructure overtakes and virtually suppresses the economic rationality of the societies and territories ruled by totalitarian dictatorships. These are historical realities so similar, so demonstrable, and so repetitive as to be almost predictable and inconfutable!

The vice of the “cultural history” approaches to revolutionary movements and fascism in particular is that it wrongfully understates the importance of socio-economic factors in their origin and jejunely exaggerates the role of cultural factors, to the point that they fail to discern what are the indispensable and sociologically predictable preconditions for their emergence and the drivers of their evolution. By focussing excessively on “fascist self-understanding and self-representation”, cultural history runs the risk of becoming an “anything goes” Hegelian night “in which all cows are black”! But then, - and here is the clincher – unable to deny the convergence of these movements in their totalitarian stage, cultural history is desultorily compelled to conclude and concede that, mutatis mutanda, “fascist movements had their differences but they shared a common approach to politics”! Here is Mosse to confirm our thesis:

Fascism always appropriated already existing, familiar and popular ideas while manipulating them and integrating them into its own world view. Fascism was a new political movement but not a movement which invented anything new; it annexed the long familiar and made it a part of its racism and nationalism. That was some of its real strength: it offered regeneration with security and revolution with the already familiar. These themes which grow out of the attempt which cultural history provides to comprehend fascist self-understanding and self-representation will be pursued in the chapters which follow. Fascist movements had their differences but they shared a common approach to politics. (Mosse, The Fascist Revolution, p.xvii.)

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