Commentary on Political Economy

Monday, 23 November 2020

THE TRAP OF HISTORICISM IN THE STUDY OF TOTALITARIANISM

 

The chief problem with the historicist or cultural account of the origin and rise of revolutionary movements in advanced industrial capitalist societies is that it assumes what it needs to establish: it mistakes the effect for the cause, the symptom for the disease. A worse corollary of this approach is that, if indeed the vicissitudes of human societies and their internecine conflicts leading to wars between nations are to be attributed principally to differences and conflicts of ideas and values or of cultural identities, then it must follow that these conflicts are inevitable and perennial. When Benjamin Constant, the most prominent ideologue of liberalism, contended that world peace was possible once commerce had totally replaced violent confrontation over the ownership of human resources, what he intended to say was that the dependence of commerce on market institutions allowed an objective assessment of the value of goods for exchange and, by extension, a homologation of human values and standards based on such materialist standards, that human values and standards could be quantified and be measured and assessed objectively to the point where, consequently, political and cultural conflict could be eliminated from human affairs. By an indirect yet fundamentally identical route, Marx’s own faith in the advent of true human history and the replacement of capitalism with communism (“from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”) was firmly planted on the belief that material human needs and abilities are far more likely to be agreed upon by humans than the more spiritual or emotional aspects of their existence.

By simply assuming the existence of “masses” or “crowds” there to be “nationalised” or otherwise exploited and stultified by demagogues and dictators, the proponents of the historicist and cultural theory of fascism do nothing more than perpetuate the “aristocratic” fallacy that the vast majority of human beings are incapable of governing themselves democratically. One of the flaws of the historicist cultural theory of revolutionary movements is that it is mawkishly “aristocratic” in the sense that it assumes the existence of “masses” or “crowds” that can be manipulated at will by truculent dictators without asking first what a “mass” or “crowd” is in terms of its real interests and motives, and then whether these interests and motives are justified or legitimate in a given social context. It is the fallacy of all “aristocratic” explanations of dictatorships that they fail to identify the material factors behind their rise, which only serves to perpetuate the historical incomprehension of these political phenomena and even to exculpate the social agencies responsible for their occurrence and recurrence. Interestingly, this aristocratic fallacy is common both to proponents of a unified theory of totalitarianism and to its opponents – the reason being that both fail ultimately to link the origin of revolutionary movements since the French Revolution to “the social question”, that is to say, the class conflict over the production and distribution of human resources, and thence over the direction and organization of social labour.

Theoreticians who promote the use of totalitarianism as a separate historico-political category applicable to fascism, Nazism, bolshevism and Maoism – Arendt and Hobsbawm (Nations and Nationalism) or Emilio Gentile (see his Il Capo e la Folla), to name but three - and  those who oppose it on the grounds that we have dispelled thus far – people like Mosse and De Felice or even Aron – are linked by the exegetic pre-eminence they give, in varying degrees, to “cultural” factors such as nationalism and racism in the study of the origins of dictatorships. It is interesting to see, for instance, an accomplished scholar like Mosse rely on the work of Gustave Le Bon on “the psychology of crowds” to explain the popular acclaim of Mussolini, when in fact the Fascist Duce himself studied the Frenchman’s works as a blueprint for his special brand of crowd manipulation. The obvious question to be asked is whether Mosse’s reliance on Le Bon actually explains Mussolini’s rise on the back of crowd hysteria, or whether it does not perpetuate yet another myth about “massive popular support” that dictators like Mussolini and Hitler enjoyed to legitimize their brutal regimes.

Arendt for instance, in On Revolution, chided Karl Marx for following the Jacobins in mistaking resolution of “the social question” – that is, the material living standards of the French lower classes – with the establishment of “liberty and equality”, let alone “fraternity”. Like all historicist theoreticians, Arendt forgets that material and spiritual needs cannot be distinguished and separated so easily. Behind nationalist and fascist movements can be found legitimate demands for political and economic emancipation in the form of a “direct democracy” that circumvents the often deflating spectacle of parliamentary representation with its compromises and venality. Even Norberto Bobbio, in Eguaglianza e Liberta’, draws a line between freedom, which in his view concerns the individual in isolation, and equality, which refers to relations between individuals. Yet, even a superficial glance at the question reveals that “one person’s freedom is another’s coercion” – so that the two questions in fact become one. And De Tocqueville (in Democracy in America) fretted for the future of American democracy once the ideal of freedom was replaced with the goal of equality – “the social question”. What all these authors have in common, the fallacy they share, is to draw an artificial, inexistent barrier between freedom and welfare in such a manner that they elevate “spiritual” or “cultural” factors in social events to a higher aetiological or causational sphere than mere material motives and needs.

This false dichotomy between politics and economics, between labour and interaction (Habermas), between homo laborans and homo faber (Arendt), or even between base and superstructure (Marx), seldom reflects social reality properly examined at the right level of concreteness. For an example, let us take a rapid look at how Mosse attempts to construct “a general theory of fascism” in chapter 1 of his The Fascist Revolution.

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.(p.2)

Here Mosse is simply erecting a man of straw so that he can beat him down with a mere whistle. The fact of the matter is that the best theories of totalitarianism – the valid ones, not the bogus ones invented by Mosse for his own convenience! – draw a distinction, just as we did earlier, between the early phase of fascism as (a) revolutionary movement and (b) Party-State dictatorship, and the last phase properly called (c) totalitarian dictatorship. In other words, here Mosse conveniently dismisses the notion of totalitarianism because it fails to distinguish, first, between the different national forms of fascism and bolshevism, and second, between their different evolutionary phases. But again, the fact of the matter is that whilst revolutionary movements (fascist or bolshevist) may have differed in social causation and ideology in their earlier phases, by the time they became totalitarian dictatorships they were all predictably and indisputably characterized (i) by the establishment of a Party-State, (ii) by the tyrannical leadership of a Dictator, (iii) by the twin phenomena of propaganda and terror as instruments of total control over their societies, and finally (iv) by their positioning in a state of potential or actual war with foreign enemies real or imagined. In other words, once the totalitarian phase of a revolutionary movement is reached, the similarities between these Party-States so overwhelm their dissimilarities that it is sheer folly not to classify them under the same politico-historical concept of “totalitarian dictatorships”!

Furthermore, as Mosse notes correctly, all these movements presented themselves as a “third force”, as a new political alternative distinct from the old bourgeois parliamentary regimes run either by absolutist or constitutional monarchies or else by finance capital, on one side, or social-democratic reformist government alliances on the other.

Bolshevism and fascism attempted to mobilize the masses, to substitute modern mass politics for pluralistic and parliamentary government. Indeed, parliamentary government found it difficult to cope with the crises of the postwar world, and abdicated without a struggle, not only in Germany and Italy but also in Portugal and, where it had existed immediately after the war, in the nations of eastern Europe. The fascists helped the demise of parliamentary government, but that it succumbed so readily points to deep inherent structural and ideological problems—and, indeed, few representative governments have withstood the pressures of modern economic, political, and social crises, especially when these coincided with unsat-

6 / THE FASCIST REVOLUTION

isfied national aspirations and defeat in war.9 Wherever during the interwar years one-party governments came to power, they merely toppled regimes ripe for the picking; this holds good for Russia as well as for Germany and Italy. But unlike bolshevism, fascism never had to fight a proper civil war on its road to power: Mussolini marched on Rome in the comfort of a railway carriage, and Hitler simply presented himself to the German president.

Once again, Mosse correctly notes that the extra-parliamentary movements did gain power without an overt civil war and indeed with the imprimatur of the established legal authorities. But whilst he attributes this to “weakness” on the part of the constitutional authorities, nowhere does he explain how and why these established regimes succumbed so easily to the revolutionary movements, nor does he elicit the complicity of those bourgeois authorities in assisting the seizure of power by the fascist movements above all!

Not only. But also. It is a fact, duly acknowledged by Mosse, that these “revolutionary” movements, upon being co-opted to power, quickly and decisively, violently proceeded to distance themselves from the more revolutionary factions of their membership. Yet, note in the passage below the reprehensible obduracy with which Mosse refuses point blank to confront and denounce the complicity of the established bourgeois capitalist order in permitting and facilitating the fascist seizure of political and military power purely to thwart and prevent the perceived threat from extremist movements, communist or Marxist or socialist, of the Left! And all this on the ground that “property relationships or the naked play of power and interest…such issues alone do not motivate men”! Here is Mosse in his own words:

Yet this “Third Force’ became ever less revolutionary and more nationalistic as fascists and Nazis strove for power. Mussolini broke with the revolutionary syndicalists early on and tamed his youth organization but stayed with the Futurists, whose revolutionary ardour took the fast sports car as its model rather than the nationalization of production. Hitler got rid of social revolutionaries like Otto Strasser who wanted to challenge property relationships, however slightly. Yet we must not limit our gaze to property relationships or the naked play of power and interest; such issues alone do not motivate men.

Intellectual cowardice and chicanery do not suffice to describe the inveterate betrayal on the part of Mosse of all the values that he purports to espouse against the apocalyptic heinous brutality of the totalitarian dictatorships that he also purports – but with what residual credibility? - to denounce! If at all possible, Mosse’s clarification of his supine conclusion fills us with even more distaste:

It was the strength of fascism everywhere that it appeared to transcend these concerns, gave people a meaningful sense of political participation (though, of course, in reality they did not participate at all), and sheltered them within the national community against the menace of rapid change and the all too swift passage of time. At the same time, it gave them hope through projecting a utopia, taking advantage of apocalyptic longings. National Socialism was able to contain the revolutionary impetus better than Italian fascism because in Germany the very term “Third Force” was fraught with mystical and millenarian meaning. The mythos of the “Third Force” became a part of the mythos of the “Third Reich,” carrying on a Germanic messianic tradition that had no real equivalent in Catholic Italy. (p.8)

Far from representing a “theory” or even an exegesis, let alone an explanation, of the rise of fascism in Europe, Mosse’s references to “the strength of fascism” and “the German messianic tradition” only serve to rationalize what was in reality a “revolution from above” carried out with the culpable connivance of the Italian and German ruling elites, albeit one for which they too were soon to pay an exorbitant price! If indeed “the mythos of the ‘Third Force’” was so fully “fraught with mystical and millenarian meaning”, then it is quite absurd to opine, as Mosse does unperturbed, that by virtue of this fact alone “National Socialism was able to contain the revolutionary impetus better than Italian fascism” – for the evident reason that, contrary to his absurd reasoning, such “mystical and millenary meaning” ought instead to have been a force in favour of the initial revolutionary zeal of the Nazi SA, the stormtroopers led by “social revolutionaries like Otto Strasser” – and one that the Nazi Dictatorship must have sought to suppress with all the greater degree of brutality! By force of assiduously trying to impress on us the power of the Nazi “mystique”, Mosse has quite insidiously fallen victim to it! The danger with the kind of “cultural” accounts of totalitarian dictatorships such as the one peddled by Mosse is that they easily fall prey to the very “myths” that they pretend to expose and dispel. As such, they constitute a lurid betrayal of the very values that any proper historical discipline ought to instil in its practitioners!

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