Fascism: A Very Short Introduction by Kevin Passmore
2002 Oxford University Press
As a primer on fascism this little book is useful. I’ll use it as a jumping off point for my arguments about fascism and populism. So don’t expect a thorough review.
Passmore opens with a series of historical vignettes set in France, Italy, Romania and Germany that illustrate the varied character of what have been called ‘fascist’ movements and regimes, their distinctiveness and specificity on display. He does this, however, with an eye toward upholding what is common between them, setting the stage for a later use of the term ‘fascism’ that has both general applicability and analytical clarity. This tension between the diversity of forms of fascism and what they all have in common and the seemingly contradictory nature of that relationship is an important problem Passmore identifies early on through a quote by the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset that opens the book.
“Fascism has an enigmatic countenance because in it appears the most counterpoised contents. It asserts authoritarianism and organises rebellion. It fights against contemporary democracy and, on the other hand, does not believe in the restoration of any past rule. It seems to pose itself as the forge of a strong State, and uses means most conducive to its dissolution, as if it were a destructive faction or a secret society. Whichever way we approach fascism we find that it is simultaneously one thing and the contrary, it is A and not A…” (Sobre el Fascismo, 1927).
Passmore restates this problem in a more contemporary fashion:
“In the 21st century interest in the history of fascism and its cries is perhaps greater than ever. Yet how can we make sense of an ideology that appeals to skinheads and intellectuals; denounces the bourgeoisie while forming alliances with conservatives; adopts a macho style yet attracts many women; calls for a return to tradition and is fascinated by technology; idealizes the people and is contemptuous of mass society; and preaches violence in the name of order?” (p. 11).
The short answer here is racism. We will get to that.
Passmore then poses this seeming conundrum as one that has vexed scholars of and activists against fascism as ‘the problem of definition’. To solve this he outlines three broad approaches to fascism: Marxist (1935 Comintern, Trotsky), Weberian (Max Weber), and Totalitarian-nationalism (Hannah Arendt).
All three approaches don’t adequately handle what W.E.B. DuBois succinctly called “the color line”. Passmore does a somewhat better job of this than most when he seeks to borrow useful aspects from all three traditions, while dispensing with their limitations, so as to formulate a synthesis. He makes some progress toward this end, but fails. That failure has a name: Ernesto Laclau. But more on that in a bit.
My own definition of fascism proceeds from a different premise than that of Passmore: a definition of fascism that is analytically sound must serve human liberation. Another way of saying this is that there is no ‘true’ definition of fascism possible because we formulate that through struggle. Ours will be different from theirs. That struggle is not only carried out in the ‘marketplace of ideas’. If we want to define fascism our dream of the future and our belief in the desirability and possibility of that future must inform our definition of ‘fascism’ within a historical framework that can facilitate its defeat and our triumph. As an Anarcho-Communist, I believe the struggle against fascism is inextricable from those struggles against capitalism and the state and the exploitation and domination that are their defining features. A more or less useful definition of fascism can only be constructed from a theoretical framework that derives from a hybrid of anarchist and communist philosophies. Part of doing as much requires a recognition that the use of terms such as ‘populism’, ‘liberal democracy’, and ‘race relations’ is incompatible with that project. These terms usually dispense with the notion of a political right or left. When there is no right or left arranged along a spectrum informed by inequality, there is no possibility of analytical clarity in regards fascism or of much else. But there is a left, distinguishable from a right. Even when there isn’t a viable left, there still exists that wellspring of ideas and actions that we call socialist, anarchist and communist. If your dream of the future is limited to liberal democracy, your understanding of fascism will be bound up with the presumptions that undergird that philosophy. As fascism thrives within conditions liberal democracy depends, one must theorize the end of that system as a solution to the problem of fascism. Liberals, conservatives, purveyors of the ‘populist’ thesis all are forced to imagine the end of the very institutions that give meaning to their lives. Unfortunately for them, this is a prerequisite for the defeat of fascism. This they will not do; so we shouldn’t expect it of them. So I don’t of Passmore. But he does have much to offer, nonetheless.
If one’s frame of reference is democracy vs authoritarianism as liberal, Weberian, and totalitarian approaches utilize, there is virtually no way to account for the continuity fascism has with modernity, progress and capitalist institutions. Fascism, on this reading, represents a discontinuity with capitalist progress. It is an outlier, a deviation, an anomaly. On the other hand, if one follows the 1935 Comintern definition of fascism as “the open, terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary, the most chauvinistic, the most imperialistic elements of finance capitalism” the relatively independent nature of fascism is lost. It shares too much in common with capitalism and cannot be distinguished from it. So too the role of racism as a primary structuring feature of fascism and the particular form of that in anti-Semitism is obscured. One cannot really account for the wholesale destruction of European Jews at the hands of Nazis and fascists throughout Eastern Europe well past the point of Aryanizing businesses, to the point where such activity undermined the general war effort and had no benefit to fascist regimes. A failure to understand eliminationist racism as a central feature of fascist ideology risks a misunderstanding of fascism as solely a product of a crisis within capitalism. Much of this is tricky, but it is not splitting hairs, so much distinction without a difference. It is important.
Passmore does hold racism as central to fascism, but he doesn’t really flesh it out, not least in how it continues to occupy a central role in contemporary fascism. This is the case today as well as 2002 when he wrote this book.
Here’s another humdinger: Fascism is a constitutive feature of a particular type of capitalism, that found in Europe and North America. In writing this I am not arguing, much as Ta-Nahesi Coates does, for the existence of what amounts to a ‘primordial’ white supremacy, that fascism somehow attaches itself to ‘white’ genes or that whiteness is somehow eternal in the imagination of white people. I am arguing that fascism has a political geography that roughly corresponds to what I call the ‘white belt’. In this sense there is a fascist international in formation, a social and cultural process within such geo-political formations as the European Union that made its construction possible. Racism was baked into its cooking, regardless of the lofty humanitarian principles that animate its pronouncements. This process of fascistization underway throughout ‘the West’ seeks to rectify regional differences between fascist programs (Catholic here, Protestant there; urban vs rural, worker vs capitalist, etc.) in favor of a pan European whiteness that can only be conceptualized as against a dark, swarthy, foreign other. This is as fundamental to understanding anti immigrant racism as labor markets and competition over jobs. It cannot be understood apart from the larger divide between North and South, Core and Periphery. This is key to understanding the appeal of and prospects for 21st century fascism. In a frightening way, the ‘super fascism’ of Julius Evola, the ‘Imperium’ of Francis Parker Yockey and the snarky postmodern ‘race realism’ of Generation Identitaire foreshadow much worse to come. The future of fascism is there. If much worse is to come, it will ride this horse, and not that of the German donkey or the Italian mule.
In response our struggle cannot be limited to the terrain of the national, according to the rules of liberal democracy, within the suffocating possibilities of the here and now. We fight here, on this contested terrain of the national, but from an internationalist standpoint. Solidarity is a non-negotiable principle. We also should not pretend social democracy is up to the fight; the ‘populist’ leaders of France Insoumise and Podemos are social Democrats, but without a strong base within organized labor, so they cannot lead this fight. We must. If the broad struggle remains within the confines of the social-democracy, and we are unable to envision and fight for a communist future, we will be trampled, staring at a digital jackboot forever.
In his attempt to offer a redefinition of fascism Passmore gets much correct. But his effort lacks a grounding within a liberatory communism and will therefore be stuck within one or another of the schools of thought above. His observation that the strength of the Marxist approach, as he understands it, is that it illuminates the relationship between capitalism and fascism that other approaches either dismiss or ignore, allows us to make a more important argument, that fascism is constitutive of ‘progress’. Just as poverty and exploitation are essential components of economic development, rather than unfortunate errors of that development, so too does fascism necessarily exist, always and everywhere, within the general capitalist mode of production. It never left, most people just didn’t pay attention.
This informs my insistence that fascism never went away and that a primary problem scholars and activists have with defining and fighting fascism is that they tend to begin and end their efforts with classical fascism, giving short shrift to the subsequent eras of the movement. Rather than yet another dense scholarly work about Hitler’s relationship to his German Shepherds, how about a monograph on how fascism persisted in the war between South Africa and Angola? How about a close reading of that extraordinary experiment in anti racist communist organizing that was the Sojourner Truth Organization? How about a treatise on American white nationalism and fascism? Is American white nationalism a unique form of fascism? Or is it part of a generalized development of fascism that is trans national, the peculiarities of Trump an expression of something much larger? Perhaps it’s not fascism at all? I have offered up my opinions about all of these questions; most radicals appear fixated on Trump’s style of rule, the latest trade tariffs, or the coming national elections. They seem unable to formulate a useful question. Better questions help us reach better conclusions.
Over its 100-year history, through its now three distinct eras (Classical, Cold War and 21st century) fascism is as much a permanent feature of capitalist society as it is a threat to that society. It is both, but not in the sense that Arendt used it, as a fundamentally ‘revolutionary’ reorganization of society that is the doppelgänger of ‘communist totalitarianism’. Passmore, writing in 2002, gets an important part about the uses and abuses of ‘totalitarianism’ correct when he writes: “as a scholarly idea the term enjoyed its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, when anti-Marxist social scientists favoured a concept that discredited communism by linking it with fascism.” That link, by the way, is mostly bullshit and in any case not nearly as important as the link between capitalist democracy and fascism. That general academic project, always a political project in the sense it twists history to fit unsupported premises, is still operative today and informs virtually all non-Marxist interpretations of fascism. Most of that work, especially as it is rendered by journalists, is deeply flawed. Unfortunately, the Marxist rejoinder tends to remain stuck with scholarly work and frames of reference from the Classical period alone. Will the bourgeoisie fund the fascists? Will the fascists seek a red-brown alliance against monopoly capital? Yes, they are funding them. All capital is monopolistic. Meh. This will not do.
Passmore will end up articulating a ‘post-Marxist’ position on fascism, indebted to Ernesto Laclau’s theories of ‘populism’. My central problem with this is that Laclau’s theories are not transferable to the capitalist core–Europe, the United States, Canada, etc., because of the fascist element. Has anyone ever argued this? Someone should. One cannot construct a successful program for ‘populist hegemony’ on this terrain without dismantling the white supremacy, now expressed politically as white nationalism, within it. That demands a discrete fight that is not possible within the thought world of populism. Left wing hegemony cannot be achieved here through a program of populism because that program is both too reformist–it doesn’t offer anything to the most oppressed among us that addresses their particular forms of exploitation and domination (reparations, open borders,etc) yet is also too radical–it proposes universal programs that capitalist power will not accept. Furthermore the populist program is electoral, with a social movement component as an adjunct. Direct action movements must drive electoral politics, not the other way around. The discourse on discourse is too discursive, if you will, chasing public opinion and ideas as though the variability of their meanings float somewhere above and separate from the material conditions of existence. Sociotopes make the animal; the animal does not exist within conditions of its own making.
The limits of the ‘pink tide’ movements in Latin America, which ubdoubtedly owed much to this theory, are now evident everywhere. While acknowledging the contributions of Marxist theory Passmore seeks to articulate a theory beyond the centrality of class but he has picked a frame of reference that only applies, and in a limited way, to the global south.
I agree with Laclau and other ‘populists’ or ‘hegemonists’ however, that social class needs to be re-theorized beyond an industrial proletariat as the agent of history; beyond a peasantry that can surround the cities or a Black lumpenproletariat that can ignite an urban rebellion. Today, add or subtract however many agents of history to however many points of production however much one likes, it will amount to a pointless search for a vanguard that will never emerge. This then is what is different from then to now. What may have been possible in Russia of 1917 cannot be reproduced today. And it shouldn’t be. Something has changed. What is it?
My own unique contribution to this problem is to expand social class without diluting it; rather than an amorphous ‘people’ or ‘populism’ a new set of social actors could be theorized by examining the role of Border, Manse, Factory and Bit in our current mode of capitalist production. The fulcrum for these new social classes is the city, ground zero for insurrection. And, in what is surely to be regarded as a confusing twist, I think a central locus of rupture with capitalism is precisely where it is most wasteful–those centrally located, densely populated, impossibly tall, blindingly bright at night, giant penises we call skyscrapers. Here, where the most pointless of activity takes place in that utter waste of space called the office, by human beings so alienated from themselves and the products of their own labor they don’t even want a union because they prefer the taste of boot, under the watchful eyes of the permanent panopticon, is ground zero of the greatest insurrection in the history of humanity. Oh. That and our ruling class, holding their own dicks, are so blinded by hubris as to locate their primary loci of social reproduction in many of these same buildings. They live where their networking power is concentrated. It’s great that they have it all in one place. This fact will provide us with a wonderful teachable moment.
Today, borders and prisons create social class as much as a factory. So too the Manse is a point of social reproduction that shapes and conditions our existence. If social class is social, then it seems one locus of its reproduction is the home, where, apart from work, socialization takes place. Theirs and ours. While it is true that we live in the street, in a home much larger than theirs, we will take back that which is ours, which is everything.
Social Reproduction Theory is an essential tool for understanding this. The overarching theme here, and its the same one since 1968, is RCG–Race-Class-Gender.
The unification of anarchist and communist theory proceeds from here, where it must tackle the question of fascism.