A Review of “Fascism: Theory and Practice”

Yasser Shams Khan

Dave Renton, Fascism: Theory and Practice, Aakar Books, Delhi, 2007 (Originally published by Pluto, London, 1999)

Dave Renton’s book on fascism is structured to serve two purposes: firstly to debunk the current intellectual wave of scholars like Griffin and Eatwell, who consider that “fascist studies” should concentrate on the ideological aspect of fascism and not the specific political contexts (as there were only two historical precedents); and secondly to provide an alternate approach from a Marxist perspective. Renton is also against any apolitical reading of fascism. He polemically emphasizes the imperative of historians to politically situate themselves against fascism while trying to understand it so as to prevent it from gaining prominence in the contemporary political circuit. It is within this purview that his book needs to be looked at.

Fascism is far from dead. The 1990s has seen a regeneration of fascist groups and parties in Europe in the form of the BUF (British Union of Fascists) in Britain, FN (Front National) in France, and the long lingering RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh), the ideological backbone of right parties in India. Dave Renton's FascismHowever many scholars debate whether such parties can be considered fascists, as according to them fascism is an ideology, with certain attributes based on their interpretation of Italian fascism particularly, which renders their definitions static and reductionist. In the words of Roger Griffin, Fascism is described as “palingenetic ultra-nationalism”. Although the four scholars Renton debunks offer varied definitions of fascism, yet they all adhere to Weber’s construction of an “ideal type”. Such transcendent attributes has allowed Griffin to separate fascism from Nazism albeit conceding that they have a common mythic core. Renton criticizes such scholars who lay undue emphasis on theory and neglect the practical, concrete example before them. He censures Zeev Sternhell for combining socialism and nationalism and creating a new ideology of ‘socialism without the proletariat’ which consequently became fascism. Renton exposes the flaw in such theories. These scholars have taken the fascist demagogues’ political pronouncements at face value. If a Mussolini or a Hitler was using anti-capitalist, socialistic rhetoric, does it mean that fascism is anti-capitalist and pro-socialist?

Renton’s preferred alternative approach provides a delineation of Marxist thoughts on fascism along with its ramifications. Left Marxists associate fascism with capitalism, claiming fascism to be nothing more than an extreme form of capitalist reactionary forces active in times of capitalist economy crises. However this does not explain the mass appeal of fascism as observed in practice. Fascism thrived as a mass movement more than an elitist movement. The Right Marxist consider fascism to be detached from capitalism as it had other bases of support particularly the lumpenproletariat and the petty bourgeoisie. The rhetoric of fascism appealed to these classes particularly during times of economic crises when unemployment was high. Official Marxist theories under the Comintern oscillated between these two approaches. However there were Marxists whose understanding of fascism did not come under the official purview of the Comintern and of Stalin. They were August Thalheimer, Ignazio Silone, Antonio Gramsci and Leon Trotsky. These Marxists synthesized the left and right Marxist theories adopting the dialectical method. According to Trotsky, perhaps the most prominent of the four dissident Marxists, fascism was a “reactionary mass movement”. Fascism is inherently contradictory. Through its rhetoric and charismatic personality of its leader it appeals to the classes which constitute the lumpenproletariat and the petty bourgeoisie. However, its actions, once in power, prove detrimental to the very class which acts as its support base. Fascism in power resulted in the defeat and suppression of the working class in the interest of capital. Fascism in practice was anti-democratic, anti-socialist, pro-capitalist. The dialectical approach to fascism is appropriate precisely for this reason: it manages to conceptually capture fascism in its very contradictoriness – as a mass movement with reactionary goals and interests.

The two historical precedents of fascism show that fascism rose in times of capitalist crisis, popular frustration and the inability of the working class to channel this frustration towards a viable anti-capitalist/socialist future. The working class leadership was marked by sectarianism and fragmentation, which stunted its ability to assess the gravity of the fascist threat and challenge it at its very inception.

Renton’s approach in this book is not just elucidatory, but polemical. He is writing against fascism, even as he is writing about it. As mentioned earlier, Renton’s imperative in writing about fascism is to provide a critique not only of reductive scholars of fascism but also of fascism itself, thus preventing it from attaining a political clout in contemporary politics. In his conclusion, he explicitly emphasizes Trotsky’s solution of a United Front of workers to combat fascism. In addition to this, mass protests against fascist violence and acts of racism also serve as preventive measures to beat back the numbers of fascist supporters. The ultimate revolutionary solution would be a systematic overhaul of the current capitalist society to one in which, as Renton conclusively states, “the potential of all humanity is fully realized and all forms of oppression are swept away”.

Dave Renton’s short book on fascism serves its polemical intent, however there are a few points of contention. Although Zeev Sternhell’s argument of affinities between fascism and leftist or Jacobin politics is dismissed, Renton does not seem keen to compare left and right totalitarianisms. Also Renton’s preference for the Marxist approach to understanding fascism is because it captures the contradictory nature of fascism itself, and Marxism being a holistic theory enables preventive measures to be taken against it. Nonetheless, as Chris Brooke notes in his review, Renton’s analysis of the historical development of fascism in Italy and Germany is unsatisfactory. Renton disregards the “constraints imposed by the patterns of historical development”. Brooke’s point is that certain aspects of Italian and German history, particularly after the unification, when rapid modernization was coupled with “the failure to consolidate a functioning parliamentary democracy” before the Great War, gave the impetus to Fascist parties to mobilize and gain popular support in these countries, unlike in countries like France or England. Brooke’s point is well taken as it throws light on more complex processes of historical necessity, and along with Renton’s treatment of the political processes completes the broad analysis of fascism.

Yasser Shams Khan is currently pursuing his Masters in English Literature from Delhi University.

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