Fraudulent Chatter

In highlighting a push within academia to favourably revise fascism in practise, leading SWP member Dave Renton does us all a service, but it is his own revisionism, according to G. O'Halloran, which carries the greatest threat.

I recognised the name right away. A colleague who was himself reviewing the book Fascism: Theory and Practice assured me the author Dave Renton 'wouldn't recognise a fascist, or indeed an anti-fascist, if he jumped up and nutted him'. Primarily because "physical confrontation" according to Mr Renton is legitimate as a tactic - so long as it remains "non-violent". 'Must' is the term Renton employs.

So on seeing his name attached to a headline 'Understanding fascism' I enthusiastically volunteered, without even a cursory glance at the article, to demolish him.

Rashly as it turns out. Not that my colleague was wrong, merely that it wasn't half as bad as I had hoped - at least to begin with. Writing in the August edition of Searchlight, Renton introduces his argument as follows: "The past fifteen years have witnessed the emergence of a new academic discipline. 'Fascism studies', is itself a response to developments in the outside world, including the rise of Far-Right parties in Europe and elsewhere".

Renton's concern with the coincidence of 'fascist studies' and the rise of the Far-Right is perfectly legitimate. As he explains there is "a developing consensus in the academic world on what fascism is, and what it actually has been". The express intention is, as he warns, to revise "our understanding of how fascism behaved" in practice.

"Fascism is now over" is the starting point of this academic consensus. With fascism dead they feel they can, and indeed argue, as academics they are obliged to view fascism for the first time with detachment; "without favour or criticism", or as one don puts it "in the quiet of the library rather than the heat of battle".

Along with fascism being dead (and so harmless), another key ingredient to the consensus is the notion of "a model fascism"; a fascism not unduly adulterated by outside forces, or the circumstances of the time. The three major historians Griffin, Payne and Sternhall whose arguments Renton confronts in the Searchlight piece all agree, in so far as any one regime can be seen as "typically fascist" it is the Italian version. The more infamous German version had deviated to such a degree they concur, it was not properly fascism at all. "Fascism can in no way be identified with Nazism." "Nazism... cannot be treated as a mere variant of fascism." "Hitler's Germany" was "a non-communist National Socialist equivalent to Stalin's Russia". "Mussollini's Italy bore little resemblance to either one" etc.

The 'hard distinction' they claim exists between fascist Italy and national socialist Germany, "enables" these historians, Renton notes, to revive the notion of the ideal of a 'pure fascism', one freed from the clutches of the Holocaust and the camps. "In other words" as Rentons points out "[they] deliberately choose Italy as their model of an "ideal" fascism, order to rescue fascist Italy from stigma; while it is still not possible to destigmatise fascist Germany". A fact Payne at least is candid enough to acknowledge: "Forces that promoted a world historical disaster are hard to view from scientific detachment". Quite. Yet only tentatively, (as if he can hardly believe it himself) does Renton suggest that in explaining their motives the historians are little less than candid, and far from 'detached'.

Key to understanding the whole exercise of detachment, according to Roger Griffin Professor of History at Oxford Brookes University, is the concept of parity of esteem. "If", as he explains "the appropriate way to define liberalism would be from the perspective of a liberal, therefore the best way to define fascism must be from the perspective of a fascist".

One problem Renton spots right off is that it then "becomes unclear when the fascist is speaking and when the historian." Such congruence is a recurring feature, according to Renton, in Sternahll's work in particular. To such an extent that when Sternhall writes: "In August 1914, when the old world of the 19th century collapsed, the proof was made that the motor of history is not Class but Nation" it is hard even on "close reading", Renton ruefully concludes, "to see it as anything other than the verdict of Sternhall himself."

Nevertheless Renton is clear where the threat lies. "The danger of the academic [ie. detached] approach to fascism lies in the path it treads from the idealist definition to a positive description of fascism. The argument that fascism equals Mussollini and not Hitler is an argument for a positive re-evaluation of fascism." Nor as he acknowledges "is it likely to end there."

As importantly, as Renton also acknowledges, the exercise did not begin there either. Euro-Nationalism was not stimulated by academic revisionism, rather the reverse. Fascist revisionists clearly find their inspiration in the renaissance of the Far-Right. While the academics re-writing of history inevitably provides the Far-Right with additional succour and respectability. Certainly the MSI in Italy has benefited from the fresh evaluations of Mussollini for instance. Yet it is precisely this reality Renton, a member of the Anti-Nazi League, struggles to get his head round. For two reasons. Brought up on the liberal notion that fascism can be put squarely down to 'ignorance', which safely confines it to the lower orders, he is reluctant to come to terms with the idea that highly educated lecturers like himself, might conceivably have similarly base leanings.

Simple snobbery, or just plain funk, does not entirely explain why he places all his stress on the danger of the academic "approach", rather than pin point those doing the actual 'approaching'.

Temerity aside, there is a fundamental and self serving reason why the 'detached approach' is flagged up as the greater threat. Quite simply the anti-fascism which Renton espouses has for fifty years eschewed any objectivity in favour of a complete reliance on emotional appeal. For liberal anti-fascism, moral imperative has, and remains, the order of the day. Not for them an emotionally detached strategy rooted in objective reality.

As a consequence, if revisionism can successfully 'detach' fascism from the horrors and imagery of the Third Reich, the Holocaust as principle liberal anti-fascist icon will simply be past it's sell by date. Routine use thereafter, ensuring a diminishing return in terms of propaganda, before becoming totally counter productive in terms of realpolitik. Already existing evidence for such a scenario can be found from a study of the ANL campaign on the Isle of Dogs in 1994. There, despite (or because of), the ANL saturation of the working class community with placards bearing the legend 'Never Again!' the BNP, despite losing their council seat, saw their vote increase by 30%. It was of course precisely this 'Never Again!' sloganeering (aligned it must be said to the tactic of countering violence with violence), which was responsible for the success of the ANL Mark 1 against the National Front in the '70's.

Whatever his views on the 'squadists' back then Renton (along with the rest of todays SWP's theoreticians) has very firm views on the unacceptability of the physical tradition now. In terms of contemporary strategy, the most revealing passage in Fascism: Theory and Practice is where Renton concludes that while "For fascists violence is a happy condition and fits with their view of the world... For anti-fascists violence is not part of their world view, they do not seek to create a society where violence is natural or common place, violence is not something which anti-fascists can glorify. For these reasons physical confrontation against fascism has to involve large numbers, must be primarily non-violent and should involve layers greater than any professional anti-fascists in order to build a truly mass opposition."

While acknowledging that theory very certainly coat-trails practice, this unilateral declaration of non-aggression nonetheless confirms that the SWP/ANL have actually crossed the Rubicon. In rejecting the physical force tradition, and being out flanked on the moral question, what is left in the ANL's arsenal by which it could define itself as specifically anti-fascist is a moot point? Certainly the SWP is not confident it is up to the job of beating fascism politically. Which is the crux of the matter.

In other words, though it might not admit it, the SWP is acutely conscious that in '30s, fascism defeated the working class movement not only strategically and militarily - but ideologically. And having done so once, might do so again. An elementary example of such dishonesty being Renton's comment about 'the kind of world anti-fascists wish to create'. In point of fact anti-fascism by definition is not in a position nor in the business of creating anything! Anti-fascism is a negative concept which only comes into play when the Left as a whole has lost the initiative. An implication the SWP and the conservative Left simply refuse to address, let alone come to terms with.

So despite a formal adherence to 'class over race as the motor of history', when the chips are down, rather than attempt to 'out-radicalise' the Far-Right either at the ballot-box or in working class communities, the SWP/ANL in tandem with the the liberal establishment opts for the moral argument as weapon of choice. The whole idea designed not to crush Far-right but - quarantine it. Not once, not even when the opportunity sat up and begged as in the East End in 1979, has it sought to ameliorate, or indeed politically exploit, the social conditions that repeatedly give rise to fascism. Instead in routinely rejecting the immediate and legitimate concerns of working class communities as unworthy of its attention, it not only alienates them from it's own organisation, but more often than not, in the eyes of the locals, caricatured anti-fascism itself.

Furthermore through presenting anti-racism exclusively from the perspective of minority rights as is the fashion, anti-racism has become divorced, or all too often is counterposed to real questions of social justice for the community as a whole. Consequently the overriding argument that fascism is in essence an anti-democratic response to working class social and political aspirations, is carelessly forfeit when the most visible or vocal proponents of the counter argument, on the one hand stand aloof (stridently addressing the symptoms only) while at the same time conveying through word and deed that the principle problem is inherent in the working class itself.

The subliminal message of liberal anti-fascism post war: the thought process underpinning propaganda typical of the ANL is the employment of social stereotype to combat racial stereotype. 'Fascists are poor - fascists are stupid' is that public and private refrain in a nutshell. The irony of both fascism and anti-fascism holding the working class in mutual contempt appears not to have occurred to them.

Besides which, if Sterhall can define fascism as "socialism without the proletariat", then multiculturalism, of which the ANL is such an open advocate, and which in a similar fashion to Sternhall places 'race over class', can be defined and is widely perceived (almost unanimously in working class communities) to be 'anti-fascism opposed to the proletariat'.

Just how far the rot has set in, is demonstrated by Renton for whom the antithesis of fascism is not working class communism (even with a small c), but middle class liberalism. Which is why, perhaps unconsciously, in listing those "jailed and executed by fascist regimes" he places "liberals and feminists" first and second in order of merit. (One example of his own revisionism now clearly being dwarfed by an aggressive nemesis.)

In typical white feather fashion Renton concludes by agreeing with his academic protagonists that there must be 'a clear definition of fascism'. Of course European fascism having re-invented itself is doing very nicely, if the eleven million plus votes (off a low turnout) in the Euro election is any guide thank you very much. Instead what the debate is really crying out for is a clear definition of anti-fascism. Something clearly beyond Renton, Searchlight and for that matter the entire conservative Left. And even where there is no 'hard distinction' between Renton's theory and his practice, there is a very real distinction between his cloistered reality and the outside world. Anti-fascism to mean anything is about doing, not being. Being pro-active. Making a difference. Active anti-fascism is something Renton airily admits, he always 'preferred to leave to others'. Accordingly the revisionist discipline applied to anti-fascism ie. - 'the appropriate way to define anti-fascism is from the perspective of an anti-fascist' leaves Renton (not being one himself), unqualified to comment.

In 1935, two years after Hitler had taken power, in a withering attack on the type of politics Renton espouses, Trotsky wrote: "Fascism finds unconscious helpers in all those who say that the 'physical struggle is impermissible'... nothing increases the insolence of the fascists as much as 'flabby pacifism' on the part of workers organisations. This fraudulent chatter parading under the banner of 'Bolshevism' arouses only disgust and loathing". "Disgust and loathing" he might have added in fascists and anti-fascists alike. A reality which explains why people like Renton never see the head-butt coming, or even comprehend that it is his own effete meddling that enrages the owner of the forehead to begin with.

Reproduced from RA Vol 4, Issue 3, Oct/Nov '99