The Fascist Persuasion in Radical Politics.
by A. James Gregor.
Princteon. 472 pp. $15.00.
It is now some years since the radicalism of the 1960’s, often called the New Left, ran out of steam. The idols of the era, whose popularity rested so heavily on their reputation for revolutionary purity, are now badly compromised. Chairman Mao welcomed Nixon to China, Fidel Castro had the temerity to jail a poet and now favors improved relations with the U.S., Rennie Davis sits at the feet of a teenage Maharaji, Tom Hayden is running for the United States Senate, and Eldridge Cleaver has become, of all things, an anti-Communist. For many radicals, yet another god has failed.
Still, the precise nature of the god that proved unworthy remains unclear. The New Left was always more interested in changing the world than interpreting it, and it was even less willing to make a serious effort to understand itself. Yet now that the revolutionary flames have somewhat subsided, it should be possible to look at New Left radicalism in historical prespective. The Fascist Persuasion in Radical Politics will help this effort considerably. If the title of the book and its main theses—that contemporary radicalism bears a striking resemblance to classical fascism—appear overly polemical, the fault is not Gregor’s, since he has written an exceedingly judicious essay in political theory. Rather, the confusion derives from a connotation of the term “fascist” which, according to Gregor, “in our time serves as little more than an epithet. It has become a simple term of derogation—having little if any cognitive meaning.” Gregor retrieves this meaning in his effort to place contemporary radicalism within a coherent theoretical framework.
Gregor locates the origin of both Fascism and Bolshevism, two parallel movements, in the crisis of classical Marxism which occurred at the beginning of this century. In a word, the crisis came about with the recognition among followers of Marx that social democracy and revolution were not one and the same thing. Marx had written that a socialist revolution could occur only when historical conditions had sufficiently ripened, or (in Gregor’s words) “only in circumstances where the productive forces of society had attained that level of development capable of supporting a classless society.” A socialist revolution could not be willed by revolutionaries any more than the required historical conditions could be. Rather, it was assumed that historical conditions, as they matured, would produce among the working class the will, or class consciousness, needed to carry through a socialist revolution. It was also assumed that such a revolution would occur in the most advanced capitalist countries of Europe and North America where the working classes were large, powerful, and politically mature.
The crisis of classical Marxism, according to Gregor, became apparent in the early 1900’s when socialist revolutionaries came face to face with the reality of a nonrevolutionary proletariat. Their dilemma was difficult: they could either stick with the working class, in which case they would have to settle for social-democratic gradualism as opposed to revolution, or they could press the revolutionary struggle, in which case they would have to abandon the working class and Marxian socialism in favor of something as yet undefined. Eduard Bernstein chose the first course, and subsequently so did Karl Kautsky. But others, notably Lenin and Mussolini, chose the second, and in so doing they became the forerunners of contemporary radicalism.
In their search for a viable revolutionary strategy, Lenin and Mussolini discarded both the determinist and Eurocentric aspects of Marxism. It is well known that by 1902 Lenin had reached the conclusion that, since the working class by itself could achieve only “trade-union consciousness,” a vanguard party composed of intellectual revolutionaries was required to execute the revolution. It is less well known that at virtually the same time Mussolini made a similar jump from class-bound Marxian determinism to elitist revolutionary voluntarism. A socialist revolution, he wrote in 1904, would be “initiated by a minority.” Like Lenin, he referred to this minority as a “proletarian elite” and a “socialist vanguard,” concepts which Marx had rejected a half century earlier.
Once Lenin and Mussolini had accepted the necessity of a vanguard party, they were faced with the problem of mobilizing masses for the revolution. Both discovered that the natural social base for revolutionary politics lay among those excluded from the process of production—declassed intellectuals, the lumpenproletariat, the atomized petit-bourgeoisie, and the dispossessed masses of the backward East. Class struggle was obviously out of the question, in that it presupposed a conflict between the owners and producers of wealth taking place within the capitalist system of production. Both Mussolini and Lenin proposed to attack the system from without; each in his own way adopted revolutionary nationalism—the nationalism of the oppressed, as it were—as the basic organizing principle of social Struggle. And in both cases, too, the rhetoric of socialism was not abandoned but was used rather to convey the radical anti-capitalist character of revolutionary nationalism. Dino Grandi, a leading Italian Fascist, observed that the future would be dominated by “a class struggle between nations” which pitted the backward “proletarian nations” against the advanced “capitalist nations.” Lenin, shortly before his death in 1924, wrote that the outcome of the world struggle would be determined by the “conflict between the counterrevolutionary imperialist West and the revolutionary nationalist East.”
The major part of Gregor’s study is devoted to demonstrating the similarity between these archetypal versions of “national socialism” and subsequent variants of the phenomenon, particularly Maoism, Castroism, and two non-regime radicalisms, the student Left and American black separatism. The basic shared characteristic of all these movements is a belief in extreme revolutionary voluntarism and a commitment to “national liberation,” by which is meant the struggle of “the wretched of the earth” against the industrialized countries. Nationalism, as George Lichtheim once pointed out in these pages,1 is made a substitute for socialism, and the revolutionary role of the proletariat is assigned to the peasantry of the East and the lumpenproletariat of the West. The vanguard leadership, of course, is drawn from the declassed intelligentsia. This ideology received its most explicit formulation in Regis Debray’s Revolution in the Revolution?
The voluntarism of neo-fascist radicalism manifests itself both in the process of making the revolution and in the effort to transform society once power has been seized. “It is not necessary to wait until all conditions for revolution exist,” wrote Che Guevara; “the insurrection can create them.” Once in power, the revolutionary leadership, acting through the transmission belt of the party, attempts to impose a social transformation from above. The society is organized on a military basis, terror is used systematically, party purges are carried out periodically to insure absolute discipline, and various “war psychology” techniques are used—the invocation of national myths, warnings of imminent danger from a menacing imperialism, moral appeals to create a “new man”—to mobilize the masses behind the program calling for extreme sacrifice and deprivation. In sum, economics, society, and history itself are subordinated to the political will of the vanguard party and its supreme leader.
All of this has great appeal to disaffected Western intellectuals, not merely because neo-fascist developmental totalitarianism is anti-Western, but primarily because it is revolutionary. It offers the possibility of creating a new world, or at least a new Third World, which is a far more attractive proposition than the tedious routine of liberal democracy. Gregor quotes an interesting statement by Mao Tse-tung which explains the appeal of revolutionary China (and similar revolutionary dictatorships) to Western radicals:
Apart from their other characteristics, China’s 60 million people have two remarkable peculiarities: they are, first of all, poor, and secondly blank. That may seem like a bad thing. But it is really a good thing. Poor people want change, want to do things, want revolution. A clean sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it. . . .
But of course the notion that a country thousands of years old can be a tabula rasa is utterly fantastical. Totalitarian regimes in backward lands have not produced socialism, only a new tyranny rooted in an ancient Oriental despotism. Marx was entirely correct in observing that a socialist revolution of redistribution can take place only after a capitalist revolution of production has created redistributable wealth. The dilemma of contemporary radicals is that the only economic system in modern times that has demonstrated the capacity to revolutionize the means of production is also the system that they oppose unalterably in every respect: namely, capitalism. To the degree they seek to pit the so-called “proletarian” nations against the “capitalist” nations, which is the central proposition of neo-fascist radicalism, they are insuring the failure of the revolution.
The decline of New Left radicalism in the 1970’s can certainly be attributed in part to the realization by some leaders of the “proletarian” nations that they have more to gain than to lose from a positive relationship with the most advanced economies of the world. This does not mean that neo-fascist radicalism has disappeared, or that it will disappear. But as its international base of support has shrunk, its remaining cadres have turned to the most extreme form of voluntarism—revolutionary terror. Unlike its ideological forebears, Lenin and Mussolini, Germany’s Baader-Meinhoff gang doesn’t even have a “new proletariat” in whose name to make the revolution. But the increasingly coordinated international terror ring of which it is a part does have advanced weapons and an unshakable commitment to die for the revolution. With this attribute, neo-fascist radicalism, even in its decline, has the ability to bring democratic civilization to its knees.
1 “Imperialism in this Century,” May 1970.