Thoughts on classical fascism

[Student notes from ten years ago.] Reading Robert A. Brady’s classic Business as a System of Power (1943), which influenced Chomsky. These materialistic books are the sorts of things we don’t read in classes, so I have to educate myself in my free time. This particular book is all about the concentration and centralization of business, the similar state-capitalist forms it takes in fascist and liberal-democratic systems, and its having emerged organically from earlier trends. So, among other things, it's a nice refutation of American "libertarianism" and free-market dogmatism; that is, it explains how industrial capitalism by its nature tends toward fascism, unless other forces come to the fore.

After remarking that fascism is counterrevolutionary (which, by the way, is contrary to the overly culturalist notions of George Mosse and Zeev Sternhell), Brady says this (p. 56):

But why should such sweeping and vigorous counterrevolutionary action occur first in Italy, one of the least industrialized among the capitalistic states? There is an interesting historical analogy here with the contemporary situation in Russia, which helps to throw the Italian situation at the end of [World War I] into sharp relief. In Fascism capitalistic institutions were able to triumph; in Communism they faced defeat. Yet both Italy and Russia were among the “weakest links” in the chain of capitalist nations. In each case, at a critical point the pendulum seems barely to have swung the way it did. It is probably not too far from the truth to say that had Russia not turned Socialist in 1917 it would have adopted some form of “Fascism,” and had Italy in 1922 not fallen unexpectedly to the Fascists it would have become a Socialist state....
Both countries were primarily agricultural. In both, rural life was characterized by deep contrasts between vast estates owned by politically powerful and immensely wealthy families on the one hand, and an overwhelming majority of more or less propertyless, poverty-stricken, ignorant, and repressed peasantry on the other. In both, important feudal carry-overs survived intact down to the outbreak of the [First] World War. In neither had Parliamentary institutions or the first grudging concessions to popular sovereignty seriously affected the vast proportion of the population. Both were political patchworks, and in neither had largely borrowed, nationalistic sentiments penetrated far beneath the thin upper layers of class-conscious jingoism.
...Industrialization came comparatively late, and in both cases, once begun, the pace of growth and development was unusually swift. At a time when industrial technique of its own momentum was becoming large-scale, and capitalism of its own native driving power was resorting everywhere to monopoly devices, this forced-draft growth tended at once to sharpen the social cleavages and to strengthen and unify the forces of antidemocratic reaction. By the “accidents of history,” monopoly forms of capitalism, mercantilistic sentiments, and feudal social institutions were in both immediately juxtaposed.
In Russia proletarian forces won the throw of the die; in Italy, property. For the spread of the Socialist-Communist state Russia lacked industrialism; for the dominance of capitalist institutions Italy lacked a widespread business system. Russia undertook to solve her problem by a backward step into NEP, in order to lead more easily into the industrialization program of the Socialist Five Year Plan. Italy devised the Corporate System. And the Corporate System is to be understood as that morganatic alliance between organized, Italian, patrimonial capitalism and the type of feudal controls long advocated by the Papacy, from which it was hoped to find at once an end to class war and full defense of the existing social-economic status quo.

He emphasizes the Catholic ideological origins of Italian-Fascist corporatism. A recrudescence of the medieval guilds, etc.

After reading this chapter it occurs to me that one of the reasons why, as I've always insisted, fascism and hence the Second World War were in part the products of lingering feudal traditions—and not only, therefore, of capitalist imperialism, as Marxists tend to argue—is that the Church and other pre-capitalist elements did much to push the class collaborationist ideology of fascism, the ideology of harmony between classes and cooperative coordination of economic activity. Industrial capital was less committed to such ideas than reactionary, “residual” (in Raymond Williams’s sense) and un-capitalist elements were. So when the struggle between capital and labor threatened to reach a political stalemate, or even to result in labor’s triumph, in the 1920s and 1930s, big business, in order to remain securely on its throne, had to let residual and/or un-“bourgeois” forces seize political power and impose fascist corporatism on society, which kept business on top in not exactly the way it would have liked. Business couldn’t win the political class war on its own; it needed help from the reactionary, indebted-to-Catholic-corporatist-doctrine forces that coalesced around Mussolini, Hitler, and fascist figures in France.

It’s true that even the U.S., which lacked a feudal past and so was not very influenced by Catholic or other elements that hoped to resurrect medieval guilds, adopted somewhat corporatist measures under Roosevelt, measures that sought to promote harmony between capital and labor through planning, compromise, and collaboration. (The NRA is the main example, even though in practice it was almost completely dominated by big business.) In Europe, however, probably because of its feudal residues, corporatist ideas seem to have carried more reactionary connotations and been tied up with anti-materialism, anti-socialism, anti-laborism, even anti-Semitism. (The Church was anti-Semitic, of course.)

Anyway, it’s obvious that feudal residues—class structures, ideologies, religious and political institutions—had much to do with all the hierarchical, undemocratic, and anti-Semitic elements in Europe that helped lead the way to fascism. Marxists sometimes forget this fact in their eagerness to blame capitalism and imperialism (which certainly do have to be blamed).

Think of Japan, too, with its even more obvious “feudal carry-overs” that made possible its version of fascism. (Some of the causes—or rather necessary conditions—of Japanese fascism were very different from those of the European kind, but some were similar. To that extent, it had a similar essence.)

All these ideas help explain why, thank god, we’ll never again see the same sort of fascism, the “pure” fascism, that flared up in the interwar period. Feudal legacies have been done away with and the Catholic church has nothing like the power it once had. This doesn't mean, on the other hand, that "neofascist" tendencies today can't become incredibly dangerous. Wherever there is "populist conservatism," there are semi-fascist dynamics at work.


Reading An Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings, 1916–1935, edited by David Forgacs. The section “Americanism and Fordism” is useful. Gramsci is right that fascism partly amounted to an attempt to transplant Fordism to European conditions without substantially altering the old anachronistic social structure (landowners, peasants, petty-bourgeois, the whole archaic structure of Europe even in the 1920s and ’30s). Ford himself supported the fascists, who learned a lot from him, and the system he symbolized was simply industrial fascism. Creation of the new man, the new worker, the new order, etc. Taylorism, totalitarian company towns, regulation of the worker’s private life, prohibition (of alcohol), and so forth. European fascism even had some success in combining the new with the old, modernizing society without modernizing it—“a revolution without a revolution,” a “passive revolution,” a “revolution-restoration.” (See Gramsci’s incisive remark that fascism serves approximately the function for the 20th century that conservative liberalism served for the 19th—a revolution without a revolution, economic progress without social progressivism. In a diluted form, fascism would persist through the 20th century. Technocratic modernization and social conservatism, mass propaganda, the military-industrial complex, government planning, a degree of social welfare to limit discontent, diluted nationalism, colonial wars in defense of capitalism and to stimulate the domestic economy (including Cheney’s Iraq war). True of the USSR too. Classical fascism was just an early and too-extreme-to-last manifestation of the statist and monopoly-capitalist phase of history.) The Second World War was in large part a result of fascism’s success at reconciling the existence of the traditional conservative nationalistic strata (tied figuratively and ‘literally’ to the soil—“Blood and soil!”, racialism) with modern methods of production that vastly increased the destructive power of technology. After the war had essentially destroyed all vestiges of the ancien régime, statism could continue without the threats to Western civilization it had posed in the first half of the 20th century. The national-boundary-dissolving tendencies of capitalism could operate less hindered by the traditional classes and social structure, a fact that at the same time militated against nationalistic ideologies and conflicts.

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