This article first appeared in Lobster magazine issue 38 Winter 1999 p.39-41
review of 'Fascism: Theory and Practice' Pluto 1999 £9.99 by Larry O'Hara
This book has been touted in some areas as a radical, new contribution to the study of fascism; and it is certainly well-packaged and cheap. To start with the good points which, although few, are important: if you want to know who the current academic theorists on modern fascism are - Griffin (not Nick, Roger), Payne, Sternhell, Eatwell - then Renton provides a passable summary of their views. He does the same for an oft-neglected group, Marxist theorists of fascism, going beyond the obvious to include the likes of Karl Korsch (though not Otto Ruhle). Renton is also right to warn that, contrary to the view of many historians, fascism is not just a phenomenon of the past but is still (potentially) a threat today. Furthermore, if it needs restating - and in some academic circles it does - he recites statistical chapter and verse on how the Italian Fascists and German Nazis served capitalist interests (ch.3). Inasmuch as some claim fascism was socialist, he is right to emphasise that it was not (p.26); and that contrary to ingenious claims by some academics, fascists have characteristically found their allies on the Right not Left (p.27).
He is also correct to stress that fascism is not just a set of ideas but has also to be looked at in practice. Renton has also noticed, and rightly draws attention to, the disturbing metamorphosis of the formerly radical Left journal Telos to the radical Right, embracing a concern with European ethnic identity.
Thus far, you might think the book is useful; and up to a point it certainly is. In these de-politicised times, some truths need restating, and the list above includes some of them. However, anybody reading this book for new insights into either the theory of fascism, or its practice, will be badly disappointed. Not that Renton doesn't try to say something new (or at least give that impression). This is his definition: 'fascism should not be understood primarily as an ideology, but as a specific form of reactionary mass movement' (emphasis in original, p.3). All very well and good, but what is the nature of this 'specific form'? Merely that it has a "defining ambition to crush the organised working class and to eradicate the reforms won by decades of peaceful struggle", (p.101) This, I would remind him, could equally well characterise both Thatcherism and the New Labour project. 'Reaction' in Renton's shaky hands is merely shorthand for people whose views he and the SWP leadership (before whom he genuflects) don't like.
In case you think I'm a bit harsh on his definition, consider this gem, from somebody who, according to the back cover, has 'made a key contribution to a wide-ranging and heated debate'. It is Renton's counsel that 'it is pointless to waste time in choosing in precise detail which ideas are fascist and which are not' (p. 101). But it is not pointless at all: it is of vital importance to understand in order to oppose real fascist mutations; and to avoid condemning and/or opposing non-fascists by misapplication of the term.
Renton gets into trouble because he does not understand even the most basic relationship between ideology and practice. He is so consumed by the need to declare his opposition to fascism at every turn that he paints a false picture, claiming historians who take fascists' ideas seriously have a positive view of them (pp.2 and 24). While this may be true for some - AJ. Gregor and S. Cullen, for example - this sweeping attack on academics is totally unjustified. Indeed, his misrepresentation (without evidence) of Martin Durham as someone who 'portrays fascism as a feminist movement' (p.2) is probably libellous.
While he puts himself forward as a Marxist, the genuine path-breaking contribution of Tim Mason to the Marxist analysis of fascism is something Renton shows little sign of understanding, let alone using. Rather than answer the serious questions Mason posed for co-Marxists (and others) about the Holocaust, the motivations of Nazis, the instability of the Nazi regime, and the suicidal autonomy of the state apparatus from 1938 on, all Renton has to say is that Mason's assertion of the 'primacy of politics... comes close to delinking the connection between capital and fascism' (p.93). No, Mr Renton, he does not. Rather he raises important theoretical and political questions about what the practice of the Nazi state does for/to vulgar Marxist categorisations.
Renton makes the ludicrous claim that 'if there is one area in which Marxists have developed genuinely new theories after 1933, it is in the study of the Holocaust' (p.91). Would that were so! While Norman Finkelsein's critique of the Daniel Goldhagen thesis that all Germans were responsible for the Holocaust is well summarised, and as far as it goes accurate, this misses the central point that, contrary to Renton's representation, the Holocaust was not a 'rational state policy' (p.97) even if it was deliberate. It does not easily fit into a Marxist perspective, something which Marxists of the calibre of Deutscher - and Mason - had the humility to accept and be troubled by.
Renton's presentation of Trotsky as the ultimate theorist on fascism is a fatuous hypothesis: he was merely less wrong than the Stalinists, but as equally uncomprehending of the basic ideological motivations of fascism as most other Marxists.
It is sad that a self-proclaimed Marxist like Renton should, contra Marx, so resolutely refuse to allow empirical evidence to influence his theories, except as insubstantial and contradictory adornments. Take, for instance, his references to the British National Front. By the mid-1980s according to Renton, 'the organisation was in a state of utter collapse' (p.7). Might I suggest Renton actually examines the articles I wrote for Lobster on the NF in the 1983-86 period and actually attempt to refute them - maybe even with just a sliver of evidence? As is usual with someone who has little knowledge of the Far Right (but worrying in someone who affects such a knowledge), Renton shows no understanding that between the election of British National Party Councillor Derek Beackon in late 1993 and his loss of the seat in mid-1994, the British National Party vote actually increased.
Beyond these shores, when it comes to contemporary fascism, he is equally ignorant, showing not that slightest grasp of the predominant organisational form the Far Right takes in the US (p.11); and he is just as remiss in the case of contemporary Germany. On p.8 he draws attention to the DVU (German People's Union) gaining 13% of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt in May 1998, while telling us on p. 114 that the Republikaner were stopped by mass protests......in 1992. In which case, on this evidence, one fascist group merely replaced another - hardly compelling proof of anti-fascist success.
In 150 pages Renton has not one word to say about the disturbing influence some fascist groups have in Eastern Europe. Is this because he is afraid of finding out that maybe not all fascism, or even all aspects of fascism, are reducible to classical capitalism? The task of any serious anti-fascist investigator is to research what actually is, without fear or favour, rather than impose preordained limits on what can be studied and what not.
As to Renton's conclusion, where he purports to outline an anti-fascist strategy devised by the luminaries of the SWP leadership and the massed ranks of the Anti-Nazi League, a genuine and actually-existing organisation, Anti-Fascist Action, has witheringly disposed of his claims in that area (in Fighting Talk issue 22, October 1999 pp.10-11).
Two final observations. First, I am sure the editor of Lobster will allow Renton access to these pages to to defend himself and his book. However, the publication Searchlight to which Renton is now a frequent contributor, where he and other academics in its orbit happily simulate a free exchange of ideas, does not allow me an equivalent right of reply or intervention. That is because, as he well knows, Searchlight has defined me as a fascist/Combat 18 associate/drug smuggler/stalker etc. When he exercises his 'democratic rights' in some future Lobster, he should not lose sight of that. Indeed, I would welcome his comments on this matter and the self-proclaimed closeness of Searchlight to the secret state - a proper topic for a real 'antifascist historian'. If Renton doesn't believe in studying British fascists or their ideas, how about the study of self-proclaimed 'anti-fascists'?