Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes
CHAPTER FOUR, The Fall of Liberalism

The rise of the radical Right after the First World War was undoubtedly a response to the danger, indeed to the reality, of social revolution and working-class power in general, to the October revolution and Leninism in particular. Without these, there would have been no fascism, for though the demagogic Right-wing Ultras had been politically vocal and aggressive in a number of European countries since the end of the nineteenth century, they had almost invariably been kept well under control before 1914. To this extent apologists for fascism are probably right in holding that Lenin engendered Mussolini and Hitler. However, it is entirely illegitimate to exculpate fascist barbarism by claiming that it was inspired by and imitated the allegedly earlier barbarities of the Russian Revolution, as some German historians came close to doing in the 19803 (Nolte, 1987). 

However, two important qualifications must be made to the thesis that the Right backlash was essentially a response to the revolutionary Left. First, it underestimates the impact of the First World War on an important stratum of, largely middle and lower middle-class, nationalist soldiers or young men who, after November 1918, resented their missed chance of heroism. The so-called ‘front-line soldier’ (frontsoldat) was to play a most important part in the mythology of radical-Right movements — Hitler was one himself — and it was to provide a substantial bloc of the first ultra-nationalist strong-arm squads, such as the officers who murdered the German communist leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in early 1919, the Italian squadristi and German freikorps. Fifty-seven per cent of the early Italian fascists were ex-servicemen. As we have seen, the First World War was a machine for brutalizing the world, and these men gloried in the release of of their latent brutality. 

The strong commitment of the Left, from the liberals onwards, to anti-war and anti-militarist movements, the huge popular revulsion against the mass killing of the First World War, led many to underestimate the emergence of a relatively small, but absolutely numerous, minority for whom the experience of fighting, even under the conditions of 1914-18, was central and inspirational; for whom uniform and discipline, sacrifice — of self and others  and blood, arms and power were what made masculine life worth living. They did not write many books about the war, though (especially in Germany) one or two did. These Rambos of their time were natural recruits for the radical Right.

The second qualification is that the Right-wing backlash responded not against Bolshevism as such, but against all movements, and notably the organized working class, which threatened the existing order of society or could be blamed for its breakdown. Lenin was the symbol of this threat rather than the actual reality, which, for most politicians, was represented not so much by the socialist labour parties, whose leaders were moderate enough, but by the upsurge of working-class power, confidence and radicalism, which gave the old socialist parties a new political force and, in fact, made them the indispensable props of liberal states. It is no accident that in the immediate post-war years the central demand of socialist agitators since 1889 was conceded almost everywhere in Europe: the eight-hour day.

It was the threat implicit in the rise of labour’s power which froze the blood of conservatives, rather than the mere transformation of labour union leaders and opposition orators into government ministers, though this was bitter enough. They belonged by definition to ‘the Left’. In an era of social upheaval, no clear line divided them from the Bolsheviks. Indeed, many of the socialist parties would have happily joined the communists in the immediate post-war years, had these not rejected their affiliation. The man whom Mussolini had assassinated after his ‘March on Rome’ was not a CP leader but the Socialist, Matteotti. The traditional Right may have seen godless Russia as the embodiment of all that was evil in the world, but the rising of the Generals in 1936 was not directed against the communists as such if only because these were the smallest part of the Popular Front (see chapter 5). It was directed against a popular upsurge which, until the Civil War, favoured Socialists and Anarchists. It is an ex post facto rationalization which makes Lenin and Stalin the excuse for fascism.

And yet, what must be explained is why the Right-wing backlash after the First World War won its crucial victories in the form of fascism. For extremist movements of the ultra-Right had existed before 1914 — hysterically nationalist and xenophobic, idealising war and violence, intolerant and given to strong-arm coercion, passionately anti-liberal, anti-democratic, anti-proletarian, anti-socialist and anti-rationalist, dreaming of blood and soil and a return to the values which modernity was disrupting. They had some political influence, within the political Right, and in some intellectual circles, but nowhere did they dominate or control.

What gave them their chance after the First World War, was the collapse of the old regimes and, with them, of the old ruling classes and their machinery of power, influence and hegemony. Where these remained in good working order, there was no need for fascism. It made no progress in Britain, in spite of the brief flurry of nerves noted above. The traditional Conservative Right remained in control. It made no effective progress in France until after the defeat of 1940. Though the traditional French radical Right — the monarchist Action Francaise and Colonel La Rocque’s Croix de Feu (Fiery Cross) — were ready enough to beat up Leftists, it was not strictly fascist. Indeed, some elements of it would even join the Resistance.

Again, fascism was not needed where a new nationalist ruling class or group could take over in newly independent countries. These men could be reactionary and might well opt for authoritarian government, for reasons to be considered below, but it was rhetoric that identified every turn to the antidemocratic Right in Europe between the wars with fascism. There were no fascist movements of importance in the new Poland, which was run by authoritarian militarists and in the Czech part of Czechoslovakia, which was democratic, nor in the (dominant) Serbian core of the new Yugoslavia. Where significant fascist or similar movements existed in countries whose rulers were old- fashioned Right-wingers or reactionaries — in Hungary, Rumania, Finland, even in Franco Spain, whose leader was not himself a fascist — they had little trouble in keeping them under control unless (as in Hungary in 1944) the Germans put the screw on them. This does not mean that minority nationalist movements in old or new states might not find fascism attractive, if only because they could expect financial and political support from Italy and, after 1933, from Germany. This was clearly so in (Belgian) Flanders, in Slovakia and in Croatia.

The optimal conditions for the triumph of the crazy ultra-Right were an old state and its ruling mechanisms which could no longer function; a mass of disenchanted, disoriented and discontented citizens who no longer knew where their loyalties lay; strong socialist movements threatening or appearing to threaten social revolution, but not actually in a position to achieve it; and a move of nationalist resentment against the peace treaties of 1918-20. These were the conditions in which helpless old ruling elites were tempted to have recourse to the ultra-radicals, as the Italian Liberals did to Mussolini’s fascists in 1920-22 and as the German Conservatives did to Hitler’s National Socialists in 1932-33. These, by the same token, were the conditions that turned movements of the radical Right into powerful organized and sometimes uniformed and paramilitary forces (squadristi; storm-troopers) or, as in Germany during the Great Slump, into massive electoral armies. However, in neither of the two fascist states did fascism ‘conquer power’, though in both Italy and Germany it made much of the rhetoric of ‘capturing the street’ and ‘marching on Rome’. In both cases fascism came to power by the connivance of, indeed (as in Italy) on the initiative of, the old regime, that is to say in a ‘constitutional’ fashion.

The novelty of fascism was that, once in power, it refused to play the old political games, and took over completely where it could. The total transfer of power, or the elimination of all rivals, took rather longer in Italy (1922-28) than in Germany (1933-34) but, once it was achieved, there were no further internal political limits on what became, characteristically, the untrammeled dictatorship of a supreme populist ‘leader’ (Duce; Fuhrer).

At this point we must briefly dismiss two equally inadequate theses about fascism, the one fascist, but taken over by many liberal historians, the other dear to orthodox Soviet Marxism. There was no ‘fascist revolution’ and neither was fascism the expression of ‘monopoly capitalism’ or big business.

Fascist movements had the elements of revolutionary movements, inasmuch as they contained people who wanted a fundamental transformation of society, often with a notably anti-capitalist and anti-oligarchic edge. However, the horse of revolutionary fascism failed either to start or to run. Hitler rapidly eliminated those who took the ‘socialist’ component in the name of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party seriously - as he certainly did not. The utOpia of a return to some kind of little man’s Middle Ages, full of hereditary peasant-proprietors, artisan craftsmen like Hans Sachs and girls in blonde plaits, was not a programme that could be realized in major twentieth-century states (except in the nightmare version of Himmler’s plans for a racially purified people), least of all in regimes which, like Italian and German Fascism, were committed in their way to modernisation and technological advance.

What National Socialism certainly achieved was a radical purging of the old Imperial elites and institutional structures. After all, the only group which actually launched a revolt against Hitler — and was consequently decimated — was the old aristocratic Prussian army in July 1944. This destruction of the old elites and the old frameworks, reinforced after the war by the policies of the occupying Western armies, was eventually to make it possible to build the Federal Republic on a much sounder basis than the Weimar Republic of 1918-33, which had been little more than the defeated empire minus the Kaiser. Nazism certainly had, and partly achieved, a social programme for the masses: holidays; sports; the planned ‘people’s car’, which the world came to know after the Second World War as the Volkswagen ‘beetle’. Its chief achievement, however, was to liquidate the Great Slump more effectively than any other government, for the anti-liberalism of the Nazis had the positive side that it did not commit them to an a priori belief in the free market. Nevertheless, Nazism was a revamped and revitalized old regime rather than a basically new and different one. Like the imperial and militarist Japan of the 1930s (which nobody would claim to have been a revolutionary system), it was a non-liberal capitalist economy which achieved a striking dynamization of its industrial system. The economic and other achievements of fascist Italy were considerably less impressive, as was demonstrated in the Second World War. Its war economy was unusually feeble. Talk of a ‘fascist revolution’ was rhetoric, though no doubt for many Italian rank-and-file fascists sincere rhetoric. It was much more openly a regime in the interests of the old ruling classes, having come into existence as a defence against post-1918 revolutionary unrest rather than, like in Germany, as a reaction to the traumas of the Great Slump and the inability of Weimar governments to cope with them. Italian fascism, which in one sense carried on the process of Italian unification from the nineteenth century, thus producing a stronger and more centralized government, had some significant achievements to its credit. It was, for instance, the only Italian regime successfully to suppress the Sicilian Mafia and the Neapolitan Camorra. Yet its historical significance lay, not in its aims and achievements, but in its role as the global pioneer of a new version of the triumphant counter-revolution. Mussolini inspired Hitler, and Hitler never failed to acknowledge Italian inspiration and priority. On the other hand Italian fascism was, and for a long time remained, an anomaly among radical Right- wing movements in its toleration of, even a certain taste for, artistic avantgarde ‘modernism’, and in some other respects – notably, until Mussolini fell into line with Germany in 1938, a complete lack of interest in anti-semitic racism.

As for the ‘monopoly capitalist’ thesis, the point about really big business is that it can come to terms with any regime that does not actually expropriate it, and any regime must come to terms with it. Fascism was no more ‘the expression of the interests of monopoly capital’ than the American New Deal or British Labour governments, or the Weimar Republic. Big business in the early 19305 did not particularly want Hitler, and would have preferred more orthodox conservatism. It gave him little support until the Great Slump, and even then support was late and patchy. However, when he came to power, business collaborated wholeheartedly, up to the point of using slave labour and extermination camp labour for its operations during the Second World War. Large and small business, of course, benefited from the expropriation of the Jews.

It must nevertheless be said that fascism had some major advantages for business over other regimes. First, it eliminated or defeated Left-wing social revolution, and indeed seemed to be the main bulwark against it. Second, it eliminated labour unions and other limitations on the rights of management to manage its workforce. Indeed, the fascist ‘leadership principle’ was what most bosses and business executives applied to their subordinates in their own businesses and fascism gave it authoritative justification. Third, the destruction of labour movements helped to secure an unduly favourable solution of the Depression for business. Whereas in the USA the top 5 per cent of consuming units between 1929 and 1941 saw their share of total (national) income fall by 20 per cent (there was a similar but more modest egalitarian trend in Britain and Scandinavia), in Germany the top 5 per cent gained 15 per cent during the comparable period (Kuznets, 1956). Finally, as already noted, fascism was good at dynamising and modernising industrial economies — although actually not as good at adventurous and long-term techno- scientific planning as the Western democracies.

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