Some passages from Neither Right nor Left

Neither Right nor Left by Zeev Sternhell excavates the intellectual history of fascism from a counter-intuitive site: late 19th Century France. This is a long book about a very specific topic, and I didn’t go through it very carefully, but I found a lot of interesting passages in my reading. Here are a few I’ve transcribed.

According to Sternhell, the roots of fascist ideology travelled under many names, in dissident right-wing and left-wing circles, in which a variety of positions were expounded upon. This succeeded in incubating certain unifying beliefs that would find their historical opportunity after the first world war.

Thus different schools of thought all shared the same rejection of the liberal order, constituting a kind of outer circle around the hard core of fascist thought. This was the real importance of fascist ideology. Its widespread dissemination and influence were possible only because of the channels of transmission provided by the nonconformist milieu. In these groups, one may have hated the totalitarian state, but one could not avoid identifying oneself with the fascist criticism of bourgeois society, liberalism, and democracy and it was because it was not onlythe bourgeois world that was attacked but a number of universal principles readily associated with the bourgeoisie that the harsh criticisms of the regime brought their full weight to bear. These criticisms, in fact, were directed less against a system of government that, in a divided society, considerably weakened the executive authority than against democracy itself. The obsession with decadence and the sense of participating in the collapse of an individualistic and basely materialistic civilization were the common elements in this way of thinking.

One of the most important groups combined syndicalists and monarchists — the Cercle Proudhon, named after the famous anarchist and foil of Marx. You may remember Proudhon’s famous couplet deriving from the title of one of his books: “What is property? Property is theft!” A few months ago I tried (and failed) to read that book, but I did get through the translator’s introduction, which lamented the fact that Marx’s critique was so comprehensive that people didn’t think Proudhon worth reading any more, even though the translator also admitted Marx was right about everything. The appeal of Proudhon to the French proto-fascists were his anti-Marxism, his syndicalism, his dislike of democracy, his anti-Semitism, and his nationality (one critique of Marxism from these quarters was that it was too German for France). The Cercle

wished to create a new world — virile, heroic, pessimistic, and puritanical — based on a sense of duty and sacrifice: a world where a morality of warriors and monks would prevail. They wanted a society dominated by a powerful avant-garde, a proletarian elite, an aristocracy of producers, joined in alliance against the decadent bourgeoisie with an intellectual youth avid for action. When the time came, it would not be difficult for a synthesis of this kind to take on the name of fascism.

What is sometimes forgotten is that fascism envisioned itself as a kind of socialism, explicitly anti-Marxist. This socialism was “conceived of in ethical terms” (Marx famously avoided ethical prescriptions), promoting “universal values, independent of concrete historical circumstances, a conception of socialism in vitalist, intuitive, Nietzschean, and Bergsonian terms.” It was about the feelings and the energy of the moment, against a historical materialist understanding of context. Georges Sorel, one of the most important proto-fascist thinkers engaged in “a leftist, voluntarist, and vitalist form of revision” of Marxism. According to Sternhell, “In many respects, the history of fascism can be described as a continuous attempt to revise Marxism and create a national form of socialism,” nationalism having apparently proven itself “up to the task” of mobilizing the masses to fight and die in WWI more effectively than the Marxism of the Second International. These people desperately wanted a revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie, and were searching for the means to carry it out.

The apparent failures of Marxism meant that the proletariat was to blame as well — for the proto-fascists,  it was no longer the revolutionary class. “The socialism of these people required the proletariat only to a limited degree.” In its place came elitist strands of thought that opposed any democratic control over more adventurist segments:

Pouget declared that the methods of action of action of a confederal organization could not be based on the “vulgar democratic ideas; they do not express the consent of the majority arrived at through universal suffrage.” Pouget believed that if democratic procedures were adopted in labor circles, “the lack of will of the unconscious and nonsyndicalist majority would paralyze all action. But the minority is not willing to abandon its demands and aspirations before the inertia of a mass that the spirit of revolt has not yet animated and enlightened. Consequently, the conscious minority has an obligation to act, without reckoning with the refractory mass.” No one, he claimed, has the right “to recriminate against the disinterested initiative of the minority,” least of all “the unconscious” who, compared to militants, are no more than “human zeros.”

Sternhell extensively describes the idiosyncratic thought of a number of these figures, but he keeps coming back to what united them — and by implication, which beliefs are completely hostile to fascist appropriation: Marxism, democracy, and materialism.

The value of this book is, I hope, obvious. Here we have an extensive description of beliefs that, while not always explicitly fascist, or even right-wing, enabled fascist takeovers. Often enough this stuff came from authors who conceived of themselves as leftists. There’s probably more than enough accusations of “FASCIST” being hurled in lefty quarters, but as we reckon with all manner of idiosyncratic “left” philosophy and theory emerging today (non-Marxist or pseudo-Marxist “communism” is one weird one), and we need to know precisely which avenues of thought led to terrible consequences so we can isolate them quickly and critique them fully.


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