Dave Renton, Fascism: Theory and Practice, Pluto Press, London, 1999, pp150

Donny Gluckstein, The Nazis, Capitalism and the Working Class, Bookmarks, London, 1999, pp287, £9.95


BEFORE addressing myself more specifically to Renton’s and Gluckstein’s books, it is absolutely essential to stress why any serious Marxist work on the historiography of Nazism and Fascism, whatever its paarticular emphases or deficiencies, has to be warmly welcomed in the current climate. Whilst some activist comrades may believe that developments within the universities are not a major concern, and that my interest in them merely reflects my own employment in such an institution, I would argue that more general shifts in the intellectual and cultural climate of society as a whole are eventually triggered by what may seem to be parochial arguments amongst professional historians.

The last decade has seen a virtual abandonment of Marxist approaches to the historiography of Fascism and Nazism amongst Anglophone academics. What was a widespread and influential, if not necessarily dominant, school in the late 1960s, the 1970s and, albeit to a lesser in extent, the 1980s, is now generally regarded as beyond the pale, or a relic of a bygone age. This staggering intellectual shift is clearly part of a more general trend within Anglophone historiography bearing on the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, Chartism and other matters, which began in the mid-1980s and thus preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism in Eastern Europe (even if they accelerated it), and was first described and dissected by Ellen Meiksins Wood in The Reterat From Class (London, 1986), an eloquent, razor-sharp and in retrospect strikingly prophetic polemic against Gareth Steadman Jones and the whole crew of renegades who were just beginning to turn their backs on the Marxist or semi-Marxist positions that they held in their radical youth.

The academic historian who made the largest single contribution to developing and popularising Marxist analyses of Nazism and Fascism in the Anglophone world was Tim Mason, to whom both Gluckstein and Renton make some reference, even if they criticise him for watering down Marxism by insisting on the primacy of politics in Germany after 1936. Indeed, I am probably not wide of the mark in thinking that Gluckstein’s title deliberately echoes that of the posthumous collection of Mason’s essays, Nazism, Fascism and the Working Class (Cam­bridge, 1995). Whilst Mason’s suicide in 1990 was in all probability a response to personal rather than political despair, it nonetheless coincided with German reunification and the end of the Cold War, and many bourgeois historians who had once to some degree or another been under his influence seized the chance to proclaim their apostasy, or in tortuous intellectual self-justifications proclaimed the outmoded nature of his approach. Richard Bessel, one of his former research students, deftly exploited the stage offered to him by a conference in memory of Mason’s work (‘Fascism in Comparative Perspective’, held in March 1993 at St Peter’s College, Oxford, where Mason had taught during 1971-84) in order to commit a sort of symbolic patricide, and in effect pour withering scorn on Mason’s lifework, through the time-worn academic strategy of damning Mason with faint praise as a worthy pioneer who had made a significant contribution in his time, but had subsequently been overtaken by more sophisticated and nuanced researchers. As the most unreconstructed Marxist at the conference and the most unrepentant contributor to the book that eventually emerged out of it (Richard Bessel (ed), Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany: Comparisons and Contrasts, Cambridge, 1996), I found it a somewhat bizarre experience to be effectively placed in the position of defending the legacy of a man whom I had only met on a couple of occasions against many of his erstwhile friends, pupils or collaborators, and resisting editorial pressure for conformity with a post-Marxist/postmodernist line of an intensity more usually associated with dogmatic sects than allegedly liberal academics.

Without wanting to labour what may be a self-evident point for many well-informed readers of Revolutionary History, it seems to be reasonable to draw attention for the benefit of the uninitiated to the fact that Gluckstein and Renton have more in common than a shared Marxism and a shared interest in the study of Fascism. Both are members of the Socialist Workers Party, with Gluckstein being the son of its founder (reverting to his original family name). Can we therefore unearth a distinctive SWP position on the historiography of Fascism and Nazism that goes beyond the universal Marxist emphasis on the rôle of class in history, or the traditional Trotskyist emphasis on the necessity for a united front between revolutionaries and reformists in the workers’ movement against the Fascist threat? Both books make some rather obvious propagandist points linking the present and the past, stressing the continuing Fascist threat at moments of capitalist crisis, and emphasising the continued relevance of the united front in a way that either explicitly (in the case of Renton), or implicitly (in the case of Gluckstein), privileges the experience of the Anti-Nazi League. Whilst one could get embroiled in a discussion of whether the ANL was (or is) really a classic united front, as the SWP would maintain, or something which oscillated between one and a Popular Front, this is really tangential in terms of the primary concerns of both writers (Renton has researched the history of the ANL in another context), so here one might conclude, firstly, that such explicit tactical recommendations about the present would be unlikely to be made by non-party Marxist academics of the Mason type, and secondly, that such references, especially in the opening or concluding pages of a long text, are de rigeur for any loyal SWP member, and therefore should not be accorded any particular weight when assessing either Gluckstein or Renton as historians.

However, it is arguable that on two historical points — the post-1936 Nazi economy and the Holocaust — Gluckstein and Renton take up broadly similar positions to which not all Marxists would subscribe, and might in some sense be said to be rooted in the politics of the SWP. Whilst their common criticism of Mason for his arguments about ‘the primacy of politics’ in post-1936 Germany would be shared by many non-SWP Marxists, it is rather significant that instead of arguing that the economies of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy formed a particular variant of capitalism, one that was more autarchic and regulated than, say, Britain or France at that time, but was unquestionably capitalist, and one that suited the German and Italian capitalist classes (or their dominant heavy industrial sectors), their argument is based on a universal tendency towards state capitalism. Gluckstein argues: ‘It is interesting to note that even after 1936 the features that marked Nazism out were overshadowed by those it shared with other capitalist regimes between the wars. All showed a trend towards state capitalism, even if Stalin’s Russia is left out of the picture.’ (p159) Renton, hardly coincidentally, makes a very similar case: ‘Clearly, there was some connection, for example, between the nature of the Fascist economy and the fact that in every country in Europe the 1930s was a period which saw growing intervention by the state in the economy. This insight was the starting point of Ignazio Silone’s idea that the growth of Fascism was but part of a broader process by which capitalism was transforming itself into state capitalism.’ (p89)

When it comes to the Holocaust, it becomes a little harder to nail down precisely how an excessively rationalist and economistic explanation of the genocide fits into the SWP’s politics, and here Renton’s account is more nuanced than Gluckstein’s, but I nonetheless think that there is a connection.

Cliff’s position, which, in recent decades at any rate, has been that of a militantly anti-Zionist — as distinct from merely non-Zionist — Jew, has got his party into various knots on a whole series of issues relating to the Jews and anti-Semi­tism, and not just on the politics of the Middle East. (I’m not making a sectarian anti-SWP tirade, Ernest Mandel’s position was similar to the SWP’s, and Gerry Healy degenerated into anti-Semitism, whilst Ted Grant and Sean Matgamna consider that Zionism is not necessarily worse than other forms of bourgeois nationalism. It is difficult to construct an orthodox standpoint from Trotsky’s writings, as his later anti-Zionism was not accompanied by any dogmatic demand for assimilation.)

Whilst the SWP has been entirely correct to polemicise against the absurd and totally ahistorical contention of Daniel Goldhagen that the Holocaust was the product of a universal and timeless ‘eliminationist anti-Semitism’ amongst the Germans, it has often been too ready to adopt Norman Finkelstein’s critique in its entirety. To do Renton justice, however, he says that ‘there are parts of this explanation which seem questionable’, and suggests that Finkelstein ‘pays too little attention to acts of anti-Nazi opposition’, and he cites Bernard Herzberg’s criticism of Finkelstein’s insistence ‘that there was nothing new about the Holocaust’ (pp98-9). The fundamental problem with Finkelstein is that whilst he is a well-informed and intelligent writer with a wide historical knowledge, and is capable of demolishing a crass populist propagandist like Goldhagen, as a Jew primarily concerned with the recent history of the Middle East rather than the history of Nazism, his anti-Zionism can become obsessive and slightly unbalanced, and tends to bring out what I would see as the worst side of the Jewish figures amongst the SWP leadership, whose fierce anti-Zionism is normally kept in check by their attention to a much wider range of political and historical questions, precisely because they have submerged their original Jewish identity in a self-consciously universalist Marxist project, rather than in the professional anti-Zionism of a pro-Palestinian campaigner like Finkelstein.

Although both Renton and Gluckstein are ultimately constrained by an economistic interpretation of the Holocaust rooted in the politics of Cliff himself, there are differences between them. Renton is more willing to engage with the whole range of recent Marxist positions on this issue, as he would on any other in which he had an intellectual interest, for he has much less at stake in a personal sense. It is interesting that Renton is willing to discuss Norman Geras’ recent article ‘Marxists Before the Holocaust’ (New Left Review, no 224, 1997), and to try to reach a synthesis that he believes transcends Geras’ alternatives, ‘the Holocaust was both comparable to other crimes and singular or unique, both rationally explicable and beyond comprehension, both the product of capitalism and imperialism and due to some other combination of factors’ (p94). Moreover, he also offers us a sympathetic exposition of Arno Mayer’s argument that ‘the radicalisation of the war against the Jews was correlated with the radicalisation of the war against the Soviet Union’, even if the reference to ‘Mayer’s materialistic arguments’ (p93) seems a strange way of describing a thesis centred on the notion of an ideological crusade. In short, whilst very rightly situating the Holocaust within history and a history within which the German economic as well as political ruling class played an appalling rôle, Renton is only just about able to remain within the intellectual straitjacket of the SWP’s line, with its penchant for exclusively ‘materialistic’ explanations.

Whilst Gluckstein’s chapter ‘War and the Holocaust’ is a lot longer than Renton’s ‘Marxists and the Holocaust’ and deploys a wide range of sources, it significantly omits any reference to either Mayer or Geras — no accident for someone who is remarkable for his broad range of reading in many European languages. Unlike the non-Jewish Renton, Gluckstein instantaneously grasps when he might be skating on very thin ice. Gluckstein probably realises that it is relatively easy to present the Nazis’ use of foreign slave labour as functional to the needs of German capital, in terms of keeping down labour costs and creating divisions within the working class in Germany itself, even if counter-arguments do exist and some non-Marxists might be sceptical. Where Gluckstein undoubtedly knows he has a harder job on his hands is in presenting the Holocaust as a part of capitalist economic rationality. Nonetheless, he tries, albeit intermittently, to argue this: ‘A second factor pushed in the opposition direction — towards mass extermination. Here racism teamed up with imperialist economic planning in a long-term strategy of the Nazis and big business to construct a Grossraumwirtschaft (or macro-economic space).’ (p183) He rightly points out that ‘alongside mass extermination there were profits to be had’ (p185), but he knows that the bulk of the Jews in the death camps were not actually employed by Siemens, AEG Telefunken or IG Farben, however complicit these companies were in the Holocaust. Again, the fact that a ‘drug and chemical conglomerate... would profit enormously from any discoveries made on human guinea pigs’ (p186) does not really explain the primary motivation for Dr Mengele’s ‘monstrous medical experiments’ in Auschwitz. Ultimately, there is a certain over-determined desperation about Gluckstein’s economism: ‘Does the wastage of a valuable human resource sever the links between the Holocaust and the operation of capitalism? The system often wastes labour through unemployment and ill-health. It also wastes resources through, for example, weapons or land left untilled whilst millions starve. It is not “rational” in that general sense.’ (p186) The complicity of the major German capitalist firms in the Holocaust is beyond question, and the Nazi regime as a whole was clearly very profitable to them — in the short term at any rate — but none of this proves that the motivation for the Holocaust was primarily economic.

A final point on SWP historians and the Holocaust is unavoidable, given that Gluckstein believes that ‘the deliberate decision to conduct genocide was not made until 1941 at about the time of the invasion of Russia’ (p178). Neither Gluckstein nor Renton appears to be aware of Trotsky’s own forecast of the Holocaust: ‘It is possible to imagine without difficulty what awaits the Jews at the mere outbreak of the future world war. But even without war, the next development of world reaction signifies with certainty the physical extermination of the Jews.’

In other respects, Gluckstein’s and Renton’s books are not so directly comparable. The former is very clearly centred on the German case, and suffers from the lack of a comparative approach. This is an unexpected deficiency in an author who has previously written on British, Russian or general Western European topics, who would not generally be considered as a German specialist, and who has shown a particular interest in the Italian bienno rosso, which might have led him to compare the two classic Fascist regimes. Renton’s book, whilst being historical rather than sociological or philosophical in approach, is primarily about theories of Fascism, rather than its history. Of its eight chapters, five discuss Marxist theories of Fascism, and one is a critique of current non-Marxist academic theories of Fascism. Only one chapter, ‘Classical Fascism’, is devoted to the historical experience of Fascism as such, with roughly five pages on Italian Fascism, and the remainder on Nazism.

Renton believes that there have only been two Fascist regimes, the Italian and the German. Franco’s regime ‘came close’ (p107), but was not actually Fascist because of its military character and its lack of an authentic mass party, at least after its victory in the civil war. He makes some reference in a footnote to Paul Preston’s contrary opinion, but given this degree of brevity it cannot be said seriously to engage with the historical and theoretical debate here. The various wartime satellite regimes — the Romanian Iron Guard, Hungarian Arrow Cross, Croatian Ustashe — are not discussed. There is some mention of what is popularly called ‘neo-Fascism’, a term which Renton rejects as he believes that ‘there is no real break in 1945 and that postwar Fascist parties represent a continuity with the past’ (p118), but the only detailed references to a non-British movement of this type are to Le Pen’s Front National, whose Fascist essence is exposed with concise but detailed examples from speeches by Le Pen and others.

The principle merits of Renton’s book lie in its clear and concise exposition of the various Marxist theories of Fascism from 1920 to the present, particularly those previous to 1945, for it has to be said that his discussion of Poulantzas’ Fascism and Dictatorship would probably leave most readers baffled who had not read the original, although I am prepared to acknowledge the difficulties faced by anybody trying to summarise that vastly overrated but at one stage very influential text (especially in Southern Europe) with its amalgam of gross historical inaccuracies and theoretical pretentiousness.

Renton’s division of Marxist theories of Fascism into ‘right’, ‘left’ and ‘dialectical’ is helpful and convincing. At the risk of oversimplification, ‘right’ theories are those that lay too much stress on Fascism’s mass base in the petit-bourgeoisie, ‘left’ theories are those that lay too much stress on its close relationship with big capital, and ‘dialectical’ ones are those that hold the two factors in some sort of balance, most notably Trotsky’s theory. Although Renton predictably believes that Trotsky’s theory, whilst requiring further development, is the best one, he provides readers with a fair and balanced assessment of the merits and weaknesses of the theories put forward by Thalheimer, Gramsci, Silone and others, as well as engaging in the perennially necessary polemics against the Stalinised Comintern’s theoretical monstrosities, both in the generally acknowledged lunacy of the Third Period, and in the more frequently defended idiocies of the Popular Front (revived by Preston and his school in their work on Spain). Renton’s spirited attack on Roger Griffin, Stanley Payne, Roger Eatwell and Zeev Sternhell in the second chapter, ‘The Prison of Ideas’, is probably the first Marxist onslaught on the whole school of ‘Fascist Studies’, as distinct from individual practitioners of the genre, and could be regarded as required reading both for older Marxists unaware of the recent developments in bourgeois historiography and social science, and for any left-wing university students seeking an initial avenue for critical engagement with prescribed course texts.

Gluckstein’s book, whilst well worth reading because of its informed critique of much recent bourgeois historiography about the late Weimar Republic and the Third Reich, is sadly flawed, and not just for the reasons already outlined. My criticisms are not intended in a sectarian spirit, but are based on the assumption that Gluckstein seriously attempted to engage with Anglo-American and German bourgeois historiography on the subject, in order to win over, or at least influence, readers who are not already convinced Marxists, rather than merely producing a set text for his party members. However, I fear that he has fallen between two stools, producing a book that is too historically sophisticated for most of the SWP’s base, and yet too propagandist not only for non-Marxist historians, but also for some non-SWP Marxist historians.

Proceeding from my initial assumption about Gluckstein’s intentions, the first chapter, ‘Backward or Modern? The Course of German History’, is not remotely adequate as a critique of the notion of the Sonderweg, or distinctive German, path of development. Whilst Gluckstein cites enough statistics on German industrial development to win over any branch meeting, a rather more nuanced argument is required to refute or undermine the notion that German politics and society in the Wilhelmine era were dominated by a feudal, agrarian or pre-industrial élite. Hans-Ulrich Wehler, the leading German neo-Weberian proponent of this position from a much more sophisticated level than that current in mainstream Anglo-American textbooks on German history (such as those by William Carr and Gordon Craig, both of whom seem to have escaped Gluckstein’s attention), makes no appearance in either the text or the footnotes. Even the references to Geoff Eley, an historian who in a broad sense is on Gluckstein’s side in believing that Wilhelmine Germany was thoroughly bourgeois rather than semi-feudal, are to shorter pieces, not to his major works, which suggests an abandonment of serious research in favour of short-cuts.

The second chapter, ‘The Origins of Nazism: Revolution and Counter-Revo­lution, 1918 to 1923’, is also rather weak, making the implicit assumption that readers will be familiar with Chris Harman’s study of the period, The Lost Revolution. In the case of non-SWP readers, this cannot be presumed, and the very crude broad-brush portrait of the origins of Nazism itself, following on from an inadequate survey of pre-1918 German history, might well be enough to make an uncommitted reader lose patience.

The remaining seven chapters are of a much higher quality, and it is deeply regrettable that Gluckstein did not put the same effort into the opening chapters. However, Gluckstein’s decision to discuss Hitler’s accession to power before looking at either the social composition of the Nazi electorate or the fatal divisions between the Communist and Socialist Parties exacerbates the problem caused by the schematic character of the first two chapters. Whilst Gluckstein’s treatment of the final years of Weimar and the way that the ruling class resorted to Hitler after the failure of all its successive Bonapartist options (Brüning, Papen, Schleicher) is intelligent, detailed and convincing, placing it after a crude and unconvincing attempt to characterise early Nazi ideology as ‘ruling-class counter-revolutionary thinking’, rather than ‘ideas developing in the middle class at that time’ (p29), on the mechanistic grounds that in the peculiar conjuncture of 1918-19 the petit-bourgeoisie was moving leftwards (a presumption that Gluckstein bases upon electoral behaviour alone), and thus ignoring the ultra-nationalist, populist and anti-Semitic current in the pre-1914 German petit-bourgeoisie, could easily lead the unwary reader to assume that he is developing a ‘left’ theory of Nazism, rather than the ‘dialectical’ one rooted in Trotsky’s writings that he puts forward most, if not all, of the time.

The third chapter provides us with the first example of Gluckstein’s engaging in a sustained and detailed debate with bourgeois historians, in this instance HA Turner, with his thesis that the army rather than big business played the crucial rôle in putting Hitler in power. Gluckstein is sufficiently shrewd to avoid placing undue weight on the work of the American Marxist David Abraham — whose cavalier use of source material has come under attack from moderate leftists like Richard Evans, and not just from ideological foes like Turner — and instead bases his own case upon a wide variety of sources. In the fourth chapter, Gluckstein mounts a similar attack on Falter on the social composition of the Nazi electorate, and on Muhlberger on the social composition of the Nazi party. In each case, his detailed refutations are based upon a detailed examination of the evidence, and Gluckstein shows far more conceptual rigour in defining the working class than his bourgeois adversaries. In the fifth chapter, Gluckstein takes issue with the assertions of Weitz, Geary and others that the German left, even if it had been united, could not have stopped the Nazis, and that the Communist Party’s line was the result of the ‘social fragmentation of the working class’.

Whilst it is arguable that Gluckstein’s refutation of the revisionists on these matters — especially the first, as he makes a stronger case about the clearly Muscovite origins of the Communist Party’s zigzags in interpreting the general Third Period line — is not as decisive as those in the third and fourth chapters, it does represent the very first time that a proponent of the traditional Trotskyist position has taken on the new wave of historians whose position, unlike those of Turner and Muhlberger, is not consciously anti-Marxist, but a pessimistic one based on a rather structuralist and determinist class analysis — employed versus unemployed, skilled versus unskilled, old versus young, etc — that is rooted in the Marxist tradition itself.

One suspects that Gluckstein’s Scottish location may well have acted as a spur to turn his attention to the relationship between Nazism and the working class, for the Edinburgh-based SWPer once again breaks new ground in terms of the Trotskyist tradition by taking on Glasgow-based Conan Fischer and his school on this issue. Whilst the debate on the SA’s social composition, which revolves around unanswerable questions about whether the unemployed sons of petit-bourgeois fathers are working-class or not, is a much trickier one in terms of a defence of the traditional Marxist orthodoxy than those relating to the social composition of the Nazi electorate or the Nazi party itself, Gluckstein’s courage in mounting such a challenge should be saluted by us all.

The sixth chapter, ‘1933-34: A Brown Revolution?’, attacks the notion of the Nazi takeover being described as a revolution, and stresses the counter-revolutionary onslaught and the relative immunity of the old élites. Whilst Gluckstein scores some bulls-eyes against Schoenbaum’s Hitler’s Social Revolution (1966) and the new younger group of historians who have revived his ideas about Nazism and modernisation, those of us who are not convinced that pre-1933 Germany was as pure an example of modern industrial capitalism as presented by Gluckstein are bound to have a few reservations. On this general point, it is noteworthy that when Gluckstein is eager to show that Nazi voters or members did not come from the core industrial working class, peasants and agricultural workers suddenly make an appearance, only to vanish again when he is propounding the notion of Germany as a shining example of an exceptionally advanced and modern capitalism.

Since I have already touched on the issues raised by the seventh and eighth chapters (‘The Third Reich; A Fusion of State and Capital’ and ‘War and the Holocaust’), I will conclude with a few observations about the final chapter, ‘Resistance and Opposition’. Gluckstein rightly stresses that the bulk of the resistance and opposition that occurred in Nazi Germany came from the working class, and emphasises that the more frequently mentioned conservative resistance ‘had little to do with democracy or social justice, and it waxed and waned according to foreign developments’ (p200). Gluckstein draws Anglophone readers’ attention to examples of working-class youth resistance in Cologne in 1944 and to the working-class anti-Fascist committees set up in the weeks immediately after liberation that were discussed in German works of the early 1980s, but are rarely, if ever, mentioned in the Anglo-American literature.

Nonetheless, Gluckstein’s unwillingness to compare Germany with Italy to some extent disguises the significance of his acknowledgement that ‘the regime was not brought down by internal revolt’ (p221). Whilst the Nazi regime was far more effective and repressive than its Italian counterpart in a whole variety of ways that Gluckstein discusses, the fact remains that the German working class (and the Socialist and Communist Parties representing it) were much more permeated by nationalist ideology, from at least August 1914 if not before, than its Italian counterpart, and a genuine Marxist understanding of Nazism in particular and Fascism in general will not be served if we do not come to terms with this reality. To demand a more honest recognition of the hold of both nationalism and anti-Semitism on the German workers is not to endorse Goldhagen’s crazy thesis, but to suggest that although an analysis of Nazism that ignores or minimises class factors, as presented in recent bourgeois historiography, is mere mystification, economistic class analysis alone is not quite enough when drawing up the balance sheet of this terrible twentieth century.

Tobias Abse