The Birth of Fascist Ideology

June 28, 2012

I’m reading Zeev Sternhell’s The Birth of Fascist Ideology (it is is excellent). Sternhell argues that fascism should be understood, in the first place, as a cultural movement – an ideology; the formation of this ideology precedes fascism’s formation as a set of organised political movements. For Sternhell, fascism’s origins should be seen as a synthesis between:

a) an idealist revision of Marxism
b) nationalism

Sternhell discusses Georges Sorel at some length – Sorel is, for Sternhell, an important figure in the idealist revision of Marxism. Marxist theory in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was (generally) characterised by: a) an emphasis on an ‘economistic’ science of society: historical materialism; b) revolutionary opposition to bourgeois society / capitalism; c) a conviction that the proletariat were the revolutionary agents of history, as part of a class-struggle analysis of that history; d) opposition to private property: a commitment to the socialisation of central aspects of economic life.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Western Marxism splintered. The social democrats abandoned – in practice and subsequently in theory – the commitment to revolutionary seizure / overthrow / command of the state. Instead, the proletariat became agents of history via the effectiveness of labour movement parties within the democratic system. Revolutionary socialism was successful in Russia, but Leninist-style revolutionary parties became minority interests in most of Western Europe. This was, Sternhell argues, the dominant response on the left to the apparent unwillingness of the Western European proletariat to engage in revolutionary overthrow of the state – the goals remained the same, but reform, rather than revolution, became the means. [This associated with the wrought but successful transformation of liberalism into liberal democracy – the expansion of the vote transformed revolutionary Marxism into Social Democracy in most states where liberal democracy was instituted.]

The Sorelian revision of Marxism, by contrast, maintained the commitment to revolution, but abandoned, instead, historical materialism; commitment to socialisation of property; and a belief in the proletariat as agent of history. Instead, Sorelian ‘Marxism’ emphasised the important of market economies and private property; emphasised voluntarily willed culture, instead of economistic or historical determinism; and abandoned the belief that the proletariat were the class that would effect revolution against bourgeois society.

This ‘revision’ of Marxism became fascism when conjoined with the nationalism that was coalescing in the same period. If the proletariat was no longer the revolutionary agent that would destroy bourgeois society, who was? For the emerging fascists, the nation state as organic unity became the revolutionary agent. Bourgeois society, no longer understood as principally an economic concept, but instead as a cultural one – a society of decadence and corruption – could only be overcome by the unified action of the organically homogenous people of a given (national) cultural unit. This organically unified people became the agents of revolutionary change – within the state (against those corrupting forces that sought to undermine the state’s organic unity), and internationally (against other states). The Marxian narrative of class conflict was transformed: violence became the driving force of history, but now it was the violence of the unified people against their enemies. Where Marxian economism had been rationalist (as it claimed objective grounding in a science of society), fascist nationalism was irrationalist (as connection to the underlying unity of the nation-organism was pre- or anti-rational).

In Sternhell’s words:

Having to choose between the proletariat and revolution, they chose revolution; having to choose between a proletarian but moderate socialism and a nonproletarian but revolutionary and national socialism, they opted for the nonproletarian revolution, the national revolution. (p. 27)


I find Sternhell’s analysis helpful in looking at the contemporary ‘radical theory’ intellectual milieu. I’ve been frustrated, recently, in trying to make the case that intellectual figures who self-identify as ‘radical left’ are better placed on the radical right. (Notably Slavoj Zizek, whose political writings tick all the boxes of classical fascism, in my judgement – but see also ‘Accelerationism’ (Compare).) Sternhell’s book is useful because it shows in detail how an idealist transformation of Marxism is hardly a novel way to end up with fascist commitments.

I need to do a lot more reading and thinking about all this – about political ideology in general, not just fascism. And I don’t want to get too preoccupied by engaging the purportedly ‘radical’ continental theory space (from a personal biographical p.o.v, I’d like to reduce engagement with that space, which has already absorbed too much of my attention). But a few disconnected thoughts:

It’s important to distinguish between the different kinds of commitment to a political ideology.

– At the most clear-cut, one can endorse a specific, realised or realisable socio-economic form of organisation. In this sense a fascist would endorse the organisation and policies of Hitler’s Germany or Mussolini’s Italy.

– Next ‘rung’ down the ladder, one could endorse some mode of political or social organisation that doesn’t so closely resemble actually-existing fascism, but that leads one to endorse such fascisms, as steps along the way, best approximations, etc. This might be actually realisable, or it might be utopian and fantasised.

– Next rung, one could thoroughly reject any actually-existing fascisms (or even regard them as anathema), while committing oneself to a politics that is likely to result in such modes of organisation, if pursued.

– Next rung, one can have a set of political commitments or inclinations, that may not be worked up into anything close to a coherent organisational proposal, but that cohere with aspects of such proposals.

– Next rung down, one can have a set of emotional orientations or associations, that don’t exactly even count as developed political commitments, but that cohere with aspects of such commitments.

Given that most of us don’t have fully fledged detailed policy or organisational proposals ready to articulate, or fully developed political strategies for the implementation of those proposals, most of us are going to be on the lower ‘rungs’ of this schema most of the time. But this doesn’t mean that the commitments, associations and emotions that we have can’t be characterised in terms of their association with political ideologies. Indeed, political ideologies need to be understood, in part, in these terms (rather than just in terms of their most developed articulation or projects).

Connected to this, here is a first pass at a rule of thumb about whether a revolutionary or radical political space can best be characterised as left or right. To me, the defining features of left critiques of bourgeois / capitalist society, are the opposition to oppression, poverty and exploitation. Right critiques of bourgeois / capitalist society, by contrast, are critical of decadence, corruption of values, contamination of the social organism by pollutants characteristic of modernity. This is only one rule of thumb, but it’ll be one port of call, for me, for now, in thinking about these things.


21 Responses to “The Birth of Fascist Ideology”

  1. Wrooines Says:

    Hey, speaking of Accelerationism, have you seen what Nick Land’s been up to lately? Pretty bizarre.

  2. duncan Says:

    No – I haven’t been keeping track. Last I saw he was writing his ‘Urban Future’ blog, blathering on about Spengler and race…

  3. Wrooines Says:

    It’s pretty much gone on from there. He’s joined a group of fringe “Dark Enlightenment” people who openly yearn for a white aristocracy. In a heartwarming union that shows that shared mutual hate and egotism can overcome differing intellectual heritage, the Dark Enlightenment people willingly overlook his continental pedigree.

  4. duncan Says:

    Sorry Wrooines – I missed this comment :-/ God how awful. Give it five years or so and we can start getting Dark Enlightenment conferences, no doubt, with academics defensively complaining about how the complexities of the project aren’t being understood. A little rebranding: ‘Speculative Nazism’, ‘Post-Phenomenological Exterminationism’, and an imperious insistence that of course those terms don’t mean what superficial readers might believe – bing bang bosh, a new philosophical movement is born.

    A bit off topic (or maybe not) – but wow, that AUFS Zizek thread is quite something. This is the most extraordinary (written ‘ironically’, I’m sure):

    “Is it not in fact the case that the problem with Zizek’s invocation of leadership is that it is not fascist enough?”


  5. Wrooines Says:

    Also note Nydwracu citing a blogger who says things like “So we see that, at present, in the real world of 2007, there is no coherent moral or practical reason to shun white nationalism” and everyone trying their best not to notice.

  6. duncan Says:

    God I hadn’t clicked through – nydwracu is one of these Dark Enlightenment folks, I gather? Jesus wept. A charming guest post on that blog, also, from pthag:

    “I say this as somebody who, at the time, was a Communist and is presently a Fascist”

    No doubt this is also an example of ‘strategic overidentification’, parodic trolling, ironic deconstruction of liberal ideology, etc. etc.. Whoever would be so naive as to draw any conclusions about fascist political alignment from such remarks?

  7. duncan Says:

    Or from the masthead of nydwracu’s own blog, for that matter?

  8. Wrooines Says:

    Nydwracu is indeed a part of the Dark Enlightenment as shown by this handy chart assembled by reactionaries

    I think part of the problem is that there seems to be an inability to recognize, or a desire to overlook, the fact that two people can agree that things need to change while being fundamentally opposed due to differing hugely on how they need to change and why they need to change. A person who thinks that systematic racial oppression needs to stop is going to fundamentally disagree with someone who thinks that minorities need to “know their place”.

    This doesn’t seem like a hard revelation, so I might be wrong and the problem might be located elsewhere.

  9. duncan Says:

    My god, that’s quite the cesspit you’ve found. Thankfully most of these people seem to be super-marginal, so I’m hoping I can continue to ignore them…

  10. Wrooines Says:

    I hope so too. Here’s hoping this particular niche group stays niche.

  11. nydwracu Says:

    Given that I’ve also been taken for a conservative by conservatives, a libertarian by libertarians, and a communist by communists, it may not be the wisest thing to draw conclusions from looking at a chart. And given that the very next sentence after Moldbug’s line about white nationalism in its original context is “Or is there?”, taking that line and using it to say Moldbug is a white nationalist is about on the same level as ~owning~ Christians by pulling out a line from Leviticus, and using it to say I’m a white nationalist would also mean I’m also a Frankfurt School Marxist, a paleoconservative, a Maoist, a Legalist, and lord only knows what else. And the same methodology would require you to develop fascist-allergy to Malcolm X, who read and was influenced by Oswald Spengler.

    Anyway. read Young Mussolini and the Intellectual Origins of Fascism, if you haven’t already. I haven’t found a good introduction to the intellectual development of Fascism as a whole — drawing from Futurism, Traditionalism, and so on — but that’s the best explanation I’ve found of how Mussolini got there from socialism.

    To me, the defining features of left critiques of bourgeois / capitalist society, are the opposition to oppression, poverty and exploitation. Right critiques of bourgeois / capitalist society, by contrast, are critical of decadence, corruption of values, contamination of the social organism by pollutants characteristic of modernity.
    Is it not possible to oppose both — or even to see them as connected? Oppression and exploitation are not conducive to the health of the social organism!

  12. […] An attempted definition of left and right, here: […]

  13. duncan Says:

    Your blog’s strapline characterises it as “reactionary futurism, critical legalism, anarcho-fascism” – so tbh I’m not really clear what you’re objecting to in the ‘fascism’ characterisation.

  14. nydwracu Says:

    I was hoping the paradoxical nature of all three tags would have made it clear that I’m not being entirely serious, but I guess I was too optimistic.

    The intent there is threefold: first, to show that I don’t take myself entirely seriously (more efficient than affixing epistemic disclaimers to everything or putting golden apple graphics everywhere); second, to show that I’m not Following a School — I’m just some guy who’s trying to figure things out, I’ll mine for ideas anywhere I think I can turn them up, and I don’t want to end up in a social group with norms that would prevent me from doing so, or being read as such; and finally, as a test, a quick way to see if people will choke on ‘fascism’ or ‘anarcho-‘ or somesuch and tune me out immediately, or go “Anarcho-fascism? That doesn’t make any sense! It’s a paradox! How can you have anything worth saying?”, or whatever, or if they’re already on the wavelength that will make it easier for them to understand what I’m on about and presumably vice versa.

    As for whether I’m a fascist or not: I’m not a Fascist with a big F because I live in neither the place nor the time that had the conditions Fascism developed in response to. I’m not about to praise or condemn it, because I don’t know anywhere near enough about it to, and I’m not sure what the point of such an exercise would be, compared to the exercise of *understanding* it, getting a better picture of where it came from, why its supporters supported it, what they saw in it, how it gained power, and so on. And I don’t know whether I’m a small-f fascist because I don’t even know what ‘fascist’ means other than that whoever’s saying it disapproves of whatever they’re applying it to.

  15. Wrooines Says:

    So I was gonna come here to tell you that neoreaction and internet continental philosophy are finally clashing but apparently you’re engaged in something.

  16. nydwracu Says:

    I’d be more interested if I had any grasp whatsoever on internet continental philosophy; all I can do now is try to explain neoreaction. I know I have to read D&G and Bataille to get it, but is there an introduction anywhere so I can at least raise my understanding past zero?

  17. duncan Says:

    nydwracu – I don’t find anything particularly paradoxical in your tags. Anarcho-fascism is the attempt to realise broadly fascist goals without the statism of mid-twentieth century fascism (compare libertarian communism). Nothing much paradoxical there. It describes Nick Land’s politics very well. Also – while I’m not very interested in debating fascists, I’m particularly uninterested in debating puckishly un-pindownable provocateurs. Your views are what they are; playing innocent or ignorant is just a waste of time.

    Relatedly, you probably need to decide whether you’re a) going to recommend specific historical works on fascism as particularly strong among the various ones you’ve read, or b) claim not to know enough about fascism to condemn it. One of those stances needs to go. Most people don’t need to think too hard about which.

    Wrooines – yeah, tell me about it. :-/

  18. Wrooines Says:

    Hilariously, Nick’s comment on the blog post talking about him was that it was faux-darkness and then he left a comment about moral panic. I realize that invocations of darkness on the internet tend to be a way to scare grandma, but rarely is it made so obvious. “No, my dark lovecraftian reactionary views are so much darker than your dark lovecraftian theory views!!”

    Also he’s unimpressed by recent revivals of accelerationism, which is fairly unsurprising.

  19. nydwracu Says:

    My views are what they are, but views aren’t adjectives. Adjectives are group identifiers. Figuring out what’s going on out there is hard enough without dragging tribalism and group prestige-games into the mix — this is precisely what Wrooines notes Land is choking on.

    I’m not interested in shuffling connotations and dropping exosemantic gang signs. What are “broadly fascist goals”?

    If anyone’s used “anarcho-fascism” as a serious descriptor, of course, I’ll have to drop it as I did “anarcho-monarchist”. But I haven’t seen that happen yet.

    As for Fascism: its intellectual development is not its practice in power. I have a general handle on the former, but not the latter; and I can’t judge the latter from the former. Sorel himself said that a myth can only be judged by what its believers do with it!

  20. duncan Says:

    Google brings bounty: here’s an anarcho-fascism facebook page for you:

    Here’s a self-described anarcho-fascist summarising their views:

    And the accompanying book:

    Here you go on fascism’s practice in power:

    Let me replace “broadly fascist goals” with “broadly fascist commitments”, as that covers affect as well as policy.

    With regard to what ‘fascism’ means – the post above is a contribution to articulating that.

    With regard to what your own views are – turns out it’s not my job to articulate them for you. Your general objection to adjectives doesn’t make description a very appealing task, regardless…

  21. duncan Says:

    Wrooines – yes, this stuff is all faux as soon as it’s challenged. These folks have never articulated a single contentful position – it’s all just questioning and provocation. Yet also earth-shatteringly important and challenging, etc. (once the challenge goes away again.) Not worth the time.

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