The Elephant and the Blind Man: A Response to Burley’s Twenty-Five Theses on Fascism
In a recent posting on the Institute for Anarchist Studies website Shane Burley, the author of Fascism Today: What it Is and How to End It, presents twenty five theses which seek to define and describe modern fascism. Unfortunately the work is flawed as he refuses to provide any kind of historical analysis to the subject, ignores previous theoretical work on fascism as either antiquated or inarticulate, provides a uniquely conflicted analysis, and fails to acknowledge the fact that he eventually concludes by encouraging the left to adopt, adapt, and refine the tactics used by fascism.
Burley fails to include any history of fascism for guidance in understanding its rise, development and in two cases at least, triumph. Rather he indicates that virtually any combination of social, economic and cultural conditions can give rise to fascism. Yet history is clear on this point there are certain general contours associated with the rise of fascism including the failed national aspirations of war, economic misery, a restive population, the saturation of culture with nationalist propaganda and a delegitimized, weakened government. The list goes on, and for Burley to discount such a historically consistent convergence of events and trends adds nothing to our understanding of fascism, either historical or modern. In fact, it obfuscates.
There is little attempt by Burley to use any of the previous theorists of fascism, and when, on occasion, he tries to do so he fails. Two examples, he cites Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil” in reference to fascist recruitment and,” to characterize the casual complicity and bureaucratic malaise of the German people in the events of World War II and the Holocaust.” What Arendt is really applying the concept to is Eichmann and her observations of him during his trial in Jerusalem. And what she is specifically referencing is Eichmann’s lack of ability to think independently, his braggadocio, his desire to join and participate in organizations, and what she described in her final interview as his “outrageous stupidity.” It is very much a subjective banality that Arendt develops not a social one as Burley infers. Second, Burley references the resonance between fascism and culture in Theses 6 and 17, in a clear attempt to channel Walter Benjamin, the citation however, while nominally correct, is deeply misunderstood. Burley says that fascism seeks to inhabit places of culture and by so doing to somehow infuse its ideals. Benjamin, alternatively, describes the fascist “aestheticization of politics” as the mixing of artistic sensibility with everyday life--that fascism seeks to breakdown the walls of the museum, the gallery, the reading room and to bring them down into the streets. The torchlight parades, the marching hordes in Nuremberg (or Charlottesville), and the book burnings are exemplars in this instance, not a portrait of Hitler in a toga nor Richard Spencer at the podium. Benjamin also takes a swipe at the left in this discussion when he points out that to counter the fascist aestheticization of politics the state-communists or the Social Democracy simply reversed the process by the politicization of art--and Burley conflates one for the other. Burley also ignores completely the work of the Frankfurt School, Reich, Guerin and others who bring insight to the psychology, economics and the realpolitik of fascism--leaving the reader with a desire for something more focused, with delineated arguments instead of tedious lists.
There is a shallowness and inconsistency in Burley’s Theses. They ring hollow. Burley conflates surface phenomenon with ideology particularly when he discusses violence. In Thesis 18 he tells us that fascism seeks to hide its violence but that inevitably,” [w]ithin a long enough time frame there will always be killing.” The quote is minimally correct, but misses the point. The ideal here is not violence, though it is hardly hidden and is used by fascism to attract brawling converts, in addition to being a street tactic; the ideal is death-- the fascist veneration of Thanatos. A quick perusal of history suffices in this case, the propagation by the Francoists of the slogan “Long Live Death,” the universal use of the death’s head in the fascist imaginary, and the virtual sainthood of fascist martyrs. At the level of cultural artifact--one of Hitler’s first building projects was the construction of a mausoleum for the dead of the Beer Hall Putsch. The fascist ideal of death is reflexive; it not only applies to the enemy—who impedes the fascist cause—but also the fascist who furthers the cause through a (hopefully) glorious demise.
At the level of politics there are a few significant mistakes as well. First Burley states in Thesis 2,” Fascism does not necessitate a specific type of statecraft (or a state at all).” Nothing could be further from the truth. The article in the Treccani Encyclopedia on fascism signed by Mussolini, but likely authored by Giovanni Gentile, develops the Hegelian notion of the Absolute and Ethical State—ergo without the state, and a very specific type of state—there can be no fascism. The NSDAP, while less philosophically astute, engineered their state through the “coordination” of existing governmental bodies—and again it was the explicit capture of the state mentioned in Mein Kampf as the first milestone for fascism-- that set the stage. Try implementing fascism without a nation-state (defined as the monopoly of force over a delineated geographic area); can’t be imagined, let alone done.
Burley plays the nihilist card as well, though this time its use is unique. He states that fascists use nihilism which he describes as “an apolitical destructive force” in order to destroy morality so as to be able to reconstruct a new fascist morality. As a rejoinder one need merely point out that the nihilist rejection of morality is based in part, on the idea that history is directionless, and hence the idea of either an old morality or a new fascist one are equally meaningless. Without teleology, morality is a phantom…a tale told to a child to defeat misbehavior. And excluding vulgar marxist communism (and Fukuyama), no political philosophy or movement is more self-assured as to its place as the termination of Western history than fascism.
Shane Burley contends that fascism requires mass politics, popular support, and the ongoing destructive upheaval of class society in order to triumph. His cure for the fascist disease are fascist tactics-- mass politics and popular support. Which leads to the final critique of the theses, that they basically also apply to the left. Excluding the discussions regarding ethnic nationalism, if you do a simple replace of the word “fascism” for “the left” in the text the result is an engaging description of all marxist and some anarchist tendencies. The same tactics, the same flaws, the same contradictions. The same bullshit.
There are some parts of the theses that work, there is much that doesn’t. As we begin to autopsy the past few months in order to ascertain what worked and what didn’t in the fight against fascism there is a real need for rigor and reflection. Analysis requires grounding, an understanding of history and previous theoretical constructs, consistency and looking to the enemy not to inform contestation but to inspire new creative ways to destroy. These requirements are not met by the Twenty-Five Theses.
Paul Z. Simons