Observations on totalitarianism

Gregório Gruber (Journal de Resenhas)


Fascism and the other forms of the bourgeois state are all forms of the capitalist state.

Studies on fascism were for a long time almost completely absent from France; it would take too long to enumerate the reasons for this fact. This state of affairs seems to change after some time, due to the open crisis in the imperialist metropolises and the emergence of new forms of strong State, as well as the accumulation of conditions for eventual fascistization processes.

But the discourse on fascism, insofar as it deals with a political crisis, is certainly one of those that most clearly show the political-ideological positions of its authors: it does not allow for escapes. How many respectable liberals and humanists have dropped their mask when examining fascism! But the issue is serious: the danger of fascism in Europe is current. This is why extreme vigilance should be exercised with respect to certain current studies on fascism, which run the risk, in many of their aspects, of having mystifying and demobilizing effects.

It will be with this in mind that I will speak of the recent work of JP Faye: Total langages, a work that testifies to immense work and considerable erudition, the work of a “left-wing” man, a non-commercial work. I'll leave it to others to talk about Faye's "method" and "narrative theory." I will limit myself to seeing how the class struggle is placed throughout your text.

Indeed, Faye's main thesis: "history" designates at the same time a process or a real action and the narrative of this action (the "power of narrating ideas" has effects on the real process and the historical action [1] – in extreme circumstances it is necessary to say the “words”: “let us take the Bastille”, in order to take it effectively), seems, at first glance, to a Marxist, quite banal. This author needs to put on a great air to re-enunciate that “the ideas that take hold of the masses become material forces”, or to insist on the effectiveness of ideology itself.

And that's not all. The essence of the issue, even if Faye's originality is not the only one there, is that history is a question of words, that ideas are what make history, that history is the discourse, original place, that marks the pace of the story process. From the beginning, Faye (let's do her justice), does not hide her game: we are already clarified on page 43 of her Introduction - Theorie du récit, where we learn that the “simple power of reporting can carry certain effects” and that “one of the first of these effects is class struggle”. Class struggle as one of the first effects of the narrative, not bad!

What does this lead to? In a text of more than 900 pages, there is no allusion to classes and class struggle, except in a few pages of the introduction, where the explanation of fascism by “subsidies from big capital” is refuted as simplistic. [2]. Faye warns us: this is where an explanation of fascism in terms of class would lead – as if, to make a class analysis of fascism, or an analysis of the class struggle in the political crisis that led to it, it were enough to center around the subsidies from big capital.

But, we might think, in a text where the various components of fascist discourses are analyzed, and where the formal syntaxes of these discourses are exposed, we could not limit ourselves to the presence, in the order of exposition, of the details of the real struggle of the classes. I do not enter into this discussion as you are not in it yet. Indeed, Faye's aim is not to undertake an analysis of these discourses in their own right, thus contributing to an analysis of a specific field: it is solely and simply to provide a history of fascism from the words that are spoken, and to illustrate its thesis according to which words make history. Which gives surprising results: throughout the entire text, we are faced with a factual history of Nazism that is as vulgar as possible. The factual description is constantly presented to us: it lacks nothing, not the detailed description of the putsch in Bavaria, nor the day-to-day adventures of the various actors. Organized description, if it can be said, around the words that enunciate these actors: the words create the event.

Just one example: the chapter on the impact of Nazism on the countryside [3]. There we find a very detailed description of the various adventures of the peasant movement during the process of fascistization, of the various adventures of actors and Nazi circles in the countryside, traveling happily from Schleswig-Holstein to East Prussia and Bavaria. But at no time does Faye seem to be touched by the idea that there are social classes in the countryside, and an intense struggle between them, that these classes and this struggle take completely different forms in East Prussia on the one hand, and in the parts of Germany that had initiated, and in part carried out, land reforms during the process of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, and that the impact of Nazism thereafter takes different forms.

But let us leave aside the author's pretense of explaining fascism through words, in order to see the effects that come from the absence of class struggle in his own analysis of fascist discourses. I would simply say that, because of this absence, he fails to grasp the ideological complexity of fascism. Indeed, fascist discourses are not enunciated in a closed field of “general ideology”, but rather in the articulation of the various ideologies and ideological subsets referring to the classes in struggle. To forget the class struggle here is to deprive oneself of the means of situating these diverse ideologies and to be led to a simple description by juxtaposing the discourses in question.

An example: one of the most important ideological phenomena of fascism, and which explains to a certain extent its popular impact, consists in the resumption, by fascist discourses, of certain slogans or “socializing” themes. This is due to the generalized ideological crisis of social formations during the process of fascistization, the complex class nature of fascism and its precise political functioning within this conjuncture.

This aspect of the matter certainly did not escape Faye. But then, how does the author proceed? We find in his text an extraordinarily confused, headless juxtaposition of different discourses, from the national-conservatives to the national-bolsheviks and the left wing of the Strasser brothers, consisting of the guiding thread in the valorization of homologies or identities in the socializing “words” maids.

This procedure cannot be maintained for the simple reason that these different words have entirely different connotations in those discourses, according to the class ideologies that support them. The problem determines a very important theoretical question, namely that of the conditions of the “influence” of certain ideologies over others in the context of the ideological class struggle. In its simplest form the problem appears, as we know, as that of the effects of dominant ideology on workers' ideology. In the particular case of fascism, it is at the same time the opposite: the effects on other ideologies or ideological subsets of the components proper to the ideology of the working class. Now, it is clear that these effects take on different forms depending on the ideological fields in which they act: in the Manifesto, Max already spoke to us about feudal socialism (yes!), bourgeois socialism, petty bourgeois socialism, etc. In a word, this means that it is useless to look for a “coherence” of these discourses in the very terms they announce.

Under the mask of the use in these discourses of the same (or other) socializing words, it is easy to perceive considerable ruptures that belong to the different interests that cover the different discourses where these words are used: these words from Moeller to O. Strasser take on completely different meanings. In this regard, it is useful to cite Italian fascism by Palmiro Togliatti. In this text from 1935 (where, therefore, Togliatti had already adhered to the revisionist “turn” that would lead to the National Front) the author noted: “In Italy and Germany, we see new concepts appearing in fascist ideology. In Italy we talk about overcoming capitalism by giving it elements of organization. Here the social-democratic element reappears. But communism is also plagiarized. Fascist ideology contains a number of heterogeneous elements. It serves to unite into the same whole different currents in the struggle for dictatorship over the working masses and to create, for this purpose, a vast movement in order to unite these elements. I put you on your guard against the tendency to regard fascist ideology as something solidly constituted, finished, homogenized. [4].

It is then in the class struggle that differences are located, but it is also there that the reasons for the emergence, within all these discourses, of common themes are located. Faye, failing on the first point, fails equally on the second: we can say, without any exaggeration, that, for the author, the order of this emergence, and its causes, lead finally to the “interindividual” relations (of various kinds) of its authors. Hence the author's obsession with questions of the highest interest of the genre: who said the first word, who knows who, who met whom, who was cousin to whom - which led to a tedious investigation, which we could designate as the gossip of the godmothers of words. The degraded shadow that appears behind all these analyzes of Faye (by the way, she does not hide [5]) is that of Karl Mannheim, the one who, we know, spoke of the freischwebende Intelligentz; “intellectuals” – in a broad sense – that in “circles”, “cenacles”, “halls”, “groups”, etc. exchange words with each other, producing history on this occasion.

Now, these "narrators" are the functionaries of class ideologies: and the problem is raised again, at the level of a simple extension of the chain of transmission, namely that of the suppliers of funds to these intellectuals, or that of their inter-individual relations with the members of the classes whose interests they represent.

Let us return to the issue of the “socializing” and, at times, “anti-imperialist” aspect – the theme of “proletarian nations” – of certain fascist discourses. Then there is the problem of the actions of these speeches and those of the authentic representatives of the proletariat at the time, mainly of the German Communist Party and the Communist International. We can clearly see that here the terms function quite differently according to the representatives of the different ideologies. It is precisely on this ground that we can place the question of these “relationships”.

That said, it is not doubtful that certain errors of the International have not contributed to enlighten the German masses about the real differences between the same terms used: I am referring in particular to the famous Schlageter episode in the context of National-Bolshevism, and which had as its protagonist K Radek. What interpretation emerges from Faye's text of an episode that seems to fall in love with him [6]? The answer, quite natural, is drawn in filigree in his text, and we are more edified reading his interview, about his work, in Le Monde, where the interviewer, with a delicious candor, does not fail to pose the question. This interpretation I give you in giblets: in the context of a closed field of intellectuals, who exchange words with each other, the “extremes” touch each other. This argument of the bourgeoisie is well known and is resurfacing today: the radical left and the fascists finally get together; red fascism, etc.

Certainly Faye won't go that far. Even if she belatedly sensed the danger, after the appearance in French of H. Arendt's book, she expressly defended herself. It is not surprising that, given his general perspective, which he does not do without specifying his analyzes of the Radek episode, he easily gives rise, in the current situation, to a similar interpretation.

Moreover, the set of fascist discourses also poses a capital problem, which does not only concern the fascist phenomenon, and which is currently of the greatest importance: the problem of the petty-bourgeois ideological subset of “petty-bourgeois ideology”, and hence the problem of the petty bourgeoisie as a class and its functioning in concrete situations. Can we speak of a petty-bourgeois ideology in the same sense in which we speak of a bourgeois or workers' ideology? What are its specific components? Why, and to what extent, does the petty-bourgeois ideological subset function as a necessary link, and as a sounding board, of the effects of bourgeois ideology on the working class, and of the effects of working ideology on bourgeois ideology? What are the transformations that this subset causes these ideologies to undergo in this chain of relationships? These are some of the clusters of problems that Faye did not raise.

Now, these luminous absences have, as was to be expected, effects on Faye that go even further. In fact, the deliberate ignorance of his class ideology prevents him, on the one hand, from discovering the significant words and terms of fascist discourses, and on the other hand, from situating exactly the relations and differences between fascist ideology and “classical” bourgeois ideology. democratic-parliamentary. As all avenues of discourse analysis remain closed to him, the author is forced into impressionist styles. Indeed, Faye's great discovery in this domain, which he announces with a triumphalism typical of those who force open doors, consists in articulating his entire exposition around the words “Total State”. This is nothing new, and the recent edition in French of Hannah Arendt's book (1951) on totalitarianism, opportunely reminds us. I point out in passing that Faye, in a letter to Le Monde on November 17, characterizes Arendt's book as a “great book”, which, even so, did not make him quote it even once in his work. But let's get to the essential: why choose the term total state as the decisive point of articulation? Is it because it would be the common and most frequently employed term for the various fascist discourses? But it's not the only one! And then?

The answer that is outlined throughout Faye's text is the following: the term total State is privileged here, and even isolated from its context, because it seems to designate the difference between fascist discourses and other “classic” bourgeois political discourses, which be it the “real” difference in the functioning of the political system or the form of the fascist State and other bourgeois “democratic” political regimes: anyone who is not completely out of the field of studies on fascism will recognize there the theme par excellence of bourgeois political analysis, by H Arendt, C. Friedrich and R. Aron. What is postulated here is an intended radical opposition, between the fascist discourses and regime and the “democratic” discourses and regimes, precisely articulated around the question of the total State. What form does this argument take in Faye in the field that interests her – that of ideas? He himself gives us the answer: “Here (in the discourse of the total State) the concepts constructed by Western political thought, from Locke to Rousseau, are expressly inverted” [7]. We couldn't be more clear.

Nor could we deceive ourselves so well. In effect, this intended “inversion” can only be maintained by grossly ignoring what is modestly designated by Faye as “Western political thought” and falling into the traps of bourgeois apologetics, which only distinguishes the two in order to glorify the bourgeois “democratic” dictatorship. and wash their hands of their responsibilities in the rise of fascism. We still have the famous statements “liberalism-humanism versus fascism”, or even “democracy versus totalitarianism”. It would be necessary to be blind not to perceive that the discourses of liberal democracy and fascism feed, both at the same time, on the same source, that is, on the bourgeois political ideology. When was “Western political thought” the “inverse” of the discourse underlying fascism? Let's be serious. May Faye bring together Machiavelli, Hobbes, the Physiocrats, the famous English “liberals” – Montesquieu (in this case Althusser has already dotted the ii), B. Constant, may he return to Affair Hegel will not tell us anything new. The only case that becomes a problem here is that of Rousseau, but that is effectively another story.

Of course, this does not mean, on the other hand, that fascist discourses are the linear unfolding of “germs” contained in bourgeois “democratic” political thought and discourse, and that there would be a direct line of continuity between the two. I do not intend to resume here the analyzes that I have already done elsewhere. [8]: I will simply say that, in order to situate the differences, it would be necessary to make an analysis in terms of class struggle of the different stages and phases of capitalism, of the differential articulations of the different ideological and repressive apparatuses according to the forms of the capitalist State, of the precise political crisis that corresponds to fascism.

In any case, one of the surest ways to fail in the matter is to cling to what the authors themselves – the liberals, the fascists – believe to be their difference, that is, to the opposite relations assigned to the terms by the narrative itself: precisely to the ritual chatter State total-liberal democracy; which is nothing more than a form of imaginary displacement of difference, or even a concealment of true ruptures. In everyday life, the term total State does not assume a symptomatic meaning except in its constitutive relations to the notions of “enemy”, “nation”, “family”, “corporation”, etc., etc. that versify fascist discourses on the terrain of ideological class struggle. It is useless to insist on the fact that ideology does not exist only in ideas, but that it “materializes” and takes shape in rituals and material acts and in ideological apparatuses, whose differential functioning draws the figure of the true ruptures between the forms of capitalist State .

Two words to conclude: what one gets, finally, from reading Faye's work, is the desolate impression of a prodigious disorder. All this sum of work, which provides appreciable information to the reader, to risk helping H. Arendt and the researchers of totalitarianism, is honestly the torment of a progressive intellectual, of a “sincere democrat”.

In this way, I naturally return to Arendt. Not only because the analyzes of his “great book” – Faye dixit – effectively reveal the same principles as those of Faye, but also because, due to these strange conjunctures that suddenly sprout in the serene sky of ideas, they risk functioning in the cultural apparatus. -informative in the same way.

It is necessary to congratulate the appearance in French of Arendt's writings of the 1950s on totalitarianism. French readers should necessarily know them. The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) by H. Arendt (who went to school); was one of the bibles of German Anglo-Saxon democrats during the cold war years. The main ideological political line of this book is well known: communism = fascism, Stalin = Hitler, the “abnormals” (communist-fascists) resemble each other, and long live “western democracy”.

I will not insist on this issue: it is necessary to keep in mind the political-historical context in which the book was written. Let's just think that someone like Wilhelm Reich himself was able to take this direction, modifying his Mass psychology of fascism: not only assimilating Bolshevism and fascism on the one hand, Stalin in Hitler on the other, but at the same time exchanging and sweetening, when speaking of the West, words like “capitalism”, “bourgeoisie”, “proletariat”. All we have to do is compare the translation of the first edition of the book, which appeared in French in a pirated edition – an excellent translation, without wanting to displease the specialists – with a modified addition to the French translation of Payot – a translation considered “serious”, which is why we prefer the first – to convince ourselves.

It is therefore necessary to say a word about the explanations that H. Arendt makes about Nazism, because that is where we find the analogies with Faye's work. Briefly: H. Arendt does with a “sociopolitical” explanation of the Nazi regime what Faye does with discourse analysis of the fascists. Nothing surprising, if we think about the absence of class struggle in both; in the analysis principles articulated in H. Arendt around the radical opposition democracy-totalitarian State and, in Faye, around the radical opposition “Western political thought” – discourse of the total State.

Thus, in H. Arendt's analysis and explanation of fascism through its opposition to liberal democracy, we find descriptions as edifying as those of the homonymous oppositions between society of classes or interests and societies of atomized masses; between the reign of the “rights of man” and its decline; between a “liberal state” that leaves the people alone – Churchill's milkman story – and the totalitarian state that embodies them; between societies with “democratic representatives” and societies with authoritarian elites; between societies with “enlightened propaganda” and societies with systematic indoctrinations and public messages; between societies with “autonomous” institutions between the individual and the State and societies with state institutions; between societies with “free and pluralistic” political competition and societies with a monolithic state, and others. There is nothing that the psychology of Arendt's “authoritarian personality” has spared us: the person responsible for this, as we know, is Adorno.

All this is all the more remarkable as this Anglo-Saxon current of thought, which is not linked to the “conservative-reactionary” current of the “silent majority”, comes precisely and mainly from the liberals – the liberals – who on other occasions have not ceased to raise as critical and unfortunate consciences of Western society. However, we should point out that there have been analyses, even in the US, by radicals - the radical – about Nazism, mainly the work of Franz Neumann Behemoth, of a different scope than Arendt's, but which, despite the efforts of W. Mills, will remain almost completely unknown.

As for H. Arendt, we cannot but repeat, mutatis mutandis, the remarks we made with regard to Faye: Fascism and the other forms of the bourgeois state are all forms of the capitalist state. This does not mean that there are no important differences between these forms, or that there is a simple linear continuity between them. But locating relationships and differences precisely and explaining them is what H. Arendt fails to achieve. However, there is no doubt that, when analyzing concrete fascism, we find in Arendt information and descriptions that are quite interesting and that break with the ineptness of some of his disciples: Kornhauser, for example; but this is another question.

* Nicos Poulantzas (1936-1979) was professor of sociology at University of Paris VIII. Author, among other books by fascism and dictatorship (Martins Fontes).

Translation: Theo Santiago.

Article originally published in the French magazine As is, nº 53, with the title “Note à proposed du totalitarisme”.


[1] Theorie du récit, p. 24, 43.

[2] Theorie du récit, P. 127 et seq.

[3] Total langages, P. 317 et seq.

[4] Italian fascism, P. 13.

[5] Theorie du récit, P. 70.

[6] Total langages, P. 79 et seq.

[7] Theorie du récit, P. 88

[8] fascism et dictature. Brazilian translation: fascism and dictatorship (Martins Fontes).

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