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On Fascism: A Note on Johannes Agnoli's Contribution

Werner Bonefeld


Publications on Fascism are many. Agnoli's recent book Fascism without Revision does not add just another publication. His theoretical focus and political perspective are specific. Although quite unknown in the English-speaking world, Agnoli has been and remains one of the most intriguing and respected Marxist scholars on the continent. (1) His book on Fascism confirms his status as an heretic Marxist thinker. For him, the purpose of social and political theory is not to advance abstract generalizations that subordinate the real existing world of class antagonism to doctrinaire catch-phrases such as totalitarianism. Rather theory's purpose is to supply enlightenment as to the real movement of a perverted world.

Fascism without Revision is a collection of articles previously published, with one exception, in either German or Italian between 1966 and 1979. (2) The date of their original publication is not without significance. This was the time of intense political conflict, starting with the wave of unrest that found its crest in 1968 and that continued well into the 1970s. It was also the time when experiments with corporatist solutions to class conflicts compounded. (3) These experiments aimed at institutionalizing the class conflict by incorporating the trade unions into positions of responsibility both towards the well-ordered conduct of labour-relations in production and the bargaining over wages in terms of the so-called national interest. Governments were, however, not satisfied with making trade unions, and - it was hoped - through them the working class, responsible for the peaceful conduct and acceptance of capitalist relations of exploitation and their restructuring. Governments also embarked upon a heavy-handed confrontation with the extra-parliamentary left, culminating in the so-called Italian and German Autumns of 1977. Ideologically, the extra-institutional left-movements of that time, and since, have been denounced, time and time again, as a threat to the stability of liberal democracy. In the German context, the 'ghost of Weimar' continuous to be summoned to indicate this danger, legitimizing a 'strong' defence of liberal-democratic value against the 'enemies within', including the banning of 'radicals' from working in the public service. The so-called lesson of Weimar, then, was that movements seeking social emancipation were principally responsible for the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the Nazi seizure of power. In sum, governments, not only in Germany, responded to the social conflict of that time through a politics of class collaboration and criminalisation.

Furthermore, neo-conservative commentators argued that 'welfare capitalism' and the state's so-called involvement in the economy had led to a situation of ungovernability. According to their view, the social conflict of that time, especially that outside conventional political channels, was seen to have subjected the state to undue pressure with governments responding through further welfare state measures and continued inflationary demand management ostensibly in support of a commitment to full-employment. The state, then, was seen to have overburdened itself with social and economic obligations, stifling economic development and incapacitating the state not only in terms of its financial resources but, also, its ability to govern. Against the background of an unruly, that is politicized public, and in the light of conditions of so-called ungovernability and political overload, neo-conservatives prescribed a particular remedy: the state was to be rolled back and the economy was to be freed from political intervention. The new-right prescribed thus not only the emancipation of the state from social obligations but, also, the de-politization of socio-economic relations. In other words, the new-right argued in favour of the 'autonomy' of the political from socio-economic developments, stressing that the proper role of the social individual was not to look at 'the state' for welfare support but, rather, to help itself through work. This 'autonomy' of the state from society was demanded in order for 'the political' to regain its ability to make political decisions without 'social' interference from and responsibility to what is euphemistically refered to as special social interests, that is working class interests.

The notion of the 'autonomy' of the political was, of course, very much emphasised by Carl Schmitt, the philosopher of the primacy of 'the political', who supplied the Fuhrerstaat with ideological legitimation. The argument suggested here is not that the new right of the 1970s was arguing in terms of Schmitt's contribution to the reassertion of 'the political' under Nazism. Schmitt's assessment of the crisis of the late 1920s and early 1930s stands, as will be argued below, in the tradition of liberal-conservative views on the proper role of the state. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt, as indeed Agnoli argues forcefully, that the experience of fascist social organization has become not only an irreversible element of bourgeois society but, also, an irreversible experience of how to cope with working-class struggle.


Agnoli's book argues against generalizing conceptions of Fascism such as totalitarianism. Instead, his focus is on the conditions of Fascism's development, its historical practice, and its significance for the 'regulation' of class relations post-'45(4). Agnoli's concern, then, is not historical Fascism as such but the institutional strategies adopted to retain capitalist command over labour through fascist means. Against this background, he assesses in particular Ernst Nolte's analysis of Fascism, including his notion of a left-Fascism that Nolte advanced to characterize in particular the student left of 1968 . (5)

In what follows, I shall summarize what I take to be Agnoli's key concerns. A note of caution is, however, needed: his analysis rests on a wealth of historical research and theoretical insights. I am not able to deal with either of these in a competent manner. Yet, this should not be seen as a discouragement to study his work. On the contrary, not only is 'Fascism' a most enlightening topic on what a bourgeois world is capable of committing if compelled to reassert itself in extreme conditions. Agnoli is also a fine writer whose own intellectual curiosity infects those who read his work. Besides, and probably more importantly, history is a weapon. This was recognized forcefully in the 1980s by Michael Stormer, a neo-conservative historian and former advisor to the then German Chancellor, Mr. Kohl. For him history is a political weapon because 'the future is controlled by those who determine the content of memory, who coin concepts and interpret the past' (Stormer, 1993, p. 16). (6) In this sense, the importance of Agnoli's book can not be overestimated: Fascism without Revision provides a sober, no-nonsense and honest assessment of Fascism that is very much concerned with the political economy of Fascism and that is with the real movement of bourgeois social relations. His book, then, is not just an antidote to bourgeois conceptions of Fascism. Understanding history as a weapon, Agnoli's assessment is the weapon of freedom against revisionist inventions of a new history that confers blame for the bourgeois resolutions to capitalist crisis on the working class, exorcising from its history mass murder and asserting that Marxism's theory and practice of social emancipation constitutes the method and murderous program of Fascism. (7)

Against Generalisations

Agnoli rejects approaches that abstract from the social content of Fascism and that, instead, offer merely generalizations. His critique is directed both at the political right and political left. He charges that the political left, all too easily, equates manifestations of political coercion with their extreme consequence that Fascism presents. These 'equations', for Agnoli, indicate that an understanding of policing-practices during, for example, German Nazism is lacking.

Concerning the political right, he argues against its comparative analysis between so-called totalitarian regimes, on the one hand, and the liberal democratic character of 'the political' post-'45, on the other. For Agnoli, this analysis does not seek an understanding of the political economy of Fascism and its social content. Instead, the analytical perspective is directed towards generating legitimacy for bourgeois social relations. In short, totalitarian accounts are charged with providing intellectual 'washing-powder' insofar as they deny any tie between capitalism and Fascism, so liberating - or cleansing - the post-war capitalism from any association with Fascism. If Fascism, he argues, is reduced to 'phenomena' such as barbarism, totalitarianism, extermination, and conquest, then any discussion on the potential integration of fascist socio-economic elements into the post-45 settlement is rendered redundant. Furthermore, generalizations foreclose an understanding of the distinct differences between Italian Fascism and German Nazism and, as a consequence, fail to address the decisive socio-economic conditions that supported historical Fascism.

For Agnoli, the 'conditions' which encouraged and supported historical Fascism were the crisis-ridden development of capitalist accumulation after world war I or the Great War as the slaughter is referred to in Britain. This crisis brought to the fore the constitutive antagonism of capitalist society, that is the capital-labor class conflict whose containment through a politics of social reformism reinforced the crisis of capitalist accumulation. This politics entailed concessions to the working class, which he terms 'integration costs'. Against the background of the capitalist crisis of accumulation, these integration costs expressed the power of the working class to command socio-political means of support to improve the conditions of its exploitation. At the same time, these integration costs bit into the already reduced margin of capitalist profit. There was thus a situation where the social and political power of the working class rendered a democratically constituted attack on its political power difficult. Furthermore, this power of the working class, its entrenched position, made it most difficult for 'capital' to reassert its right to manage to re-establish profitability. Within the context of a democratically constituted state that was established by the German revolution of 1919, it was, then, most difficult to confront the working class, undermining alternatives to Nazism's offer to discipline not only the revolutionary but also the reformist working class movements through terrorist means. Furthermore, Italian Fascism had been in place some 10 years before the Nazi 'seizure' of power in Germany. German Nazism, then, and the industrial backers of the Nazi Party could look at Italy as an example as to how to deal with the 'labor question'. While both German Nazism and Italian Fascism disciplined the labor movement through terrorist means at the beginning, their institutional strategy of containing the working class was quite different. German Nazism never developed corporatist forms of institutionalization to the extent as Italian Fascism did; and Italian Fascism never developed a politics of extermination for the sake of extermination as it was the case with German Nazism.

Against particularly the Italian background of institutionalizing the class antagonism through incorporation, does 1945 stand for a complete break in the historical development of capitalism? Are there no continuities such as, for example, the French system of 'planification' or the (West-)German system of social partnership, the observable fact of an ever tighter legalization, and that implies 'statification', of social relations? If there are continuities, would an analysis of Fascism not have to specify the concrete social content of Fascism? Generalizations, he argues, render such concrete analysis obsolete. Instead they are premised on the notion of Fascism as a Fascism 'in itself', that is they confer on Fascism essential characteristics whose significance and consequence are internal and specific to Fascism alone. There is no doubt, as Agnoli argues (pp. 29-30), that historical Fascism was characterized by, for example, terrorism and nihilism. However, does it follow that every expression of nihilism and terrorism is, by definition, fascist and will Fascism always be terrorist and nihilist? In qualification to Agnoli, generalization advance ideal-type constructions of Fascism regardless of historical circumstances and conditions. Generalization, in short, dismiss as ephemeral what needs to be understood. By abstracting from the political economy of terrorism, the political economy of corporativism and, indeed, concerning German Nazism, the political economy of extermination for its own sake, generalizations fail to discover what ostensibly they wish to focus: the specific social content of Fascism.

For the Left, the relationship between capitalist crisis and its fascist resolution is vital. While he emphasises that the relationship between capitalist crisis and Fascism is vital, Agnoli rejects the championed notion that capitalism leads to Fascism. This notion, he argues, not only abstracts from historical developments it, also, dogmatises historical Fascism as the only form of Fascism. The conditions that led to Fascism at the beginning of this century are different today. Thus, as he argues, the potential for a renewed fascist assertion of political domination can not be ascertained through the lenses of historical comparison or analogy. Rather, the potential of a new fascist transformation of socio-political organization needs to be conceptualised in relation to the existing conditions of capitalist accumulation and that is through the lenses of the contemporary composition of class relations and that is class struggle. For him, the issue, then, is that of the dialectic of continuity and change in historical development.

Capitalism, he argues (p. 43), does not want Fascism. What it wants is the political guarantee of its profits and that is the political safeguarding of its incessant quest for making the worker work for the sake of work. Bourgeois society, as he argues in chapter I, is a class society. The concept, then, of bourgeois society is a dynamic concept: its constitutive relationship is that of the capital-labor class relationship whose dynamic entails the polarization of society between two different 'sets' of property owners, one owning the means of production and the other owning no more than their labor power. The dynamic, then, of bourgeois society is one of class struggle over - in its reformist guise - the distribution of wealth or - in its revolutionary form - the transformation of the means of production into means of emancipation. From a capitalist perspective, the dialectic of class struggle has, of course, to be contained to maintain the society of burghers, that is the society of bourgeois property owners. He shows that conservative-idealist solutions to the 'labor question' focus not just on 'the state' which, ostensibly from the 'outside', polices the law abiding conduct between 'equals' on the labor market. The state, he argues, is also endorsed as an institution capable of discharging ethical and moral functions with a view to generating social consensus so that the 'dependent classes' agree to the 'tightening' of their belt to safeguard the wealth of those in possession of the means of production. In this light, Agnoli argues, the fascist state proclaimed itself to be an 'ethical' state which pledges to resolve the 'labor question' much more effectively than a state that merely espouses a politics based on the notion and safeguarding of 'natural rights'. His analysis of particularly Italian Fascism emphasises the dialectical relationship between consensus and coercion, examines its self-proclamation to have overcome liberalism and socialism, and assesses its ideological projection of a politics on behalf of the 'national interest'.

The self-proclamation of Italian Fascism to have embarked upon a 'third way' - a fascist way beyond capitalism and socialism - is not only assessed in terms of the class content of fascist politics. He also analyses the assessment of Italian Fascism by its academic commentators (pp. 157-167). According to their judgement, the corporatist organization of industrial relations did not deny but rather confirmed 'the eternal truth of classic economic theory' (p. 161, quoting Stefani). According to Agnoli, their assessment of Italian Fascism introduced a characterization of capitalism that has become common currently after 1945. The capital-relation is seen to be no longer based on the ownership of private property, and thus as a class relation, but, rather, it is viewed  in terms of its 'functionality'. 'Capital' is seen as an economic function, and the its optimal functionality depends on the effective, efficient and economic organization of its concerns. This technocratic endorsement of 'capital', and the view of capital as a useful functional thing, begs the question what the socialist component of fascism's third way might have amounted to. Here the commentators seem reluctant to come up with precise judgements, except, of course, that the 'dependent masses' were lovingly embraced. The rational of such an embrace is, as indeed it was the case, the firm supervision and policing of the working class just in case it should have not quite understood that 'exploitative capitalism' had been replaced by 'socialist capitalism'.

Agnoli, then, analyses Fascism as a form of bourgeois social relations and argues that its social content was that of directly and pre-emptively protecting bourgeois wealth 'creation' from either reformist or revolutionary working class struggle. For him, then, Italian Fascism and German Nazism were variants of a common development: capitalist crisis and working class demands for emancipation coerced the bourgeoisie to commit a fascist protection against the dynamic of class struggle and, through it, to provide the social conditions for the resolution of the capitalist crisis of overaccumulation that beset capitalism in the inter-war period like a cancer.

He shows that, for Fascism, the requirements of capitalist reproduction were as constitutive as for any other historical form of bourgeois society. For him, it was the inability of the non-fascist bourgeoisie to supply an alternative to the resolution of capitalist crisis that rendered its parliamentary opposition to the rise of Fascism futile. He thus argues (p. 111) that the social content of Fascism amounted to a program of an imperialist market-expansion with military means and that this project was based on two propositions that the fascist movement pledged to attend to, as indeed it did; first it offered to guarantee the economic reproduction of capital on the basis of optimal conditions insofar as Fascism turned back the clock on a Century of struggle to improve the economic and socio-political conditions of exploitation. Secondly, it set upon undermining the labour movement as a whole and therewith its potential for revolutionary struggle against the whole system of exploitation. Pre-emptively, such struggle was rendered impossible through terrorist means of pacification.

However, and importantly, Agnoli suggests that while the reign of terror directed against labour was effective in disciplining the working class, it nevertheless lost its 'functionality' once the working class had been pacified through terror. The conservation and stabilization of market relations and, through them, the organization of the labour process, demanded the transformation of a politics of terror into a politics based on law. In other words, while terror domesticated the working class and while the terrorist use of force continued to lurk in the background, both German Nazism and in particular Italian Fascism constitutionalised themselves. This means that the 'movement' transformed itself from being such a 'movement' into a constitutional regime which replaced the arbitrary use of terrorist force by a tight regulation of punitive procedure and an institutionalization of fascist social regulation, both based on law. Constitutionalising, then, means that the arbitrary use of force by the gang of thugs was replaced by its legalist, statist use. The gang of terrorising thugs transformed thus into a legalized, rationalized and procedurally correct enforced state-induced policy of law and order. Concerning Germany, he focuses on the liquidation of (mainly) the SA-leadership in 1934 and, concerning Italy, on Mussolini's second March on Rome in January 1925.

The chapter on Sohn-Rethel (1987) praises Sohn-Rethel's account as a most insightful analysis on the link between German capital and the Nazi regime. 'German capital' is said (pp. 103-4) to have expected from the nazi-regime first the terrorist disciplining of labour and, on the basis of this, the expansion of markets through military conquest. Sohn-Rethel's account is endorsed as a challenge to the conventional view that portrays Nazism in terms of a 'total' state which disempowered both the working class and capital. According to Agnoli, Sohn-Rethel shows that this view fails to see that capital rather than being subordinated to the Fuhrerstaat was, in fact, not only expecting from the Nazi regime the realization of its demands but impressed upon the Nazi regime the very issues it wanted the 'nazi-state' to address forthwith. In short, capital was not subordinated to a 'total state'. Whether the 'nazi-state', or indeed any other bourgeois form of the state is 'functional' to the requirements of capital accumulation, is of course a quite different issue.

His analysis of Italian Fascism - and here especially its corporatist form of social organization and the cartellization of industry - supplies an equally compelling analysis. He shows that Italian Fascism did not deny the existence of the class antagonism but, rather, accepted it and sought to direct its dynamic away from open class conflict. The means adopted to further this aim consisted in the institutionalization of the class antagonism through a politics of incorporation and, importantly, the legalization of class relations. Italian Fascism, then, advocated a politics of class collaboration that was based on legally binding rules. Thus, the terrorist gang of thugs were replaced by a well-ordered regulation of the labour question; instead of arbitrary, unpredictable and thus disruptive thuggery, the state 'policed' on the basis of law. The politics, then, of 'class collaboration' aimed at a political 'de-capacitation' of labour, reinforcing as Agnoli shows the capacity of employers to reassert their right to manage.

In sum, Agnoli takes on Horkheimer's dictum that whoever wants to talk about Fascism but not about capitalism should shut up. In qualification to Horkheimer, Agnoli is not satisfied with the dictum as such but seeks, through detailed analysis, an understanding of the different forms of historical Fascism, their specific historical conditions and forms of social organization. In short, his analysis of Fascism provides a theory of the capitalist form of the state as a bourgeois state. For him, and this he argues most convincingly, Fascism whatever its specific historical forms, does not just stand in the tradition of bourgeois society. Fundamentally, Fascism is understood as a rescue-attempt of bourgeois relations with terrorist means in conditions of a deep crisis of capitalist accumulation and an entrenched working class whose social power although not of a revolutionary sort, was such that non-terrorist means of 'pacification', rather than providing a resolution, intensified the crisis. There was thus a situation of stalemate, of impasse, in the existing composition of the class relations. Paul Mattick (1934) analyzed this constellation in terms of permanent crisis. The situation, then, was one of 'economic' crisis and an entrenched relationship of power between the classes. 

On Nolte and Left-Fascism

Nolte characterizes Fascism as a specific, never renewable, epoch in the development of modern society. This 'epoch', for Nolte, belongs to capitalism's past history and is of no consequence, has no meaning and significance for capitalism's developments once the epoch of historical Fascism has come to an end. For Nolte, as Agnoli shows, historical Fascism was just that: a historical phase of capitalism's past history. Nolte, then, sees Fascism as a thing in-itself and characterizes it as an epoch. Yet, as Agnoli argues, since it is conceived as a thing in-itself, its treatment as an epoch amounts to nothing. The characterization of an historical period as an epoch would imply, as Agnoli charges, that it casts its 'achievements' on to future developments. However, for Nolte this is not so: the notion of Fascism as a thing in-itself means that it amounts to a specific form of political organization whose shadow is internal to itself, does not reach out to, influence or inform that what comes afterwards. In short, Nolte's treatment of Fascism is conceptually empty and bereft of analytical significance.

However Nolte betrays his own notion of Fascism as a Fascism in itself by arguing that, whilst Fascism is limited to a certain period of historical development, it does indeed reach out and informs political movements post-45. For Nolte, the political movements that are still of a fascist sort are those of the political left. Nolte argues that every social movement develops a radical wing that is ready to use political violence to further its aims. Fascism, for Nolte, entails a terrorist dimension and this dimension he sees as the left moment, or characteristic, of fascism. It is for this reason that such movements stand accused of 'left Fascism'. Nolte thus argued both in terms of Fascism as a non-consequential past history of capitalism and as a permanent force. As Agnoli shows, Nolte's contradictory dictum had a 'rationale' core: it allowed him to introduce the theory of totalitarianism through the backdoor, that is to attack Marxism as an expression of Fascism, or better, Fascism as an expression of Marxism(8).

According to Nolte, Fascism as a movement is best characterized as a 'left right-party' (linke Rechtspartei). For him, the 'left' attribute of this right-wing party is terror and violence. Fascism, for Nolte, was principally violent and terrorist and this character of Fascism he identifies as the left 'component' of Fascism. In this way, for reasons of clarification, attacks by the Left on 'neo-Nazis' are characterized as left-fascist; and neo-Nazi attacks on the Left are equally characterized as left-fascist. Agnoli does not just rebuff Nolte by showing the ideological intent of his work. More importantly, Agnoli shows that Nolte 'forgets' that, particularly in Italy, left-Fascism was in fact a political reality within the fascist movement: fascista di sinistra.

According to Agnoli, the proponents of Italian left-Fascism were, amongst others, Ugo Spiritos and Luigi Fontanelli. Left-fascist doctrine took on some socialist ideas insofar as it argued that social change involves fundamentally a change in the relations of production and property. However, as he shows (pp. 34-6; pp. 145-50), left-fascist doctrine did not question the bourgeois organization of society. The issue of 'change' was not posed as a class question of social emancipation. Rather it was advanced in terms of an organized - technocratic - capitalism. Left-Fascism did not fight the bourgeoisie as a class but denounced it as a group devoted to a comfortable life. The issue of 'change', then, was that of improving the chances of the able and competent offsprings of the petit bourgeoisie to obtain positions of leadership in the organization of capitalist concerns. Left-Fascism, then, did not propose any change in the relationship between capital and labour. Instead, it proposed to regulate and organize capitalist social relations more effectively. In this way, left-Fascism foretold, concerning its conception of social organization and, especially, its treatment of 'capital', what was later analyzed in terms of the organized capitalism of the Keynesian era. Left-Fascism saw 'capital' not in terms of an antagonistic social relationship between capital and labour. Rather, capital was treated in terms that are quite common today: Capital is conceived as an economic mechanism that - if regulated well and competently - discharges useful economic functions. Thus, left-Fascism posed the question of 'property'. It did so, however, not in terms of the means of production as means of social emancipation. Left-Fascism focused on the corporatist institutionalization of the class conflict and posed the question of 'property' in terms of an effective technocratic organization and regulation of 'economic mechanisms'.

Fascism and the Lessons of History

Nolte, as argued, does not analyze the real historical existence of left-Fascism but equates it instead with Marxism. For Nolte, and for the proponents of the theory of totalitarianism in general, the lessons of history can be drawn in a straightforward manner: liberal democracy needs to defend itself against the enemies of liberal democracy and liberal-democratic government has to be organized in such a way that movements of social emancipation do not find mass endorsement that might subject the 'state' to class specific compromises. In short, government needs to be insulated from social demands and that means, in fact, from those who are declared to be sovereign in a republic: the people. As one German academic put it in the 1950s, 'the democratization of society poses the principle danger to democracy'.

In a bizarre twist, as Agnoli reports, Fascism is thus construed as the consequence of mass democratic consciousness and demands. The lesson, then, of Fascism is that democracy depends on the political apathy of the masses, a depoliticized public and, paraphrasing Engels, a people who not only obey the laws of the land but, also, comply with them lovingly. In other words, democratic government is at its best when the 'state' stands over and above society. The defence of liberal democratic government against 'the enemies within' implies thus that democracy is most secured and stable when government is able to make political decisions on its own and by itself, that is without having to consider the aspirations and demands of those who stand discarded as the so-called 'mob'.

This so-called lesson of history poses, as Agnoli argues forcefully, a reversed assessment to that supplied by fascist thinkers before and during especially German Nazism. Agnoli discusses these issues in his chapter on Germany in the inter-war period. In this chapter, he looks at the way in which the crisis of Weimar was perceived. Regarding the labour movement, there were, of course, considerable differences between social-democratic and communist perceptions on Weimar. Neither however developed a precise understanding of the 'crisis of Weimar'. As Agnoli shows, it was the political right, the losers of world war I and the revolution of 1919, who developed a deep and concise crisis-consciousness. For them, he argues, 1919 and what followed was more than just a consequence of military defeat. For them, Weimar stood for the end of a dynasty, the abolition of a historical totality. He examines the work of the two authors who focused this issue poignantly: Spengler whose book The Decline of the Western World focused the cultural pessimism of the right. More important, in Agnoli's assessment, however was Carl Schmitt who he argues offered a detailed solution for political renewal. Compared with Alfredo Rocco, the creator and coordinator of Italian Fascism, Schmitt, Agnoli argues, played a much less important role in national socialism. Schmitt's role was confined to supplying ideological legitimation for the Nazi regime.

Following Agnoli (pp. 122-27), Schmitt was not looking backwards with a view to restoring the dynasty of the Kaiser. Instead, Schmitt looked forward: the recomposition of the German state had to be adequate to the society of a new type; a mass society. Schmitt perceived the crisis of post-1919 in terms of a decomposition of social, political, as well as cultural structures. This decomposition was seen to be a consequence of the emerging mass society and caused by the influence it was able to exert on the structure of 'the political'. Institutionally, parliamentary democracy, for Schmitt, caused and focused the crisis: 'the political' was subjected, on the one hand, to pluralist demands and, on the other, to class specific interests of social equality and emancipation. In short, Schmitt emphasized that the parliamentary system undermined the ability of the state to make decisions because 'society' had transformed 'the political' to an expression of distinct social interests leading to the fragmentation of 'the political' and therewith to the decomposition of the central institution that, for Schmitt, is able to maintain social harmony. The state was thus seen to have become 'socialized' and the fragmented character and class-divided nature of society was seen to be reproduced within 'the political'. The 'socialization of the state', then, undermined the central and principal institution capable of making decisions. Hence Schmitt's call for the restoration of the political, of the state, emphasized that the state had to liberate itself from society and that this liberation had to be based on the elimination of all forms of social conflict, conflict, that is, which is not authorized and conducted by 'the political'.

To recap, the political was seen by Schmitt to be in crisis because its ability to make political decisions 'autonomously' was undermined. Instead, it was the social conflict that forced decisions on the state, undermining its categorical monopoly as the sole decider. As such a decider, Schmitt conceives the political as the true sovereign. Schmitt proposes the creation of a generalized conflict as the method conducive to restoring the sovereignty of 'the political'. This conflict is construed in terms of a 'friend-foe relationship'. The unleashing of a politics of conflict that puts the friend against the foe entails 'the political' as the central entity of decision making. The friend and foe relationship is posed by 'the political' both internally (against the enemy within) and externally (against the enemy without). The decision on who should be regarded as the 'friend' or the 'foe' can only be made by those in possession of political power: the Fhrer. In short, Schmitt endorses populist elements in terms of a generalized conflict between friend and foe. However, this is a conflict that is 'announced' and 'decided upon' as well as 'conducted' from above. Thus, Schmitt views the populist element of the conflict between friend and foe through the lenses of a centralized decision making power. The only social conflict-situation conducive to the reconstruction and stability of the political is the conflict between friend and foe with the Fuhrer, as the principle decision-maker of the political, deciding whom the friends have to confront and rebuff, or as Nazism had it, to fight and kill and, indeed, exterminate as the foe. The friend, then, is endorsed as the true 'national' beyond class divisions and with undoubting loyalty towards the 'ethical values' that the notion of the 'nation' claims to present. In Nazism, the friend is the Volksgenosse.

Following Agnoli, Schmitt's notion of the autonomy of 'the political' outlived, in its importance, Fascism. This is not because the 'economy' and the 'state' (the political) are two distinct entities of human organization. Rather, the bourgeois state's historic role of protecting the laws of private property entails the state as a bourgeois form of the social organization of exploitation. Yet, as such a form, it appears to stand outside social relations as an institution in its own right whose distinct purpose is to safeguard, through law, the proper conduct of equal and free exchange relations between property owners. Hence, the attempts of political theory to construe the state as a distinct form of political organization that resides outside social relations and that merely intervenes, from the 'outside', into society to secure and guarantee the foundations upon which the society of burghers rest: the rights of property. Schmitt, in this sense, belongs firmly to the tradition of bourgeois political theory. What makes his contribution significant, Agnoli suggests, is his reconceptualization of the autonomy of the political against the background of the emergence of mass society at the beginning of the century. For Schmitt, Weimar stood for the decomposition of the political because mass society was seen to be able to subject the state to its demands. In short, Schmitt perceived the democratization of society as a deadly threat to the ability of the political to secure the relations of property owners.

Similar questions on the relationship between society and 'the political' reappeared after 1945. Their resolution had, of course, to be distinctly different from the fascist reconstruction of the political in terms of the Fuhrerstaat. As Agnoli explains, the lesson of history was that the democratization of society in the Weimar Republic was the cause of Nazism and that the reconstruction of liberal democracy had to be a democracy of the political; in other words, a democracy without demos, understood in its Greek original: the mob. Hence the above notion, that democratic self-determination is a threat to democracy. Hence also, following Agnoli, the reversal of the Schmittian perspective post-'45. In this way, Nazism was not caused by the political right's attempt to reassert the primacy of the capitalist exploitation of labour through terrorist means. Rather, it was caused by the 'mob' that, because of its alleged political immaturity and supposed populist inclinations, is seen to be easily influenced and persuaded to follow demonic leaders, allowing totalitarian dictatorships to 'emerge'. Schmitt's analysis, in other words, continues to be endorsed: mass democracy unchecked by constitutional and institutional safeguards, and mass society whose democratic inclinations is left uncontrolled and unattended by the watchfull eyes of the state, is a fertile ground for the creation of (totalitarian) dictatorships. The safeguarding of democracy and democratic freedoms requires, then, that the influence of mass society on 'the political' has to be kept to a minimum and that the only political activity that mass society can reasonably be expected to discharge is that of participating in elections as voters. Other forms of socio-political mobilization need to be treated at least with suspicion: the stability of democracy requires the democratic state to defend itself against the enemies of democracy. The 'enemy within' is specifically the political left whose political methods are identified as left-fascist. As noted earlier, for Nolte and other proponents of totalitarian theory, the enemy stands on the left; and right wing movements that use violence and terrorism as a political method are not really right wing. They are, as Nolte explains, a 'left right-party' or movement!


In conclusion, Agnoli sees Fascism as a counter-revolutionary force that seeks to disempower the 'dependent' (proletarian) masses and to repel their emancipatory aspirations through a preemptive politics of terrorist 'pacification' and, once so domesticated, through a politics of depolitisation effected through the institutionalization and legalization of the 'labour question'. Fascism, he argues (p. 111), attacked not only the revolutionary working class. Such an attack belongs to the 'normality' of the politics of the bourgeois state. Fascism also attacked the reformist working class movement and focused the integration of the working class into the bourgeois 'system' on issues such as Volk where the mutual 'friends' gain a material existence not only through state organized 'pleasure trips' but also, and most importantly, through the deadly persecution of the 'foe'. Italian Fascism, in contrast to the German v"lkisch conception of the 'national', focused on the incorporation of 'class', seeking to subsume the potentially subversive under the obligation of responsibility. Of course, only the fascist trade unions were invited  - and were the only ones left to be invited - to participate in tripartite discussions. As Agnoli shows, the efforts by employers to reassert their right to manage was in no way diminished, rather it was strengthened, through the politics of incorporation. Within the corporatist framework, the employers were endorsed as the producers and labour's role was that of a dependent who knows its 'natural' position that is visited upon those without property since Roman-times: the natural position of the worker in Italian corporatism was that of the plebes. Agnoli sums this up with the metaphor of the one national boat: the majority rowing the minority navigating.

In sum, historical Fascism is understood as an attempt at managing the reproduction of bourgeois society. His analysis rejects any softening of this insight. Hence the title of the book: Fascism without revision. This, for him, does not mean that judgements on historical developments should not be revised against the background of new evidence and insights. In this sense of 'revision', Agnoli himself is a 'revisionist'. Dimitroff's thesis that 'Fascism is the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, chauvinist and imperialist elements of finance capital' is not only revised but, rather, dismissed as a nonsense. The title Fascism without Revision is directed against those who do not only not attempt to revise their interpretation of Fascism in the light of historical evidence but, rather, and as a consequence, seek to correct the past with a view to creating an image of the past that is either rendered agreeable or usable as an excuse for the vilification and denunciation of Marxism's theory and practice of social emancipation.

Agnoli's insistence that the historical experience of Fascism is irreversible, summons an analysis of Fascism that is not fixed in the past. The book shows what dangers exist when the class struggle has reached an impasse where the bourgeoisie has run out of liberal-democratic resolutions to the crisis of capitalist accumulation and where the working class while resisting attacks on its conditions, does not operate in a revolutionary way. Although Agnoli warns against the use of 'analogies', his analysis of Fascism is most instructive on the potentials that bourgeois rule is capable to unleash. In contrast to Agnoli's understanding of Fascism, approaches that see Fascism as a thing in-itself either do not have any concept of bourgeois society or seek to revise it intentionally to render bourgeois relations harmless and to endorse them as history's end. I noted early that history is a weapon in the politics of class. Agnoli's book is strongly recommended.


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(1) Faschismus ohne Revision, [Fascism without Revision] ?a ira, Freiburg, 1997, ISBN 3-924627-47-9, pp. 177, pbk, DM 30.

(2) Only two of his publications have appeared in English: 'Political Parties and Parliament in West Germany', International Socialist Journal, vol. 3, no. 15, 1966; 'Destruction as the Determination of the Scholar in Miserable Times', Common Sense, no. 12, 1992.

(3) The book consists of seven substantive chapters plus the introductory Preface of 1997. The chapters are: 'Die brgerliche Gesellschaft und ihr Staat' ['Bourgeois Society and its State'], first published in German in 1966; 'Zur Faschismusdiskussion' '['On the Debate on Fascism'], first published in German in 1968; 'Zur Faschismusdarstellung und Methode Ernst Noltes' ['On Ernst Nolte's Methodology and Exposition of Fascism'] first published in German in 1976; 'J.C. Papalekas - epigonialer Ideology des Faschismus' ['J. C. Papalekas - an Epigonic Ideologue of Fascism'] first published in German in 1974; 'Alfred Sohn-Rethels ™konomie und Klassenstruktur des deutschen Faschismus' (written jointly with B. Blanke and N. Kadritzke) ['Alfred Sohn-Rethel's Economy and Class Structure of German Fascism'] first published in German in 1973 as a joint introduction by the editors of the German edition of Sohn-Rethels book; 'Krise und Krisenbewuátsein im Deutschland der Zwischenkriegszeit' ['Crisis and Crisis-Consciousness in the Germany of the inter-war Period'] first published in Italian in 1979; '"Jenseits von Liberalismus und Sozialismus". Korporatives System, Kapitalismus und Faschismus in Italien' ['"Beyond Liberalism and Socialism". Corporatist System, Capitalism and Fascism in Italy'], previously unpublished manuscript.

(4) See the Social Contract in Britain, Modell Deutschland in Germany, and versions, though never formalised, of a politics of an Historical Compromise in Italy and France. Corporatism, as Agnoli makes clear, was the single most important characteristic of the social experiment of coping, through institutionalisation and legalisation, with the labour question that Italian fascism represented and 'gifted' to bourgeois society post-'45.

(5) See the collection of articles edited by Crozier etal. (eds.) (1975).

(6) This perspective is not developed systematically but raised as an important research question. On this see also Agnoli (1990 and 1995).

(7) He assesses in particular Nolte's Der Faschismus in Seiner Epoche, 1963; Engl. ed. Three Faces of Fascism (Weidenfeld, 1963) and his 'Studentenbewegung und Linksfaschismus', Hamburger Jahrbuch fr Wirtschafts- und Gesellschaftspolitik, vol. 16, 1971. See also Nolte (1982). Ernst Nolte is an internationally renown expert on fascism.

(8) For a similar treatment of the extra-institutional left in Britain, see Brittan (1976).

(9) Cf. Orwell's 1984 (p. 199; Penguin, various editions): 'Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past'.

(10) See also Bologna (1994) on the recent attempts by revisionist writers to blame the working class for fascism, including the fascist terror unleashed upon the working class.

(11) As Nolte (1982, p. 196) sees it, 'Marxism is the fascism of socialism and to this extent the real leftist fascism'.  

(12) Agnoli does not analyse the political economy of the extermination of European Jewry. Although he acknowledges that such an analysis is required, he states that he can not explain it with either rational, Marxist or other concepts. For recent work on the political economy of Anti-Semitism see: Aly/Heym (1991); Postone (1986) and Bonefeld (1997).

(13) For an assessment of the political economy of 'violence', its law making and law perpetuating, and law destroying that is emancipatory potential, see Benjamin (1965).

(14) Nolte ostensibly argues against totalitarianism's orthodoxy of the 1950s by emphasising the differences between fascist regimes.

(15) See also Nolte's contributions to the historians' debate of the 1980s (Forever in the Shadow of Hitler?, 1993).

(16) For a commentary on the German Basic Law and its espousal of a militant democracy, that is a democracy that defends itself against the enemies of liberty and freedom, see Bonefeld (1992) on Agnoli (1990).

(17) Hennis quoted in Agnoli, p. 136. See also Schumpeter's (1992) notion that democracy should amount to no more than a rationalised procedure for the selection of rival elites competing for governmental power.

(18) The word 'mass' has a revolutionary ring and indicates 'collectiveness', 'unity in terms of conditions and aspirations', and 'solidarity'. Conservative commentators refer to 'mass' by using the term 'mob' or 'crowd' which signals 'unruliness', 'chaos', and a sort of 'social immaturity' that can easily be exploited by demonic and charismatic 'leaders'. Agnoli uses the word 'mass' in similar terms as, for example, Rosa Luxemburg in The Mass Strike. See also Holloway's (1996) analysis of the New Deal, especially his assessment of Barauch's view that the New Deal amounted to the seizure of government by the 'mob'.