Adam Tooze and a General Theory of Fascism

Adam Tooze and a General Theory of Fascism
Pexels photo by Eric Yeich

There is no general theory of fascism, at least not a rigorous one. And historian Adam Tooze doesn’t claim otherwise, so don’t get this post twisted.

But Tooze—one of the narrative sense-makers of our time—has weighed in on the “fascism debate” at numerous points the past couple years, most recently in his always-insightful newsletter.

If you want to catch up on what the fascism debate was/is, Udi Greenberg had a very good breakdown of the whole thing. The good folks at Know Your Enemy also had this podcast episode that describes the debate’s contours.

As far as I can tell, this has been a debate almost entirely within the left. Some centrist libs want to deny the fascist label because they either think it’s bad electoral strategy (alienating the mythical median voter) or because they still believe in bipartisanship as a virtue and reaching across the aisle isn’t possible if the other side is the opp.

Meanwhile, a cross section of socialists who are especially anti-liberal (not all socialists) want to dilute claims of fascism because they imagine themselves fighting a “war of position” against liberals. They argue that libs want to use the fascist label against the Republican Party and Trumpism to avoid doing the real redistributive work of social democracy. Some also worry about libs using the fascist threat to build up the national security state further.

For the record, I’m not anti-liberal, and as I said in yesterday’s newsletter, I’d be ok with labeling the current reactionary trend fascism if it unlocked social democratic policies. Even a crude understanding of the Popular Front in pre-WWII America would suggest it’s possible to realize social democratic policies through a unified opposition to a fascist bogeyman, but that’s the opposite read of certain segments of the anti-liberal left.

For Tooze, fascism emerged in the 1920s out of:

(1) the experience of total war; (2) the active threat of class war and revolution; (3) the shadow of the end of history as defined by the rise of Anglo-American global hegemony.

Since these three features are not part of the current landscape, fascism is not the right name for the problems facing modern democracies right now.

That’s true, but here’s the thing. What Tooze is identifying as points of difference between yesterday and today is not part of some fascist covering law. Tooze is describing three necessary conditions for a distinct political configuration (fascism) emerging in one specific historical conjuncture. Unless we’re proposing a general theory of fascism, which Tooze is not, we cannot rule out fascism in the present simply because we lack the necessary conditions from a different historical conjuncture.

So why downplay fascism? If it's pure historical fetish or pedantry, then cool; I'm agnostic and want to hear everything everyone has to say. And if it's a way of arguing against granting the national security state even more power and resources, then I'm sympathetic.

But if downplaying fascism is a way of “owning the libs” from the left, that’s a problem. If it’s to diminish the urgency of the far right threat to liberal democracy, that’s also a problem.

So there’s a way in which the fascism debate functions as a distraction from real problems, but it also has the potential to unlock solutions to real problems.

Ultimately, we just need more reliable ways of diagnosing the problems we currently face. Tooze is right that historical analogies have their limits. But it's important not to extrapolate from Tooze's historical analysis that we can afford to be idle in a policy sense (which he also cautions against).