A Review of La possibilité du fascisme. France, la trajectoire du désastre by Ugo Palheta
Reader in Critical Theory, Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths,
University of London, UK
School of Communication, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby BC, Canada
This article reviews Ugo Palheta’s compelling conjunctural analysis and theorisation of France’s fascist potential in terms of a crisis of hegemony under punitive neoliberal conditions. It explores his impressive historical diagnosis while interrogating the limits of his reliance on a ‘generic’ conception of fascism to ground his Gramscian approach to the parabola of the Far Right.
fascism – Front National – Rassemblement National – crisis of hegemony – Islamophobia
Ugo Palheta, (2018) La possibilité du fascisme. France, la trajectoire du désastre, Paris: Éditions La Découverte.
The aim, at once analytical and militant, of Ugo Palheta’s important volume is to counter the tendency in France and beyond to treat the invocation of fascism as a polemical anachronism, a threadbare rhetorical play, and to demonstrate instead that fascism is not merely a distinct possibility, but a germinating tendency in the current political conjuncture. Sociologist and chief editor of Contretemps, a theoretical review of ‘critical communism’ closely associated with the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire and later the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, Palheta is the author of a critical-sociological study of the teaching profession (La Domination scolaire, 2012), as well as of a long introduction, co-authored with Julien Salingue, to Daniel Bensaïd’s 1986 pamphlet Stratégie et Parti (2016). Though its theoretical and scholarly references are broad (incorporating Bourdieusian sociology, Stuart Hall’s work in cultural studies, the writings of Sadri Khiari on the racialisation of class war in postcolonial France, and a vast bibliography of texts on the Front National, the Far Right and the debate on fascism), Palheta’s perspective is clearly anchored in the French Trotskyist theoretical tradition of which Daniel Bensaïd was the most brilliant and influential representative. Aside from references to Bensaïd’s work and to Trotsky’s classic analyses of fascism, this also transpires from the multiple references to the writings of Isabelle Garo and to the critical role of Stathis Kouvelakis’s analyses of the cycle of working-class and social mobilisations against neoliberalism from the mid-1980s to the 2000s (work that Kouvelakis has recently updated in the New Left Review with respect to the Gilets Jaunes protests).1
Interestingly, however, La possibilité du fascisme takes a comradely if significantly critical distance from the most important work on fascism and the Far Right by a figure in this tradition, namely Enzo Traverso’s The New Faces of Fascism – a book that contrary to its somewhat misleading title is marked by a distinction between historical fascism and nostalgic neo-fascisms, on the one hand, and post-fascism, on the other, of which the new model Front National/Rassemblement National under Marine Le Pen would appear to be a salient example.2 Palheta’s starting-point, method, conclusions and prescriptions differ considerably from Traverso’s, notwithstanding a common intellectual and political vocabulary. While sharing with Traverso a repudiation of the category of ‘populism’ as both scientifically vacuous and politically misleading, Palheta wants to stress the clear and present danger of a ‘fascisation’ of French politics. To make this argument, rather than entering into a nomothetical debate about theories and markers of fascism, Palheta chooses to combine elements (both Marxist and otherwise) of the debate on fascism with political-scientific and sociological studies of French society. This approach is governed by an understanding of the socio-economic and political trajectory of French neoliberalism as laying the groundwork for a protracted crisis of hegemony that could allow the ‘germ’ of fascism fermenting in the Front National (FN)/Rassemblement National (RN) and auxiliary formations to develop from a pervasive movement into a disastrously successful regime. The strength and appeal of the book lies in eschewing the comparative-analogical cast of recent debates about fascism, so often mired in the cataloguing of somewhat arbitrary and scholastic ideal-typical check-lists, and in redirecting our attention to the ways in which the present surge in the mainstream fortunes of a revanchist, ultra-nationalist and xenophobic far right is grounded in social, economic, political and ideological transformations that have taken place over the past three to four decades.
In this respect, the terms possibility and trajectory, present respectively in the title and subtitle of the book, indicate the book’s effort to delineate a complex tendency (what the Prologue pointedly terms ‘the trajectory of a possible disaster’; p. 10), rather than a static state of affairs, one that would inform the elaboration of a pertinent anti-fascist strategy. This tendential analysis of the possibility of fascism is also framed as a class analysis, namely of what Palheta calls the ‘neoliberal, authoritarian and racist radicalisation of the French ruling class as a whole’, a radicalisation that is ‘the product and productive of an interminable political crisis’ facilitating ‘the rise of a fascism of a new type, currently embodied in the figure of the Front National but not reducible to it’ (p. 11). France’s crisis would thus be, in Geoff Eley’s terminology, footnoted by Palheta (p. 32, n. 31), a ‘fascism-producing crisis’. Notwithstanding important differences in the naming and analysis of fascism, Palheta’s broadly Gramscian approach resonates – in its attention to a mobile political conjuncture, the ideological recomposition of the political field and the contingencies of crisis – with some of Stuart Hall’s work on Thatcherism and authoritarian populism, as well as aspects of Poulantzas’s analysis of the mid- to late 1970s (both are indeed referenced here).
Palheta’s book stands out from the recent crop of writings which invoke the category of fascism in seeking, in a sustained and perceptive manner, to work at the nexus of tendency, crisis and strategy, whilst being non-reductively attentive to the critical issue of class strategy. It is a very compelling and well-evidenced proof of why, in the French case especially, those who wish to be silent about capitalism (or about neoliberalism, in this case), will not have much of use to say about fascism. On the other hand, notwithstanding the title, it is (for good methodological and political reasons, one might say) not primarily a book about the international surge of the Far Right, nor about theories of fascism per se, but about the specific trajectory of France – with much of the argument focusing on those dimensions of French state-led neoliberalism, authoritarianism and racism that have contributed to the ‘possibility’ of fascism, with much of it dealing very directly with debates about the direction, composition and transformations of the Front National.
The book is divided into a very short prologue, laying out its principal thesis, and five chapters: ‘The Return of (the Concept of) Fascism’; ‘A Crisis of Hegemony’; ‘Towards the Neoliberal-Authoritarian State’; ‘The Nationalist and Racist Offensive’; ‘The Front National: A Neo-Fascist Party in Gestation’. A conclusion draws political and strategic consequences from the analysis.
The first chapter operates as a kind of critical literature review of Marxist and non-Marxist debates around fascism, polemically oriented by the repudiation of the category of populism (and national-populism) as terms apt to grasp the mutations of the resurgent right, or to account for the nature of the FN – as the ‘bearer of a historical dynamic that transcends it’ (p. 51). The dubious political uses of this term (especially to disqualify anti-establishment demands for radical democracy, and to fuse right and left ‘extremes’ as an object for condemnation) are anatomised, especially in the influential work of Pierre-André Taguieff. Against this confusion, it is important, according to Palheta, to approach fascism, following Robert Paxton, in terms not of an identical repetition (whose absence would require a turn to new categories) but of ‘functional equivalents’. It is also crucial, against an ultra-leftist tendency to amalgamate all reactions, to distinguish between authoritarian statism and fascism proper (whether as regime, movement or ideology). Palheta’s minimal definition of the ‘political practice’ of fascism, as noted, leans heavily on the centrality of regeneration. As he puts it, we may consider fascism as ‘a mass movement which claims to enact the regeneration of an “imagined community” considered as organic (nation, ‘race’, and/or civilisation) through ethno-racial purification, by the annihilation of every form of social conflict and protest (political, trade-unionist, religious, journalistic or artistic), in other words by the emptying out of everything that can endanger its imaginary unity (in particular the visible presence of ethno-racial minorities and the activism of political oppositions)’ (p. 31).
Once fascism is properly established, as movement and regime, systematic repression and violence, militarisation and terror, are sine qua non for it. It is interesting to note here that though there is clearly a class dimension to this definition (the obliteration of conflict, etc.) it is not a definition which in itself is immanent to a Marxist analysis of capitalism (one would imagine it as also palatable to radical liberals and others – this is not meant as a criticism but as an acknowledgment that though the analysis of capitalism is crucial to Palheta’s analysis of fascisation it is not an intrinsic element of the definition of fascism itself, unlike, say, in Dimitrov’s famous definition, or indeed in some later iterations, such as George Jackson’s take on fascism in his prison letters). From his critical review of an ample selection of theoretical reflections on fascism, Palheta also draws other significant lessons: fascism’s plasticity and opportunism regarding programmes (especially in the economic arena), and its ability to address different groups with different discourses (as noted by Poulantzas most effectively in his arguments on its ‘popular impact’), does not mean that it ever really wavers in terms of its core regenerationist-racist ideology; fascism cannot be grasped instrumentally, as a mere capitalist tool, or a mere reaction to working-class mobilisation; fascism remains essentially multi-classist; it is a counter-revolution employing revolutionary means (p. 36). At the core of Palheta’s take on fascism is the notion that a crisis of hegemony should be central to any analysis of fascism as a historical phenomenon rooted in real economic and sociological dynamics – only such a perspective allows us to navigate past the Scylla of excessively generic philosophical approaches that dissolve its historical specificity and the Charybdis of those historical understandings that lend it a singularity allowing of no transposition to the present.
The second chapter develops this methodological perspective by tracing the specificity of the French crisis of hegemony, marked by a triumph of neoliberalism (roughly since Mitterrand’s 1983 capitulation, but accelerating especially from the Jospin presidency onwards) combined with a protracted crisis of French capitalism and global capitalism more broadly – increasingly unable in their political manifestations to pacify social unrest through material and ideological co-optation. The 2007–8 crisis is of particular moment here as revelatory that neoliberalism is unable to generate socially acceptable solutions, opening up a seemingly endless horizon of austerity, stagnation, declining living standards, increasing inequality, and a repressive hardening of the state against any challenge. This whole chapter brings together a plethora of economic and sociological studies to paint a detailed and clear picture of the ample immiseration of the French polity. Palheta also traces the recomposition of the French political field, with the hara-kiri of a PS wedded to the neoliberal project to the point of electoral euthanasia, leading to the rise of the thin, unstable and, in its own manner, destabilising project under Macron’s aegis, which has undone any stabilising effects that party-political representation could have on the abidingly high degree of social conflict and restiveness vis-à-vis labour-, pension- and school reforms evident in France. Macron is but ‘the private name of a collective dream’ of the French ruling classes, and his rise a sign of the ‘fragility of neoliberal victory’ (pp. 82–3), especially since he has sapped the possibility of an alternation without alternative (p. 85) between ‘left’ and ‘right’ that was ultimately functional to the expanded reproduction of neoliberal dispossession and inequality. The extreme centre is a deeply risky option in this respect, and its capacity to incorporate consent to neoliberal domination rather precarious.
To further explore the way in which neoliberalism makes a fascism of a new type possible, Chapter 3 traces the hardening of authoritarian tendencies, in a context of ‘domination without hegemony’ in which the ruling classes undergo a process of radicalisation, and where their continued supremacy is dependent on a hollowing-out of democratic rights and resources at the national and European level. Palheta informatively tracks elements of the deeper history of the French ‘strong state’ but also its recent deployment of emergency laws – against pro-Palestinian, climate-change and labour-law activists – using terrorist attacks in a sort of shock doctrine à la française. The picture is one of a bourgeoisie (a term that, except for his sociological analyses of the FN cadre, Palheta uses in a rather generic and homogeneous sense) set on dismantling bourgeois democracy to make possible the reproduction of an increasingly asymmetrical capitalism under conditions of stagnation. Palheta here notes, against a range of radical perspectives – from Badiou to the Invisible Committee – the need to affirm the significance of democracy as a radical demand. Why, he asks, would ruling classes be so exercised in the demolition of democratic safeguards if democracy under current conditions were indeed as much of a sham as some radical critics claim (here Palheta is also appropriating a number of arguments from Rancière’s Hatred of Democracy)? The picture is one of a ‘progressive decomposition of previous political equilibria’ and a ‘preventive authoritarian offensive’ (p. 121 – it is intriguing in this respect that ‘preventive fascism’ was an important category for both Herbert Marcuse and Angela Davis, who applied it to the US context in the ’60s and ’70s). Now, while this neoliberal-authoritarian state – product and producer of the crisis of hegemony – is not per se fascism, it does prepare some of the elements that a fascist rupture could take advantage of (Palheta is adamant that fascisation is not some infinitesimally gradual process, but requires a break, an ‘extra-ordinary conjuncture’; p. 122).
Chapter 4 complements the foregoing analysis with an extensive review of the increasing centrality of the racial question to the authoritarian turn of the French state and the ideological rightward turn of the political mainstream. Palheta discerns in this process the effort to bring about a ‘white historical bloc under bourgeois domination’ and the counter-hegemonic requirement to generate a ‘subaltern bloc’. The chapter provides a theoretically rich and historical informative narrative regarding the rise of ‘race’ as a central question in France, namely through the mediation of the ‘Muslim question’, making Islamophobia a critical operator in the trajectory of the French disaster, and in the particular gestation of a fascism of a new type, where it plays the role of a key ‘ideological form’ of contemporary racism and an ‘operator of racialisation’ (pp. 152–3), and accordingly as ‘the principal vector of nationalist radicalisation in the French political field’ (p. 162). As in the previous chapter, the role of socialists and rightists alike in generating a ‘new anti-immigrant consensus’ is clearly detailed (p. 147). The way in which a declining imperialism, still ideologically clinging to fantasies of greatness and materially attached to ‘Françafrique’ (France’s neo-colonial sphere of influence in the continent) is developed, orbiting around Bourdieu’s insight that ‘if we have reactions typical of a fascistoid ultra-nationalism, it is because we are great universalist-dominators in decline’ (cited at p. 159).
The end of Chapter 4, providing ample historical and ideological evidence of the centrality of racism to the FN’s project, prepares the way for the final chapter on the FN as a ‘neofascist party in gestation’. The chapter seeks to provide a composite portrait of the party’s history, make-up, ideology, orientation and transformations, well-anchored in the French context outlined in the foregoing chapters. It deals soberly and trenchantly with the party’s shifting positions regarding the economy (moving from fierce paeans to deregulation to anti-globalist protectionism, but all the while singing the praises of the white small businessman, and retaining its hostility to trade unions and class politics); the sociology of its electorate; the illusion of its recent decline; and the increasing solidity of its voting bloc and persistence of its strategic and political project. The latter remains profoundly anchored around the ‘four “I”s’ – immigration, insecurity, Islam and (national) identity – priorities that the FN/RN has strongly pushed into mainstream discourse over the decades of its existence. Palheta also notes that, notwithstanding the tactical marginalisation of overt fascist nostalgia and continuity, Marine Le Pen’s leadership has ironically led her toward a more ‘classical’ set of fascist references, not least the ‘neither left nor right’ theme, the centrality of the social combined with the repudiation of socialism, the praise of the state, etc. (all largely absent from the FN’s earlier incarnation). Crucially, Palheta shows, drawing on multiple studies of the FN/RN, that even though racism is less prominent in its propaganda and programme, this is so mainly because it is such a given of the party’s identity, with its members and voters showing profoundly-rooted xenophobic, anti-immigrant and racist attitudes. In the end, the FN/RN crystallises a project that ‘articulates a discourse of social complaint with a racism that stigmatises migrants and Muslims in order better to call for a politics of white affirmation, in brief a fascist project’ (p. 245). Against it, as the conclusion draws out, there is a need to invent a non-sectarian but non-liberal anti-fascist strategy which targets the movement-manifestations of this rightist resurgence, one taking its distance from a republican faux anti-fascism (only trotted out in order for establishment candidates to solicit votes against the FN/RN threat) while not falling for a kind of ultra-left equating of capitalism and fascism, or a concurrent underestimation of ‘formal’ democracy as a key site of struggle.
If I were to formulate a criticism of a book from which I have gained precious orientation around recent political developments and strategic challenges for the Left in France, it would revolve around its relation to the theoretical debates surrounding the concept of fascism. It seems that, in eschewing the more orthodox (or dogmatic) Marxist definitions of fascism (dictatorship of finance capital in its most brutal form, etc.), but also those historical and sociological perspectives that posit the mass movement nature of fascism (including its relation to the experience of war, the related centrality of ideologies of virility, etc., as in Mann’s Fascists or indeed the earlier Marxist work of Arthur Rosenberg), Palheta is led to hitch his compelling Gramscian analysis of the authoritarian and racist trajectory of French neoliberalism to the somewhat meagre ideal-typical and ‘generic’ figure of fascism provided by Roger Griffin’s notion of it as ‘palingenetic’ – the vision of fascism as centred on a myth of national renaissance mediated by the violent racialised exclusion of others and the reclamation of (white) privilege in conditions of crisis. The question – which is at once sociological, historical and political – is whether a racist or xenophobic ideology of national renaissance suffices to sustain the definition of fascism. In this regard one wonders whether, for instance, we can envisage a fascist regime with no accompanying fascist movement. Palheta is quite right to say that the repressive resources and fascisation of repressive personnel may make movement-politics irrelevant to a new-type fascism. But if that is so then how much difference is there between the politics of Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen, given their shared penchant for xenophobic authoritarian statism? Or should we be minded to treat Putin’s Russia as fascist given the cocktail of repression, authoritarianism, racism (against historically oppressed minorities, etc.) and a powerful and successful rhetoric of national (or even imperial) regeneration? This is not just a definitional matter, given the turn to a militant politics of no-platforming articulated in the book’s conclusion, which only gains urgency and priority to the extent that the movement-dimension of fascism (perhaps on the auxiliary fringes of its mainstream political representation) is viewed as paramount. One might also wonder to what extent we can really see contemporary authoritarian far-right trends as carrying the ‘millenarian hope in a new order, alternative to the established one’ (p. 35) that seems to characterise palingenetic fascism – are not contemporary movements on the Far Right in Europe, from the Lega Nord to UKIP, far more cynical and disabused in their racist revanchism?
Palheta’s book is a rigorous and illuminating guide into the laboratories of the French Far Right and into the socio-economic conjuncture that has boosted the fortunes of fascisation. Efforts to advance conjunctural analyses of the trajectories and possibilities of fascism will gain much from engaging with his work and testing the framework he has forged to study and counter new forms of authoritarianism and reaction in France and beyond.
Bensaïd, Daniel, Ugo Palheta and Julien Salingue 2016, Stratégie et parti, Paris: Éditions Amsterdam.
Kouvelakis, Stathis 2019, ‘The French Insurgency: Political Economy of the Gilets Jaunes’, New Left Review, II, 116/117: 75–98, available at: <https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii116/articles/stathis-kouvelakis-the-french-insurgency>.
Palheta, Ugo 2012, La Domination scolaire, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Palheta, Ugo 2018, La possibilité du fascisme. France, la trajectoire du désastre, Paris: Éditions La Découverte.
Traverso, Enzo 2019, The New Faces of Fascism: Populism and the Far Right, London: Verso.
Traverso, Enzo 2021, ‘Universal Fascism? A Response to Ugo Palheta’, Historical Materialism website, 31 March, available at: <https://www.historicalmaterialism.org/blog/universal-fascism-response-to-ugo-palheta>.
 Kouvelakis 2019.
 See also Traverso’s recent reply to Palheta (Traverso 2021).