A Review of Fascism and the Masses: The Revolt against the Last Humans, 1848–1945 by Ishay Landa
This article provides an overview of Ishay Landa’s book Fascism and the Masses: The Revolt against the Last Humans, 1848–1945. First, according to Landa, our preconceptions of fascism are still largely framed by the idea that it was a mass movement, and, moreover, a movement of the masses. This is what Landa seeks to deconstruct: for if it turns out that fascism was an anti-mass movement, rather than the other way around, then the ‘standard’ political diagnosis must also be reversed. This article follows the structure of Landa’s book: in it, this ‘standard’ political diagnosis is traced back to what Landa calls left-Nietzscheans (including Alain Badiou and the Frankfurt School, or the ‘Nietzschean economists’, Werner Sombart and Max Weber), but it is extended to today’s far-right Nietzscheans – such as Dugin, Nick Land, Alain de Benoist, and others, as well. Unlike other reviews, this contemporary aim is highlighted in the article as the raison d’être of the book. Towards the end, the article makes its second contribution by highlighting those thinkers which hold conceptions close to Landa’s (the idea of fascism as a preventive counter-revolution and an anti-mass movement, for instance, have their predecessors in the Italian anarchist Luigi Fabbri, and the Hungarian economic historian Karl Polanyi), and calls for a more nuanced reception of the works of the Frankfurt School.
capitalism – fascism – Frankfurt School – Ishay Landa – liberalism – masses
Ishay Landa, (2018) Fascism and the Masses: The Revolt against the Last Humans, 1848–1945, New York: Routledge.
‘The time has come, I feel, to make a decision’ – so Landa ends the Epilogue of his new book on fascism and the masses (p. 417). While it takes more than 400 pages to get there, it is in this concluding chapter that the aim of the book is revealed to the reader. For all its treatment of history, the book is undoubtedly aimed at our present time, advancing a broad critique of Nietzscheanism that, although rarely addressed, still underpins the contemporary (self-)understanding of fascism. Examples are not hard to come by: what Landa calls ‘The New Right’, AKA post-World War Two and contemporary alt-right authors such as (to repeat Landa’s list): the German Armin Mohler, the French Alain de Benoist, the Italian Giorgio Locchi, and more recently the US Americans Paul Gottfried and Richard B. Spencer, the English writers Nick Land and Jonathan Bowden, and the Russian Aleksandr Dugin, which the author rightly designates as a ‘neo-Nietzschean movement’ (p. 400), adding, in a footnote: ‘To be noticed is the international spread of the theory.’ (p. 417.) The contemporary contextualisation of the book, found in this Epilogue, is conspicuously absent from current reviews.1 Yet, this Epilogue is much more than an expected critique of the far-right of today. This chapter also addresses what Landa calls left-Nietzscheans: including Alain Badiou and the Frankfurt School, or the ‘Nietzschean economists’, Werner Sombart and Max Weber, for their idealisations of earlier stages of capitalist production. This is why Nietzsche is Landa’s main interlocutor: Nietzsche is seen as the nineteenth-century anti-Marx (both as a witness of capitalism’s emergence from up-front, and as the Marxian obverse – the ur-critic of the masses in the wake of the revolutions of 1848). Landa rejects the notion that Nietzsche’s political impact was/is neutral, and that it works ‘somewhat like an energy drink; drink it who may, the effect will be the same’ (p. 411). Rather, Nietzsche appears to have simultaneously incited the right and diluted the left – and to have done all that so as to resist the historical rise of the masses. It is at this juncture that Landa’s critique of Nietzscheanism crosses with the critical study of fascism and its relationship to the masses: for our preconceptions of fascism are still largely framed by the idea that it was a mass movement, and, moreover, a movement of the masses. This is what Landa seeks to deconstruct: for if it turns out that fascism was an anti-mass movement, rather than the other way around, then the standard political diagnosis must also be reversed.
The Liberal Phobia
The book thus starts with Nietzsche’s critique of the masses and expands into ‘the European body of anti-mass literature’ (p. 5), which includes, among many others, the likes of Gustav Le Bon, Emil Lederer, Hannah Arendt, William Kornhauser, Fritz Stern, the Spanish Nietzschean José Ortega y Gasset, and some members of the Frankfurt School. The opening three chapters seek to ground such expansive literature in its proper historical context. Originally departing from Ortega y Gasset and his essays on the ‘revolt of the masses’, Landa devotes the first half of the book to depicting the rise and consolidation of the masses in history or, at least, within the framework of capitalist modernity: their demands for democracy and how they institutionalised themselves, and the general quest to ameliorate the lot of society’s lower strata, via the struggle for obtaining labour-protection, the reduction of labour hours, attainment of healthcare, pensions and insurance, and so on and so forth. In that sense, modernity was an extreme manifestation of popular sovereignty (p. 13). This is depicted in a political sense (for example, the nation and questions of demography), as well as the social (for example, unions and the role of women) and cultural senses (from sports to mass consumption and Americanism), without prioritising any of them. Surely, such a variety of topics can be demanding for the reader. But the point of the book is not simply a critique of ‘anti-mass literature’ as it is, but, more interestingly, a critique of how it is periodised.
Namely, like the author’s previous book dealing with fascism (The Apprentice’s Sorcerer: Liberal Tradition and Fascism), Fascism and the Masses also takes on the liberal precursor to fascism. Both books can be said to trace how various fascisms developed from tensions already found within liberalism itself. In The Apprentice’s Sorcerer (to quote the first book), ‘An indispensable historical precondition for fascism was the inherent tension between the political dimension of the liberal order and its economic one.’2 The history of this ‘liberal split’, as Landa names it, is traced from James Fox and Burke to Schapiro, Hayek and Mises, to as late as Milton Friedman, even, showing a line that is followed all the way up to the twentieth century. Thus, in Landa’s first book on the topic, the question was not whether there is a similarity between fascism and Europe’s political traditions, but rather how to understand it. In Fascism and the Masses, the same question is re-contextualised and re-examined through the reactions of both political strands to the ‘revolt of the masses’ and to the rise of capitalist mass society.
This whole conundrum can be explained in a sentence: liberalism wasn’t prepared for the masses. From Delacroix’s early, ‘angelic’ depiction of the masses of Paris led by the female figure of ‘Liberty’ in his celebrated painting of 1830, to the ‘demonic’ depiction of London’s populace in Poe’s 1840s ‘The Man of the Crowd’, the rise of masses is observed as its significance is transformed in the eyes of Europe’s bourgeoisie. With a stance akin to detached ‘connoisseurs’ of the masses – that foreign and exotic object – the ‘would-be theorists of the masses’, as Landa likes to call them, were increasingly influenced by the second, condemning, reaction towards the modern mass. Hence, ‘no matter whether we are dealing with Hippolyte Taine, Nietzsche, Gabriel Tarde, Scipio Sighele, Le Bon, Ortega, or any other would-be mass expert, the preconceptions of the writer, mostly negative and judgmental, are projected onto the crowd, without in any way engaging it or any of its perceived members.’ (p. 87.) Describing ‘how he felt when lying awake in bed in his London apartment, one night in 1880, unable to fall asleep on account of the horror of lying so close to “a monster whose body had four million heads and eight million eyes”’ (p. 126), the Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy provides just one, vivid example of the deep-seated fear of the mass by Europe’s upper- and middle classes.
For Marxists, this is a particularly interesting approach: for it shows how, as the transition from Manchesterian capitalism to the first battles for the welfare of the masses unfolded, this literal mass-anxiety escalated, as well. Corresponding to such a process of mass empowerment, a fear of the masses on the part of the upper class undoubtedly spread across the European continent. Analogous with Marx’s critiques of the waning of the revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie, and the assumption of its reactionary role after the disintegration of feudalism, seen also in the transformations of its political economists,3 Landa’s book sheds light on the other side of this Marxian coin, namely the increasing resentment of the liberal bourgeoisie against mass society. This is evident in the concrete social struggles of the period, in a wide array of cultural developments, and – first and foremost – in the failures of Europe’s wars to quell the rise of the masses, of which the most emblematic remains the First World War, a failure which finally led to the emergence of fascism. Liberalism simply was not prepared for mass society – and when it came, it was at pains to come to terms with it.
The Transubstantiation of Fascism
Fascism arose out of a failed redemption – the redemption of the European bourgeoisie through the Great (First World) War, and its failure to escape the threat of the proletarian masses. In the book’s first chapter entirely dedicated to fascism (‘Fascism and mass politics’), Landa reverses the age-old narrative about fascism, whose (unfounded) premises could be summed up in a nutshell: that the masses wanted fascism, that the masses elected it, and that it was the masses who profited from it.
According to this narrative, the First World War was the outcome mass euphoria, of essentially the same kind that led to fascism later on: Landa, on the contrary, presents textual evidence by different writers expressing a loathing for peace and a longing for a redemptive war, precisely since peace was perceived as dominated by the masses and favouring their cause. Such luminaries as Ernst Jünger and Max Weber provide some of the examples included, alongside Hitler’s inspiration by the Boer War or the zealous affirmation of war on the part of another self-proclaimed disciple of Nietzsche, who went by the name of Benito Mussolini. These, and other examples, attest, according to Landa, to a ‘bellicose mood [that] predated the war, forming, in reality, one of its indispensable preconditions’. And he argues further that this enthusiasm for war was grounded, quite centrally, in an effort to dislodge the masses from their perceived position of increasing hegemony, and to re-unite the nation behind the upper- and middle-classes: ‘One of the main purposes of the war was thus to forge internal unity within the different nations, heal the rifts and wounds paradoxically created by the long peace.’ (p. 148.) This, as we shall see, is one the main legacies which fascism, in Landa’s reading, took over from those abhorring the advancing masses of ‘the Last Humans’.
The book’s subsequent chapters could best be described as a valuable deconstruction of a set of several sub-myths, emanating from the same logic that first manifested itself in the claim that the European masses were longing for war and welcomed it with exuberance. The alleged bellicose exultation before the war – according to this argument – continued to fuel mass desires after the war, clamouring for a ‘second round’ of revanchism that fed the proliferation of fascist movements in the interwar period. Yet, argues Landa, if anything the very opposite happened, since the First World War could be seen not as ignited by mass hysteria, but as a failed upper-class project of national regeneration. This project failed because it was unable to check the further expansion of mass society and bring unity to the nation – something which European fascism would equally seek to do in the interwar period, leading up to another colossal conflagration.
With regard to the rise of fascism, the very same argument seemed to repeat itself all over again with the myth of its electoral success amongst the masses: Landa deflates this second myth by offering a detailed analysis of the successes of National Socialists in Germany. Scrutinising the results of the last parliamentary elections in Weimar Germany, he shows that, in reality, the Nazi achievements were ‘primarily the result of a migration of votes taking place within the middle-class, liberal and conservative camp’ (p. 167), and that its inroads into working-class constituencies were comparatively much more limited and affected mostly conservative, agrarian and unorganised workers.
The third, and possibly the most perverse consequence of this narrative is the idea of ‘fascist consumerism’ or a fascist ‘welfare state’, and the collective guilt associated with it, a notion that over the past few decades has been avidly propounded by many historians, from George Mosse to Götz Aly. This prevalent notion is also closely related to the belief that fascism was extraneous to the traditions of high culture, being an offshoot of anti-culture or mass culture. The origins of this conviction can be traced to the interwar period, when liberal and conservative opponents of fascism tried to shift the responsibility for the emergence of their nemesis from their own, elevated social circles, down the social ladder, towards the lower classes and their supposed hatred of culture. As a notable example Landa discusses Klaus Mann’s writings, which evinced a reluctance to confront the failings of high culture and instead tried to depict Nazism as driven by modern ‘Persians’, enraged outsiders, invading and desecrating ‘the supreme citadel of high culture’ (p. 221). Klaus Mann’s apologetic interpretation of the Western tradition, particularly its German branch, is interestingly compared to that of his celebrated father, Thomas Mann. The latter, having begun as a conservative author, knew better than to exonerate German high culture, whose irrationalism and elitism he intimately understood. The difference between the father and son’s positions is highlighted by way of a comparison between their respective renditions of the myth of Faust, so central to German culture. Landa shows how in Klaus’ Mephisto (1936), cultured collaborators with the Nazis are depicted as deserting high culture, betraying its cause. By contrast, in Thomas’ post-War Doctor Faustus (1947) the main protagonist, Andreas Leverkühn, exchanges his soul for a period of artistic creativity in a grand act of Nietzschean defiance of morality. Leverkühn’s choice is diagnosed as deriving from high culture itself, reflecting its intrinsic barbarity, and not some invasion or vulgarisation. In the aftermath of the war both interpretations lived on, but it was increasingly tempting and facile to go along with Klaus, and shift the blame to mass culture, instead of pondering, with Thomas, the culpability of cultural elitism.
After 1945, the blame-the-masses argument also took a somewhat different inflection, where the masses were seen as passive rather than active supporters of fascism: the notion of culture industries. In many of the works produced by representatives of the so-called Frankfurt School, the modern masses in capitalist countries were seen as submissive recipients of indoctrination and quasi-fascist ideology from the ground up; as if behind the arabesques of jazz, to paraphrase Adorno, awaits the military march. A very similar anti-consumerism still haunts the contemporary left despite the fact that we are living in an age of austerity, and such a stance needs to be updated. This is one of the highlights of the present book. To challenge the idea that fascism could seamlessly emerge out of the normal operations of the culture industry, Landa conceptualises commercial culture as an ‘arena in which, under “normal” times when no special political force is applied to administer its procedures, a fierce contention takes place between different ideologies and class-based perspectives.’ (p. 248.) That is why fascists in power consciously and systematically acted to transform and domesticate the culture industries, which in themselves are no more regressive than they are progressive. For Landa, mass culture is, thus, ‘a heterogeneity made of conflicting vantage-points, conservative, utopian, liberal, radical, reactionary or simply trite and insipid’ (p. 249). This is how Landa solves the riddle of the fascists’ investment in cinema and the production of popular films: by using mass culture to disseminate inherently elitist ideology, the fascists attempted ‘one might say, to artificially transform them [the actually existing culture industries] into something much more resembling Adorno’s image of the culture industry as a pliant tool for social domination, indoctrination, distraction and pacification.’ (p. 252.) The masses, in that sense, were the object more than the subject of the Nazi cultural effort: in the theatre of war, Landa concludes, the masses ‘were cast, at most, as extras’ (p. 268). Yet what these ‘extras’ actually received, through both war and cinema, is a message quite opposed to the one that we have become habituated to expect: from Nietzsche to Julius Evola and Ernst Jünger, the new fascist gospel, whether philosophical or cinematic, preached disgust with mass-consumption and exhorted against the indulgent and benign spirit of an allegedly emasculated modernity, alien to the ideal of the warring aristocracy. From Jünger’s critique of the bourgeois evasion of pain and suffering and his horror at the masses enjoying the benefits of a long and peaceful life, to the homilies of Mussolini, Hitler and Goebbels against the modern quest for generalised comfort and pleasure, fascism was characterised by a pervasive anti-mass conviction. ‘National Socialism and fascism’, wrote Goebbels in 1939, ‘have in common above all the contempt for a comfortable and therefore pleasant life.’ (p. 292.) To present fascism as mass driven, a cataclysmic acting-out of mass yearnings and fantasies, is therefore ‘a remarkable transubstantiation’ (p. 6) of a movement which, across Europe, understood and presented itself as a militant rejection of mass society. ‘Thus, whatever its liturgy,’ Landa writes, ‘in substantial terms fascism represented a maximal neutralization of mass politics, the negation of the masses’ power and the confiscation of their organizational weapons.’ (p. 183.)
Landa’s argument is structured around the idea of fascism as counter-revolution, originally articulated by Luigi Fabbri (although, curiously, Fabbri is not mentioned in the book). Yet, it should be noted that Landa insists on expanding this argument from the working class to the mass: ‘The emphasis will be on the all-embracing nature of the fascist assault on mass society: while the struggle against working-class organizations, as Marxist historians have rightly emphasized ever since the 1920s, was pivotal in these efforts, fascism cannot be reduced to this single aspect, however vital.’ (p. 20.) The argument is important since it underscores the utopian potential of mass society, pointing beyond the rigid structures of class hierarchy: ‘The fascists, in truth, were the ones adhering to class as a rigid, insurmountable historical reality, and dreading its abolition.’ (p. 24.) The goal of fascism is to maintain class-divides, by defusing not simply the working class, but the masses more broadly speaking. Here we reach the goal of fascism in Landa’s view – not the integration of the masses as much as their elimination, their transformation into manageable and pliant alternative collectives: ‘Here it should be emphasized that concepts like “the nation,” “the race,” “the people” or “the people’s community” that were so central to the fascist vocabulary, are not to be confused with the masses, since they were in fact opposites. These entities represented everything that the masses should become.’ (p. 8.) The goal was the diffusion of the masses, and not, as many liberal historians would argue, but also including the theorists of the Frankfurt School, the integration of the masses: in an important way, fascism can be seen as a counter-hegemonic movement, in the sense that its ideologists and militants regarded the masses as the hegemon in modern society and culture (p. 20). Landa is well-aware that the masses are not immanently progressive (as he notes while discussing the idea of the Lumpenproletariat on p. 41). But he also refuses the inverse view, that presents them as inherently reactionary (as we have seen, he considers mass culture, for example, as a broad range of disparate ideological dispositions).
While the book does not mention him, this same anti-mass commitment on the part of fascism was observed and analysed by an author who must not be forgotten. In his The Essence of Fascism, Karl Polanyi saw fascism as countering the very basis of socialisation founded on a shared idea of the intercrossing of individuality and communality in both communism and Christianity – that of the mass individual (which Landa mentions in passing, importantly eluding the mistake of drawing an opposition between the mass and the individual). For Polanyi, this mass individual fulfils the promise of human development and maturity far more than the isolated individual of historic liberalism, precisely the one that became gripped by fear of the masses, manifested in the picturesque anxiety of Thomas Hardy, mentioned above. And, as Polanyi wrote apropos fascism in his Great Transformation:
[T]here was a striking lack of relationship between its material and numerical strength and its political effectiveness. The very term ‘movement’ was misleading since it implied some kind of enrolment or personal participation of large numbers. If anything was characteristic of fascism, it was its independence of such popular manifestations. Though usually aiming at a mass following, its potential strength was reckoned not by the numbers of its adherents but by the influence of the persons in high position whose good will the fascist leaders possessed, and whose influence in the community could be counted upon to shelter them from the consequences of an abortive revolt, thus taking the risks out of revolution.4
Polanyi, for that matter, is not an isolated case. Landa has additional allies, so to speak; yet, unfortunately, they often lie largely forgotten, marginalised by mainstream scholarship. Critical Theory itself was originally a much more variegated and pluralistic project; behind the towering shadow cast by Adorno and Horkheimer is hidden a whole range of alternative practitioners waiting to be re-discovered – Otto Kirchheimer, Arkadij Gurland, Franz Neumann, Henryk Grossman (one could add Sohn Rethel’s work on fascism to this list as well, although he was never affiliated with the Institute officially), and even the School’s founder Felix Weil. While these theorists are rarely mentioned in any contemporary debates on fascism, their works are of crucial importance for any future research into both fascism and Nazism, as well as Critical Theory. Some of them (such as Felix Weil and Gurland) wrote on the diminishing standard of living under Nazism, while others (such as Neumann) debated with the Institute’s director Max Horkheimer and his inner circle (including Adorno and Marcuse) over their use of ‘state-capitalism’ to describe the ‘new order’ and highlighted the fact that the wages of the German workers were not rising, quite the contrary.5 To follow these authors is therefore to reach conclusions largely in opposition to mainstream Critical Theory: that welfare and abundance were not the mainstays of Nazism, exploitation and austerity being its true characteristics. Thus, if there was ever a link between capitalism and fascism, it was drawn out by the Institute’s early Marxists rather than by Horkheimer and Adorno; and the fact that postwar Critical Theory was uninterested in consulting this rich and fertile body of work – not unlike the liberal/revisionist historiography – says more about its representatives than the works themselves. The ‘rehabilitation’ of this strand of Marxist thought, side-lined by ‘officially recognised’ Critical Theory, is an important task: they should not be forgotten.
As highlighted at the beginning of this article, Fascism and the Masses is the result of a political decision by its author, against modern-day Nietzscheanism, right and ‘left’. Yet, Landa’s book should also be credited for rescuing a perspective long side-lined, and offering an alternative approach to research, which could accommodate the vantage-points of all those who have made a similar decision: to fight fascism where it emerged, namely, from the isolated heights of a class society.
Grossman, Henryk 2017, Capitalism’s Contradictions: Studies of Economic Thought Before and After Marx, edited and translated by Rick Kuhn, Chicago: Haymarket Books.
Kuhn, Rick 2006, Henryk Grossman and the Recovery of Marxism, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Lancaster, Guy 2019, Review of Fascism and the Masses: The Revolt against the Last Humans, 1848–1945 by Ishay Landa, Capital & Class, 43, 1: 194–6, <https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0309816819827229>.
Landa, Ishay 2010, The Apprentice’s Sorcerer: Liberal Tradition and Fascism, Leiden: Brill.
McKenna, Tony 2018, Review of Fascism and the Masses: The Revolt against the Last Humans, 1848–1945 by Ishay Landa, Marx & Philosophy, 19 April, available at: <https://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviews/15736_fascism-and-the-masses-the-revolt-against-the-last-humans-1848-1945-reviewed-by-tony-mckenna/>.
Polanyi, Karl 1944, The Great Transformation, New York: Farrar and Rinehart.
 Cf. McKenna 2018; Lancaster 2019.
 Landa 2010, p. 21.
 Cf. Grossman 2017, p. 139.
 Polanyi 1944, p. 246.
 As Grossmann, for example, pointed out to Horkheimer: see Kuhn 2006, p. 174.