(New York, Verso: 2016), 293 pp., $16.95
As we observe the centennials of the First World War and the October Revolution, we are reminded of the role played by violence in the political and cultural changes occurring during and between the two world wars, changes which shaped the rest of the twentieth century and continue to be relevant today. The period between 1914 and 1945 saw an overlapping of wars – wars between nations, class wars, racial wars, antifascist and national liberation wars – with few historical precedents. Enzo Traverso makes a convincing case that in addition to occurring simultaneously in time and space, these wars expressed a particular logic that warrants seeing them collectively as a ’European civil war.’ In tracing the historical origins and logic of this civil war, Traverso also offers a powerful indictment of how the collective memory of it emerged over time in ways that are still felt today.
The European civil war had its origins in the collapse of the increasingly liberal order that emerged out of the defeat of Napoleon. After the continent-wide upheavals of France’s revolutionary wars and the Napoleonic Wars, a relatively stable equilibrium emerged which ensured that, for the next century, wars were relatively localized and contained. This century of relative peace was purchased in no small part by the export of violence to Europe’s colonies, a process which Traverso sees as providing a model for what was to follow in Europe. Over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the rise of monopoly capitalism, democracy, nationalism and mass armies was slowly undermining the post-1815 liberal order. The First World War was the crisis that revealed the weaknesses and contradictions of this order, and in so doing initiated a thirty-year period of civil war over revolutionary and counterrevolutionary responses to this crisis.
For Traverso, this civil war between revolution and counter-revolution was total war. Civil war offered solutions to the crisis that were not conjunctural but rather world-historical in nature both temporally and spatially: either the ultimate defeat of capitalism by communism or fascism’s restoration of a racialized capitalism. In addition, both were based on the complete mobilization of the population for the creation of a new society or the defense of the old one. They also blurred the boundaries between combatant and non-combatant, front and rear. In this context, the defeat of the enemy was insufficient to ensure the success of the revolutionary or counter-revolutionary project. Only the annihilation of the enemy could achieve this. As a result, “The methods and practices of trench warfare were transferred into civil society, brutalizing its language and forms of struggle” (53). This militarization of political life ensured that civil wars were anomic struggles which are
no longer legitimized, let alone regulated, by law, but by higher moral and political convictions that have to be defended to the end in the most intransigent way, at a price of the life of the enemy – an enemy who is close at hand and known – and, if necessary, at the price of sacrificing oneself. The values filling this space of anomie can be the most noble or the most abject, sometimes a mixture of both: liberation, justice, equality, human dignity, freedom from oppression, but also vengeance, racism, exacerbated nationalism, religious fanaticism (73).
As a result, “violence takes an extreme dimension, spreading without limits. It is no longer simply a means of struggle, but also the expression of the passions, feelings, fears and hatreds of its agents…. It takes on a strong symbolic dimension, feeds on itself and acquires its own dynamic, eventually becoming an end in itself” (85-86).
The fact that both revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence followed this pattern led many Western intellectuals to claim an equivalence between communism and fascism which most famously was expressed by the concept of ‘totalitarianism.’ From this perspective, there was little meaningful difference between ‘red fascists’ and ‘brown Bolsheviks.’ Traverso notes that such equivalence was simplistic and ahistorical. His review of the work of intellectuals on both sides of the crisis – Leon Trotsky and Walter Benjamin on one side and Carl Schmitt on the other – demonstrates clearly how communism and fascism emerged from the same conditions and, consequently, how their struggle to the death expressed a similar logic. At the same time, though, he states unequivocally that the contradictions between communism and fascism, revolution and counter-revolution are unresolvable: the first terms in these binaries were grounded in the Enlightenment values of humanism and progress while the second terms sought to overthrow these values. The convergence between revolution and counter-revolution asserted by liberal intellectuals, Traverso argues convincingly, was pure illusion. Illusions, though, can have concrete material consequences. With the defeat of fascism in 1945, the consequence of this conflation of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence was the denial of revolution itself.
For Traverso, this is most clearly expressed through the marginalization of antifascism as either a “democratic disguise for a Communism that sought, on the one hand, to expand its political influence and, on the other, to conceal its totalitarian nature” (11) or as “representatives of a bygone age” (5) with no contemporary relevance.
Traverso’s criticism of this interpretation is scathing. While recognizing the dominant role that communists and socialists played among antifascist forces, Traverso points out that understanding antifascism as a strategy to obscure Soviet expansion and totalitarianism not only ignores the diversity of antifascist forces, some of which were Marxist (but even here there were differences between supporters of Stalin’s Soviet Union and its Trotskyist critics) but others republican and religious; it also minimizes the truly epic nature of the struggle in which antifascism emerged victorious:
Antifascism opposed its pacifism and a certain cosmopolitan spirit to the mysticism of nation and war. It opposed the principles of equality, democracy, liberty and citizenship to the reactionary values of authority, hierarchy and race. Against the vitalist and anti-humanist irrationalism of the apologists for a totalitarian order, it inscribed itself forcefully in the tradition of the Enlightenment, in its universal conception of humanity, its rationalism, and its idea of progress. To fascist anti-liberalism, with its cult of leader and mass, it opposed the state of law, with its pluralism and individual liberties. In short, beyond its ideological and political cleavages, antifascism had the common objective of the defense of a threatened civilization…. Against the fascist political religion of force, antifascism championed the civil religion of humanity, democracy and socialism (263).
The marginalization of antifascism is not only poor history; applied in retrospect it would have had disastrous consequences. Without its radical foundation, it is difficult to see how antifascism could have triumphed. Traverso pointedly asks the liberal critics of antifascism: “If fascism was generated by the collapse of the old liberal order, how could the latter provide a basis for combatting it?” (268)
How the memory of antifascism is defined and expressed is not simply a question of how to interpret the past, but is instead one of great contemporary relevance. While Traverso does not take this up in any detail, the point comes through in every page of his book. Today we confront a crisis of the neoliberal order, and as reactionary forces globally continue to gain support for their racist and xenophobic solutions to the crisis, there is an imperative need for a global antifascist front in which the left is dominant. While the specific forms this takes will differ from those found during the European civil war, the left must think in utopian, revolutionary terms if it hopes to achieve success in defeating the contemporary counterrevolution and resolving the crisis of neoliberalism in ways that reduce exploitation and oppression. Traverso’s book promises to be an important resource in this endeavor.
Reviewed by Daniel Egan
University of Massachusetts Lowell