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books Fascism and the Masses: The Revolt against the Last Humans, 1848-1945

This new examination of the rise of Fascism focuses on how the expansion of democratic rights, the reaction to that expansion in the realms of philosophy and culture, and how that reaction fueled Nazi and other Fascist ideology.

Ishay Landa

Fascism and the Masses: The Revolt against the Last Humans, 1848-1945


ISBN: 9780815385851

Landa begins his account of fascism by providing a concise but profound overview of the way in which the masses were able to press their demands and political power under the industrial capitalism of the European period in a hitherto unprecedented way. He describes a fragmented and often contradictory process in which new working practises and technological improvements helped stimulate the demands for labour in the urban centres and also the ‘steep rise in agricultural productivity made many peasants economically superfluous and unemployed.’ (46) This contributed to an exodus from the countryside to the cities and a swelling in the urban population, but ‘alongside the riches amassed by industrialists and bankers many suffered acute deprivation … in workers’ slums gathering around the industrial centres living conditions were appalling, poverty was often dire and criminality rates were high.’ (46) And yet, over time the ‘expanding material and technological means’ (46) – the ability to identify diseases at the bacterial level, the purification of drinking water, the mass production of food and an increasing variety of diet, use of sewage pipes and so on – meant that, in much of Western Europe at least, conditions of life for the masses did see a marked improvement. To this must be added some of the gains won by the ability of the masses organising through trade unions and political movements such as ‘the shortening of the working day, legislation limiting child labor, health insurance and a pension system.’ (47)

These gains in particular are important for Landa’s investigation. Not only were the masses multiplying but they were also starting to live longer under the boon of the political rights and social benefits they had accrued. Landa injects a great literary and psychological note into a profound work of history, when he gives the reader a sense of the sheer, visceral disgust evinced by much of the well-to-do, the feeling of being swamped by the sheer numbers of the ‘great unwashed’ and their increased presence in the public space and political arena. Landa quotes, for example, the almost elemental loathing the novelist Thomas Hardy felt one night lying in bed in a London flat in the dark, and the claustrophobic, smothering sense of being in close proximity to such a large urban population, ‘a monster whose body had four million heads and eight million eyes’ (Hardy cited 126). Of course such visceral repulsion was easily translated into political and economic theory; one need only reference the Malthusian anxiety regarding over population articulated in countless economic text books and debates at the start of the 19th century, but Landa’s real target in this analysis is Nietzsche. Nietzsche is especially significant – for Landa, much as he is for Lukács – partly because he, Nietzsche, is writing in the period post-1848 when the European bourgeoisie had changed tacks; they went from battling with the feudal aristocracies of old to making allies of them in the fight against revolutionary mobilisations from below. In short they came to regard an independent proletariat with its own political programme as the greater threat.

Nietzsche is important in as much as he manages to cipher feelings about the developing power of the masses, that sense of fear and elemental loathing, into a theory of history which was most desperately required on the part of the ruling classes post-1848; a theory which, furthermore, presupposed a ruthless and sustained action by a minority against the majority. ‘The revolt against the last humans’, the subtitle of this book, encapsulates the gist of the theory; the last humans were, for Nietzsche, the point at which quantity had come to overwhelm quality through the historical process; the heroic age which had peaked at the time of the early Roman Empire, had been progressively eroded by the ‘herd mentality’; that is, the levelling doctrines of Judaism, Christianity, socialism and democracy, which had dissolved the distinctive, creative, brutal and boundless possibilities of the higher human individual in the stagnant, formless pool of an undifferentiated and monotone equality.

This process was reaching its apogee in the 19th century precisely because of the pressure the masses were able to exert on the political machinery of the state, the fact that their ‘insidious’ morality had corrupted the vacillating, late born ‘liberal’ masters but also because the political gains of the proletariat in terms of healthcare, insurance and so on meant that class in particular was able to smother the wellspring of human creativity by virtue of its expansion, by way of sheer weight of numbers. As Nietzsche himself puts it, the last humans exist when ‘Nobody grows rich or poor anymore…. Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both are too much of a burden.’ (Nietzsche cited 24) Nietzsche’s response to such stagnation, his solution to the problem of the last humans, one might even call it his final solution – was as follows: ‘That party of life which takes in hand the greatest of all tasks, the higher breeding of humanity, together with the remorseless extermination of all degenerate and parasitic elements, will again make possible on earth that superfluity of life out of which the Dionysian condition must again proceed.’ (Nietzsche cited 92)

Landa offers up a detailed and forensic description of the first fully fledged fascism of Mussolini and the Italian state – bolstering it with a robust account of the Risorgimento and an intriguing analysis of some key Italian proto-fascist theorists, such as D’Annunzio and the futurist Marinetti. But the greater emphasis, quite naturally, falls upon the most concentrated, developed and fatal strain of fascism, that of German Nazism. In this context too the role of Nietzsche as an ideological progenitor becomes critical. In a meticulous and penetrating account of the role of antisemitism in Nazism, Landa looks at the influences exerted by Nietzsche and Wagner on the Führer’s outlook. Landa observes that Nietzsche himself did not conceptualise the Jews in biological terms, attacked antisemitism as morally repugnant and though he ‘never challenged the cliché of the Jews as expert financiers, yet unlike the anti-Semites, saw this as a reason to praise, rather than condemn them.’ (362) Wagner, on the other hand, was ‘a plain and unambiguous anti-Semite … a shareholder in the project of marking the Jew as a separate and irredeemable racial element’. (380) For this reason defences of Nietzsche, often mounted by left wing figures, suggest that Wagner rather than Zarathustra should be understood as Hitler’s true ideological ancestor.

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And yet, argues Landa, these respective attitudes to Judaism should be scrutinized more carefully. Wagner’s antisemitism was, to some extent, attached to a racist and vulgar form of anti-capitalism – ‘he maligned the Jew, basically, as the emblem of capitalism, the heartless exploiter of the people, along the classical lines of the leftist antisemitic argument that was rampant in the first half of the 19th century.’ (380-1) Nietzsche, however, understood Judaism as the first real slave ideology; that is, the ideology which was capable of empowering the masses and stultifying the true creative essence of the human species. Nietzsche was prepared to elevate Jews to the level of Übermenschen only on the understanding that they were useful allies in the struggle to overwhelm the ethics of Judaism per-se – and the other manifestations of rebellious slave morals which evolved from it. In form, Hitler’s antisemitism had much in common with Wagner’s, but such biological antisemitism was weaponised by Hitler for very different ends; that is, ‘the Jew, according to Hitler became above all the prophet of the slave revolt, the inciter of the masses, the Bolshevik, the preacher of ressentiment, disseminating discontent among the labourers, in short the very antithesis of capitalist hierarchy.’ (382) So, while Wagner’s antisemitism – in a warped, perverted and self-refuting way – was geared toward the ‘empowerment’ of the masses and the destruction of capitalism; Hitler’s was geared toward preserving the system at the expense of the masses in line with the brutal historical logic which Nietzsche himself had laid out. Indeed the figure of the Jew as conceptualised by Hitler came to personify the notion advocated by Nietzsche of the teeming mass which absorbed all individual quality and distinction into its unmediated and unlimited quantity. Landa cites John Carey who wrote:

The threat of the mass was distinctively a Jewish threat.… Jews … were behind Marxism and socialism, so the doctrine of majority rule … could be viewed as a Jewish invention. But the idea of the Jews and the mass interfused even more closely in Hitler’s mind … [h]e envisaged the Jews as a mass that could infiltrate and corrupt other masses. They were, as he imagined them, numberless – there was “no limit to the number of such people”…. In this respect the Jews could be said to represent, for Hitler, the ultimate mass.… Amorphous, infinite, subhuman, they became, in Hitler’s mythology, the ideal objective for the various dehumanizing drives which the concept of the mass had come into being to justify. (Carey cited, 387)

But what about those occasions when Nazi propaganda undoubtedly demonised the figure of the ‘Jew’ as a hate-filled and parasitic capitalist? By way of persuasive textual analysis, Landa shows how ‘the sheer numerical proportion of utterances in Mein Kampf that condemn Marxism, socialism, Bolshevism, etc., is incomparably higher than any analogous statements against capital, international finance, etc.’ (372) More crucially, perhaps, when Hitler does demonise the Jew as a facilitator of capital, he does so in a very specific fashion; that is, he counterposes a Jewish strain of capitalism which is ‘financial’ in nature to a more healthy, productive and non-Jewish form of capitalism. In other words, Hitler again advocates an attack on the Jews (in this case capitalist Jews) in order to save capitalism: ‘And while Hitler does criticize the workings of “international Jewish capital,” he does so in order to shield productive capital from its rapacious counterpart.… Nazi anti-capitalism was a form of pro-capitalism.’ (372)

If the Jewish stereotype Hitler promulgated was intimately bound up with the Nazi instinct to eradicate the self-determination of the masses and preserve the capitalist system, fascism’s attitude toward women has been framed along similar lines. Not only did fascism despise the possibility of women’s suffrage precisely because it was bound up with the project of the democratic empowerment of the masses more generally, fascist thought often articulated its concept of the masses in and through ‘traits which were originally ascribed to women.… “Impulsiveness, irascibility, incapacity to reason, the absence of judgement and of the critical spirit” … and – perhaps most significantly – hysteria. Talk about “hysterical masses” or “mass hysteria” was common, and the psychic disturbance called hysteria was mainly identified with women’. (321) The way in which the disempowerment of the masses went hand in hand with the disempowerment of women in the fascist creed explains why, of course, under fascism women were encouraged to retreat to the passive, private sphere of domestic life, while leaving the ‘active’, ‘productive’ business of state craft and public politics to the men. Beyond this, Landa notes, the relationship between the state (and vicariously the ruling class) to the masses themselves could be redefined by fascist ideology in terms of the static and unreconstructed opposition of active masculinity and passive femininity; ‘just as the mass was feminine, fascism boasted of its virility, and the state recovering its honor after the rise of fascism could thus be presented as a patriarch re-establishing his rule over women and children.’ (323)

While Landa’s book provides an eloquent and tragic description of fascism’s war on the political and social rights the masses had accrued, it also shows, with great alacrity, how this war inevitably crossed over into the cultural sphere. Bourgeois thinkers had long since lamented the decline of ‘high culture’ – of classical music and art, of authentic ‘volk’ mythology or paintings by renaissance masters – in the face of the ‘crass’, cultural productions of pop music and cinema which were able to reach the majority much in the way of industrial products rolled out across the factory conveyer belt. Fascism utilised the same logic but was able to achieve what the sneer of the liberal could not; that is, it was able to repress what was ‘vulgar’, i.e. what was popular, empowering and resonant in describing the struggles and aspirations of the masses in aesthetic terms; fascist regimes would allow the media of mass communication to flourish in order to disseminate their propaganda, but would denude the technological form of its given content: ‘commercial films under fascism bore an unmistakably pedagogical character.… Films inculcating middle-class and conservative ethics thus thrived at the expense of the problematizing such mores’ (261).

Again the distinction between high art and mass art was useful; American gangster or horror films which evoked themes of heightened social conflict and contradiction were presented as vulgar in comparison with older forms of ‘volk’ art which tended to promote a vision of community harmony and loyalty conducive to the militant nationalism fascist regimes sought to purvey. And so such films were banned. Finally Landa reminds us that such elitist cultural leanings developed in the twentieth century even in parts of the anti-fascist left; figures from the Frankfurt school, for example, such as the pretentious and preposterously awful Theodore Adorno had utter contempt for popular music like jazz and for the cinema as a form of mass entertainment, and even went as far as theorising that mass culture itself had helped precipitate the fascist outbreak – despite the fact of fascism’s war against mass culture (such elitist tendencies are alive and well in the left today; I once knew of a so-called ‘Marxist’ who deleted anyone from his Facebook page who had been ‘vulgar’ enough to mention football during the World Cup!). Landa concludes with a critique of the ‘left anti-consumerist position’ demonstrating how, for Marx, the expansion of mass consumption was ‘an indispensable phase in the creation of “the social individual”’(402), an individual rich in needs and potential, whose full realisation could only take place in and through the complete socialisation of production.

Landa has produced a book of extraordinary erudition; the writer moves easily and effortlessly from an analysis of Carlyle’s rejection of mass politics to a homily on the lyrics of an Argentine tango song from the 1920s; from the ideology of eugenics in the context of burgeoning global imperialisms to a description of Judaism as seen through the lens of Freudian psychoanalysis; from the novels of the great Hans Fallada which depict Nazi totalitarianism in all its terrible darkness to an account of the First World War experienced by the ruling classes as an event of Nietzschean-like catharsis. But through it all, the focus is on the propensity of the masses toward self-determination and the evolution of fascism as the historical process which seeks to neutralise this. I don’t believe I exaggerate when I say this is the most significant work on the subject since Lukács’ The Destruction of Reason or Trotsky’s great, prophetic writings of the 1930s. Despite the unutterable grimness of its subject matter, Landa’s account contains a strong, uplifting and profound humanity as he reminds us that ‘the last humans’ also represent our last best hope.

Tony McKenna’s journalism has been featured by Al Jazeera, The Huffington Post, ABC Australia, New Internationalist, The Progressive, New Statesman and New Humanist. His books include Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective, The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin and a novel, The Dying Light.