The Ego and Its Own
Robert Brasillach's Fascism of Bohemian Revolt
Over the past few days, I read William R. Tucker’s The Fascist Ego: The Political Biography of Robert Brasillach. The subject is the French literary critic and journalist Robert Brasillach, who edited the fascist journal Je Suis Partout in the 1930s, supported Vichy, and then, when that was not radical enough for him, became a fervent defender of direct collaboration with the Nazis, penning anti-semitic tracts and calling for the summary execution of members of the resistance. He was tried and executed for treason after the war. Many prominent intellectuals, including those politically opposed to him, signed a petition to protest his execution.
The word “fascist” still conjures up rather cartoonish pictures and one of them is that of a movement obsessed above all with order and discipline. But what Tucker’s book reminds us is that fascism, especially for young intellectuals in the interwar period, was also a stance of revolt and rebellion. This was an avant-garde reacting to a sense of stifling conformity and mediocrity and the choice for many of them was not to remain within the netherworld of Bohemian anomie, but to embrace a new, more radical forms of conformity. In fact, these déclassé “armed bohemians,” to borrow Konrad Heiden’s term, were at the core of fascist movements: Hitler was a failed artist; Mussolini a soi-disant intellectual and journalist.
Brasillach’s characterized himself as an “anarchofascist,” which sounds about as contradictory as can be. He was self-consciously Bohemian, preferring to pal around in a non-comformist milieu—"“Even as a journalist, Brasillach was always a member of a group, of a gang, to use his term, more or less Bohemian in out look and bound together by a common attitude of separateness from society and its oppressive norms”—wrote about the need for ironic detachment, the willingness to express individual liberty and flaunt norms in the midst of Nazi occupation. “What was at stake, to him, was the right to lead the eccentric, capricious life. Liberty meant the right to recognize nothing as sacred and to spare no one the criticism that was thought to be merited. The right to scoff, to jeer, was the foundation of all liberty…”
It has been pointed out by Robert Paxton and others that fascism was never really a coherent intellectual doctrine; On the cultural plane, it attracted all those who felt revulsion with the contemporary world for a variety of reasons, and become a catchall movement anyone with antimodernist sentiments, uniting Futurists with those who idealized Knights, Catholic pageantry, and the Middle Ages.
But Tucker’s book points to something else, as well. On a deeper level, there’s an affinity with the petulance and self-centeredness of hyper-individualist anarchism and the reckless embrace of action and destruction for its own sake. They both also involve a form of elitism; a taste for individual initiative that is “above” the market:
Perhaps, as one commentator has argued, most anarchists, even those who at the outset have illusions about being able to free man from society’s tyranny, become elitists sooner or later Certainly, Brasillach’s individualism bore no resemblance to the liberal ideal of isolated individuals making their separate contributions to the well-being of society through the inexorable demands of the market economy. It was, rather, an individualism that was egoistic, anti-Marxist, antidemocratic, and subjectivistic in tone, but that was nevertheless real. To the proponents of this brand of individualism, the promises of the Marxists and the illusions of their opponents were equally open to doubt. The self, the only knowable quantity, confronted the Marxist-liberal dialogue with insolence and disbelief.
This self-selected elite necessarily finds itself alienated from the society it lives among and can only relate to it as kind foe to be mastered:
The deliberately autonomous personality can vent his anti social promptings in a number of ways. Crime has already been mentioned. Another is the anxious pursuit of economic, political, or administrative power, and the accompanying satisfaction gained from the exploitation of his fellow men. Or he can be come a revolutionary polemicist who finds a substitute for the parent in a cause with which he can identify. In all such cases, the activity is a reflection of hostility against a system from which one has consciously separated the innermost self.
Brasillach and his fellows styled themselves as “antibourgeois,” but drawing on Marxist critique of the individualist anarchist Max Stirner, their ideology was actually that of the petit bourgeois par excellence:
…Stirner had the outlook of the petty-bourgeois proprietor who can look upon the finished product of his labor and who regards large-scale industry and organized workers as conspirators who would take from him the property that he has acquired by his own effort. “Despite its Bohemian flavor,” [Sidney] Hook adds, “Stimer's thought reveals that painstaking and touchy sensitiveness to what belongs solely and exclusively to the individual which is generally associated with the peasant/proprietor or shopkeeper.”
As such, Brasillach’s group had difficulty developing a coherent antibourgeois message:
The antibourgeois position of the French intellectual fascists, like their anticapitalism, had, from the time of the Popular Front, been plagued by insurmountable ambiguities. To say that one was antibourgeois was all well and good. Yet, in fact, the fascists who clustered around Je suis partout, like many of the Nazis in the early years of the movement, were frankly in favor of the petty and middle bourgeois. These sectors of the bourgeoisie were, in fact, the natural clientele of fascism in France as elsewhere. As individuals who "worked for their money” and who still saw themselves as creators, they could readily deplore the inroads of big capital and big labor. They were cherished by the fascists themselves—in the abstract at least —because of their solid virtue. Thus, when the French fascists claimed that they were against the bourgeoisie it often turned out that their reservations extended only to the upper bourgeoisie.
However, this rejection of the big bourgeoisie did not extend to someone like Ford:
Henry Ford was singled out by Je suis partout as a prime example of an owner who practiced “fascist principles.” By retaining com plete ownership of his business himself and refusing to pay out dividends to stockholders and by investing the company’s pro fits in the development of new jobs, he had earned a special place in “the museum of world masters.” Apparently a millionaire proprietor, if he was a self-made man of humble origins and especially if he had inserted anti-Semitic articles in a newspaper like the Dearborn Independent, would be exempt from the bourgeois taint while a joint-stock company or trust would be suspect. In spite of his millions. Ford’s humble origins and his individual proprietorship could exempt him from bourgeois status.
On a purely intellectual level, the Je suis partout did not produce argumentative work of lasting merit; it was mostly about vibes. For all its arias of the overflowing, untamable self, there was something rather limited about Brasillach’s perspective on the whole; he could not understand the world as anything more than a site of social climbing:
He was never able to rise above the level of the clique. His nameless country was a euphemism for a league of egoists. Indeed, the absence of national sentiments was the principal complaint raised against him by the patriots of the Resistance at his trial in 1945. He accepted the nationalist affiliation more from an ambition that prompted him to exploit the channels that the Right so readily opened to him, and from his ability to see that “integral nationalism” in France was a replication of “integral egoism,” than from his acceptance of commonplace bourgeois notions about the supreme value of the French state.
Brasillach’s lead an apparently contradictory life: bourgeois antibourgeois, anarchist fascist, nationalist traitor, nihilist true believer, anti-social social climber. Ultimately, though, Tucker’s biography helps us these twists are the tortured poses of the self whose ego is its only guide and for whom the world is just the backdrop of a career.