Can "democratization" and "modernization" be blamed for fascism?, a reply to Michael Mann


posted to on September 13, 2004


In the September 13, 2004 copy of the Chronicle of Higher Education, there's an interesting article ( on sociologist Michael Mann by Scott McLemee who used to participate on the old Marxism list until he discovered that those were not his politics at all. He is a very sharp writer but is plagued by the kind of world-weariness and cynicism you would find in a middle-aged, ex-socialist New York Intellectual of the 1950s. That he is nearly 25 years younger than me makes one wonder where all this world-weariness and cynicism comes from. I guess it is in style or something.


I first stumbled across Mann in the pages of the NLR where he had written a completely wrong-headed article arguing that German workers backed Hitler. I answered him here: (A long article--do a search on "Mann" to find the exact reference.)


Mann is still writing silly stuff on fascism apparently. He not only believes that the nation-state is to blame for fascism, but connects goose-stepping to democratization as well. In Rwanda, democracy was somehow connected to the need to purify the nation-state of any ethnic "contamination."


What's missing from this neo-Weberian's account is any kind of historical or economic analysis. Genocidal violence is not a function of economic crisis, but a drive for "rule by the people". He discounts the tendency of economic collapse, arguing that the true explanation for fascism is the desire for "modernization", like Mussolini getting the trains to run on time. McLemee writes in his customarily detached fashion, "In Mr. Mann's analysis, fascism appealed not only to people seeking to preserve the status quo, or retreat to an early form of social order, but also to those who wanted modernization to continue under the firm hand of the nation-state."


Although McLemee is far too professional and far too cagey to express his own opinion, one might assume that he agrees sufficiently with this characterization of Mann to have included it:


But according to David D. Laitin, a professor of political science at Stanford University, Mr. Mann "uses his erudition and keenness of subtle argument to cloud social reality rather than to clarify it." In a paper to appear in An Anatomy of Power: The Social Theory of Michael Mann, forthcoming next year from Cambridge University Press, Mr. Laitin contends that "the culprit" in genocide "is not democracy, but a form of politics that uses words similar to [those employed by] democrats, but in a different semantic sense."


Mr. Laitin also suggests that the argument of The Dark Side of Democracy itself rests on a kind of basic confusion. "Mann implies that because democracy and genocide are both modern, they implicate one another," he writes. "Logically, Mann is incorrectly linking two phenomena that are temporally but not causally linked. This type of reasoning would make democracy culpable for world war, AIDS, and rap music."


I understand that the prolific Professor Mann has also written a book on imperialism. I might take some time to read it after I have retired and after I have finished reading the collected Mark Twain.