What Is Fascism?

The Nature of Fascism

edited by S.J. Woolf
Random House, 262 pp., $7.95

Die Deutsche Diktatur Enstehung Struktur Folgen des Nationalsozialismus

by Karl Dietrich Bracher
Kiepenhauer and Witsch (Köln), 580 pp., 36DM

The History of the Nazi Party 1919 to 1933

by Dietrich Orlow
University of Pittsburgh, 338 pp., $11.95

The Limits of Hitler's Power

by Edward N. Peterson
Princeton, 495 pp., $12.50

“Let us not lose ourselves in the systems: let us listen to the voice of history.” De Maistre’s advice can still be heeded with profit, as a recently published symposium amply demonstrates. Its theme was “the nature of fascism”: more than two dozen scholars, mainly either historians or sociologists, assembled in Reading, England, in the spring of 1967 to discuss this “nature.” The difficulty about discussing any such vague generalization as “fascism” is that it is a term which has been abstracted from concrete, historical situations.

Certain regimes or movements, in imitation of Mussolini’s Italy where the term first became popular, have called themselves or have been called by others “fascist.” But this description can be used in many ways: as a term of mere abuse, or as an inaccuracy based on inadequate knowledge of the facts of the history of the country concerned, or as a political device used for propaganda purposes. Therefore if you set up a conference of this type the first essential would seem to be to specify the particular regimes and movements to which alone the term “fascist” is, by definition, to be applied. The alternative (the one apparently adopted at Reading) was to treat “fascism” as some kind of a vague abstraction to which everyone could give what meaning he chose, just occasionally glancing at Germany, or Italy, or Argentina, or Roumania: if the facts did not appear to fit the model, then other countries—Japan, Spain—could be brought in to rescue it. As Dr. Woolf, the promoter of the Reading exercise, points out in his Introduction, the “qualification of fascism expanded or contracted according to the conceptual approach adopted.” (Naturally, what did he expect?). The conference discussions showed that if rapid economic and social transformation is the real touchstone of fascism, then the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have to be excluded; analysis of “fascist economic systems” lets in Japan, but cuts out Argentina; but viewed as a “potentially revolutionary movement,” “fascism” applies to Roumania, but not to Japan. And so forth. The result in this volume is a series of vague generalizations by the sociologists—with the historians occasionally putting them right on the facts.

The argument in discussion tended to be circular. For example, one criterion offered in order to discover “fascism” was to see who benefited from it. But what do you do about Soviet Russia, says a critic, where the labor movement has been destroyed and both workers and peasants have been drained of their savings (as much as under “fascism”) to build up development? Oh, but “fascism” does not always destroy the labor movement, says another participant: Look at Argentina, where it in fact created such a movement. And so it goes on. Are we any wiser at the end?

The fault does not lie with the contributors, many of whom had perceptive things to say. The approach of studying an abstraction without first deciding what one is abstracting from is itself vitiated from the start. Nor is…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.