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What Was Fascism?


Why is fascism such an elusive object of inquiry? As Robert Paxton notes at the outset of his study, the image of fascism has a deceptive clarity:

Everyone is sure they know what fascism is. The most self-consciously visual of all political forms, fascism presents itself to us in vivid primary images: a chauvinist demagogue haranguing an ecstatic crowd; disciplined ranks of marching youths, colored-shirted militants beating up members of some demonized minority….

But it has proved uncommonly hard to define the nature of fascism, to determine how widely the notion can usefully be applied, or what differentiates it from other political movements and regimes. Historians are mostly in agreement that fascism was a phenomenon of pan-European significance. One of the first important comparative studies of fascism, Ernst Nolte’s Three Faces of Fascism, wrote of interwar Europe as the “epoch of fascism.”1 But attempts to define fascism have led to such confusions, contradictions, and overlooking of obvious differences that some historians have given up the attempt in disgust.2 Even grouping together the two major regimes commonly described as “fascist,” Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, is far from uncontroversial.

The late Renzo De Felice, the author of a monumental biography of Mussolini and the most influential historian of Italian fascism, denied that national socialism could legitimately be classed as a type of fascism.3 Although Hannah Arendt refused to consider Italian fascism as a form of totalitarianism, De Felice pointed out that “the totalitarian state” was a central feature of the Italian regime’s definition of itself. But he was skeptical of any general concept of totalitarianism applied to the Italian case. Mussolini’s “totalitarian state” was sui generis. It is understandable that Italians should wish to distance themselves from the horrors of national socialism, but the amount of killing and terror is not an altogether satisfactory basis for classifying regimes. We can describe Kadar’s Hungary as “communist” without implying that it was similar to Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China.

Paxton argues that in both fascist Italy and Nazi Germany the exercise of power was originally based on a similar coalition consisting of the leader, the party, the bureaucracy, and traditional institutions. But he writes that the results were different:

It was the relative weight among leader, party, and traditional institutions that distinguished one case from the other. In Italy, the traditional state wound up with supremacy over the party, largely because Mussolini feared his own most militant followers….In Nazi Germany, the party came to dominate the state and civil society, especially after war began.4

It is possible that this conclusion underrates the importance of race to Nazi thinking, which had its logical corollary (here Hannah Arendt was right) in the doctrine of the supremacy of the movement and its leader—as the embodiment of racial ideology—over the legal and administrative state. Mussolini’s totalitarianism might appear a very ramshackle and incomplete affair if one compares it to Hitler’s. But it was still decisively different in scope and ambition from ordinary authoritarian dictatorships. “Authoritarians would rather leave the population demobilized and passive, while fascists want to engage and excite the public.” This was certainly true of authoritarians like Salazar of Portugal. By contrast, the fascist regimes acknowledged no theoretical limits to the invasion of private life. Paxton writes that Robert Ley, the leader of the Nazi Labor Front, “said that in the Nazi state the only private individual was someone asleep.” Actually, this judgment may have fallen short of the reality. Nazism invaded even its subjects’ dreams.5

Military dictatorships and authoritarian monarchies were not an invention of the twentieth century. But fascism was something else, something new and disquieting in its ability to mobilize positive enthusiasm and dedication, a form of modern mass politics.

A second problem is etymological. “Fascism” did not exist before 1919; the word referred to a type of organization, the fasci di combattimento (combat groups), which gave its original name to the fascist movement, rather than to any complex of beliefs, like communism or conservatism. This may indeed be significant, but it has made it harder to identify the core beliefs that fascist movements shared. In fact, “national socialism”—which in reality meant nationalist socialism, with the emphasis very strongly on the first term—can be taken as a rough definition of what fascist movements claimed to offer. In the Latin countries—Italy, France, and Spain—fascists preferred to talk about “national syndicalism,” but the family resemblance is evident. And in France, the novelist, journalist, and right-wing politician Maurice Barrès was preaching “national socialism” long before World War I.

A third difficulty is more intrinsic in nature. Fascism, like the nationalism from which it sprang, exalted the primacy of the particular—national or racial—over the universal. So while communist movements could refer to a common body of dogma, however modified in practice by local circumstances, fascism appealed to different national myths, traditions, and prejudices. The myth of ancient Rome and the myth of the uncorrupted German Volk had very different associations and implications. Rome was associated with the hegemony of the state and the city, the Volk with the self-sufficient rural community. Still, the appeal to a primordial source of national being and values, endangered by the disruptive forces of moral individualism, pluralist democracy, and international capitalism, was a common and central feature of all kinds of authentic fascism, although it is not necessarily enough to distinguish it from earlier forms of nationalism.

National movements have typically appealed to a distant or mythical past to provide an uplifting contrast to the depressing present of servitude or decline. However, fascism originated in a perception that the original national project, whether Cavour’s or Bismarck’s, had failed, or was incomplete and insufficient to allow the nation-state to compete successfully in the new age of imperialism. The peculiar virulence of the fascist assault on the “internal enemy” derived from the fear of national disintegration. The Nazis attacked the “November criminals,” their name for the civilian leaders of the new German Republic, who were responsible for signing the armistice that ended World War I, and who had, the Nazis alleged, “stabbed Germany in the back” by inciting revolution. Mussolini similarly put the blame for the humiliating military disaster of Caporetto on the internal opposition of the “defeatist” socialists and Catholics; and he attacked the leaders who had failed to secure Italy’s maximum territorial claims in the Paris peace treaties as rinunciatari (renouncers) responsible for what the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio had christened Italy’s “mutilated peace.”

Robert Paxton, a leading scholar of Vichy France, attempts in his Anatomy of Fascism to bring order out of confusion. Faced with an overcrowded and tangled jungle of interpretations, he tries to hack out a clear path. His approach is distinguished by a certain impatience with the more metaphysical attempts to define the “essence” of fascism, or capture its original mystique. One of the drawbacks of this type of definition is that it is static, and that it tends to ignore the evolution and transformation of fascist movements, as they have interacted with existing states and societies.

Undoubtedly much of the progress in the study of fascism over the last thirty years has come from taking fascist ideology seriously. Early writings on fascism had often given inadequate attention to the sources of fascist beliefs, their primary concern being to explain how social class and psychological tendencies shaped what appeared to be just an irrational set of fears, hatreds, and prejudices. One of the problems with the older approach was that it tended to confuse explanation with definition. So, for example, the distinguished political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset defined fascism as an “extremism of the centre” because it drew its main support from the middle classes.

The interest in ideology has been accompanied by a productive line of inquiry into fascist culture and the fascist “style of life” as expressed, for example, in the cult of sport and physical training, as well as in carefully choreographed rituals, ceremonies, and mass meetings, such as the Nuremberg rallies, or the anniversary celebrations of the fascist March on Rome. Paxton appreciates these studies but utters some timely words of caution. Taking fascist ideology seriously, he says, does not mean taking it literally, without considering its social and political functions. It is high time to return to the study of fascist practice and political action, and to insist that ideology and culture must be related, though not reduced, to these hard realities, before the subject floats off into some kind of postmodern haze. Excessive concentration on ideological origins, Paxton writes, “puts intellectuals at the center of an enterprise whose major decisions were made by power-seeking men of action,” and gives too much emphasis to the movement’s anti-capitalist rhetoric. It also overlooks the difference between successful and unsuccessful fascisms: “The map of fascist intellectual creativity does not coincide with the map of fascist success.”

There are good reasons, Paxton suggests, for believing that the ideas promoted by fascist movements flourished most vigorously in France, not only with the ideologists of the Action Française, Barrès and Charles Maurras, but with the theorist of revolutionary syndicalism, Georges Sorel, author of the enormously influential Reflections on Violence, and the reactionary “crowd psychology” of Gustave Le Bon. But none of the different more or less fascist movements that proliferated in France between the wars won a lasting success or a national popular following. Colonel La Rocque’s Parti Social Français might seem to be an exception, but Paxton argues that it attracted a large number of followers between 1936 and 1940 only by abandoning the paramilitary rallies of its predecessor, the Croix de Feu, and presenting a moderate, pro-republican image. The more closely French fascist movements imitated German or Italian models, the less successful they were.

The French case shows that mature democracies, even when they were as divided as France undoubtedly was in the late 1930s, were not without effective defenses against fascism. In both France and Britain the simple expedient of banning paramilitary parades and rallies in uniform was remarkably successful. In both countries, of course, the identification of fascism with a potential enemy was damaging to the fascists, although both British and French conservatives looked on Mussolini as a natural ally who had been estranged by the ideological hostility of the left.

The same story can be told about what Paxton calls “legacy fascism” in the postwar world. The success of radical right movements such as Jean-Marie Le Pen’s or Jorg Haider’s has been inversely proportional to their identification with the fascist heritage. Prosperity, the solidity of democratic institutions, and the pressures of the cold war all restricted the political space available for fascism down to the end of the 1970s. One might question whether this conclusion applies to the brief revival of neofascism in Italy in the early 1970s under Giorgio Almirante, a “historic” fascist epigone of Mussolini’s Salò Republic. His organization owed its success to a backlash against the threatening combination of the student rebellion of 1968, the great wave of strikes during the “hot autumn” of 1969, and the electoral successes of the Italian Communist Party.

  1. 1

    Translated by Leila Vennewitz (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), originally published in German as Der Faschismus in seiner Epoche (Munich: Piper, 1963).

  2. 2

    See Gilbert Allardyce, “What Fascism Is Not: Thoughts on the Deflation of a Concept,” American Historical Review, Vol. 84, No. 2 (April 1979).

  3. 3

    See his Interpretations of Fascism (Harvard University Press, 1977).

  4. 4

    For “party” here, one should, I think, read “movement.” The National Socialist Party (NSDAP) as an institution did not play a dominant role in the Third Reich.

  5. 5

    Charlotte Beradt, The Third Reich of Dreams: The Nightmares of a Nation, 1933–1939 (Wellingborough, 1985).

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