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The Anatomy of Fascism’

To the Editors:

Adrian Lyttelton’s review of The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton [NYR, October 21, 2004] has one great merit: it takes us back to the 1950s, to the good old days when things were clear and unambiguous. In those far-off times, people, with very few exceptions, thought of fascism solely as a system of government, and one could only mention fascist “ideology” in inverted commas. It was usually seen as a vague rhetoric, a smokescreen. Revolution was always on the left, while fascists and Nazis were lumped together under the heading “totalitarian.” With Adrian Lyttelton’s essay and Robert O. Paxton’s new book, we seem to have returned to the state of things that existed when our generation began its university studies. Once again, the fascist ideology is now being dismissed as “empty and contradictory rhetoric” and because “it’s high time to return to the study of fascist practice and political action,” the decision has been made to concentrate on the Italian fascist regime and the Nazi regime—“the cases that really mattered.” In so doing, one has put together two totally different phenomena, which nevertheless can easily be incorporated in good old “totalitarianism,” whether it is specifically mentioned or not, a seizure of power providing a useful common denominator. The initial criterion for fascism as Lyttelton and Paxton see it is this: in order to be a fascist, one has to have succeeded.

Furthermore, one learns two other things. Firstly, that all other societies, all other movements, and all that was written by some of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century and published in hundreds of thousands of copies all the way from London and Lisbon to Bucharest via Paris do not count for anything. The impressive literary production, the masses of readers of the fascist or fascist-leaning press—that press which from the beginning of the twentieth century preached the cult of the nation, contempt for rationalism and universalism, and hatred for democracy, liberalism, and Marxism, and those chimerical ideas known as the rights of man—the constantly maintained atmosphere of feverish excitement and the street confrontations throughout Europe from Norway to the Balkans…. These are merely distractions of little importance.

Secondly, it appears that fascism and Nazism are one and the same phenomenon. There is no attempt to deal with the question that now arises. Even if one accepts the idea that ideology does not count and practice is the only criterion for a classification of regimes, how can Italy and Germany be grouped together? There can be no comparison between the Nazi state terrorism, which began as soon as Hitler entered the Reich Chancellery, and the relatively “mild” dictatorship of the fascist regime in Italy—a dictatorship that granted various sectors of civil society a considerable degree of autonomy. Can one permit oneself to overlook the fact that the difference between Italian fascism and Nazism is a qualitative one, a difference of essence?

Moreover, if only regimes count, not ideologies, how does one distinguish between fascism and authoritarianism? What is the great difference between Italy and the other dictatorships? If only practice matters, how can one forget that in this respect from the very beginning the Mussolini dictatorship was far less extreme not only than the Hitler regime that was to arise in Germany, but also than Antonescu’s tyranny in Romania and Horthy’s in Hungary? On the other hand, there was not a great difference with regard to practice between the Italian regime and the other “softer” dictatorships of the period. The same is true in certain respects, particularly with regard to the Jews, where the dictatorial Vichy regime is concerned. In 1926, with the abolition of all public liberties and guarantees of the rights of man, Italy became a police state, but in all matters relating to the functioning of the state, the life of the population, the fate of minorities, and the pressures exerted on the individual in daily life, without speaking of various forms of resistance in the northern industrial cities, the comparison usually favors Italy.

On the other hand, the differences appear as soon as one considers the objectives these regimes set themselves. Thus, the Vichy regime which, in sweeping away the heritage of the French Revolution, in attacking individualism and the principles of 1789, in introducing a racial legislation no less harsh than the Nuremberg Laws, set out on an adventure intended to restore the organic unity of the nation, was very close to Italian fascism. The brutality of a regime is certainly not a criterion for judging its fascist character: it is the ideology, the vision of man and society, the aims a movement sets itself, its philosophy of history, that are important. Fascism had a vision of society: it fought the heritage of the Enlightenment, democracy, and the intellectual (though not the economic) content of liberalism.

Nazism, for its part, declared war on the whole of Western civilization, if not on the human race. It is no accident if the peculiarity of Nazism, its racial determinism, is hardly mentioned by Lyttelton. The characteristic feature of the system, its idée mère, as Tocqueville would have said, appears totally insignificant. Nor is there any mention of the will to world domination, to conquest and extermination that gave the regime its diabolical character. Lyttelton praises Paxton’s “impatience with the more metaphysical attempts to define the ‘essence’ of fascism, or capture its original mystique.” Since when can the attempt to understand causes, to make a matter intelligible by revealing its inner rationale—all of which is the work of the historian—be classed as metaphysics?

For where can one search for the explanation of a historical phenomenon if not in its “essence,” in what is typical of it? One does not look for an average of quantitative data but for its qualitative characteristics. What Lyttelton and Paxton are really saying to us is that one has to abandon all attempts to conceptualize and to explain complex phenomena. That is why Lyttelton does not try to give us even the beginning of an answer to the question put by the title of his article: “What was Fascism?” He describes the difficulties in store for anyone who attempts such an enterprise, but are these difficulties insurmountable? Can one abandon the “why” for the sake of the mere “how”? That is what one comes to when, in order to avoid confronting the extreme complexity of fascism, a European movement that involves fundamental questions of political thought, behavior, and organization, one decides to relegate ideology and culture to a secondary position and give preference to what is easier. And what is easier is a mechanical comparative analysis of power structures and regimes. In this way, by avoiding “abstractions,” one is freed from conceptual frameworks, one does not have to think about “models,” one does not have to ask what fascism was, from where it drew its mobilizing power, or why it had such a strong attraction for varied social strata. In this way, one avoids many embarrassing questions, notably the reasons for the fascination fascism held for so many great intellectuals, and one does not have to ask why it impregnated the political life of Europe in the period between the two world wars to such a degree that it became its distinctive feature, its Zeitgeist.

Finally, one last point concerning the French case. It is simply not true that the movement “attracted a large number of followers between 1936 and 1940 only by …presenting a moderate, pro-republican image.” The reality was quite different: after the dissolution of the leagues, La Rocque made no pretense of changing his behavior: the PSF was “extending the work of the Croix de Feu,” he told the Popular Front government in August 1936. The Croix de Feu made not the slightest adjustment to their program, their activities, the tone and spirit of their propaganda. On the contrary: the tone became more violent, the style more demagogic, the attacks on the left, Blum, and the Popular Front more crude.

If the movement experienced spectacular growth after the dissolution of the leagues—toward the end of the 1930s, the PSF had at least seven hundred thousand members if not close to one million, while the Communist and Socialist parties combined had less than 500,000—it was not because this mass of new recruits were joining a movement newly won over to the virtues of democracy, but on the contrary because more and more people felt disgusted with the existing order. To take out a PSF card, after the dissolution of the Croix de Feu, was a gesture of defiance, a cry of revolt, a desire to translate ideas into action. The new arrivals were demonstrating their commitment to the forces fighting liberal democracy. They were taking their place alongside the most powerful of the disbanded leagues to proclaim that the time had come to do away with the disgraced regime.

Zeev Sternhell

Leon Blum Professor of Political Science

The Hebrew University


Adrian Lyttelton replies:

I cannot understand why Professor Sternhell believes that I think that ideology is a “distraction of little importance” in understanding fascism, when I wrote specifically that “much of the progress in the study of fascism over the last thirty years has come from taking fascist ideology seriously.” If Sternhell had read my review carefully, he would have seen that I do indeed believe that ideology is fundamental to the distinction between fascism and traditional authoritarianism, and that extremism in political practice is not a valid criterion for distinguishing between the two.

Professor Sternhell seems to me to get himself into a logical tangle. If the difference between Italian fascism and Nazism is “a difference of essence,” then there is no justification for a concept of fascism that embraces both phenomena. But in the previous sentence he states that “the nature of fascism has to be sought in the specific characteristics of Italian fascism and Nazism.” One can, of course, treat the two phenomena as separate. But this procedure seems to me to have very considerable inconveniences if one wants to understand the importance of fascism in the interwar period, what Sternhell calls “the constantly maintained atmosphere of feverish excitement and the street confrontations throughout Europe.” It involves ignoring a vast amount of contemporary writing by both fascism’s friends and its opponents that assumed that fascism and National Socialism were different manifestations of a single phenomenon.

I quite agree with Sternhell that any comparative study of fascism must involve the construction of models that provide us with criteria for inclusion and exclusion. In one respect, I must admit that I did not do justice to Robert Paxton’s book. Although I made clear the main elements of his conception of fascism, I did not explicitly discuss his formal definition of it. This was partly for reasons of space, and partly because I did not consider the definition itself to be the most original aspect of his book. We have a plethora of models of fascism in circulation, and, contrary to what Sternhell implies, I believe that distinguishing between those which are more or less valuable demands a higher degree of abstraction and conceptual clarity than has usually been present.

Where I do disagree with Sternhell is over what he calls “essence” and “original mystique.” Fascist ideology has to be studied in its varying and changing manifestations, which were not identical either in space or time. If I applauded Paxton’s book, it is because it evaded the methodological trap of essentialism, and because it insisted on the need—not to ignore ideology—but to relate it to changing practices and institutional contexts. If Sternhell thinks that the comparative study of institutions and power structures is an easy option, he should try it sometime. Sternhell is right in detecting a polemical edge in my comments about the study of ideology. But the object of my criticism is not the study of ideology per se, but its study in a vacuum. I have a high regard for the work of Emilio Gentile, who is best known as one of the major exponents of the new interpretation of fascist ideology and culture. But Gentile is also the author of a fine study of the origins of the Fascist Party, and he has always insisted on the need to study how ideology is embodied in organization and in cultural practices. In taking a similar view, Paxton and I share a viewpoint that Sternhell vehemently rejects.

However, another problem with his letter is that he ignores altogether those passages in my review that indicate a disagreement, or difference of emphasis, from Paxton’s book. For example, contrary to what he claims, I wrote that Paxton’s analysis of the differences between fascism and National Socialism “underrates the importance of race to Nazi thinking.” Another instance of a difference that Sternhell ignores is that I attribute more importance than Paxton does to the distinctive and ideologically characterized nature of fascist economic policy.

Sternhell regards Paxton and myself as hopelessly old-fashioned. It is odd that he treats us as representatives of the historiographical orthodoxy of the Fifties, since Paxton published his pathbreaking work on Vichy France in 1972, and my own study of fascism, The Seizure of Power, came out the following year. By way of self-criticism, I would say that my approach to the study of fascist ideology was too much influenced by Marxist or sociological theories. After the “linguistic turn” we are all more sensitive to the autonomy of political discourse, or we should be. Professor Sternhell has made outstanding contributions to the study of fascist ideology, and I have learned much from his books. But revisions can harden into new dogmas, and in his letter I detect the shrill tones of an orthodoxy under threat.

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