The Birth of Fascist Ideology: From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution

by Zeev Sternhell, with Mario Sznajder, and Maia Asheri, translated by David Maisel
Princeton University Press, 338 pp., $29.95

Fascism seems easy to grasp. It presents itself to us in crude primary images: the leader haranguing an electrified crowd, disciplined youths marching by, the exaltation of communal purity within and of aggressive expansion without. As soon as one attempts to define and analyze fascism as a generic concept, however, difficulties arise. Its borders are fuzzy. Do we include Stalin? Do we include charismatic third world dictators like Nkwame Nkrumah, expansionist military dictatorships like that of Imperial Japan, modernizing dictatorships like that of Argentina’s Perón, or even religious purification movements like the ayatollah’s in Iran? Even if we limit ourselves to Europe during fascism’s heyday, Hitler’s Germany, ruled absolutely (albeit messily) by an obsessed anti-Semite, matches poorly with the laxer Italy, where Mussolini had a Jewish mistress, Jewish backers, and Jewish henchmen (at least in the early days). Hannah Arendt omitted Italy from her Origins of Totalitarianism, even though Mussolini had invented the term. Today such authoritative scholars as Karl Dietrich Bracher in Germany and Renzo De Felice in Italy refuse to treat Nazism and Fascism1 as a single phenomenon.2 At the level of epithet, however, lumpers prevail over splitters. Practically everyone in authority has been called fascist by some mudslinger or another.

Adding to the confusion is the ambiguous relation between thought and action in fascism. Mussolini launched his fasci de combattimento in 1919 with a program that mingled war veterans’ demands and virulent nationalism with such radical proposals as the abolition of the senate, the nobility, and the monarchy, the suppression of joint-stock companies and banks, the confiscation of war profits, and the vote for women. The Nazi Party began by proclaiming a program of twenty-five points in 1920 that mixed nationalism, anti-Semitism, and hostility to international finance capitalism. All fascist movements that have reached power have casually violated their early platforms, however, especially their economic planks, according to the tactical needs of the moment. Fascists even glory in their contempt for thought and reason. Moreover, fascists deny any validity to universal rights or natural law, since, for them, there is only one yardstick of right: the prowess of their own race, their own blood, their own community. No wonder the fascist regimes differed from each other fundamentally in their rhetoric and imagery, since these were drawn from each national symbolic heartland. George Orwell grasped right away that the decor of fascism could not be exported: a successful British fascism, he believed, must come clad in sober British garb and not in the alien black shirt of Sir Oswald Mosley.3 It seems doubtful that some common intellectual position can be the defining character of movements that valued action above thought, the instincts of the blood above reason, duty to the community above intellectual freedom, and national particularism above any kind of universal value. Is fascism an “ism” at all?

Zeev Sternhell is the chief proponent of the opposite view, that fascism is first and foremost an ideology. He is the leading scholar of the…

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