Is fascism back? The headlines might make one think so. Images of skinheads, ethnic cleansing, and nationalist demagogues assail us daily. Books about the general character of fascism, which had largely given way since the 1970s to an emphasis on what distinguished Italian Fascism from German Nazism,1 are appearing again. Among them are works by two veteran observers of the European far right, Walter Laqueur and Stanley Payne.

Laqueur, whose prolific commentary on contemporary Europe and Russia already includes important work on fascism,2 has written a brief essay that gives more space to “neofascism” since World War II and “postfascism” today than it does to the examples from before World War II. He draws on a lifetime of observation and surveys an impressive range of contemporary far-right movements, but his book presupposes familiarity with historic fascism, and it shows signs of haste.3

Stanley Payne provides the historic detail that Laqueur has taken for granted. A leading authority on twentieth-century Spain and Portugal, 4 he has written the most thorough and best-informed narrative survey of the interwar fascist and authoritarian movements in print, and he takes a brief look at postwar successors and imitators. He has mastered a truly impressive proportion of the vast literature in the major Western languages about the far right.

Fascism is notoriously easier to describe than it is to understand. It is conventional to approach it by analogy with the great political “isms” of the nineteenth century, like liberalism and conservatism, and to try to specify the defining elements of a particular creed.5 But as Payne admits, “fascist movements differed more widely among themselves than was the case with various national movements among the other political genera.”

These differences are of two kinds. Dedicated as they were to returning to pure national origins and to excluding all alien and cosmopolitan intrusions, fascist movements were tied to their own particular cultures. The Norse epics that stirred fascist audiences in Norway or Germany seemed absurd to Mussolini’s crowds, who responded instead to his evocations of the classical hero and Roman glory. Fascist practice, too, could differ sharply according to the particular stage fascists had reached in their quest for power, starting with radical movements, and going on to parties that cut across classes, and ending in several countries with ruling fascist governments. Mussolini’s first Fascist6 program of Spring 1919 proposed radical changes, including the vote for women, the eight-hour work day, 85 percent tax on war profits, confiscation of Church property, and workers’ participation in industrial management. These programs were almost completely contradicted by the Duce’s later policies, not to mention his persona. Similarly, the Nazi Party’s Twenty-One Points of 1920 expressed hostility to all forms of capitalism except that of artisan entrepreneurs; they bear little relation to the sometimes strained though powerfully effective collaboration between German industrialists and the Nazi regime, not least on rearming Germany. From this profusion of national differences and changes in internal fascist programs, it has proven all but impossible to extract an irreducible core—the so-called “fascist minimum.”

Nevertheless, Laqueur and Payne, in their different ways, suggest that a fascist essence can be derived from party doctrines. Payne extracts from fascist programs a list of qualities—such as nationalism, the cult of a supreme leader, and the redemptive power of violence—that characterize most European fascist movements. He shies away from calling this “typological description” a definition, however, and concludes that the historic cases of fascism were so changeable and self-contradictory that “the search for an adequate theory or interpretation of fascism has generally ended in failure.” As for Laqueur, while he is sure there is a fascist “essence” somewhere to be found, he concludes that it is indefinable. Fascism, he writes, “resembles pornography in that it is difficult—perhaps impossible—to define in an operational, legally valid way, but those with experience know it when they see it.”

We will understand fascism better, I suggest, if we adopt two quite different approaches. One is to perceive the common elements within fascism not by extracting any simple intellectual creed from it but by seeing fascism as a political practice intended by its leaders to serve quite specific functions: to unite, purify, and energize nations or ethnic groups that have been put under strain by internal divisions, by the fear of decadence, or by tumultuous social changes. A second approach is to distinguish the different (though not inevitable) stages through which the different fascist movements actually passed.

The first stage of fascism appeared in the confusion following World War I. By the end of the war radical nationalists had created protest movements of an unprecedented sort. They were simultaneously against the left and against the bourgeoisie. They accused the left of denying the nation’s patriotic destiny. They reproached the bourgeoisie not with exploitation but with flabbiness in the face of national decline and internal subversion. The Fascio di combattimento that Mussolini formed in Milan on March 23, 1919, was the first to use the word “fascism.” It gathered together groups that were distinctly different from one another: activist war veterans, dissident syndicalists who had turned nationalist, and anti-bourgeois but nationalist intellectuals like the Futurists.


A similar movement, different mainly in its obsessive anti-Semitism, was the German Workers’ Party in Munich that German Army Intelligence sent Corporal Hitler to investigate in September 1919. He soon joined it, receiving card Number 555, and turned it into his own movement. In the 1920s similar movements appeared in France and in Hungary, and in the 1930s they proliferated among Europeans hurt by the Depression, frightened by the advance of communism, and bewitched by the apparent success of Hitler and Mussolini in dealing with both threats. Millions of Americans heard kindred ideas in Father Coughlin’s radio speeches, and imitations appeared as far afield as Brazil, South Africa, and China.

Many students of politics have let this first phase of fascism define what is meant by fascism, and neither Laqueur nor Payne seriously challenges that convention. But to concentrate on beginnings and on the ideas that, say, Mussolini and his followers subscribed to at the end of World War I produces several misleading impressions. It reinforces the assumption that fascism is primarily an intellectual doctrine, and a revolutionary one at that. It also tends to push fascism’s origins back to the first attacks on Enlightenment liberalism in the nineteenth century—whether from an anti-modernist right or from anti-individualist, anti-materialist dissenters within the left.7 Some specialists of fascism’s intellectual origins, such as Zeev Sternhell, believe that fascism was fully formed before 1914.

While Payne portrays pre-war intellectual developments as having prepared the way for fascism, both writers take the more conventional and, I believe, legitimate position that the social and psychological consequences of World War I made fascism possible. These included large numbers of disgruntled veterans; a middle class that was losing its status through runaway inflation and was threatened by socialist revolution; and an emotional climate in which violence had become glamorized and the nation glorified by wartime propaganda.

Fascism in its first phase succeeded in turning itself into a major contender for power in only a few countries. Why did it fail in others? The usual answer to that question centers on the leader himself, emphasizing his single-minded attention to power at whatever cost to doctrinal purity. In fact Hitler and Mussolini learned how to make fascism successful by trial and error.

Mussolini, a prominent socialist before the war, evidently believed in 1919 that his new Fascio di combattimento could successfully challenge the socialists and Communists on their own terrain by combining social protest with an appeal to Italian nationalism. But when he initially put forward the curious mixture of social radicalism and nationalist anger in the first Fascist program of Spring 1919 it was not at all popular. He won only 4,793 votes out of 275,000 in Milan in the elections of November 1919. Italy at that time had left-wing internationalist parties and it had right-wing parties with nationalist tendencies; it had no room for a party that was simultaneously nationalist and left-wing.

Mussolini would be forgotten today if some of his lieutenants in the provinces—local party leaders who took the title of ras from the Ethiopian chieftains whose defeat of the Italian Army in 1896 still rankled—had not discovered tactics that were more successful. Their attacks on socialists and Slovenes in Trieste in July 1920 and on the socialist organizers of agricultural laborers in the Po valley in 1920-1921 won the gratitude of important conservative leaders. Following the initiatives of his ras, Mussolini turned his movement into something else: a collection of gangs called squadristi, dressed in black shirts, willing to attack Marxists and foreigners who alarmed landowners, industrialists, and chauvinists, but who had been more or less tolerated by the authorities. Reshaped to exploit alleged failures by the Italian state to defend Italian pride and property, his movement prospered. At each new stage in these transformations of fascism’s functions, more of the early radicals dropped out. Some did so when the Fascists fought the labor movement in 1920; they were followed by others when Mussolini turned his movement into a political party in 1921, and still others when, after taking power, he concluded bargains with the industrialists and the Vatican.

Hitler groped just as uncertainly for the right path to power. Misreading Mussolini’s inaccurately named “March on Rome” of October 1922, he attempted a coup in Munich in November 1923, thirteen months later. After the army crushed it, his movement languished until 1928, when he stopped concentrating on appeals to the working class and began recruiting farmers suffering from the worldwide crash in food prices, the first sign of the Great Depression. His followers still included recruits from all social classes, but farmers became his second mass clientele after nationalist war veterans. In July 1932 they helped to make the Nazis the largest electoral party in Germany, with 37 percent of the vote.


From this record it should be clear that when transformed fascist parties succeed in becoming major contenders for power, they can hardly be understood simply by looking into the intellectual background of their early programs. This is why fascism’s claim to be “revolutionary” is so confusing. If the fascism of Mussolini and Hitler was to succeed, the “socialist” part of national socialism had to be revised so that the fascist programs would offer psychological rather than material rewards, namely a satisfying sense of national destiny and belonging. The fascist “new man” would find social integration within the fascist community. The early followers who wanted genuine changes in the social hierarchy and the distribution of wealth had to be written off.

Most fascist movements failed to make this change and did not turn away from the early anti-bourgeois radicals, either because their leaders were radical purists uninterested in compromising for the sake of power (the dreamer Ferenc Szalasi of the Hungarian Arrow Cross is Payne’s best example) or because national politics offered few opportunities for a new party to establish itself. Oswald Mosley, for all his brilliance, could find no opening in the British political landscape for his British Union of Fascists because the Conservatives governed with broad support between 1931 and 1945. A country-by-country survey of all the different forms of fascism, such as one finds in the books by Laqueur and Payne, inevitably skews the picture by giving as much space to the larval “first fascisms” as to the successful ones.

If we want to understand how fascist movements made the compromises necessary for success, a chronological political narrative is bound to leave vital matters unexplored. If we attribute fascist success entirely to the leader’s flair, we give the Führerprinzip an unwarranted posthumous triumph. It seems more convincing to take a broader view and to point to the different kinds of conditions that have been necessary for the success of fascist movements. One such condition was the emergence in intellectual life of the new anti-bourgeois, anti-left nationalism already alluded to. A second condition was that conservatives had become fearful of revolution and were anxious to find some new way of converting the working class from socialism. A third was the tumultuous expansion of mass participation in politics in newly created democracies where traditional forms of social control based on deference no longer worked. A fourth was economic globalization that exposed weaker producers to worldwide competition and tempted them to try authoritarian and autarchic forms of market regulation. Both Payne and Laqueur mention some of these; and Payne, while avoiding any whiff of determinism, has put together a chart of social, cultural, and political preconditions for fascist success. But neither author really analyzes the processes by which fascist movements found allies and a place for themselves in certain national efforts to cope with these crises.

What enables some fascist movements to succeed in politics is less their having some innate property than the circumstances that offer them opportunity: the gravity of the crisis undermining the legitimacy of the existing democratic system, and the readiness of established elites—the army, the Church, big business leaders—to tolerate or assist the fascist upstarts. This means, paradoxically, that the study of fascist movements must concentrate at least as much on their surrounding circumstances and their accomplices as on the movements themselves. The genre to which the books under review belong—a kind of bestiary of all the world’s fascist movements, portrayed in all their specificity—usually fails to compare in sufficient depth the various national situations in which fascist movements succeeded.


Fascist parties have only exceptionally managed to reach power, and in each case allies and accomplices counted as much as the shrewdness of the leaders’ tactics and timing. Both Hitler and Mussolini helped to create a constitutional deadlock, and their movements then emerged as part of the only possible majority capable of resolving it that did not include socialists. In both cases the legitimate heads of state, Field Marshal von Hindenburg and King Victor Emmanuel III, turned to the fascists on the advice of established conservative forces, which were looking desperately for some way to stabilize their faltering rule.

In both Germany and Italy the fascist leaders seeking power had a moment of agonized waiting when events were out of their hands. Mussolini did not actually march into Rome in October 1922. By threatening to do so, he forced King Victor Emmanuel III to choose between using force to stop him and buying him off with a place in government. Then he sat in his newspaper offices in Milan on October 28, waiting for the centrist leader Giovanni Giolitti and the center-right-wing leader Antonio Salandra to fail yet again to form a coalition without Fascist participation. He gambled that the King would call on him to form a government, and he won.

In November and December 1932, Hitler was nearly broke and his movement was declining in the polls. He staved off the impatience of his militants, and waited for Franz von Papen and General Kurt von Schleicher to exhaust their efforts to form conservative governments without the mass electoral base that only Hitler could provide. Only then was President von Hindenburg ready to ask Hitler to form his own government. In every case we know of, fascists have arrived at power by inside deals.

As Hitler learned in Munich in 1923 and as the Romanian Iron Guard discovered in December 1941, fascist coups, if they are unsupported by powerful elements of the political establishment, are likely to be crushed by the army. Payne even argues that military dictatorship and conservative authoritarian regimes were, historically, the best defense against fascist take-overs. Astute fascists—like Hitler, after he emerged from Landsberg Prison in 1925—have concluded that taking to the streets will succeed only in turning against them the very elements whose support they will need to rule and pursue a policy of national expansion: the army, industry, and the conservative political establishment. Attempting a coup also risked conceding a tactical advantage to socialists and Communists, who were likely to be stronger than fascists in the streets. Hence fascists have so far reached power only by arrangement with forces clearly in power or close to it.

The fascist method of governing deserves to be analyzed on its own terms, as a distinct stage of successful fascism. In each case fascist governments were shaped by the way the fascist movements came to power. Fascist leaders have had to govern in collaboration with the existing elites who brought them into office, while also trying not to alienate the members of the party who had made them powerful enough to attract the elites’ attention in the first place.

This sets up a four-way struggle for dominance within fascist regimes among the leader, his party (whose militants clamor for more jobs, perquisites, power, and expansionist adventures), the regular state functionaries ranging from police commanders to magistrates, and the traditional elites—particularly the army and big business. Such four-way tension is utterly unlike what occurs in either authoritarian dictatorships (which lack a militant party) or Stalinism (which lacked the traditional elites). Both Laqueur and Payne rightly dismiss the once common tendency to equate Hitler’s rule with Stalin’s as “totalitarian.” On the other hand, they have underrated some recent literature on the workings of fascist governments. Payne, it is true, acknowledges the early work of Ernst Fraenkel and others who described the fascist “dual state,” in which conventional agencies coexisted with parallel party organizations.8 The Nazis never abolished the old constitution, and the traditional law courts, for example, continued to function alongside party courts.

Payne and, even more so, Laqueur are unsympathetic, however, to the interpretation of fascist rule by such historians as Martin Broszat, who see Hitler’s government as a chaotic “polyocracy” in which major decisions were often taken by rival underlings who were competing for the ruler’s favor and trying to establish their own fiefdoms.9 The conventional image of Nazi Germany as a perfectly oiled machine, born of wartime propaganda, dies hard. But in matters of economic policy, in particular, there is much to be said for Broszat’s interpretation. One could cite the example of the clash between Albert Speer, who wanted to develop war production in the occupied territories, and Fritz Sauckel, who wanted to draft those territories’ workers for forced labor in Germany.

By encouraging terror and manipulating his competing officials, Hitler was increasingly able to subordinate both the state bureaucracy and the traditional elites to Nazi party rule, but he could not go all the way without endangering his own power. Even in Nazi Germany the party was never omnipotent. The SS fought with industrialists over the spoils in the occupied territories, and on the question of euthanasia of the mentally defective, the party had to back down after protests by the churches. Mussolini, fearful of competition from his own provincial bosses, the ras, protected himself from them by making deals with the longstanding Italian elites, particularly the leaders of industry and the Catholic Church, and by strengthening the power of the state bureaucracy to discipline local party officials. Despite the different weight each gave to the party, the Nazi and Fascist regimes remain recognizably two species of the same genus.

It is often unclear just who benefited most from fascist rule. Fascist leaders were deliberately ambiguous about the interests they served. Claiming to transcend political factions, they shifted their people’s attention to martial prowess and communal pageantry—what Walter Benjamin called fascism’s “aestheticization of politics.” If fascist governments were not monolithic dictatorships but were made up of competing forces with different social compositions, then it makes no sense to call them merely “agents of capitalism,” as was common among Marxist writers in the 1930s and 1940s. Payne, however, probably goes too far when he claims that the Nazi regime violated the clear preferences of the industrial leaders. In fact, companies like I.G. Farben and Daimler-Benz found Goering’s preparations for war under the Four-Year Plan, which started in 1936, something they could live with. It is true that they had to accept regulation and lose foreign markets; however, they compared Nazi Germany’s arrangements not to some capitalist utopia but to the real conditions they had faced since the revolution of 1918 and the depression of 1929 and they found ways to prosper.10


What eventually happens to fascist rule? Movements built on the promise of excitement, the prospect of creating a changed new society, tend to suffer one of two destinies: they may either decay into routine administration, as Laqueur perceptively emphasizes, or they may embark on a kind of “permanent revolution,” allowing party organizations to encroach on the powers of the bureaucracy and the army. The conquest by Nazi Germany of vast “no man’s lands” in what had been Poland and the USSR, outside the constraints of the contending bureaucracies at home, gave party fanatics such as Himmler more leeway, and elements of the earlier radical ideology came back into play. Nazi Germany was the classic instance of a fascist regime that became increasingly radical: the secret police became more powerful and brutal; paganism became an increasingly militant force; and experiments with euthanasia and racial hygiene were succeeded, finally, by the Holocaust. The conventional approach to fascism as an intellectual doctrine is particularly inadequate to account for such developments, for it has no way to account for a final demonic paroxysm of the kind that took place in Hitler’s last years.

War was undeniably the driving force in radicalizing fascist societies, yet even war did not save Mussolini’s Italy from stagnation. This difference has usually been attributed to the leaders’ personal qualities: the obsessed and determined Hitler as opposed to the more cautious, indolent, and perhaps sickly Mussolini. But it was not that simple, as is shown by some of the most interesting research on the different fascist regimes, which explores attitudes that prevailed among the middle levels of society: doctors, magistrates, and the like.11 Laqueur makes a pertinent comparison between the police forces in Fascist Italy, which were run by a career official, Arturo Bocchini, and in Nazi Germany, where they were increasingly captured by Himmler’s party zealots. In general the two authors say too little about how these regimes were able to get “ordinary” people to use poison gas against Libyan or Ethiopian villagers, or to sterilize or kill the mentally handicapped, or to exterminate Jews.12

The social composition of fascist movements changed radically through their different phases. Payne reminds us that, more than any other social group, students were drawn to early fascist movements. The fascist parties that reached power, however, risked becoming swamped by opportunists, since they became the chief dispenser of patronage. The early fascists promised to protect the groups that tended to be losers in a modernizing economy, such as farmers, artisans, and small shopkeepers, many of whom gave them strong support. But once fascist chiefs were in power, they wanted rapid economic development for military purposes and they largely ignored the claims of such people. It was not modernization in itself but only the social disorder resulting from rapid modernization that the fascists feared, and they had other solutions for dealing with that.

Any dictatorship that is both violent and popular is likely to be called fascist. But fascism can be clearly distinguished from authoritarianism, and Payne, having done first-rate schol-arly work on how Franco subordinated Spanish fascism to a traditional military-clerical dictatorship, makes discriminating comparisons among authoritarian regimes, military dictatorships, and authentic fascist systems. Authoritarian regimes (including those of Franco, Salazar, Pétain, and Horthy) may trample liberties and shed blood; but they govern through existing elites—armies, churches, traditional ruling classes—rather than through a single mass party. They prefer passive citizens to mobilized ones, and they offer no exciting prospect of creating a “new man” who will be part of a revivified community. If they depart from legal due process, they do so more by claiming there is a temporary emergency than by arguing for a total subordination of individual rights to group needs.

Laqueur and Payne are certainly correct that only movements and regimes that react against established democracies should be called fascist. Otherwise we find ourselves labeling as fascist all sorts of modernizing dictatorships and national liberation movements in settings where democracy has never been attempted. Authentic fascists deliberately reject existing (though often recent) regimes that have electoral politics, individual liberty, and due process. By that definition fascism began in Europe at the moment when deep disillusions with democracy first spread following World War I.

Is fascism still possible? For Stanley Payne, fascism simply had to end in 1945, since, in his view, one of its defining characteristics was that it derived from the national syndicalism of the 1890s, an ideology that could not be renewed in modern times. Laqueur thinks that something close to historic fascism (but not identical to it) can reappear.

At least two different contemporary trends might be called fascist: nostalgic revivals and functional equivalents. The nostalgic revivals of the old fascist parties, in which former Nazis and Fascists wear armbands and give stiff-armed salutes, are likely to die out with the generation of World War II, unless they refashion themselves into something different. For example, the old Italian Movimento sociale italiano (MSI) never again reached the 8.7 percent of the vote it won in 1972. When it was rebaptized last year as the Alleanza nazionale, its leader, Gianfranco Fini, successfully persuaded 16 percent of Italian voters that in a “postfascist” era his party’s past (including his own praise for Mussolini) should not prevent him from getting their support.

More interesting, and more dangerous, are the functional equivalents of fascism in which dictatorial movements use different symbols and rhetoric but still fulfill the fascist functions of purifying, uniting, and energizing a society fearful of division and decline. One such equivalent might build upon religious solidarity, like some fundamentalist forms of Islam and of Russian Orthodoxy. Fascism in both Italy and Germany was largely pagan, but that was probably because the Christian churches there were closely related to the status quo. Laqueur and Payne both doubt that an authentic fascism can be based on religious fundamentalism, arguing that a powerful clergy might more likely produce authoritarianism than fascism. But a religious group, or faith, that suffers decline or humiliation may exhibit all the qualities of authentic fascist mobilization, along with the fervor of a “chosen people” scorned.

Nor is there any reason why functional equivalents of fascism would be limited to Europe or to North and South America. Laqueur argues rightly that the attempts to imitate fascism in both Asia and Latin America in the 1930s lacked the mass mobilization that goes with authentic fascism; but the democratic experiments in those regions since 1945 might make fascism possible should they fail. The taboos that have inhibited imitations of Hitler in the West since 1945 have never existed elsewhere and are now weakening in any case. Non-Western forms of nationalism are easily channeled into a fierce rejection of Western values, including cosmopolitan tolerance, individual liberties, electoral democracy, and market economics. It is the circumstances that have changed, of course, more than fascism itself. The world contains many movements, mostly marginal, that resemble fascism in its first stages. Until recently, however, no postwar crisis of failed democracy was sufficiently acute to offer the kinds of opportunities to them that were opened to fascism in the 1920s and 1930s.

We might have expected the deflation of fascism’s traditional enemy, communism, to remove its last appeal. Instead, the failure of democracy and the market in the former Soviet Union has opened up the best opportunities for fascism since 1945. Some of the movements for national socialism and for purification and renewal that flourish in Russia today, whether their leaders claim to be post-Communists or anti-Communist nationalists, look like a functional equivalent of the historic fascist movements and not mere superficial imitators of their styles.

But are the ugly political tendencies that look like fascism in Russia, the former Yugoslavia, the Middle East, and even the United States really fascist, or are their enemies merely smearing them with a convenient dirty word? It is true that some references to fascism are mere name-calling; but the fascist analogy can be useful. It can help us to understand historic fascism not by its external trappings but by the particular functions it carried out; and it can turn our attention to the kinds of political opportunities, and the traditional potential allies, that have always been necessary to bring fascist movements to power. The fascist analogy may enable us not only to recognize the fringe movements being organized today but also to assess their chances of success in the years ahead.

This Issue

November 28, 1996