The Uses of Fascism

Fascism: Past, Present, Future

by Walter Laqueur
Oxford University Press, 263 pp., $25.00

A History of Fascism, 1914-1945

by Stanley G. Payne
University of Wisconsin Press, 613 pp., $19.95 (paper)


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…

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