Fascism in the Plural

Alan Ryan

  • Fascism: A History by Roger Eatwell
    Chatto, 327 pp, £20.00, August 1995, ISBN 0 7011 6188 4
  • Fascism edited by Roger Griffin
    Oxford, 410 pp, £9.99, June 1995, ISBN 0 19 289249 5

The collapse of the satellite Communist regimes of Eastern Europe and the subsequent disintegration of the USSR were supposed to mark the triumph of the liberal democratic ideal and the market economy – to be the ‘end of history’. What we got instead was a revival of ultra-nationalism, racism and ethnic strife: German reunification celebrated by Neo-Nazi skinheads; Croatian independence marked by the rehabilitation of Nazi collaborators. French racial discord encouraged by Le Pen’s increasingly popular National Front; and, in Russia, the arrival of Vladimir Zhirinovsky as something more than a bad joke. Many people have wondered whether 1989 would turn out like 1919: what the death of old authoritarian governments brought to life is more Fascist than liberal.

Two events of 1994 might be looked to for reassurance, or the reverse. The Italian elections put Berlusconi in charge of the Government with four cabinet members from the Neo-Fascist Allianza Nazionale backed by 109 Allianza deputies. On the one hand, they professed a sincere attachment to Parliamentary processes and civil rights; on the other, their arrival was the first unequivocal post-war success for Fascism in the arena of ‘normal’ politics. Similarly, in a United States in which Idaho voters sent to Congress the egregious Republican Linda Cherno-with – a woman who holds every kooky belief that drives the militia movement – one may be appalled at the popular support for such people or happy that there are so few of them.

The question that everyone wants answered is whether Fascism can return, but it’s not clear what that means. Ultra-nationalism, say, may be defensive or aggressive, attached to socialist or capitalist economic theories, racist in a thorough-going way, as Nazism was, or indifferent to the existence of other peoples. Not all such possibilities are plausibly called Fascist. All are sure to be domestically illiberal and dangerous to their neighbours, and the appropriateness of the label seems the last of our worries. But there was, perhaps, something about the particular mix of ideas, myths and political technique that distinguished real Fascism and made it so attractive. When we wonder whether Fascism is a real threat now it is because we wonder whether that mixture or something like it is still potent.

But political theorists have always baulked at writing about Fascism. A recent textbook on contemporary political theory mentions it only in passing. Fascism ‘began in a comparatively trashy, theatrical way with Mussolini in Italy, but achieved its fullest development with Hitler. His atrocities have excluded it from any serious consideration except of a pathological nature.’ Another possible reason for the lack of critical attention is that Fascism’s emphasis on the superiority of action over thought, its focus on the will rather than the intellect and on blood rather than brain, baffles philosophical analysis. The relationship between Fascism and the intellectual too often comes down to the image of a pair of wire-rimmed glasses being crushed beneath a jack-booted heel.

Some strands of Fascist doctrine have a great deal of intellectual content, however: the theory of the corporate state is not negligible, the political sociology of plebiscitary democracy is a serious subject, ethnic and national sentiment is capable of a rational justification. But here, too, we are likely to be baffled, for almost every Fascist idea susceptible to rational analysis seems to be equally or more at home in political attachments of a thoroughly non-Fascist kind.

Keith Middleman’s account of wartime and post-war Britain, for instance, explained the successful running of the state in corporatist terms. A tripartite alliance of capital, labour and government came to terms on the way the war was to be prosecuted, on the pay-off that labour could expect for wartime wage restraints, on the extent to which the owners of industry could sacrifice their profits for the sake of the war effort and of social peace. That tripartite system persisted for some time after the war, and as long as it did so, slow but steady economic growth was achieved, unemployment was reduced to historically minute levels, and working-class alienation was all but cured. Not everyone thought Politics in Industrial Society was wholly right, but nobody suggested that Middle-mas had painted a picture of a Fascist society.

Indeed, the intellectual strength of corporatist theory is so great that one might reasonably say that it is only its association with Fascism that has led us to underestimate its theoretical merits over the past 50 years. The corporatist pedigree is impeccable. When Hegel contemplated what he thought of as the modern constitutional state and the modern market economy in The Philosophy of Right, he had no doubt that capitalism meant the impoverishment and deracination of working people, and that the remedy was for the several ‘estates’ or Stände both to control working conditions and to represent the various economic interests in the political system, so that politics did not degenerate into class warfare. Hegel’s preferred social, economic and political system embodied a fairly stuffy sort of liberal constitutionalism, but it was light-years from Fascism.

Even Bertrand Russell, whose radicalism and individualism are unquestionable, could argue in defence of a corporatist replacement for old-fashioned capitalism. The Principles of Social Reconstruction, delivered as a series of anti-war lectures in 1915 and published a year later, saw guild socialism as the solution to national class warfare and international armed conflict. The role of the state was minimised: all the useful social work was to be carried out by a hierarchy of councils that would organise production and distribution, settle working conditions and regulate economic life. Some form of state would set out and maintain the constitutional arrangements under which all this would happen, but – as one would expect of someone who saw guild socialism as the next best, and only practicable, alternative to anarcho-syndicalism it was not the state that was waging war on the Somme. Still, it was a form of corporatism: organisation was intended to follow function; representation was adjusted to purpose. Individuals were to be discouraged from bloody-minded, self-centred behaviour by being able to satisfy their needs in different kinds of organisation, each appropriate to its purpose.

In France, there was a tradition, which began with St-Simon, of thinking of industrial society – not ‘capitalism’ – as awaiting its organisational principle. Since modern industrial society was, more or less by definition, distinguished from all others by virtue of its productive power, it should be controlled – that is to say, managed – by those who could organise production. Once again, the state in any military and coercive sense withers away, to be replaced by whatever arrangements rational organisation dictates. It was St-Simon, not Marx, who first coined the phrase about the government of men giving way to the administration of things. By 1915, the Utopian socialists of the 19th century were hardly remembered, but Emile Durkheim’s Professional Ethics and Civic Morals offered very much the same picture as Russell: unrestrained capitalism was arbitrary and alienating; what was wanted was justice and the moral satisfaction that individuals could only have by doing a useful job; unions ought not to be instruments of class warfare but guilds that helped to integrate workers into a productive society. This, too, was essentially a liberal doctrine.

This is not to suggest that either Hegelian constitutional liberalism or Russellian or Durkheimian socialism is a pattern for the 21st century. It is only to say that when we try to analyse Fascism, the natural temptation is to seize hold of one of its more plausible ideas. Then we discover that the more plausible it is, the less tightly it seems connected to Fascism. At which point, we find ourselves back where we began. Corporatist ideas are attractive because they present us with a picture of a tidy, just, integrated society with none of the untidiness, unfairness and disintegration presented by, let us say, Italy and Germany after 1918. But actually existing Fascism was an entirely different matter. We see what Fascism and National Socialism led to by way of the destruction of free trade unions and the conciliation of the owners of capital, and conclude that the intellectual content of corporatist ideas never mattered to Fascists. All they did was use the anti-capitalist sentiments of disgruntled workers, displaced peasants and frightened low-level administrators to build an insurrectionary movement. Once that movement had been built, its leaders used it to destroy the unpopular constitutionalist capitalist regime, and then replaced both the old regime and the movement with organised terrorism.

I do not mean this entirely literally; for one thing, constitutionality vanished, but capitalism did not. It is, indeed, a standing mystery of the Fascism of the Twenties and Thirties that it so often appealed to attitudes that seem, if not contradictory, then decidedly at odds with each other – anti-capitalism and anti-Bolshevism. To get further, any intelligent analysis needs to employ finer-grained categories. The peasant who wanted security for small farmers was not pro-capitalist: it was small farmers not large landlords he sympathised with. And if he favoured government assistance from time to time, that did not make him pro-socialist: he was after cheap loans or tax relief, not public ownership.

This, too, presents the would-be theorist of Fascism with difficulties, for it suggests that just what any particular Fascist movement appealed to must now be described country by country, region by region, occupation by occupation and year by year. It is not surprising that almost everyone has been happier writing the history of Fascism than trying to discern its intellectual content. Ernst Nolte’s Three Faces of Fascism remains a classic account of Fascism in France, Germany and Italy thirty-odd years after its first appearance. As an essay in the history of ideas, it provides a wonderfully lucid account of Charles Maurras and Maurice Barrès, makes more sense of Mussolini’s intellectual ambitions than most other works, and renders Hitler’s ambitions intelligible. But when Nolte attempts to explain Fascism as a ‘resistance to transcendence’, darkness tails once more.

One route out of the endless circling around the question of what, if anything, constituted the intellectual content of Fascism is simply to deny the existence of Fascism. This may look mad on the face of it, given that Mussolini without doubt established the fasci di combattimento in Milan on 23 March 1919, adopting for them the symbol of the Roman fasces – the axe bound in rods that symbolised the punitive authority of the lictors. All manner of people set up a fascio in their own district; they knew they were fascisti, and that suggests they subscribed to Fascism. The Italian journalist, agitator and politician Giuseppe Bottai edited the journal Critica Fascista from 1923 to 1945, which suggests that Fascism had – or aspired to have – distinctive and describable ideas about culture and education, as well as alarming techniques for seizing and keeping power. This is perfectly true, but it doesn’t alter the fact that what Fascism was in one place it usually was not in another. There were Fascisms rather than Fascism.

The antipathy between German Nazis and Italian Fascists is familiar enough. When the Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss was assassinated by Austrian Nazis in July 1934, Mussolini moved Italian troops to the border in a clear signal to Hitler that he should not try to take advantage of the situation to install a Nazi government. Mussolini’s contempt for Hitler’s intellect was absolute – he described Mein Kampf as ‘that incoherent tirade I have never managed to read’ – and it was matched by Hitler’s contempt for the fighting quality of the Italian military. It was not until 1938 that the Axis began to be cemented, and there is every reason to believe that if Mussolini had had any inkling that the so-called Pact of Steel his son-in-law and foreign minister Ciano signed in May 1939 would drag Italy into war by the end of the year, he would have found some way of not signing it. What was true of Italian-German relations in practice might be said to be implicit in Fascism, in principle. Nationalism of the kind that Fascism fed on and fostered is an exclusive creed. Italians were not supposed to believe that everyone ought to be attached to his or her own country to whatever degree was consistent with an orderly world: they were supposed to believe that Italy was uniquely important and that the interests of all other countries were subordinate to hers. In the same way, Germans were supposed to believe in the absolute superiority of Germany to all other nations, and so on. As many writers have pointed out, this makes the very idea of a Fascist International, such as the Italians promoted from 1928 to 1936, intrinsically suspect. The very thing that would make two nations sympathetic to one another – their Fascism – would draw them apart. Fascism was nationalist to a degree that implied that what national ambitions, what ideas of leadership, what economic grievances would hold a movement together varied unpredictably from country to country. What all Fascisms shared was a belief in leadership, a hatred of liberalism, an intense nationalism and a wish to settle problems by military force; but analysed in detail, these commonalities break down. Moreover, it is not entirely clear that taken together these always add up to Fascism, even in the plural.

In truth, identifying Fascisms turns out to cause the analyst grief. This is not a problem for political scientists and after-the-event commentators alone. The Spanish Falange itself claimed not to be Fascist, though its opponents thought it such. Roger Eatwell, in Fascism: A History, agrees that it was not, though for different reasons. After refusing to define Fascism as whatever it was that Italy and Germany had in common, he goes on to say that Franco’s Falange does not pass the test: ‘General Franco’s Spain, often seen as the third example, was really a form of authoritarian conservatism and lacked true Fascism’s social radicalism.’ On the other hand, Gastone Spinetti, the young Italian Fascist who tried to revive the revolutionary and youth-oriented side of Italian Fascism in the Thirties had no doubt that the Falangists were true Fascists. Michael Ledeen writes in Universal Fascism that ‘Spinetti argued that the Falange was a true Fascist movement because of its belief in the Fascist trinity of “authority, hierarchy, order”, and because of the Spanish “mysticism” which raised Falangist principles to a universal plane.’ Modern commentators are plagued only by the problem of working out what to include in a book on Fascism: Spinetti’s friends and employers were plagued by the problem of working out which movements should and which should not be included in a Fascist International. To the extent that there was any agreement, it was that corporatism and the cult of youth were essential components: Eatwell’s ‘social radicalism’ seemed to matter only to the degree that it was part of a generalised youthful revolutionary ardour.

It is worth noting how inessential racial categories were. It has, by now, become a commonplace that Italian Fascism was unbothered by race. In fact, Fascism was doubly at odds with Nazism on that score: once Fascism and the Roman Catholic Church had reconciled their differences, racial theorising was dismissed as a pagan view of the world and anti-Semitism, in particular, had no constituency in Italy. Indeed, many assimilated Jews joined the Fascist Party. Mussolini himself sometimes said that he was a supporter of Zionism, a statement Eatwell takes more nearly at face value than one might expect. No doubt Mussolini was happy to woo Zionists by promising to do for them what the British Government was reluctant to do, but we need not attribute entirely cynical motives to him. He wanted to dictate the future of the Mediterranean, and it was not implausible to see the resettlement of the Jews in their ancestral home land as part of that future.

Eatwell’s book, although neither elegantly written nor very deep, is engrossing as a simple account of the assorted follies, perversities and miscalculations we are heir to. The question of what makes for ‘true’ or ‘real’ Fascism probably has no single, uniquely plausible answer, but Eatwell makes a gallant attempt to distil an essence from the assorted Fascisms he has studied, and it is as plausible as most. Fascist ideology is, he says, ‘a form of thought which preaches the need for social rebirth in order to forge a holistic national radical Third Way’. His argument is that holistic nationalism should be contrasted with the liberal, constitutional nationalism of Acton or Mill. It is a nationalism that emphasises the individual’s absolute dependence on the community, and the community’s absolute authority over him. It is radical rather than conservative, regarding nothing in the status quo as too sacred to touch. In its economics, it exemplifies a ‘third way’, neither socialist nor capitalist. As we have seen, this excludes Spanish Falangism, which was too conservative to pass this test. It excludes the as sorted rural Fascisms of Southern and Eastern Europe between the wars, almost all of which were not socially radical, but simply anti-socialist, militarist and nationalist. And it excludes the conservative Action Française. This is hardly to be complained of. The mere fact that we call all these movements Fascist says nothing about their intellectual content.

Eatwell, though, is more interested in some old and persistent questions. Why did Italy and Germany succumb when France did not? (After all, anti-semitism flourished in France before World War One and many of Fascism’s most attractive ingredients – from blood and soil nationalism to revolutionary syndicalism – were present in France before the war.) Why was Britain immune to the charms of Sir Oswald Mosley? (Or, perhaps, why was Mosley disinclined to follow in Mussolini’s footsteps?) Do the nastier manifestations of right-wing passion over the past two decades gives us any grounds for fearing a real revival of Fascism? And, to ask a question that Eatwell does not ask: how does the United States spawn so many locally influential right-wing radicals, most squarely committed to a ‘holistic national radical Third Way’, without ever seeming likely to fall into the hands of a home-grown dictator of the classical, pre-war kind?

Nobody in their right mind would look for a single answer to these questions. The old view, encouraged by such books as The Authoritarian Personality, suggested that some cultures and especially some families produced individuals hungry for the security that totalitarian movements promised. Societies without a large number of such people would not be vulnerable. This analysis turned out to be neither internally coherent nor empirically plausible. Hannah Arendt’s Totalitarianism emphasised the hideous similarity of Stalinism and Nazism, but was too global in its sweep to explain why Germany should succumb when France did not, and was unclear on why Fascism rather than Communism succeeded in Italy. This is, however, not a particularly damning complaint against a work that aimed to provide a phenomenology of a 20th-century horror rather than a piece of orthodox political sociology.

Still, it leaves us scrambling for an answer to the question of what the ideas are – if any – that constitute the appeal of Fascism, and whether these ideas have any relevance now. The answer seems to be that whatever inspires Neo-Fascists it is not the desire for a radical third way. The most ‘mainstream’ of the Neo-Fascists, as is proper, are the Italian Allianza; they, too, have been infected by the racism that today’s radical Right everywhere trades in, but obviously realise it would be unwise to do more than hold the line against new immigration. Italian institutions and parties are by most standards the most enfeebled in Europe, but it is significant that only Neo-Fascists so respectable that their forebears would have dismissed them as milk-and-water conservatives have any hope of sharing power. In Germany, the rump right wing that looked back to the Third Reich and felt only that ‘mistakes’ had been made, duly died out at the end of the Sixties. Today, post-unification skinhead terrorism is not a precursor to a new stormtrooper-based politics, but a spasm of resentment by the dispossessed against the few groups they feel safe in venting that resentment on. It is frightening and disgusting partly because we have become used to more decorous politics, and partly because we loathe the symbols they find attractive – which is the point of their antics. One Neo-Nazi is one too many, but even a good many more than that are not a real threat to the liberal, constitutional state.

Roger Griffin’s view of the essence of Fascism is that it rests on a myth of national decay and regeneration: Fascism feeds on the fear and anger expressed in the constant talk of death or degeneration, but it provides hope and energy to its supporters by holding out the promise of a glorious future. It is the second element in that myth that is absent in any developed society – Tudjman and Milosevic are absurd as well as nasty because their ambitions are as obsolete as those of the heroes of the Trojan War, and Zhirinovsky is frightening only because Russia has the remains of the Soviet nuclear arsenal.

The first element – the irrational conviction that national decay and degeneracy are everywhere around us – is a lot more visible. It is particularly widespread in the USA, where innumerable racists, millenarians, Aryan separatists, and gun-toting militia members flourish. But a brief inspection shows how un-Fascist they are: most have simple, devout Christian attachments, completely at odds with the secular mythology of Fascism. Most want to preserve a chosen remnant rather than reconstitute a nation; all are sceptical about the possibility of government doing anything to rescue society from the evils they see around them. Most are wildly individualistic; almost all are reactionary in the sense of wishing to restore the life of the frontier rather than embark on the pursuit of glory. The Oklahoma City bombing reminds us how much damage can be done by a few lunatics in possession of a lot of explosives, but it is religious separatism that produces the bulk of such outrages; even Oklahoma City seems to have been a particularly mad protest against the deaths of the Branch Davidians at Waco. Taken individually, each of the elements of classical Fascism is present today. As in the past, they are more visible in time of economic hardship, and less visible when conservative governments are in power. Fortunately, there is no sign that they will be unified by anyone with the political talent to do something dangerous with them, no sign of a widening clientele for them, and no sign that the unpopularity of government will result in the sort of collapse of authority that is a prerequisite for Fascist success.