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.

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