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Defining fascism

Of all the unanswered questions of our time, perhaps the most important is: What is Fascism?1'2

The vast cannon of scholarly literature dedicated to fascism is ever growing, which makes the study of the relatively virgin turf of the immediate postwar period in Britain all the more appealing. However, any attempt to provide a brief precis of the thousands of books dedicated to other countries, regimes or aspects of fascism would be wholly unsatisfactory, if not pointless. However, over the last 20 or so years a field often called ‘fascism studies’ has emerged with a view to distilling a satisfactory definition of the term itself. The vast and complex nature of the debate has lead, as Payne derisively states, to the great majority of scholars making ‘little or no effort to define the term and simply assume that their readers will understand and presumably agree with the approach, whatever that may be’.63 To avoid such a charge it is necessary to provide a critical précis of the broad arguments and dip a toe into this seemingly endless debate to outline what is meant by fascism in this book.

However, fascism is a constituent part of the broader far right, making it first necessary to explain what is meant by the umbrella term under which it sits. While ‘far right’ is a very broad term, those within it are united by a common set of core beliefs. Jean-Yves Camus and Nicolas Lebourg point out in Far-Right Politics in Europe that:

Far-Right movements challenge the political system in place, both its institutions and its values (political liberalism and egalitarian humanism). They feel that society is in a state of decay, which is exacerbated by the state: accordingly, they take on what they perceive to be a redemptive mission. They constitute a countersociety and portray themselves as an alternative elite. Their internal operations rest not on democratic rules but on the emergence of “true elites.” In their imaginary [sic], they link history and society to archetypal figures. . . and glorify irrational, nonmaterialistic values. . . . And finally, they reject the geopolitical order as it exists.64

Though ‘far right’ is a useful umbrella term, its broadness makes it necessary to split it further into its constituent parts; the democratic radical right and the extreme far right. The social scientist Cas Mudde explains that the extreme far right ‘rejects the essence of democracy, that is, popular sovereignty and majority rule’, while the radical right ‘accepts the essence of democracy, but opposes fundamental elements of liberal democracy, most notably minority rights, rule of law, and separation of powers’.6’ While not all, most on the radical right can simultaneously be described as ‘populist’, which Mudde describes as

a (thin) ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, the pure people and the corrupt elite, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.66

While fascism makes up part of the extreme far right it still requires a definition of its own. However, first, if the term is to retain its usefulness, the long-term trend of dilution to little more than a vague epithet must be rejected to avoid elastication beyond tension; something that George Orwell understood as early as 1944:

It will be seen that, as used, the word “Fascism” is almost entirely meaningless.

In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestleys broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.'’7

However, despite the slovenly bastardisation of a deeply serious term, the word fascism has not been debased beyond usefulness for the classification of political individuals or organisations, despite what some historians argue. Gilbert Allardyce stated that, ‘Fascism is not a generic concept. The word fascismo has no meaning beyond Italy’.68 Such nominalism deserves to be rejected because as Robert O. Paxton rightly states, ‘The term fascism needs to be rescued from sloppy usage, not thrown out because of it. It remains indispensable. We need a generic term for what is a general phenomenon’.69 Neither the frequent incorrect use of the term nor the diversity of the phenomenon is cause enough to discard it all together.

Fascism is unquestionably one of the great ideological monoliths that, along with communism, socialism, liberalism, democracy and conservatism, helped shape the turbulent history of the 20th century. Yet it is a far more amorphous concept than most of its contemporary ideological rivals. Mussolini’s The Doctrine of Fascism and Hitler’s Mein Kampflack the crystalline thought of the Communist Manifesto, Lenin’s What is to be Done? or Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks and fail even to rival the debased Stalinist orthodoxy outlined in Dialectical and Historical Materialism. In short, though there was no shortage of willing candidates, Alfred Rosenberg among them, fascism had no Marx. Nor are there fascist works to rival the influence of the writings of Locke, Burke, Malthus, Ricardo or Smith in the formation of the liberal political tradition, especially not in terms of literary merit. This lack of a primary ideologue or foundation text makes a definition of fascism both highly necessary yet intrinsically allusive.

The nature of fascism further complicates attempts to reach a consensus-based definition. Jose Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish Nietzschean proponent of perspectiv-ism, described fascism as ‘simultaneously one thing and the contrary, it is A and not A’.70 Kevin Passmore elaborates on this premise by asking,

How do we make sense of an ideology that appeals to skinheads and intellectuals; denounces the bourgeoisie while forming alliances with conservatives; adopts a macho style yet attracts many women; calls for a return to tradition and is fascinated by technology; idealizes the people and is contemptuous of mass society; and preaches violence in the name of order?71

The search for a definition of an ideology that seems contradictory in nature and has emerged in numerous different forms depending on the geographic location and the socio-economic, historical and political environment in which it emerged has existed almost as long as the term itself. Indeed, as Ernest Mandel once observed, ‘The history of fascism is at the same time the history of the theoretical analysis of fascism’.72 Even 22 years after Mussolini had seized control of Italy,

Orwell identified the difficulty of distilling a single consensually derived definition. He asked, ‘Why, then, cannot we have a clear and generally accepted definition of it? Alas! we shall not get one - not yet, anyway’.73 Since then, as stated by Paul Preston, ‘the study of fascism becomes every year a more daunting and bewildering task’,74 and the consensus definition that Orwell sought remains elusive. However, the pursuit of consensual definition of a general or ‘fascist minimum’ remains an important task. By drilling down and finding the key patterns common to all different putative fascisms, one identifies fascism as a distinct phenomenon, and thus individuals and groups can be described as fascist or non-fascist by ‘disinterested’ academics or even non-fascists and anti-fascists, irrespective of what the individual or group claim themselves.

Before delving into the often heated debates that seek to result in a consensual general theory of fascism it is necessary to touch upon the one intellectual and academic tradition that has long been in agreement and for whom this debate has rarely been an issue. Marxist scholars have long been in agreement that fascism is a reactionary movement born out of a crisis in capitalism and formed as a bulwark against the proletarian forces of communism. Although most historians addressing this debate today either deride or more likely simply ignore the Marxist approach, to do so is folly, as it is not without merit. After all it was often Marxists who first wrestled with the nature of fascism and were first alive to its dangers. In 1935 in the face of growing fascist hostility towards Marxists across Europe, the Communist International provided their definitive definition of the ‘enemy’:

Fascism in power is the open, terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary, the most chauvinistic, the most imperialistic elements of finance capitalism.75

Georgi Dimitrov in his report to the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International added that,

fascism is not only bourgeois nationalism, it is fiendish chauvinism. It is a government system of political gangsterism, a system of provocation and torture practiced upon the working class and the revolutionary elements of the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie, and the intelligentsia. It is medieval barbarity and bestiality; it is unbridled aggression in relation to other nations.76

Dimitrov’s visceral definition lacks the calm, detached and useful objectivism of many later attempts to define fascism, yet when one considers it was stated in 1935, before the Spanish Civil War and nearly a decade before Soviet troops passed through the gates marked Arbeit macht frei, its prescient emphasis on the barbarity and chauvinism of fascism must be noted even though its emphasis on fascism as a tool of capital was flawed.

Marxist approaches77 provide useful additions to our understanding of fascism for several reasons. While seemingly unpopular and increasingly moribund, the consideration of a class analysis for historical phenomena remains important. Fascism as an ideology was forged among the fires of the 20th century’s social struggles, and unquestionably many were awoken to its supposed charms by their fear of a possible proletarian uprising. Hence, Marxist definitions temper the notion of fascism as a radical ideology and as Passmore concedes, ‘have shown that the revolutionary discourse of fascists cannot be taken at face value’.78 This alone is enough to make Marxist definitions of fascism worthy of comment. Furthermore, Marxists have been alive to the continuing existence of fascism in the postwar period, (one of the contentions of this book) and, as Griffin points out, are ‘spurred on by the conviction that fascism cannot be safely consigned to “history”, but is a latent tendency in all modern states’.79 While not an exclusively Marxist assertion, the desire to avoid confining fascism to the time-bound shackles of the interwar years has obvious advantages to any historian of the postwar period.

The value of Marxist approaches primarily lies in their ability to help explain the cause of fascism rather than providing an adequate definition. Marxist definitions are unquestionably retarded by their determination to describe fascism as the last stand of capitalism against the march of history towards socialism. The result is that any semblance of radicalism in fascist ideology is disregarded out of hand. Even if one takes the major leap of faith and accepts the proposition that the primary aim of fascism’s ultra-nationalism was to divide transnational working-class loyalty, one is still left with no explanation for Nazi human experimentation, the eradication of the disabled or antisemitic conspiracy theories. The major fault with Marxist definitions of fascism is their failure to accept ‘the possibility that these goals were pursued for reasons unrelated to the (supposed) logic of capitalism’.8" Thus, almost all Marxist definitions are hindered by their assumption that fascism’s ultimate, possibly even only, purpose was the defence of capitalism and Marxists’refusal to concede that the left does not have a monopoly over revolutionary movements. Hence, while Marxist definitions have some value they are also unsatisfactory.

Thus, it is within the liberal tradition that the search for an acceptable, consensual definition has made the most ground. In 1998 the perennial lack of consensus led Koger Griffin to prematurely proclaim the emergence of a new consensus in fascist studies. Despite later admitting his declaration had been mischievously designed to manufacture consent,81 it is fair to say that Griffin’s ‘emerging paradigm and the “cultural” interpretation of British fascism has dominated recent historiography on the subject’.82 However, while Griffin’s definition is currently the most successful, it is not alone in adding value to this sprawling debate. Stanley Payne, the author of major works on the Spanish Falange, offers a ‘typological definition’which, while not perfect, has significant taxonomic value. Payne’s aim is to offer ‘a wide spectrum description that can identify a variety of allegedly fascist movements while still setting them apart as a group from other kinds of revolutionary or nationalist movements’.83 To arrive at his definition he identifies three broad categories each with numerous addendum; the three categories are Ideology and Goals, Fascist Negations and Style and Organization.84 The advantage of Payne’s taxonomic definition is its ability to be both flexible yet rigid when required. It is particular enough to distinguish between fascist and non-fascist organisations but allows numerous movements other than the Nazis in Germany and Mussolini’s Fascists to be labelled as fascist. In addition, his tripartite definitions inclusion of the fascist negations, namely anti-liberalism, anti-communism and anti-conservatism, as part of a wider definition, is most useful. The inclusion of the ‘anti’-dimensions of fascism is imperative to any grounded definition, as it is fascism’s oppositionist!!, whether towards capitalists, communists, Jews or immigrants, that has significantly contributed to its appeal and success. However, Roger Eatwell criticises Payne’s emphasis on the fascist negations, stating:

It is more helpful to see that fascism’s negations were partly propagandistic and stemmed from the fact that - as a “latecomer” to the political spectrum to adopt Juan Linz’s fertile term fascism tended to attack existing ideologies and groups as a way of defining “space” for itself.85

Eatwell argues that the negations are better viewed as part of the ‘style’ of fascism and as part of its ideological desire to split the world into ‘us’and ‘them’. His criticism leaves one wondering how the antisemitic murder of six million Jews can be more helpfully described as ‘partly propagandist’. The relegation of such an important aspect of the reality of fascism is unwise. As is the danger with the whole of this debate, it can sometimes be dominated by academic abstraction and thus become too distant from the reality of fascism as experienced by society, and for this reason alone the emphasis on fascism’s negations is apposite and necessary. That said, fascism should not be categorised solely as an anti-phenomenon or as revolutionary nihilism. When discussing the general characteristics of fascism, Renzo de Felice talks of a negative common denominator and asks if there are any common positive goals to be found.86 Such a definition is unsatisfactory in the same way that solely describing communism as anti-capitalist would be.

Despite its many positives, Payne’s suggested definition has had only limited success when attempting to garner the requisite academic support to form a working consensus. Griffin labels the definition as a cumbersome conceptual framework and complains that it ‘marks out fascism as a genus of political energy which is unique in apparently requiring its self-professed ideological goals to be supplemented by its “style” and “negations” before they can serve as an adequate basis for a definition’.87 While he is right to label Payne’s tripartite definition as ‘cumbersome’, his second charge is less valid. In many ways fascism is a unique ideology, as shown by the major problems reaching a consensual definition, hence to criticise an attempt for its ‘unique’ tripartite approach seems unfair.

The major problem with Payne’s definition lies in its reliance upon the historical features of fascism, which ultimately, as Ernst Nolte points out, provides the label of fascism with an epochal significance limited to the interwar years. Payne himself states that, ‘Specific historic fascism can never be re-created’, though he does concede the possibility of ‘partially related forms of authoritarian nationalism’.88 Hence, Payne’s definition becomes unworkable for any historian who desires to ‘illuminate further the protean timelessness of fascism’,89 which is a core aim of this book. Payne is not alone in emphasising the need for a working definition to encompass historical contextualisation. Robert O. Paxton offers the following definition of fascism but adds the caveat that it ‘encompasses its subject no better than a snapshot encompasses a person’.90 He states that,

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behaviour marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.91

While a useful definition of the interwar fascist movements, its precise and detailed nature curtails its usefulness as a general definition for fascism. Paxton argues that definitions should be ‘grounded in a proper historical understanding of the processes at work in past fascisms, and not by checking the colour of the shirts or seeking traces of the rhetoric of the national-syndicalist dissidents of the opening of the twentieth century’.92 He disregards the notion of a comparable fixed essence of fascism or ‘fascist minimum’ and calls for fascism to be understood as a ‘process’ to be studied contextually. Instead of comparing rhetoric, ideology or style when labelling postwar groups as fascist, Paxton suggests one asks:

Are they becoming rooted as parties that represent major interests and feelings and wield major influence on the political scene? Is the economic or constitutional system in a state of blockage apparently insoluble by existing authorities? Is a rapid political mobilization threatening to escape the control of traditional elites, to the point where they would be tempted to look for tough helpers in order to stay in charge?93

Paxton’s emphasis on historically grounded questions inhibits any historian who wishes to describe postwar movements as fascist by narrowing the definition with unnecessarily rigid contextual caveats that go too far and produce time-bound shackles.

It is unsurprising then that those definitions that rely less heavily on historical contextualisation and instead propose an ‘ideal type of generic fascism’ that fits no case exactly but rather provides an amalgamated ‘essence’ have come closest to achieving consensus.94 The conundrum of defining a sprawling, diffuse and deeply varied historical phenomenon with a single term is overcome by the adoption of an ‘ideal type’. Coined by Max Weber, the ‘ideal type’ does not exist empirically but rather as an intellectual abstraction and promotes common properties in favour of uniqueness to create a ‘general’ genus. Weber states, ‘In its conceptual purity this thought-picture cannot be found empirically anywhere in reality, it is a utopia’.9’ Unlike Payne’s taxonomic definition, the implementation of an ideal type to describe generic fascism creates not a definitive definition but a heuristic one. As Griffin points out, such definitions ‘serve not to describe or explain facts as such but to provide tentative conceptual frameworks with which significant patterns of facts can be identified, casual relationships investigated and phenomena classified’.96 It is the acceptance of an ‘ideal type’ of generic fascism that overcomes many of the problems that cling to definitions weighed down by over-historical contextualisation.

However, while the rejection of time-bound historical definitions is most welcome, the question over how to define a fascist ‘ideal type’ is by no means an easy or, unsurprisingly, a consensual one. Roger Griffin defines ‘generic fascism’ as a ‘genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism’.97 The key innovation here is his addition of the term ‘palingenesis’ to describe the fascists’ vision of national rebirth, which he argues in his book Fascism is a ‘visceral longing for radical change and regeneration which can be explained only partially by objective socio-political forces of crisis and has a deep symbolic and psychological dimension’.98 Importantly, Griffin’s definition correctly challenges both the Marxists’denial of a revolutionary component to fascism and earlier liberal approaches, which defined fascism solely by its negations.99

Despite garnering a modicum of consensus, Griffin’s definition continues to face criticism for his ‘zeal to reduce fascism to one pithy sentence’.100 Others, such as Eatwell, for example, have criticised Griffin, believing that his ‘emphasis on myth plays down the rational side to fascism’s ideology’. He also notes that Griffin’s focus on palingenesis ‘introduces a confusion between ideology and propaganda’ and that his inclusion of the term ‘populism’ is too vague.101 In its place Eatwell offers his own definition stating that fascism is:

An ideology that strives to forge social rebirth based on a holistic-national radical Third Way, though in practice fascism has tended to stress style, especially action and the charismatic leader, more than detailed programme, and to engage in a Manichaean démonisation of its enemies.102

As with Griffins definition there is much to be admired in Eatwell’s effort as they share many of the same virtues. It too is an attempt to distil the essence of fascism and provide a heuristic definition of a general genus. In addition, there is a conscious lack of interwar context-dependant features such as those present in Paxton and Payne’s attempts. However, as Macklin correctly points out, the centrality of‘rebirth’ to his own definition makes his criticisms of Griffin’s use of the term ‘palingenesis’ rather confusing.103 Despite this, the emphasis on ideology, the mention of third way economics and importantly a subtle nod to fascism’s negations with the incorporation of‘demonization of its enemies’makes Eatwell’s definition a passable alternative.

However, while no definition of this complex political theory will ever be perfect, Griffin’s is no doubt the best we currently have, and in the words of Walter

Laqueur, it ‘might be difficult to improve on’.104 Amongst its many virtues is its flexibility' when it comes to postwar fascism. Eatwell, for example, has commended Griffin’s efforts for having the ‘advantage of not being locked into a specific time period, thus avoiding the error of seeing fascism as essentially an interwar phenomenon’.”1’ Similarly Macklin rightly' states, the benefits of Griffin’s effort are ‘obvious to any historian of postwar fascism wishing to define the movement they' have under their microscope as “Fascism” in the generic sense regardless of their agreement with the cultural primacy of Griffin’s “fascist minimum’”.106 In this sense its flexibility' and broadness are unquestionably a virtue.

Though Griffin’s ideal type definition sheds fascism of its interwar chains and allows for the existence of postwar fascist incarnations, it opens up an ancillary debate regarding the prefix ‘neo’. In short, if fascism can and does exists after 1945, is it the same as prewar fascism, or is it a fundamentally different and ‘new’ form of the same genus? Like the term ‘fascism’ itself, neo-fascism and neo-Nazism are often used without thought. Many journalists, anti-fascist activists and even some scholars seemingly add the prefix ‘neo’ simply' to indicate ‘recent’ rather than distinct or ‘new’ in comparison to ‘classical’ fascism. Lazily, there is a tendency' to describe anything from 1945 onward as ‘neo-fascism’ without seeking to explain what, if anything, about it was ‘new’. Take for example the 1991 collection of articles Neo-Fascism In Europe, the introduction of which offers no explanation of what is actually ‘new’ about the fascists they discuss beyond a reference to their self-definition as ‘neo-Nazis or neo-Fascists’.107 In reality, as Mudde points out, ‘They were mostly described as “neo-fascists,” but there was really not much new to them’.108

However, while there was very' little that was ‘new’ about the fascists themselves, the world in which they operated was significantly different. Griffin correctly states that.

Between 1945 and 1955, the international political, social, economic and cultural order underwent structural changes no less profound, rapid and unexpected than those that combined in the wake of the First World War to create the original conditions for fascism to burst unannounced and unscripted onto the stage.109

These new postwar conditions were no doubt different and also less fertile for the growth of fascism, with Griffin describing them as ‘lethal for fascism as a credible alternative’.110 However, none of this means that what emerged after the War was not fascism. In Failed Fiihrers Macklin rightly' explains that while the ‘epochal’ conditions ‘ceased to exist after 1945’ and postwar fascism lacks ‘the broader economic and existential crisis from which it derived its “significance” during the interwar period this does not mean that post-war variants have ceased to be “fascism”’.111 If one moves a cow from a field to a barn it still remains a cow. However, the question remains whether the change in conditions precipitated a large enough mutation in fascism thereby warranting the use of the term neo-fascism. In the case of Britain, it absolutely did not.

While most who use the term ‘neo-fascism’ do so to describe postwar fascist movement, others place the change during the war years. Camus and Lebourg, for example, argue that there is a ‘Fascist spectrum . . . based on international chronology'’that identifies three periods: ‘an ideological gestation before 1919; the Fascism of 1919 to 1942, which, to be sure, unfolded in several phases; and then a neo-Fascism from 1942 on’.1,2 They argue that the shift from Fascism to neoFascism occurs when ‘the Third Reich decided to re-orient its propaganda along a Europeanist axis’ and when in contrast to its precursor, ‘privileged society over the state, Europe over the existing nations’.113 While interesting, there are several issues with pointing to 1942 and the shift to Europeanisation as the birth of a neo-fascism. First, while they accept the pre-existence of ‘supernationalist fringe elements’between 1919 and 1941 it isn’t particularly clear why they identify 1942 as a more significant shift. It is certainly true that there were pan-European fascists well before this such as Georges Valois in France during the 1920s and 1930s.114 Italy also had its own tradition of fascist Europeanism with Julius Evola publishing essays on ‘The European Idea’and the need for a ‘European Law’in 1940 and 1941.115 In Germany as early as October 1939, Werner Daitz, a member of Alfred Rosenberg’s Foreign Policy Office of the NSDAP, established the ‘Society of European Economic Planning and Grossraumwirtschaff, which called for continental European unity under German leadership. Also in the early years of the war Nazi policy makers including Karl Ritter, an economic adviser, met in the Foreign Ministry to discuss ‘European Grossraumwirtschaft’ (a large economic sphere of interest).116 These ideas were then adopted by Reich Economics Minister, Walther Funk, in June 1940, who subsequently presented Goring with his proposals for the ‘New Order’ on 6 August 1940.117 All of this suggests the idea of a ‘Europe over existing nations’, which Camus and Lebourg point to as the birth of neo-fascism, as not being particularly ‘new’in 1942.

Even if one accepts the idea that such a shift did occur it remains unclear why 1942 is chosen as the primary year when one might be better pointing to 1943 when it became official policy of the Republican Fascist Party in Italy and a call for the ‘realisation of a European community’ was explicitly stated in the Manifesto of the Republic of Salo.118 Alternatively, one might point to even later in the war when Alfred Rosenberg and Daitz floated new ideas involving a united Europe119 or in the writings of Karl Heinz Pfeffer, president of the German Institute for Foreign Affairs, who wrote in 1944 that ‘Europe today knows that it is a single entity’.120 In short, pan-Europeanism has always been a component of fascism with varying levels of influence at different times, and even when at its most popular amongst fascist ideologues, it generally failed to replace more traditional ultranationalism amongst normal activists.

In truth, when discussing the immediate postwar years, especially in Britain as outlined in this book, the continuities of people and ideas far outweigh any novelty or change. There is certainly no definitive schism in 1945 that sees the ‘birth’ of a new type of fascism. The hostile postwar world in which fascists found themselves operating was no doubt very different and did, in certain cases, result in superficial changes - but not sufficient enough to warrant the use of the term ‘neo-fascism’. That is not to say that in later decades, when superficial changes were matched by more genuine structural and ideological shifts, that the term ‘neo-fascism’ might be of more use. One would better point to the generational change that happened several decades after the war or the more genuine modernisation projects undertaken by some European fascist parties towards the end of the century. Or perhaps one might argue that the revolutionary changes brought about by the digital age and the new fundamentally transnational far-right movements such as the post-9/11 anti-Muslim movement or the so-called alt-right better suit the term ‘neo-fascist’.121 However, in the years covered in this book, continuity far outweighs discontinuity, making the use of the term ‘neo-fascism’ unnecessary and inaccurate.

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