It is necessary to engage with the debates around a definition due to the methodological ramifications that can result. One such example is Dave Renton’s contribution to the debate as part of his criticism of‘liberal historians’.122 He argues that:
in order to justify their idealist definition, the historians assert that fascism, as a movement, was one where fascist principles or ideas determined fascist action. . . . Theirs are flawed histories inextricably linked to definitions of fascism offered by fascists themselves; thus they do not constitute a critical theory of fascism.123
Renton suggests a need to ‘break out of the prison of ideas’ and to base any understanding upon a ‘historical foundation’. However, his argument creates a paradox, which he fails to address. He decries the ‘closed or implicit’ consensus that the age of fascism is dead124 while simultaneously calling for the time-bound historical shackles that come with a contextually derived definition. Despite this he does raise an important methodological challenge, namely that the ‘liberal’ historians overemphasise the role of ideas when seeking to understand fascist movements. As this book is both a study in the field of the history of ideas and is based in the immediate postwar period when many fascists did not call themselves fascist and a difference between what they publicly stated and how they actually acted is discernable, Renton’s methodological challenge must be considered.
While Renton has discussed this methodological question with direct reference to fascism studies, these debates have raged for decades in the wider history of ideas field. Scholars such as Dominick LaCapra have called for a direct reading of texts that refuses to reduce them to examples of larger concepts. However, the work of Quentin Skinner, a historian of political thought, emphasises the importance of context. Skinner argues that it is necessary to ‘situate the texts we study within such intellectual contexts as enable us to make sense of what their authors were doing in writing them’.12’ When summarising the work of Skinner, Anthony Grafton stated that he:
had set out to erect a new discipline in which context - the local matrices within which texts were forged and read - and language - the language of humble pamphlets and bold speeches, as well as that of canonical texts - took center stage.126
In addition, John Tosh states that, ‘Context is at least as important as text when coming to terms with an original thinker in the past’.127 Of course, the problem is that when one writes about ‘context’ this is also a form of ‘text’. The work of Skinner and others such as Bernard Bailyn, which emphasises placing the text in context, ensures that historians of fascism can avoid one of the major potholes of the field. The danger of concentrating on just the ideas of fascist thinkers and detaching them from the reality of the phenomenon as experienced by its millions of adherents and victims is that it could bestow on these ideas an unwarranted legitimacy. As Roger Griffin has noted the result could be that an
exercise originally conceived as casting light on the internal logic and dynamics of fascism in the spirit of “know thy enemy” might assume revisionist connotations: stressing its ideological cohesion could unwittingly rationalize and normalize it.128
Thus, when engaging in a history of ideas, especially when the ideas in question are fascistic, it is imperative not to detach the texts in question from the context in which they were created and the reality on which they had an impact.
On the other hand, it is important not to become reductive and negate the impact of fascist ideas on fascist actions all together. Rather a balance must be struck. As Stephen Bronner has explained:
Political theory should never serve as the handmaiden of political practice.
But it also should never simply sever its ties with history. It would thereby deny the obvious, relegate its insight into the realm of metaphysics, and -most importantly - truncate its ability to illuminate reality.12’
Bronner rightly goes on to state that a ‘work is reducible to neither its text nor context. To ignore either is to undermine the political relevance of the given theory’.130 When researching fascism it is important to find a route between Renton’s dismissal of the importance of ideas and ideology and an understanding of fascism solely as an idea. One must accept and point out the discrepancies often visible between fascist thinkers and fascist reality, which challenges the utopian ideas with the often dystopian realities, which simultaneously doesn’t become reductionist and relegate fascism to nothing more than a reactionary mass movement.
The sources used in this book reflect these methodological concerns. To understand the ideologies of the period it draws heavily on the many publications, pamphlets, newspapers and books of the groups and ideologues themselves to understand the ideas in question. In line with the increasingly prevalent ‘cultural turn’ in fascism studies this book also seeks to explore what can be learnt from the novels of the ideologues discussed. However, a critical approach is adopted to the sources produced by fascists themselves, which is a necessary precaution. Some such as Van Donselaar, Fleck and Müller and Eatwell have shown how when looking at fascist parties there is often a ‘front-stage’ and a ‘back-stage’. The former is a comparatively moderate façade displayed to the public that masks the true more extreme reality.131 With this in mind extra scrutiny is required when analysing the texts produced by fascists for public consumption. Their public declarations and publications must therefore be approached critically and placed in their proper context as well as being checked against other contemporary sources. As such, this book combines the study of ideas with the reality of actual events and behaviours as documented by anti-fascists, the state and the wider press. In short, it is important to adopt a critical approach that doesn’t rely solely on the words of the fascists themselves nor solely on those who opposed them.