me start properly with a paradox: fascism
is the only
movement whose definition is the cause of such sustained argument.
The point may seem like a strange one, but it's true, isn't it? No one
wastes as much ink asking what feminists stand for or conservatives. Or
when they do, they see feminism as a competing, contested tradition.
People don't look hard, as they do with fascism, to try and find the
essence of the thing.
could argue that there are certain features of fascism that make it
difficult to understand. It's often said, for example, that one reason why
it's hard to understand fascism is that there have been few clear fascist
movements. If there had been more fascist parties, it's said, it would be
easier to tell what different fascist movements had in common with one
another. But by 1939, there were fascist governments in many countries in
central and Eastern Europe. Every country in Europe had recognisable
fascist parties of some modest size – as indeed they do today.
it's said that fascism is difficult to understand because there was no
fascist founding text, comparable to the Communist
which defines Marxism. But a moment's thought shows that green thinking
has no defining text, nor does parliamentary socialism, nor liberalism –
nor do most political movements of the past two hundred years.
let me suggest something different: what makes fascism hard to define is
on its definition. Fascism has played a dramatic role in human history,
setting in train events of enormous stature. Fascism matters,
and that is why historians have struggled so hard to define it precisely.
fascism, there would have be no second world war, no Holocaust. We see the
past too often through a series of visual clichés, images so familiar
that they have lost any ability to surprise. We think of Hitler, waving a
khaki arm in the direction of a long troop of German soldiers. We think of
the photographs of the few liberated victims of the Nazi genocide: people
huddled, starving, behind lines of barbed wire. We forget the terrible
shock these images caused the first time that people saw them.
is also easy to forget the extent to which the events of 1939-1945 created
the modern world. They established America as a world power. They
contributed to the re-division of the Middle East, and hence to the
conflicts of our own period. Without fascism, our world would be a very
forget also the difference of scale between the events that motivate us,
and the events of fascism's war. Last year, there were terrorist attacks
in London. Fifty six people died. Some 103 British soldiers have been
killed in Iraq. The current total of American casualties is 2298. An even
larger number, 2986 people died in the attack on the twin towers. Think of
the enormous press coverage of September 11; the way it still dominates
our world, the way in which it has driven parliament to legislate against
terrorism, and the way in which one attack has led to further wars, in
Iraq and Afghanistan.
fifty million people died
in the war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. For every day of the war, thirty
thousand people died: not once but on average every day. Compare the two:
we think so precisely of the 2986 dead, we think so vaguely of the fifty
million. And without fascism, there would have been no war.
did not just bring war to Europe. It also brought genocide. Again, we
remember the clichés and risk forgetting the essential. We think of
Bosnia, in which around 200,000 people died, or Rwanda, in which an
estimated 800,000 people died. We risk forgetting that Hitler killed six
world has of course seen other wars, other dictatorships, other genocides,
but fascism brought each of these to Europe, to Germany and Italy, two of
the richest societies in the world at the time.
the past fifty years has seen dictatorships or wars in many countries,
those of us who have lived in England have been able to satisfy ourselves
always by thinking that dictatorship happens somewhere else. At the
periphery of the world all is chaos, but at the centre where we live all
is safe. Once a society has become 'advanced', or so the argument goes, it
will never turn back. Modernity is an irreversible process.
most important lesson fascism teaches us is that even the richest and most
highly developed of societies are not immune from dictatorship. Democracy
is not irreversible. That is why fascism is such an alarming phenomenon.
It asks to look at our feet and ask: how solid is the ground beneath them?
What sharp crisis would Britain
need to suffer for us to turn, like Italy or Germany did in the 1920s and
1930s? How serious is the threat?
explains why we have to take great care in defining fascism precisely. If
fascism is everywhere there is nothing we can do to stop it. You all know
the story of the boy who cried wolf. But if fascism is specific and
identifiable, then we can think seriously about how to guard ourselves
against its threat.
most important present-day historical analysis of fascism belongs to the
work of the so-called New Consensus theorists, Roger Griffin, Stanley
Payne, Ze'ev Sternhell and Roger Eatwell. I understand that much of this
course has been devoted to an analysis of their arguments, and a critique
of them. I'm sure you've been asked to read books and articles of theirs,
and probably books and articles by their critics. I won't repeat what
you've read already.
I'd like to do with the rest of my time is rather explain
a book I published seven years ago. It was called Fascism:
Theory and Practice.
The book began with an analysis of the New Consensus writers, which I will
re-state briefly. I will then look at my own analysis, in that same book,
and ask how I would write it differently, if I was writing a similar book
my book, I criticised the New Consensus theorists for what I judged were a
series of mistakes. I argued that they over-emphasised the extent to which
fascism was an ideology,
and underestimated the extent to which it was a movement of
people. Now I know that sounds like a strange claim to make, because
you're studying fascism in a university, and universities are factories of
ideas. Clearly fascism was an idea; what else could it have been?
me restate the point. It may seem obvious that fascism was an idea, but it
an idea. Fascism had a programme, yes, but in different political
movements, programmes play a greater or lesser role. In a fully democratic
politics, the programme is almost everything: it is the manifesto that a
party takes to voters. Elected parties have an authority when they claim
to be upholding an item from their manifesto: their promises matter, we
judge them on the extent to which promises are made or kept.
had some of this, but this ideological
component did not dominate. There were other parts of fascist politics
that are equally important in explaining its appeal. One was the belief in
a certain form of political party, a complex, bureaucratic organisation
headed at the top by a single leader. The function of the party was not
only or even chiefly to be elected, but to mobilise people outside and
against parliament. This is a different dynamic from the dynamics of
conservatism, liberalism, or parliamentary socialism, and it is one that
does not sit easily in a box marked 'ideas'.
distinctive still was the fascist emphasis on violence: in so far as
Mussolini did 'march on Rome', he didn't do so by chartering a train, and
capturing the capital: his military ascent to power took place months
before, during a period in which Mussolini's supporters waged a violent,
civil war against their opponents on the left, who were beaten into
submission. Several thousands were killed, as they were also in Germany in
1931 and 1932, as in city after city, the halls of the left-wing parties
and the trade unions were captured, their inhabitants beaten or killed.
Violence was a defining feature of fascism: before taking power and in
power. Once again, violence is not something that can sit easily in a list
course, there were such things as fascist 'ideas',
but the question is which ideas? Another criticism that I made of Griffin
and the others was that they treated fascist ideas in an unanalytical
fashion. They argued that fascism could be seen it seemed to me, as a
short of shopping list. Fascism equals anti-liberalism plus anti-communism
plus anti-capitalism, plus, nationalism, plus, plus, plus. This approach
seemed to me to treat all ideas as equally important and lose in that way
the relationships between different fascist ideas.
give you an example. It is often said that fascism was both
anti-capitalist and anti-communist, and in some ways that true. But in
Germany, in the years 1931 and 1932, the leaders of such great industrial
concerns as IG Farben were arguing that Hitler should be invited into
power. The first victims meanwhile of the Nazis’ accession to power were
socialists and Communists. In Italy, Mussolini was asked to become Prime
Minister by the King, and in coalition with the centre right.
way in which fascism was anti-communist was different from the way in
which fascism was anti-capitalist. One was war to the death. The other
hostility was more like a rivalry between friends.
criticised the New Consensus for treating fascist speech uncritically:
here was a fascist speaker, or so the argument seemed to go, to understand
fascism we merely need to look at which ideas appeared most often in his
thinking and from them construct our list. If a fascist said he believed
in rebuilding Italy, then that was evidently key to his thinking. If the
fascist said they wanted to make Britain great, then that's what they
problem with this approach, it seemed to me was, that it was actually
significantly less analytical than the approach of the average voter at
the average election. Everyone here knows; at election time, people come
for your vote. They make certain promises: some things they say are so
common as to be meaningless, others are distinctive, and worth noticing.
If at the time of the 2005 election in Britain, a party had promised not
to raise income taxes: well, so did everyone else. The point was common.
But had a party promised to nationalise the family: that would be
different, worth thinking about.
the second half of my book, I went from a criticism of the New Consensus
School, to a different argument, one that analysed fascism in different
terms. Fascism I argued was a specific form of category of political
campaigns, which I described as reactionary mass movements.
term reactionary, I took to mean that fascism identified certain crises in
its present, and sort to solve them, and in a brutal fashion. Thus, there
was a problem in Italy, the fascists argued, of too many strikes. The
solution was to ban the unions and incorporate them into the state. There
was a problem in Germany of too many Jews. The solution, first, was to
drive Jews out of the country, by removing all their civil rights. Then,
the solution was to suggest the expulsion of the Jews to another country.
The final solution, we know.
say that fascism was reactionary
does not mean that it was reactive.
Sometimes people notice that many of the fascist ideas were 'anti', as in
anti-capitalism, anti-Semitism, anti-liberalism. People conclude that
fascism was always reacting to other politics: that's not what I meant.
I've called fascism reactionary, what I've meant is that fascism's
opposition (say) to women's rights and its opposition (say) to modern art,
and its opposition (say) to trade unions were not coincidental. Fascism
was part of a family of right-wing movements. Think of George Bush in
America or Margaret Thatcher in Britain: people whose politics were not
fascist but solidly conservative, and who shared a sense with fascism of a
very similar set of allies, and a very similar set of threats.
word 'reactionary' means having the intention to turn back time. While
fascism was in some sense forward-looking, it was in other and crucial
ways backward looking. It looked at the rise of industry and regretted
that rise, regretting the tendency it had to bring large numbers of
workers together in great factories. It saw the rise of the cities and the
new ways that people had of living in them, women working, the multiracial
population of the cities, and portrayed these novelties as the enemy to
said that fascism closest ideologically to the nationalist or conservative
parties of an earlier period. But the term 'mass movement' helps us to
understand the ways in which it was different from them. Crucially,
fascism tried to mobilise millions of people to an end. The state was
hostile to fascism, the fascists saw, their solution was to overwhelm the
state by sheer weight of numbers, and having conquered the state, to
replace it with a new, loyal state composed of fascist veterans.
any movement that attempts to raise millions, must by definition preach to
them in a language that includes promises and hope. Hence the cliché that
fascism promised all things to all people: in a sense it did, because it
had to, because it needed millions of people behind its banners.
I portrayed fascism as a highly unstable political formation: one made
distinctive above all by one a simple contradiction: fascism was a
movement that was wholly elitist, wholly contemptuous of the masses and of
mass democracy; yet for fascism to succeed, it required these very same
masses to move. That's what I meant by a reactionary mass movement.
my last section, I want to suggest some ways in which the argument I put
seven years ago now seems to require updating. The
first point I'd make is that, perhaps surprisingly, the
last seven years have seen no major additions to the New Consensus
argument. Roger Griffin continues write, producing papers and articles in
greater number than ever before, but his major books, Fascism, International
Fascism, the Nature of Fascism, are all now several years old.
Roger Eatwell's next fascism book is scheduled for 2007. Ze'ev Sternhell's
next book was on Israel. Stanley Payne has returned to the subject of
Spain: he hasn't published again on fascism.
have been two major new books on fascism: from Robert Paxton and Michael
Mann, but both writers tend to see fascism as a historical process rather
than an idea: in that sense both point in a different direction.
do want to pick up one idea from Robert Paxton, though, his account of the
'five stages' of fascism. Paxton argues that fascism starts as small,
hardcore fascist group, devoted to a leader. It develops into a mass
movement. In the final stages it becomes a regime. In each stage, balance
between elements of ‘mass’ politics, and ‘social reaction’
the earlier stages, the movement is at its smallest. The party is most
determined to gain mass backing. It typically does this through the most
exaggerated promises. Some of this dynamic is common to all ‘fringe’
middle stages, with fascism now a large party, but still out of power,
fascism behaves in the fashion closest to my description of it as a
reactionary mass movement. The promises continue. But the leader is
involved in negotiating between the fascist party and the traditional
elites. The social bases of fascism are too narrow for it to gain power
the final stages, fascism is in power. The members of the fascist parties
have been promised a great social upheaval. The supporters of the old
order have been promised no change at all. The promises of economic
redistribution are most likely to be forgotten. So other parts of the
fascist programme become more important: the promise of national renewal,
and the open-mindedness towards xenophobia and militarism as the means to
do it. From the terms of its arrival in power, built into fascism is a
dynamic of cumulative radicalism, which reached its peak previously in
genocide and war.
seems to me that there is link between the analysis of Paxton, and the
argument I put several years ago that the contradictory nature of fascism
provides it with its dynamic. In many stages of the movement, fascism
raises up the desires of vast numbers of people, yet fascism comes to
power also with the support of groups wholly opposed to economic or social
change. It is that class contradiction in fascism's appeal that derails
its economic militancy, and directs instead into a radicalism that
expresses itself cumulatively in genocide and war.
return to the points with which this paper began: it seems to me that the
real prize of any theory of fascism lies in the full development of the
point I have just made. Any theory is accurate and useful only in so far
as it can begin to explain what fascism did in power. That's why we
continue to attempt definitions of fascism. That's the goal.