The Long View: Fascism: A History

Calling one's political opponent a fascist is still a popular political slur, but the actual occurrence of fascist ideas on the Right remains somewhat unclear. John was undubitably correct to note that the rise of popular parties on the right in Europe has mostly been tied to immigration, and also that anti-semitic ideas and Holocaust denial do have genuinely popular appeal nearly everywhere [not only on the Right].

John also notes that the world has in some ways only just returned to the conditions that prevailed before the Great War. International finance, and the relations between nations are beginning to relax again after the extended crisis that started in 1914, and only truly ended when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The interesting question for us is: how will it be different this time around?

Fascism: A History
By Roger Eatwell
Penguin Books, 1996
$14.95, 404 pages
ISBN: 0-14-025700-4

One More Time?

"Fascism is on the march again. Its style may at times be very different, but the ideological core remains the same -- the attempt to create a HOLISTIC NATIONAL THIRD WAY [Italics in original]...[A]n ideology that places so little emphasis on constitutions and rights, and so much on elite-inspired manipulation, must always be mistrusted. Beware of men -- and women -- wearing smart Italian suits...the aim is still power, and the fantasy of the creation of a radical new culture."


----"Fascism," page 361


This is the very alarming conclusion of this general history of fascist ideology by Roger Eatwell, a Reader in history at the University of Bath. It is all the more alarming because this is not a very alarmed book. Certainly it is free of "anti-fascism," which in this context often means the sort of Marxist analysis that assumes the whole political spectrum beyond the radical left is fascist in some imprecise but irredeemable way. What we do get is a brief description of the common intellectual heritage of fascism from the late nineteenth century, plus short histories of the fascist movements in Italy, Germany, France and Great Britain. The sections dealing with fascism in these countries after World War II, and especially the more recent New Right, are the most interesting in the book.

Since we are not dealing with a partisan tirade here, it is genuinely disturbing when Eatwell ends the book by suggesting that, though fascism died in a sense in 1945, it may well be about to experience a resurrection in time for a bright future in the 21st century. Whether this hypothesis proves correct or not, still this analysis does illustrate yet another way in which Western civilization at the end of the twentieth century has returned to many of the problems that faced it at the century's beginning.

The ideological component of fascism has often been neglected in favor of psychohistories of fascist leaders and morbid prose poems about national character. This is understandable, since one of the defining features of fascism is ideological syncretism. Usually, this has meant combining "socialism" with some form of nationalism, but even this minimum requires qualification. The study of fascist ideology is made even more difficult by the fact it was most systematically expressed where it had the least influence, in France and Britain. (Eatwell is not an admirer of British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, but he does give him credit for producing the best thought-out fascist party-platform. The best platform so far, that is.) In any case, at the local level, fascism often had little theoretical content, beyond the privilege of beating people up with impunity. Nevertheless, fascism does have an intellectual history, and the phenomenon as a whole is not so diffuse as to defy definition.

Fascism would not have been possible without Friedrich Nietzsche. There has been no lack of anti-theistic philosophers both before and after Nietzsche, but he is almost alone in honestly facing the consequences of living in a world in which everything is permitted. Most thinkers have sought to preserve some fragment of the intellectual structure that depended from the hypothesis of the Christian God, and so they appeal to reason or history or science. Nietzsche would have none of it. If the skies are really empty, then there are no imperatives. There is, however, life, which in the case of human beings expresses itself not just as biology but as the will. Now Nietzsche, unlike Schopenhauer and unlike many of his own followers, recognized the will is itself a composite entity. It is not a primary physical force, and it is not a god. It does, however, actually exist, and its exercise is all the meaning that life can ever have.

The proposition that the meaning of life is the exercise of the will leads to two kinds of conclusions. The most obvious, and the most popular, is the cult of cruelty. Naturally, the street-fighters who normally figure in the public activities of successful fascist parties are rarely well-read in the literature of philosophical nihilism. Nevertheless, even the nihilist violence of the German SA and the Italian "squadristi" chimes with high theory. Fascism promotes ruthlessness for the same reason that it promotes conspiracy theories: for a fascist, nothing is going to happen unless some will makes it happen. One suspects this consideration is also a factor in the usual fascist suspicion of free markets.

The other conclusion to which an ontology of the will leads is the transformation of politics into art. Whole societies become instruments for the expression of the will of elites, or often of a single great individual. In fascist theory, this is all that politics ever was, no matter what purportedly disinterested purposes the ruling elites of the past believed they served. The difference that Nietzsche made was that this reality could become conscious.

Fascism is not quite coincident with the great man theory of history. Since human beings are social animals, the will is to some extent a social phenomenon. Thus, reality is an intersubjective construct, a fable that people make up amongst themselves. The construct is not entirely arbitrary. Most fascists have also posited a strong racial or biological element conditioning the way that leaders and their peoples behave. Still, even in highly racialized forms of fascism, the leader stands to the people as the will stands to the individual. Politics, then, is not an arbitrary art, but an art whereby the leader makes the unconscious will of the people explicit.

In addition to Nietzsche, the other seminal influence on fascism whom Eatwell discusses at length is Georges Sorel. Now Sorel is remembered as the chief theorist of socialist syndicalism, and like Nietzsche his thought has influenced people who are not fascist by any definition. Nevertheless, he seems to have been a primary source of the nuts-and-bolts of practical fascism, which was chiefly concerned with integrating restive populations of industrial workers into fragile national communities. (The widespread use of the word "community" to refer to classes of people who could not possibly know each other is mostly Max Weber's fault, though to me it has long carried fascist undertones. Well, that is another story.)

Sorel's socialism was of the sort that combined plans for the betterment of the masses with considerable contempt for their intelligence, indeed contempt for almost everything about them as they actually existed. Sorel believed that the masses could be integrated into a social force only through slogans and myths. Sorel's favorite myth was that of the "general strike." Actual general strikes, in which the whole of a country's organized labor force walked off the job at the same time, have been tried a few times, with mixed success. The myth of the general strike, however, is like the vision of Judgment Day. It is the goal in whose name organizers organize, it is the reason to pay union dues. It is an ultimate threat, like the strategic doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, that creates a world by defining its limits. It is not entirely dishonest; the leaders may believe it in a heuristic sense. Such subtleties, however, are not for the people they lead.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the political systems of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy was precisely their use of myth and symbol. (As Salvador Dali once remarked, Nazism was essentially surrealism come to power.) The widely-bought if sparsely-read "Myth of the Twentieth Century," by the Nazi Party ideologist Alfred Rosenberg, seems to have used "myth" in a Sorelian sense, the myth in this case being the origin of the Aryan race in Atlantis and its leading role in later history. More generally, both the Nazi and the Italian Fascist regimes seemed to be exercises in government by grand opera. (Götterdämmerung and Don Giovanni, no doubt.)

The myths used to organize the elites were not necessarily those provided for the masses. The Nazi leadership in particular cultivated a sort of occultism (though if figures like Julius Evola are any indication, this enthusiasm was not absent from Italy, either). The people, however, were pushed with more conventional forms of nationalist xenophobia and pulled with quite prosaic promises of economic improvement and social welfare (promises on which both regimes could in large measure deliver). This difference of integrative principles was consistent with the fascist notion of society as an organic entity. Organism implies differentiation, so it was only proper that elites and masses be organized through different means.

Was antisemitism an integrating myth for the people? Certainly this was not the case in Italy, where fascism made much of cultural chauvinism but tended to mock biological racism. It was only in the late 1930s that Mussolini promulgated anti-Jewish legislation in order to please Hitler. The legislation was never as harsh as that in Germany, and was in any case ignored by the people and the government with some enthusiasm. (This changed after the Allied invasion of southern Italy in 1943, when Mussolini became a puppet ruling a rump-state under German control.) As for Germany, there is little evidence that antisemitism ever added to the Nazis' popularity. Certainly the Nazis downplayed the Jewish theme when electoral victory became a real possibility after 1929. While it is true that surveys taken after World War II showed high levels of antisemitic feeling in Germany, this is as likely to have been an effect of the Nazi regime as one of its causes. The truth of the matter seems to be that, if antisemitism was a Sorelian myth, it a myth embraced by the elites rather than the masses.

England and France both had proto-fascist and self-consciously fascist movements between the wars. Eatwell notes the many writers with fascist leanings in France during this period, some of whom, such as Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, commanded large popular followings in the 1930s. (Charles Maurras and his Action Française were too traditionally conservative to quite qualify as fascist.) As a serious political movement, French fascism needed the Popular Front politics of the Left to fight against, and so it pretty much collapsed along with the Popular Front government in the mid-'30s. English fascism started off just after the First World War on a disarmingly dotty note, with a tiny party that advocated, among other things, lowering taxes on gentlefolk so they could reduce unemployment by hiring servants. However, the movement was dominated in the 1930s and after the war by Sir Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists. Mosley, not unlike Churchill, was a black-sheep establishment figure, an institutional outsider but not quite a mere eccentric. He maintained a measure of credibility quite late into the decade; he was even briefly touted by the press-lord Rothermere. Still, in neither France nor England did any fascist party come within shouting distance of playing a major role in national government, much less of inaugurating a fascist revolution. Eatwell emphasizes two key reasons why they did not go the way of Germany and Italy.

The first major difference was that Britain and France had respectable national right-wing parties during the 1920s and '30s, while Germany and Italy did not. In Italy, a proper conservative establishment never got a chance to form. To a large extent, the Kingdom of Italy had always been something that northern Italians did to southern Italians (and this without the blessing of the Church, which was still annoyed at the way the Papal States had been annexed in 1870). Therefore, the local notables who might have formed the backbone of a conservative party were alienated from the national government. In Germany, of course, the old establishment had been discredited by the war. The lack of responsible right wings meant that irresponsible persons in these countries had a chance to fill the political space such parties normally occupy. The opportunity came when the narrowly-based political establishments appeared to be incapable of dealing with a national crisis.

For France and Britain the interwar years were for the most part dreary decades, but in neither country were they attended by a general sense of social crisis. France, despite the proliferation of socialist theorists of all descriptions and the growing strength of the Communist Party, seems to have been singularly immune to Red Scares. Unemployment was muted even during the Depression, partly because the country was still so rural that unemployed industrial workers simply went back to the land. For England, the '20s was in many ways the more troubled of the two decades, with intractably high unemployment even during good times and the General Strike of 1925. In the '30s, on the other hand, the effect of the worldwide depression was not nearly as severe as in other countries, and for much of the decade the economy was conspicuously innovative and dynamic.

Italy's crisis came early. In the years between the end of the war and Mussolini's March on Rome in 1922, revolution was in the air, particularly in the rural areas of the north. As in Spain during the prelude to that country's civil war in the '30s, local socialist governments were often uninterested in protecting private property from seizure by workers. Right-wing terror squads, usually led by strong-men without any particular ideology, also enjoyed official indulgence in some regions (as well as a measure of popular support). Mussolini, a sophisticated socialist with anti-clerical leanings, came to power by organizing the strong-men and convincing at least a section of the establishment that he could bring social peace. When he first met the king to demand the primiership, Mussolini wore a fascist uniform. For the second meeting, he wore proper morning clothes.

Hitler wore morning clothes, too, when he went to see President Hindenburg to be sworn in as chancellor 11 years later. Germany's crisis was far more a matter of economics than Italy's had been, though exasperated by the fact the legitimacy of the Weimar Republic was even more fragile than that of the Kingdom of Italy. Eatwell takes us through a quick review of the "Who Was To Blame" literature regarding Hitler's final ascension to the chancellorship. He finds little merit in the theory that Hitler (or Mussolini, for that matter) was essentially a tool of big business. What he does suggest is that the acquiescence of a weak establishment was a necessary precondition for such an improbable figure to be appointed head of a government.

Since the early 1930s, there has never been another coincidence of a weak establishment, a crisis, and a group of men with the proper ideological predispositions necessary for the formation of a fascist state. Franco's Spain was not fascist because Franco was not an artist, but a cop (or, as they used to say in my old high school, a "Prefect of Discipline"). The rulers of Vichy France, for all their authoritarian tendencies, were hardly in a position to view themselves as bold supermen. After the war, fascism was an enthusiasm only of cranks everywhere in Europe except in Italy, where the former regime never lacked for a small party of defenders. (Mussolini's widow got a regular ministerial survivor's pension.) Until the end of the Cold War, this looked like it would be the state of things for the foreseeable future. The problem with the end of the Cold War, of course, was that it made the future much less foreseeable.

In the 1990s we have seen a historically fascist party, led by Gianfranco Fini, achieve junior-partner status in an Italian government. (The party he leads changes names. Not long ago it was "The Italian Social Movement." Latterly it has been "The National Alliance." The Communist Party of Italy has undergone similar mutations in nomenclature, and also claims to have mellowed ideologically. Maybe they have.) Jean-Marie Le Pen's "Front National" in France seems to have a lock on from 15% to 20% of the vote. In Germany, in contrast, the party system has rebuffed the attempts to organize New Right sentiment. (This is not the case in Austria, where Jörg Haider's "Austrian Freedom Party" has polled up to 28% of the vote.) Throughout Europe, just as after the First World War, small groups of violent youths with proto-fascist leanings became conspicuous. Perhaps the most alarming thing we have discovered about the German Democratic Republic is that it did not so much extirpate Nazi ideas among the people as preserve them in ice, like dinosaurs in a science fiction movie that wreak havoc when defrosted.

One may, of course, quarrel about whether the European New Right as a whole should be consider proto-fascist, or crypto-fascist, or even fascist at all. Still, the deeper you look into any of these organizations and their leaders, the less comforted you are likely to be.

On a popular level, the issue which has the most resonance for the New Right is immigration. Everywhere in Western Europe (and in much of the United States), ordinary people are spooked by changing demographics. They are also alienated by the tendency of establishment opinion to dismiss this concern as mere reflexive racism. Persistent levels of high unemployment, often seen as a function of the presence of too many foreigners, similarly undermines the credibility of the governments of the major European states. Issues like this, however, are not the stuff of which revolutions are made, fascist or otherwise. Additionally, while right-wing leaders are at pains to keep themselves free of the least taint of racism in general or antisemitism in particular, the fact is that at ground level their organizations are, for the most part, virulently antisemitic. There is a significant public for Holocaust-denial theories. However, in no country are such things electorally useful.

The distinctive thing about fascism, however, is that it has always been a doctrine for masters rather than followers. Eatwell has some very alarming things to say about the growth of "up-scale" fascism, of ideological resources for people who either belong to existing elites or would very much like to start one. This has been made immensely easier, at least in my own view, by the spread of relativist philosophies in the Nietzschean tradition in the last quarter of the 20th century, particularly at the elite schools. No matter the intent of the instructors, it always seemed singularly ill-advised to me to tell young people, who by virtue of native intelligence and social position were going to wind up running a fair slice of the world anyway, that life was really just about power. There is always some danger they might believe it.

A sentiment that seems to find increasing currency is what might be called "Euro-fascism." While fascist parties between the wars built their followings on nationalistic platforms, still from the very beginning fascism has always had a universalizing streak. Nietzsche pronounced himself a "good European." In these days when political theorists speak in terms of the clash of civilizations, New Right theory seems to be moving in the direction, not of renewed hypernationalism, but of an integrating theory for the European Union. Eatwell notes that the EU as it stands is a disedifying entity, run by bland bureaucrats who are most concerned with setting standards for bottled jam. Current plans for future integration will go no further toward turning Europe into a true political community (that word again). Eatwell asks whether anyone is ever going to be willing to die for the Bundesbank. Maybe what Europe needs is a Sorelian myth to hold it together. Work is in progress.

So, are we really just back where we started at the beginning of the 20th century, waiting for some crisis that will delegitimize the existing establishments and start the ball rolling again? One way to look at the 20th century is as one long recoil from the process of globalization. It was only in the 1990s, for instance, that international capital flows again reached the levels relative to the economies of the major countries that they had reached before the First World War. Similarly, it is only recently that international trade in general became as important as it was around 1900. What happened thereafter was that the governments of the leading nations sought to gain unprecedented control of their countries' destinies. Partly this was accomplished by war, partly it was accomplished through the creation of command economies. Stalinism was simply Lloyd George's "War Socialism" made permanent, something that happened in greater or lesser degree throughout the West. In every case, the goal was to replace the power of capital with the power of the will, whether the will was that of an electorate or of a would-be Nietzschean superman. When, starting in the 1980s, the military and economic systems of command began to be relaxed, the world economic system began to look again something like the way it had looked before these measures were implemented. The process of globalization began again. So did the attempts to stop it.

It would be wrong to say that all attempts to stop globalization of economics and communications and culture are fascist. Most resistance to universalism comes from a positive desire to preserve local identities and traditions. Such things may or may not be worth preserving. The balance between the local and the universal is not something that can be dictated categorically. Fascist nationalism, in contrast, was perhaps just an improvisation, made necessary by the fact that nations states were the largest units that fascist elites could hope to control. At a deeper level of fascism is the ideal of the universal empire, of the whole world subject to a single will. The goal is repeatedly deferred only because it is obviously so much harder to achieve.

Fascist statecraft is by its nature manipulative, a game that elites play with deluded masses. The fascists in the '20s and '30s did not come to power by promising to create a society beyond good and evil. They did it by promising people things that really were good, such as safe streets and private property and a country with a culture they could recognize. The opponents to fascism too often fell into the trap of opposing these things simply because the fascists endorsed them. This is an important point for the world's liberals (or progressives, or whatever they call themselves locally) to keep in mind. As for the conservatives, they must beware of the company they keep.

This article originally appeared in the November 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Please click on the following line for more information:

Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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