Fascism is alive and well in the United States, at least as an epithet. The Third Reich provides the one set of historical analogies everybody will recognize. No more damning evidence about the state of American cultural literacy can be given.
Regardless of who is in office, protesters will wave photographs of the president with the nostril-wide mustache inked in. And whenever a city council or state legislature considers a ban on public smoking, the most unlikely people start complaining about the Gestapo. (First they came for the snuff-dippers, and I did not speak out, for I was not a snuff-dipper….) That seems indicative less of ignorance than of a low threshold for frustration. If there is one thing we can all agree on about totalitarianism, it’s the inconvenience.
The tendency has grown worse over the past dozen years. That, like everything else, can probably be blamed on the Internet, though no doubt some of the responsibility belongs to the History Channel, where Poland is invaded at least twice a day. After a while, fatigue sets in. But then you read about something like the Golden Dawn in Greece -- a rapidly growing party using a streamlined swastika as its emblem – and the word “fascist” ceases to be a free-floating signifier of vituperation. It begins to mean something again. But what?
Fascism: Journal of Comparative Fascist Studies published its first, semiannual issue in October. While not particularly focused on recent developments in the streets, they echo in it even so. The tendency I’ve just complained about – the stretching a concept so thin that it seems to have almost no substance -- has its parallel in the scholarship on fascism. And so does its return to a more substantial form.
St. Augustine said he knew what time was until someone asked him to explain it. Then the trouble started. A similarly perplexed feeling comes over someone reading historiographical efforts to get a handle on fascism.
It’s easy enough to start out with definition by ostension – that is, by pointing to the movements and regimes of Mussolini and of Hitler. And all the more so, given that the Italian leader not only coined the term fascism but wrote an encyclopedia entry on it, or at least signed one. But for all the inspiration Hitler and his early supporters took from Mussolini’s rise to power, Nazi doctrine grew out of its own distinct set of German influences. Racism -- and in particular anti-Semitism of a special variety, bolstered by pseudoscience – played a role in Hitler’s worldview strikingly absent from Mussolini’s doctrine.
And that doctrine itself had a paradoxical aspect. On the one hand, it was, so to speak, nationalism on steroids – deeply hostile to internationalism, especially of the Marxist variety. (In the late ‘10s and early '20s, Germany and Italy alike experienced long revolutionary crises, with left-wing parties making serious bids for power.) At the same time, fascist organizations sprang up all over Europe and in North and South America, with a few also appearing in Asia. Some adherents thought of fascism as a “universal” movement: a new stage of society, of which the Italians, and the later the Germans, were setting the example. In 1934, fascist delegates gathered in Switzerland for a world congress, although the effort soon foundered on ideological differences.
So even the fascists themselves couldn’t agree on how to understand their movement. Nor could historians and political scientists studying them after the defeat of the “classical” fascist regimes. A familiar dichotomy between “lumpers” and “splitters” played itself out, with the former emphasizing common elements among the fascist organizations (authoritarianism, nationalism, leader-worship, tendency to wear uniforms) and interpreting the movement as the product of larger forces (social anomie, economic crisis, resistance to modernization, etc.)
A good précis of the splitters’ response to lumper theorizing appeared in an article by Gilbert Allardyce in The American Historical Review in 1979. Focusing just on Nazism and Italian fascism, he stressed that “one arose in the most advanced industrial nation in Western Europe; the other, in a country still largely underdeveloped. Getting both into any uniform theory is hard enough, but getting both into the same stage of modernization is impossible. Interpretations that make sense in the case of one regime often make no sense in the case of the other.”
At least one historian took the next logical step. Italy was fascist under Mussolini. Fascism involved the dictatorial push of a largely preindustrial society into the age of mechanical reproduction. That wasn’t necessary in Germany. Therefore, Hitler was not a fascist. Likely it would be possible to disprove this syllogism with a Venn diagram or two; but in any event, it feels wrong somehow.
Much of the academic literature on the Italian and German regimes – and just about all of the popular history – goes about its business without getting too bogged down in the “generic fascism” problem. The devil is truly in the details. But the new journal Fascism takes the possibility of a generic concept of the movement as its point of departure, and in ways that seem worth watching.
The field of “comparative fascist studies” as pursued in the journal takes its bearings from Richard Griffin’s understanding of fascism as an ideology defined by a core of “palingenetic ultranationalism” which manifests itself in specific kinds of populist mobilization and charismatic leadership. Griffen, a professor of modern history at Oxford Brookes University, in Britain, first presented this argument in The Nature of Fascism (1991).
Now, before saying another word, I want to point out that calling fascism “palingenetic” is in not in any way meant as a slur on the beloved former governor of Alaska, vice presidential candidate, and reality television star. Palingenesis means “regeneration, rebirth, revival, resuscitation,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. “In philosophy and natural science, formerly applied spec[ifically] to the (supposed) regeneration of living organisms from ashes or putrefying matter, to the preformation theory of Charles Bonnet (1720–93), and to the persistence of the soul (metempsychosis) or (in Schopenhauer) of the will from one generation to another.” Let’s be perfectly clear about that. I don’t want any trouble.
In Griffin’s usage, the term carries overtones of both regeneration-from-putrefaction and a sort of reincarnation. A fascist movement seeks a rebirth of the nation’s soul by overcoming its degeneration. It promises not merely a return to “the good old days” but an extreme, and usually violent, new beginning. The national revival comes through “a ‘populist’ drive towards mobilizing the energies of all those considered authentic members of the national community,” with the charismatic aura of the leader and “the pervasive use of theatrical and ritual elements in politics.” Xenophobia and genocidal racism are typical elements but not, as such, absolutely necessary. The main thing is that there be “groups identified with physical and moral decadence,” whose ejection from the nation would be a step towards its rebirth.
It is not so much a theory of fascism as a decent set of fingerprints. Griffin’s description doesn’t explain the movement’s origin or viability in any given country, but it identifies what they shared. That is significant on more than just typological grounds. The program of “comparative fascist studies” as it emerges from Griffin’s keynote essay in the first issue of Fascism, confirmed by the articles following it, includes research into how organizations in various countries influenced one another in the years between Il Duce’s march on Rome in 1922 and the Fuhrer’s suicide in 1945 – and since then, as well. For while the effort to create a “universal fascist” movement collapsed during the Great Depression, the project itself carries on. After a dozen years and more of incredibly trivializing and dumb references to fascism, the rolling economic crisis may yet give it some bite.
A final note. I picked up Fascism at the table of its publisher, Brill, during a conference last month. But it’s also available online, in full, as an open-access journal. The first issue is now available; the next comes out in April.