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International Socialism, Winter 1968/69


Joan Smith

Not what it is ...


From International Socialism (1st series), No.35, Winter 1968/69, p.41.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


European Fascism
ed. S.J. Woolf
Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 63s

The definition of Fascism has long been a thorny one for liberal democrats. S.J. Woolf (the editor of this symposium of 13 contributors and 353 pages on 11 countries) tries to avoid the problem by stating that fascism ‘was originally understood’ as a specific historical/political/geographical phenomenon – Europe between the wars. Yet even in his own short introduction this conception of fascism brings him up against two problems. Firstly he has to explain the vast differences between western and central and east European fascism ‘in terms of their national peculiarities’. Secondly he believes:

The ‘middle class’ interpretation of fascism – while perfectly valid for industrial countries – is, in fact, inadequate as a general explanation, because it fails to account for the significant fascist movements in backward or agrarian societies.

This leaves the contributors to the symposium with the problem that these movements were never consummated as true fascist states when they were in power, or only came to power through the intervention of Germany. It also leaves the problem that the Marxist analysis of fascism is never, by definition, confronted, and therefore there is no building of an alternative coherent framework for the book. Woolf merely says that ‘It (the ‘middle class’ interpretation) needs to be supplemented by other interpretations, some perhaps sociological in character, others far more political’ and leaves his contributors to work out their own individual salvations. This leads to a very confused symposium with the actual format of the collection detracting from the value of many of the individual essays.

Hugh Trevor-Roper in what is in fact a second introduction The Phenomenon of Fascism challenges this assumption explicitly. He lists the essential conditions of fascism as ‘the economic crisis, the danger of proletarian revolution; the unifying patronage of a dominant industrial power.’ Yet he too goes looking for ‘fascism’: ‘beyond the one name lies a hundred forms’, and searches for its intellectual origin crudely based on economic crisis and the break-up of liberalism.

Fortunately most of the essays in this book state their problems about fascism and then immediately lapse into descriptive writing. It is those essays which try to reach the pretensions of the title and the original conception of comparative studies of fascism which are the least satisfactory. The essays on Italy (S.J. Woolf), Germany (A.J. Nicholls). Great Britain (R. Skidelsky), and Spain (Hugh Thomas) contribute nothing original and because of the general confusion as to the theoretical framework of the symposium are not even readily available summaries of the salient facts. The worst essays theoretically are undoubtedly the two on Austria (Stadler) and Rumania (Barbu). Stadler describes Austrian fascism under five confused headings, all attitudinal and ideological. Barbu’s essay begins and ends psychologistically. where the explanation of why there was a ‘fascist’ movement although Rumania had come well out of the war (his problem) is all too straightforward: ‘As recent studies of mental disorders and suicides show . . . sudden poverty and sudden riches produce similar results’.

The essays on Hungary (J. Erös), Poland (S. Andreski), and Portugal (H. Martins) are all valuable summaries of political events under the various dictatorships but all of them are distorted by the ‘fascist’ framework. The essays on Norway (T.K. Derry), Finland (A.F. Upton), France (G. Warner) and some parts of Austria (Stadler) are excellent on the actual fascist organisation and parties, their immediate support and their potential. Some of the descriptions of the organisation of ex-servicemen and farm-labourers as strike breakers are immensely useful, particularly for those countries where no previous studies in English have been published (Norway. Finland, Poland).

The symposium as a whole is an honest one. It recognises all the problems its own definition of fascism presents. But because of its framework it can for example continually mention the middle class or peasant (i.e. petit-bourgeois) base of fascist parties and the opportunistic, confused, diverse ideologies of these parties and yet never consider the connection between the two. It can also ignore entirely the actual organisations of the owners and the workers which existed side by side with the fascist organisations, as well as. of course, ignoring the dynamic aspect of the class struggle. As a book on European fascist movements it is sometimes very good: as a book on European fascism it is not.

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