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Jim Wolfreys

What is fascism?

(Autumn 2006)

From International Socialism 2 : 112, Autumn 2006.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Michael Mann
Cambridge University Press, 2004, £15.99

Robert Paxton
The Anatomy of Fascism
Penguin, 2004, £8.99

Fascism has always been the hardest of political movements to understand. This is largely because of its complex relationship to capitalism. Emerging in an era of capitalist expansion, imperialism and democratisation, fascism articulated anger at political and economic elites but then forged alliances with them once in power. During the inter-war period a number of Marxist theories of fascism were developed which identified the middle class, or petty bourgeoisie, as the key component in its make up. Several decades earlier Marx’s own analysis of the petty bourgeoisie had underlined its distinctive outlook,

‘In the most advanced societies ... the situation of the petty bourgeois predisposes him towards both socialism and capitalism ... he is dazzled by the expansion of power of the big bourgeoisie on the one side, yet he shares in the suffering of the people on the other. He is bourgeois and people simultaneously. At heart he prides himself on being neutral, on having found the true balance, albeit without falling into mediocrity. This petty bourgeois is the glorification of antithesis, since antithesis is the basis of his existence. He himself is nothing other than the personification of social contradiction.’ [1]

During the crisis years of the inter-war period mainstream parties were no longer capable of providing political solutions for these people. Fascism offered them an authoritarian alternative which shifted social frustrations onto the symbols of national decline and renewal, offering individuals who felt powerless a sense of superiority through militant nationalism and violence, initially against the labour movement, but later against all groups considered a threat to the ‘community of destiny’.

‘In the atmosphere brought to white heat by war, defeat, reparations, inflation, occupation of the Ruhr, crisis, need, and despair, the petty bourgeoisie rose up against all the old parties that had bamboozled it,’ wrote Trotsky in the most urgent and compelling of all analyses of fascism. ‘The sharp grievances of small proprietors never out of bankruptcy, of their university sons without posts and clients, of their daughters without dowries and suitors, demanded order and an iron hand.’ [2]

What set fascism apart from other forms of conservatism or authoritarianism was its ability to mobilise on the streets. Fascism had to prove itself in practice, not just as an alternative to political opponents, but also to the state. The hierarchical structure of fascist organisations fuelled a desire to dominate while reconciling members to their personal insignificance before a higher power, summed up in Hitler’s maxim, ‘Responsibility towards above, authority towards below.’ Fascist ideology was geared towards building an independent mass movement and relates, as Geoff Eley has underlined, not just to the party’s ideas or formal aims, but to ‘its style of activism, modes of organisation and forms of public display’. [3]

The autonomous development of fascism as a movement means that theories which claim it ended up as simply a puppet of big business once in power are wide of the mark. ‘Fascism’, argued the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, ‘is a movement which the bourgeoisie thought should be a simple “instrument” of reaction in its hands, but once called up and unleashed is worse than the devil, no longer allowing itself to be controlled.’ [4] But neither is it true that fascist parties were able to subordinate all aspects of the state and the economy to their will. Both Hitler and Mussolini repressed ‘radical’ elements within their ranks on taking power. In Germany and Italy the fascist regimes shared common interests with sections of the ruling class. [5]

There is nothing to suggest, however, that the Holocaust was a requirement of German business interests or that it served any economic purpose. No explanation of the Holocaust is possible without an understanding of the Nazis’ biological racism. This does not mean counterposing ‘ideology’ to ‘economics’, as if only one frame of reference is valid, but attempting to explain why Nazi ideas took such a hold. This, in turn, as Alex Callinicos has argued, means locating these ideas within the wider web of relationships which shaped the evolution of the National Socialist regime. [6]

To identify fascist ideology as a projection onto another plane of fears and anxieties deriving from social turmoil is not to dismiss its role, but to begin to explain why so many took it so seriously. Studies within the Marxist tradition which have situated ideological, programmatic and organisational features of fascist parties in the context of their relationship to broader social, political and economic questions have been able to provide rich and detailed analyses of the phenomenon, and to distinguish it from other forms of reaction in a way that makes it possible to identify contemporary variants of fascism.

Central to such studies has been a nuanced grasp of the relationship between fascist parties and their predominantly middle class base on the one hand, and their allies within ruling circles on the other. But the richness of analyses in the classical Marxist tradition, supplemented by others whose work was influenced by it, became obscured by the line developed by the Communist International, or Comintern, under Stalin’s influence, which saw fascism as a tool of the ruling class: ‘The open, terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital’. The arguments of those, like Klara Zetkin and Trotsky, who had insisted on the strength of fascism as an autonomous movement, were cast aside in favour of a crude analysis which saw it as an instrument of big capital. How and why fascism developed as a movement, what the motivations of its supporters were, how the organisations held themselves together, what their ideas consisted of, all these were arbitrary considerations beside the outcome – an extreme form of capitalist rule.

More recently, Marxist or ‘social’ analyses of fascism have been further overshadowed by studies which identify ideas as the defining element in the make-up of fascist organisations. Adrian Lyttelton, author of a number of important studies of Italian fascism, recently summed up prevailing attitudes in academic circles:

‘By way of self-criticism, I would say that my approach to the study of fascist ideology was too much influenced by Marxist or sociological theories. After the “linguistic turn” we are all more sensitive to the autonomy of political discourse, or we should be.’ [7]

One of the features of recent studies has been their obsession with elaborating a concise definition of fascism. As with the Comintern’s maxim, these tend to focus on one aspect of the phenomenon at the expense of others. Zeev Sternhell, whose work on the French extreme right has prioritised the history of ideas, sees fascism as a revolutionary movement which is ‘neither left nor right’. The British historian Roger Griffin has won an audience for his view that fascism is above all a movement of national rebirth. But this emphasis on ideology above all else has made it harder to understand the link between fascist movements and regimes, and between different national variations of fascism. For the Italian historian Renzo de Felice, for example, Italian fascism and German Nazism were two entirely separate things. Sternhell also concluded that Nazism could not be considered fascist because of its biological determinism, which was not part of the ideology of fascism.

One of the effects of this ‘linguistic turn’ has been to deprive historians of the tools required to understand contemporary fascism. The scope for comparison between movements of the inter-war period and those emerging today has been limited by the notion that fascist ideas must be treated as a ‘pure’ ideology. So the response of many French historians, for example, to the emergence of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National in the 1980s was to dismiss comparisons with inter-war fascism on the grounds that Le Pen, in contrast to ‘totalitarian’ regimes, was in favour of individual freedom and economic liberalism. [8] This reflex, of relating the characteristics of actual organisations to a so-called ‘fascist minimum’ or checklist, generally results in too much credence being given to the stated aims of the parties in question. The largely uncritical reception which greeted Gianfranco Fini’s assertion that the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), the only major party of the post-war extreme right to identify openly and consistently with fascism, had by the mid-1990s become a ‘post-fascist’ organisation as the Alleanza Nazionale, is a case in point. Whether the party’s integration into Italy’s political establishment has definitively put an end to its potential to mobilise a radicalised mass base is a question which cannot be answered simply by relying on the pronouncements of its leadership, particularly since most fascist parties have by now understood that they will not succeed without distancing themselves from the regimes of the inter-war period.

But how then can we distinguish between fascism and other forms of authoritarian reaction? How do we know what makes a Le Pen or a Fini or a Haider a ‘real’ fascist or not? Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism provides the best recent guide to unpicking these questions, and offers the most authoritative and convincing challenge to the prevailing trends of post-war studies of the subject. For this reason alone, it is the most important work on fascism of the past 20 years. Definitions, he argues, are static: ‘They succumb all too often to the intellectual’s temptation to take programmatic statements as constitutive, and to identify fascism more with what it said than what it did.’ [9] According to Paxton it is not the themes taken up by fascism that define the phenomenon, but their function. Since fascism is based on a rejection of universal values, it is more disparate than other political movements, and must be understood not ‘as the expression of the same fixed essence’, but within specific historical contexts. He rejects the way some historians have offered separate definitions of fascism and Nazism, arguing that this leads to the study of fascism in isolation from other factors. Analyses which reduce fascism to a tool of a particular interest group, meanwhile, ignore the fact that the movement won independent popular backing. Instead Paxton proposes to examine the development of fascism through five stages: the creation of a movement; its rooting in the political system; the seizure of power; the exercise of power; its fate in the long term (radicalisation or entropy).

The development of fascist parties unfolds as a series of processes and choices: ‘seeking a following, forming alliances, bidding for power, then exercising it’. And this, he argues, ‘is why the conceptual tools that illuminate one stage may not necessarily work equally well for others’. [10] While ideas may be important in the early stages of fascist movements, fascism relies more on ‘immediate sensual experience’ than on reasoned argument, appealing to followers through mobilising passions (the subordination of the individual to the group, perceived as a victim and threatened by decline; the cult of voluntarism, violence and leadership) rather than dogma. Paxton also stresses the extent to which fascism is influenced by context, forced to shift course according to the possibilities open to it. The strength of the Italian left at the end of the First World War, for example, closed off the use of socialist rhetoric to Mussolini. Fascism was constantly reshaped as it grew into the space available to it. In action, then, fascism ‘looks much more like a network of relationships than a fixed essence’. [11] Those who ended up as allies of fascism made choices that were not necessarily their preferred options, proceeding, ‘from choice to choice, along a path of narrowing options. At each fork in the road, they choose the anti-socialist solution.’ [12]

Sternhell has objected that Paxton is guilty of dismissing the intellectual output of fascist parties and their supporters as ‘distractions of little importance’. Since Paxton claims that it is practice, rather than ideology, which counts in analysing fascism, how can we distinguish between fascism and authoritarianism? For Sternhell, it is ‘the ideology, the vision of man and society, the aims a movement sets itself, its philosophy of history, that are important’. [13] And since no party has ever acted on all of its stated aims, he argues, Paxton’s methodology is invalid unless it can be applied to any political movement. [14]

For his part, Paxton claims that fascism is not like other ‘isms’ (socialism, conservatism, liberalism), which are based on ‘coherent philosophical systems laid out in works of systematic thinkers’. [15] Fascism emerged as a response to the development of mass democracy, seeking out, ‘in each national culture those themes that are best capable of mobilising a mass movement of regeneration, unification and purity’, and directing it against liberal individualism, constitutionalism and the left. [16] Here the distinction between function and themes becomes clearer. Action, not doctrine or philosophy, is what drove the major fascist movements of the inter-war period. In a new era of mass politics, ‘emotions ... carefully stage-managed ceremonies, and intensely charged rhetoric’ counted for more than ‘the truth of any of the propositions advanced in its name’. In place of rational debate, fascism substituted the immediacy of sensual experience, turning politics into aesthetics. [17]

Paxton stresses that fascism is shot through with tensions, between radical and more conservative activists, and, once in power, between the normative or legal state apparatus and what he calls the prerogative, or party, state. The basis for this ‘dual’ state is laid during the development of fascist organisations with the establishment of parallel structures. These structures, a defining feature of fascism, duplicate the functions of the state and present themselves as more viable alternatives, particularly when confronting the left.

This emphasis on what fascists do, rather than what they say, is also present in Michael Mann’s detailed survey of European fascism. He deals bluntly with the fashionable academic preoccupation with fascism’s ‘mythic core’:

‘How can a “myth” generate “internal cohesion” or “driving force”? ... A myth cannot be an agent driving or integrating anything, since ideas are not free-floating. Without power organisations, ideas cannot actually do anything ... Fascism was not just a collection of individuals with certain beliefs. Fascism had a great impact on the world only because of its collective actions and its organisational forms.’ [18]

Mann claims that the idealism which affects so many studies of fascism is best countered by examining not just the key values of fascism, but also its organisational forms. But, he goes out of his way to add, this does not imply that the ‘traditional’ alternative to idealism – a materialist analysis of fascism’s relationship to capitalism and class – should be embraced. According to his own definition, fascism ‘is the pursuit of a transcendent and cleansing nation-statism through paramilitarism’. [19] Like so many of the concise definitions of fascism proffered by innumerable studies on the subject, formally there is little to dispute in what Mann proposes. Despite his apparent rejection of ‘materialist’ analyses, he does situate the development of fascism in the context of the social, political and economic crisis of inter-war capitalism and acknowledges the importance of understanding fascism’s social base. He is at pains to stress, however, that ‘social’ should not be associated with class, despite its importance as a constituency of fascist support. Alongside class, he argues, we need to identify the ‘core nation-statist and paramilitary constituencies’ of fascism.

A strong subtext to this book, which clearly exercises Mann at least as much as its actual subject, is what he refers to as ‘class theory’, by which he means explanations of fascism which focus either on its relationship to capitalist elites or on its middle class base. Mann claims that Marxists simply reduce ideas ‘to their supposed socio-economic base’. [20] His argument is that most ‘class theorists’ do not take enough account of fascists’ own beliefs, which reject both class theories and materialism of any kind. Leaving aside the question as to whether fascists must believe they are pursuing class interests for that to be the case, ‘class theory’ appears, in Mann’s hands, as something of a straw man. This is unfortunate because his determination to portray class as just one sociological descriptor among many diminishes his own attempt to provide an adequate explanation of what makes fascism tick.

We know that fascists in the inter-war period did not advance by proclaiming only their defence of petty bourgeois self-interest or an identification with historical materialism. It is also clear that part of the attraction of fascism was its appeal to the values embodied in the nation and the personality of the ‘leader’ who stood ‘above classes’. Mann observes that fascism recruited from across the social spectrum, including a significant proportion of people who were ‘indirect, not direct, observers of the most pronounced class struggle’. [21] But he over-reaches himself in making claims about the centrality of the ‘nation-statist’ bourgeoisie in fascist parties. A wealth of sources exist which demonstrate a preponderance of middle class elements in the Nazi Party, but Mann argues that in both Italy and Germany it was the educated ‘nation-statist’ bourgeoisie that was over-represented. [22] Yet his own evidence shows that the proportion of these elements was in many cases higher in rival right wing parties.

‘Transcendental nation-statism’ remains too nebulous a concept and plays too abstract a role in his explanation, which does not provide enough detail on how and why these ideas came to exert such an influence. As a consequence – and this is also true of Paxton’s book – there is no satisfactory explanatory framework for the conflict between radicals and opportunists at the heart of fascist movements and regimes. Mann refuses to accept that fascism represented one side of the class struggle, ‘or indeed any single class at all’. [23] As others have pointed out this does rather beg the question as to what the paramilitaries were engaged in, if not a ruthless class struggle against the organisations of the labour movement. [24] Despite acknowledging that once they neared power fascist movements ‘became biased on questions of class struggle’ and ‘tilted toward the capitalist class’, he offers little explanation as to why this should be the case and overall his analysis lacks sufficient feel for the texture of the motivations exercising fascist activists.

Despite the impressive scope and detail of Mann’s six separate case studies, his insistence on the fixed nature of its values means that he is unable to conceive of fascism existing in a modern context. Inter-war fascism was, he claims, ‘European epochal’ rather than generic. His characterisation of modern parties like Le Pen’s Front National and Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party as ‘rightist populist’ borrows from precisely those analyses whose idealism he criticises at the start of the book. That these organisations are economically liberal and electoralist, and promote neither class transcendence nor militarism, does not justify the complacency of his conclusion:

‘These radical populist parties may be disturbing, but provided that European “system parties” adapt themselves to the changing macro-environment, remaining responsive to citizen demands, European fascism is defeated, dead and buried. After their terrible 20th century, Europeans can at least take comfort from this.’ [25]

Of course it may simply be coincidence that in France, Italy, Germany and Austria so many veterans of the Mussolini and Vichy regimes, and of the SS and the inter-war leagues, found themselves alongside self-styled ‘nationalist revolutionaries’ in organisations like the Freedom Party and the National Front, where identification with inter-war fascism remains an open secret and a cult of militarism is actively, if discreetly, encouraged. But one might have expected someone who, over the course of a 400-page book, had expressed such disdain for those who belong to a ‘tradition of not taking fascists seriously’, to take the trouble to find out how the members of such parties viewed themselves. Had he done so he would have found, in France for example, a fairly extensive analysis undertaken by far-right activists in the 1960s and 1970s which led to the formation of the Front National. For these ‘revolutionary nationalists’, changes to the post-war state and society – notably greater economic stability and the development of a white-collar bureaucracy loyal to state institutions – meant that fascists would have to organise along different lines to their predecessors, not least because open identification with their legacy would have negative consequences.

Although Paxton does not seriously engage with the role class plays in shaping the motivations and fortunes of fascist organisations, which limits the amount of light he is able to shed on their dynamic, his analysis is far more fluid and nuanced than Mann’s. In particular he keeps pace with post-war developments by situating them within the stages of development outlined earlier. ‘Since the old fascist clientele had nowhere else to go’, he argues, ‘it could be satisfied by subliminal hints followed by ritual public disavowals. For in order to move toward Stage Two [integration into the political system] in the France, Italy or Austria of the 1990s, one must be firmly recentred on the moderate Right.’ [26]

The Anatomy of Fascism provides a lucid and accessible antidote to prevailing trends in the study of fascism. Its sensitivity to settings and to the way fascist parties adapt to changing contexts will help those who want to make sense of the contemporary extreme right without the hindrance of narrow, inflexible definitions which portray fascism as a danger that has passed:

‘Armed by historical knowledge, we may be able to distinguish today’s ugly but isolated imitations, with their shaved heads and swastika tattoos, from authentic functional equivalents in the form of a mature fascist-conservative alliance. Forewarned, we may be able to detect the real thing when it comes along.’ [27]


1. K. Marx, Letter to Annekov, cited in D. Beetham, Marxists in Face of Fascism (Manchester 1983), pp. 242-243.

2. L. Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (New York 1971), p. 400.

3. G. Eley, From Unification to Nazism: Reinterpreting the German Past (Boston 1986), p. 270.

4. A. Gramsci, cited in D. Beetham, as above, p. 9.

5. A. Sohn-Rethel compares the relationship between the Nazi regime and the German ruling class to that found between capitalist moguls and management in large scale private companies: The Economy and Class Structure of German Fascism (London 1987).

6. A. Callinicos, Plumbing the Depths: Marxism and the Holocaust, The Yale Journal of Criticism, 14/2 (2001).

7. New York Review of Books, 12 May 2005.

8. See, for example, P. Milza, Fascismes Français (Paris 1987).

9. R. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (London 2004), p. 14.

10. As above, p. 23.

11. As above, p. 207.

12. As above, p. 118.

13. Z. Sternhell, The Anatomy of Fascism, New York Review of Books, 12 May 2005.

14. Z. Sternhell, Morphology of Fascism in France, in the interesting collection of essays edited by B. Jenkins, France in the Era of Fascism (Oxford 2005), p. 54.

15. R. Paxton, as above, p. 16.

16. As above, p. 40.

17. As above, pp. 16–17.

18. M. Mann, Fascists (Cambridge 2004), pp. 12–13.

19. As above, p. 13.

20. As above, p. 17.

21. As above, p. 172.

22. For a clear and measured analysis of the social base of the Nazi party see D. Gluckstein, The Nazis, Capitalism and the Working Class (London 1999).

23. M. Mann, as above, pp. 359–360.

24. D. Riley, Enigmas of Fascism, New Left Review, November/December 2004, p. 141.

25. M. Mann, as above, p. 370.

26. R. Paxton, as above, p. 185.

27. As above, p. 205.

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