The Nature of the Beast

The Nature of the Beast

Mini Teaser: Review of Walter Laqueur's Fascism: Past, Present Future (New York, Oxford University Press, 1996); Roger Eatwell's Fascism: A History (New York: Allen Lane, 1996).

by Author(s): Liah Greenfeld

Review of Walter Laqueur's Fascism: Past, Present Future (New York, Oxford University Press, 1996); Roger Eatwell's Fascism: A History (New York: Allen Lane, 1996).

Three secular political creeds have claimed the souls and loyalties of men in the twentieth century: liberalism, communism, and fascism. Liberalism has been identified with capitalism, which communism rejected, while fascism could be and has been characterized as both capitalist and anti-capitalist. Communism equated capitalism (and therefore liberalism) with fascism; fascism defined itself in opposition to both liberalism and communism; and liberalism fought each of the other two in turn, sharing its victory over fascism with the Soviet communists in 1945, and forty-five years later watching Soviet communism expire of natural causes, perhaps aided somewhat by the exertions of the Cold War. But just as the collapse of the Soviet empire has not meant that communism is dead and buried, neither did the defeat and partition of Nazi Germany spell the end of fascism.

At the end of the twentieth century, liberalism again faces a hostile and frightening world. It is frightening, among other things, because we (those who uphold the virtues of liberalism, that is) are unsure of the nature of the enemy. The enemy we knew so well is disabled, and so we feel that the threat must come from another direction. Feeling secure on the Left flank, we naturally turn our attention to the Right. This explains the renewed interest in fascism.

Walter Laqueur's Fascism: Past, Present, Future and Roger Eatwell's Fascism: A History are two recent additions to the growing literature that testifies to this interest. Both books make fascinating reading. Laqueur's Fascism is a sweeping overview of the two paradigmatic cases of "historical fascism", fascist Italy and Nazi Germany; of movements that identify themselves as neo-fascist around Western Europe; of extreme Right movements and recent Right-Left "post-fascist" alliances in Russia and Eastern Europe; and of "clerical fascism"--Islamic fundamentalism in particular in the Third World.

Eatwell's Fascism tells the story of fascism in four countries: Italy, Germany, France, and Britain. It traces Italian fascism from its birth in the wake of the First World War to near-death experience in the Second World War to mature respectability today, and it follows Nazism and its posterity from Hitler's Munich days to post-reunification, French "Third Way" movements from Action franaise to Le Pen, and British "fascist" eccentrics on the "one-man-and-his-dog" fringe of British politics from Oswald Mosley in the 1930s to the present.

While both books are histories, the authors are preoccupied with the present and worry about the future. "Fascism . . . is making a comeback", asserts Laqueur. "There ought to be awareness that a threat still exists and that it might be premature to dispose with the injunction in the Bible calling for sobriety and vigilance." Eatwell insists that "Fascism is on the move once more." The central concern of both authors, clearly, is the ongoing ideological conflict, that between liberalism and its enemies. But is the focus on fascism really the best way to get to the heart of this conflict?

Both Laqueur and Eatwell recognize that the danger presented by contemporary anti-liberalism is not exactly like "historical fascism", though it is strikingly similar to it in many respects. It is questionable whether this late twentieth-century reincarnation may properly be called "fascism" at all. Raising this question, however, presupposes that the term "fascism" corresponds to a certain, clearly demarcated phenomenon lending itself to rigorous definition. But neither author makes that assumption. Both concede, in Laqueur's words, "the impossibility of defining fascism precisely" and struggle with the problem this creates for meaningful analysis.

Laqueur proposes a "fascist minimum" that includes "the common belief in nationalism, hierarchical structures, and the 'leader principle.'" In itself such a minimum is not objectionable: but it is difficult to see, for example, how it translates into such obviously odious (from the liberal point of view) qualities as contempt for the values of liberal democracy and aggressive hostility toward societies identified with it; resentment of the West, with anti-Americanism as today's concrete expression; and, most importantly, widespread use of violence and ethnic intolerance, or "biological racialism", often but not always expressed most dramatically as anti-Semitism. For his part, Eatwell stresses the elusive quality of an ideology that in its first incarnations "drew from both the right and the left, seeking to create a radical 'Third Way' which was neither capitalist nor communist." In his view, the core of this ideology was the "attempt to create a holistic-national radical Third Way" [emphasis in original here and throughout].

The impossibility of clearly distinguishing fascism, commonly identified with the extreme Right, from its sworn communist enemy on the extreme Left, presents a major obstacle to definition, and therefore to understanding. Throughout his discussion of "historical fascisms" in Italy and Germany, Laqueur draws comparisons between them and the Stalinist Soviet Union, suggesting that for every characteristic of Nazi Germany, in particular, there is a Soviet parallel. He concludes explicitly that "as the years passed and the construction of 'socialism in one country' proceeded, [the Soviet regime] jettisoned more and more of its internationalist baggage and became national socialism in practice, and gradually also in theory." He also notes of the two regimes' ostensibly antithetical attitudes toward the economy that, whatever differences existed in theory, "in reality [they], especially from the 1930s onward, were not always visible to the naked eye." The communist and the Nazi regimes were not exactly alike, of course, but then neither were the Italian and the German paradigmatic cases. Laqueur attributes these differences to "the German, Italian, and Russian historical traditions." Was communism the Russian fascism, then, and the Left really the Russian Right?

Both Laqueur and Eatwell draw attention to the historically close personnel relations between Left and Right, reflected in the frequency and facility with which adherents, especially the leaders, moved from the former camp to the latter, the Left serving as the leadership pool for the Right. (The kind of reverse move from Right to Left made by Franois Mitterrand existed but was quite rare.) Jacob Talmon noticed this perplexing affinity between professed ideological antitheses in his poignant 1981 book, Myth of the Nation and the Vision of Revolution, which was dismissed at the time as political heresy. Yet a careful student of fascism, even if unwilling to recognize the family resemblance between self-defined--and commonly acknowledged--extremes of the political spectrum, cannot avoid noticing this systematic transfusion of blood.

That students of fascism, as a rule, are unwilling to recognize this family resemblance may help to explain both their focus and their inability to capture the phenomenon they are trying to explicate. A name, when it comes to ideologies and political/social systems, is often a shorthand for a definition. But in the case of fascism, the name is singularly unhelpful. "Fascism" is a proper name, not a description of the phenomenon it signifies. It acquired a generalized meaning, currency, and the character of a substantive noun for purely ideological reasons--specifically, as Laqueur points out, because "many on the Left had an instinctive horror of applying the term (national) socialism to an abomination such as the Nazi Party." This other name, "national socialism", was an explicit self-characterization. It was aimed at positioning the "National Socialist German Labor Party", the ideology it represented, and, later, the regime that embodied this ideology against individualistic liberalism--hence it was a socialism--and against internationalist socialism or communism--hence it was national. The use of "fascism" as a code name for "national socialism" not only obscures the latter's conscious affiliation with the Left, but inevitably focuses attention on Italy (rather than Germany) as the quintessential example. With Italian fascism established thus as the basis for definition and understanding, "national socialism" appears to be merely a subspecies of the genre.

It is meaningless to debate whether German national socialism--or Romanian Iron Guard, or French Nouvelle droite--were or are "genuine" fascisms because "fascism" was not their proper name. On the other hand, the original Italian fascism was genuine national socialism: anti-individualistic, anti-liberal, and collectivist. But rather than being the most representative example of national socialism, it was atypical in several crucial respects. It is true that Mussolini coined the word "totalitarian", and that Gabriele d'Annunzio, the poet-adventurer, designed both the black-shirted uniform and the "Roman" salute, later copied and popularized by the Nazis--but this should be written off to histrionics and love of spectacle. Of Giovanni Gentile, who defined the Duce's new term, Eatwell remarks that, for him, totalitarianism "referred . . . to a social system that would bring people together and that would break down the gulf between leaders and masses." This was an ideal, a near synonym in fact, of the "fraternity" (and, perhaps, also the "equality") of the French Revolution, as well as of the Marxist "self-transcendence of man" in communism. But unlike Nazi Germany or Stalin's Soviet Union, fascist Italy was not a totalitarian society, if by "totalitarianism" we mean a political system characterized by pervasive state control in every sphere of social existence. This was not because Italian fascists failed where the Nazis and Soviet communists succeeded, but because they never attempted to impose such control. Mussolini's one-party system tolerated autonomous institutions, most importantly the monarchy and the church, which exerted considerable influence throughout his tenure. The periodical press, as Eatwell points out, offered venues for "radical fascist debate"; and as Laqueur notes, "even Radio Moscow's broadcasting schedules were given in the Italian press during much of the Fascist era."

Neither was fascism in Italy particularly repressive when compared with either Nazism or communism under Stalin. According to Eatwell, between 1927 and 1939 the Special Tribunal for the Defense of the State, established after the fourth assassination attempt on Mussolini within two years, "imposed 3,596 sentences, with the average sentence being approximately 5.25 years." Those sentenced included terrorists responsible for the death and mutilation of innocent people, though as Eatwell stresses, "some", such as Antonio Gramsci, "were imprisoned simply on account of their views." Even though Gramsci died of illness while incarcerated, this record must appear puny compared to the brutal terror of both Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany. Indeed, Laqueur notes that "compared with Nazi practice, the [Italian political police] was still a paradigm of moderation and humanism."

Last but hardly least, Italian fascism was not racist. According to Eatwell, "many Italian Fascists were especially opposed to the biological racism at the heart of Nazism" and no doubt agreed with an admirer of Mussolini, quoted by Laqueur, that racism was "a materialist illusion, contrary to natural law and destructive of civilization." Though anti-Semitic legislation, modeled on the Nazi example, was introduced in 1938, the regime offered little cooperation in carrying out the "final solution" of the "Jewish question", and despite virtual occupation of a large part of Italy by the Germans in the last years of the war, 80 percent of the Italian Jewish population survived.

In the Second World War, fascist Italy fought on the side of Nazi Germany against liberal democracies of the West and the Soviet Union. Fascists were certainly no friends of liberal democracy, which they held in contempt, and they considered "Bolsheviks" the enemy par excellence. Yet to conclude from the military alliance of the two European Axis powers that there existed between them an inner affinity, and therefore to consider fascist Italy and Nazi Germany twins, as Eatwell does, is analogous to seeing the United States and Stalinist Russia as twins because they also were wartime allies. The association of Italy and Germany, like that of the Soviet Union and the United States, was not an alliance between friends, but between enemies of mutual enemies. While ideology did play a part in the support that both Mussolini and Hitler separately gave to Franco in the Spanish Civil War, it was fundamentally accident rather than ideological affinity that ultimately drew Italy into the German camp. Italian fascists had no particular admiration for the Nazis, and some prominent fascists, like Dino Grandi, insisted that Italy's natural allies were Britain and France. Mussolini hesitated until late 1937 before he finally brought Italy into the 1936 anti-Comintern Pact with Germany and Japan. He was offended by the diplomacy of his erstwhile allies in the First World War--specifically, the imposition of economic sanctions on Italy by the League of Nations as punishment for its war against Ethiopia (in which, by the way, as we learn from Eatwell, Germany supplied arms to Italy's adversaries). But German expansionism concerned him much more. Had Grandi's view prevailed, or had there been fewer misunderstandings among Britain, France, and Italy between the 1935 Stresa Front agreement and 1939, it is doubtful that fascist Italy would have become the paradigmatic example, to quote Eatwell, of a "political movement . . . outside the realms of civilized politics", and "fascism" the label to brand it.

I am aware that in making this argument--in brief, that Italian fascism got a very bad press--I come dangerously close to blasphemy. The idea that fascism is the name of Evil is a central tenet of our political credo. My aim in doing so, however, is not to rehabilitate fascism for its own sake (though relatively benign, Italian fascism was a national socialist dictatorship, with which I have no sympathy), but to suggest that the focus on fascism diverts our attention from the crucial issue: the nature of the forces that threaten liberal democracy in today's world. During the Second World War it was in the American national interest to equate fascism with national socialism; it no longer is.

We can see why this is so if we take a moment to unpack some key terms, among them nationalism and democracy. Whether or not they represent themselves as "national", all modern political ideologies are national ideologies in the sense that they are expressions of nationalism--the worldview, the form of social consciousness, that lies at the basis of modern society. (Even the ideology of internationalism is only possible in the framework of nationalism; indeed, the appeal to class struggle in many a twentieth-century anti-colonialist movement has amply demonstrated the actual national foundation of these appeals.) The national worldview is based on two principles, those of popular sovereignty and the fundamental equality of membership. Polities based on the national worldview define the political community as encompassing the entire "people" (including all social strata, but not necessarily the whole population, of a country), and this community of equals is considered the source of political authority. We refer to communities so defined as "nations."

It is apparent that these fundamental principles of nationalism are consonant with the fundamental principles of democracy, which indeed makes its appearance in modern history as nationalism. In this sense, at least, every society defined as a nation--that is, every case of nationalism--is a democracy, whether it is ruled by a dictator (who, if he is a nationalist, must sincerely believe in representing the people's authority and having its mandate) or by representative institutions. All debates as to whether any modern society is "truly" democratic are meaningless; what is important is the kind of democracy to which they subscribe: the "liberal" and "constitutional" form, or the "popular" and "socialist" form.
Since every nation is, by definition, a modern society, equally meaningless are the epithets "Left" and "Right" as they are generally used today. Eatwell reminds us that the original referents of these terms were, respectively, "forces of progress" (such as modernity, nationalism, democracy), and those demanding "the preservation of the past" (the pre-national ancien rŽgime based on the principles of divine right, aristocracy, and fundamental inequality of social orders). No nationalist movement defends these latter principles; in this sense, national socialism is as much on the Left as is orthodox communism, and so is liberalism of the purest extraction. Modernity is not ubiquitous even today, because not everywhere has a specifically national consciousness eclipsed other forms of consciousness, such as those based on rigid pre-modern notions of social order (that of the "estate") or on the faith (rather than simply avowed profession) of the great religions. There are, therefore, political movements that can indeed be meaningfully characterized as right-wing--Laqueur seems to regard as such the Franco regime in Spain and certain Latin American cases. But such a characterization of national socialism obscures its very essence.

While national consciousness is dominant in every modern society, nationalism--and by definition modernity--are not uniform phenomena. At least three types of nationalism can be distinguished, and they differ dramatically in their socio-political implications; thus one can speak of at least three co-existing modernities. It is the conflict between these types of nationalism, two of them in particular, the individualistic civic type and the collectivistic ethnic type, that has been the source of the ideological, and so the political, conflicts that have shaped the twentieth century and may well shape the twenty-first.

The types of nationalism differ in accordance with how they define the nation and with the membership criteria that the nation adopts. The nation--viewed as a sovereign community of equals--can be construed as a composite entity, an association of individuals, free and equal by natural right. This produces the form of individualistic nationalism that emphasizes the individual and human rights, and that fosters the formation of political institutions that safeguard such rights. Liberalism is the ideology that corresponds to this type of nationalism. But the nation can also be conceived of as a collective individual, an independent moral agent with its own rights, will, and interests that subsume the rights, will, and interests of the individual persons composing it. The type of nationalism that results is collectivistic, and the essence of this modern collectivism (as against pre-modern collectivisms, such as feudalism) is best revealed by its traditional name "socialism"--the worship of the inclusive society--or its virtual synonym, "communism." In the framework of socialism and communism, the national principles of popular sovereignty and fundamental equality of membership remain sacred, but they are implemented in authoritarian political institutions that preserve pronounced inequality between social classes, because, the will of the nation being independent of the wills of its members, it must be deciphered and interpreted by "leaders"--the (self-appointed) natural aristocracy, which claims the right to dictate to and be obeyed by the "masses."

The criteria of membership in a nation may be either civic or ethnic. In the former case, nationality is equated with citizenship and regarded as a political or legal category, a set of certain rights and duties, the commitment to which is, in principle, a matter of individual choice. In the latter case, nationality is regarded as an inborn, genetic characteristic. Believed to be primordial, that is to say, independent of individual will, it becomes a matter of race, of ineluctable biological necessity. The ethnic properties that define it in any particular case are conceived of as properties of the nation, and individual nationals share them in the same way that individual cells of an organism share its basic character. This defines the difference between a nation that can be joined--for example, the Jewish nation by the process of conversion or the French nation by assuming the obligations of citizenship--and a nation that cannot be joined, like the Japanese or German or Russian nation, where membership is acquired by birth or not at all.

The moral and logical priority of the individual in individualistic nationalisms implies that such nationalism can only be civic, even when there is some ethnic bond between large numbers of citizens. Collectivistic nationalisms, however, can be both civic and ethnic. The combination of a collectivistic definition of the nation and civic criteria of membership creates an ambivalent, problematic collectivistic civic type of nationalism, in which contradictory principles combat and undermine each other--one denying individual liberty, the other affirming it--in political thinking and institutions, as well as in the individual identity. The archetypal example of collectivistic civic nationalism is France (which goes a long way toward explaining its rocky political history, including the Vichy period). Italian nationalism, a far less developed tradition to begin with, also belongs to this type. This is why fascism, a formal ideological expression of Italian nationalism, while a form of socialism, was neither totalitarian nor consistently repressive and racist. As both examples demonstrate, collectivistic civic nationalisms are not consistent in their relations with individualistic civic or collectivistic ethnic nations and may be found ideologically allied with or opposed to either type.

The main ideological faultline in modern politics runs between individualistic civic and collectivistic ethnic nationalisms, which represent two alternative--and antithetical--visions of modernity. Moreover, the factors that determine the formation of the ethnic type of nationalism also make this nationalism potentially aggressive and violent. The most important of these factors is existential envy or resentment of the essential Other--namely, the individualistic, liberal West--which has been bred by a deep sense of (cultural or moral) national inferiority during the formative stage in the development of national consciousness. This sense of inferiority has historically led the architects of ethnic nationalisms to emphasize inner virtues, concealed in blood or soul, rather than ones manifest in the nation's historical record, as defining characteristics of the nation, and even today it requires constant psychological compensation. Those architects who found reasons for national pride in the record of the people whose identity they transformed--such as Italy, whose spokesmen, with or without justification, looked back to the towering achievements of Roman civilization as their own--tended to define nationality in civic terms.

The two major adversaries of liberal democracy in the course of this century--German national socialism and Soviet communism--were both expressions of ethnic nationalism. (The multi-ethnic character of the Russian empire, later called the Soviet Union, does not change that.) The national consciousness of both Germany and Russia was defined in ethnic collectivistic terms: both insisted on the dissolution of the individual in the collectivity, and consistently and ruthlessly suppressed individual liberty; both saw nationality in terms of blood, and therefore, race; both suffered excruciatingly from a sense of collective inferiority and were possessed by an existential envy of the West. It is this existential envy that leads Laqueur to perceive a deep affinity between "historical fascism" of the Nazi variety on the one hand, and both the current form of Islamic fundamentalism and "post-fascist" Red-Brown alliances in Russia on the other. It is the obvious absence of such envy that explains why British fascists have been confined to the "one-man-and-his-dog" fringe of politics.

Pointing to the examples of Russian communists-fascists, Islamic fundamentalists, and integral nationalist movements gaining strength all over Europe, Laqueur and Eatwell warn us that a terrible menace is on the march again. But the menace is not "fascism"; it is collectivist ethnic nationalism (which can be so despite protestations to the contrary, as in the case of Islamic fundamentalism). It has been on the march, under different names, for much of our century, and it is time we looked beyond a misleading name to the reality. The wealth of detail in the two books under review, the revealing comparisons the two authors draw, and their sensitivity and integrity as historians, will help us to do just that.

Essay Types: Book Review