13 Mar

Fascism: An Introduction to Comparative Fascist Studies

Posted By Politybooks

By Roger Griffin

Having just embarked on a doctorate which set out to define generic fascism in terms of how fascists, primarily Fascists and Nazis, themselves conceived the goals of their movement in surviving primary sources, I went to a postgraduate reception in the Oxford College where I had studied for my BA in French and German literature and language. There an Oxford don famous for his work on Italian Fascism asked me what I was working on. I replied ‘fascist ideology’. This prompted the retort: ‘My boy, fascism had no ideology. Have another glass of sherry’. This was 1986, when most practising historians of inter-war Europe showed no interest in defining fascism or making sense of its ultimate goals and assumed fascism was anti-modernity, anti-culture, anti-rationality, and lacked any sort of coherent vision of a better world. Meanwhile, those in the Humanities who had decided to write about, or even define, fascism, had created a remarkable Babel effect, with conflicting taxonomies and conceptual frameworks, often presented with a barely concealed academic equivalent of ‘road rage’. This situation cumulatively created a sense of confusion, of irresolvable ‘conundrum’ for students trying to extract a cogent definition, since there was no generally accepted, relatively uncontested approach to use as a starting point for new research or even a university essay. Indeed, I was told by my DPhil supervisor that my project was ‘a high-risk venture’, probably a euphemism for a hopelessly delusory one, simply not worth the bother.

Thirty years on and this bad-tempered, adolescent, dysfunctional stage in the maturing of comparative fascist studies now seems like a bad dream. They now constitute a respectable sub-discipline of Politics and History which attracts the highest quality of academic research and is contributed to by experts all over the Westernized world. It now boasts its own specialist journal, Fascism, and international association, COMFAS, whose inaugural conference will be held this April in Budapest at the Central European University (the one that the Hungarian Prime Minister is so intent on closing down!). Moreover, the end of the Cold War meant that a new generation of Eastern European scholars, who would once have been forced into the strait-jacket of a Soviet interpretation of fascism, can now explore the various forms of historical and contemporary extreme right and fascism in their own country in their full complexity using sophisticated conceptual tools, leading to a welcome decentring of fascist studies away from a sole preoccupation with Fascism and Nazism, and allowing the rich complexity of the genus to be better understood. In addition, not only has inter-war fascism been evolving since 1945 in insidious ways to take on new, sometimes unrecognizable guises, but the stealthy rise of radical right-wing populism since the 1980s, and popular lack of discrimination about the way fascism should be applied as a concept means that fascism is now constantly in the headlines, tarring Marine Le Pen, Putin, Trump, Orbán and Erdogan with the brush of fascism, along with Hindu nationalism, the US Christian Right, Islamism. Fascism, it is claimed is now ‘rising’.

The last time I tried to produce a succinct book on fascism was in the late 1980s, which resulted in The Nature of Fascism, which is now pretty long in the tooth (though does not yet need dentures). Given the active interest in fascism in academia and outside, Polity’s invitation to me write a new textbook on fascism for its series ‘Key Concepts in Political Theory’ was an offer that needed no horse’s head in my bed to accept. I welcomed the opportunity it gave to trace the evolution both of fascism since 1945 and the academic controversy that surrounds it, while also hopefully clarifying the demarcation between fascism and other forms of right, whether the xenophobic, ethnocentric (‘ethnocratic’) democratic politics of populism, or the lethal but generically different ideologies of politicized religions, of which Islamism is currently the most conspicuous example. Since I continue to be proactively engaged in fascist studies, not least as founding editor of Fascism and co-founder of COMFAS, I deluded myself into thinking it would be easy to write. It was not. Sometimes to know a subject well can make it as difficult to write about it as knowing too little. I soon found there was too much to say, too many subtle theories to summarize, thinkers to sum up, events to reduce to a few lines, complicated definitional points to clarify. Even if the book could only sample debates and tangled events, there was just too much background information to get across to readers without making it well-nigh impossible to communicate what got me into this field of research in the first place: the dark fascination that continues to emanates from an ideology that is so clearly irrational, utopian, and destructive when approached from outside, but so redolent of hope, heroism, and redemption to those in search of an absolute meaning and identity and hope in a world that seems to be descending into chaos.

Blessed with a commissioning editor who cared about the quality and readability of the books he was going to publish, out of the dense white foliage of accumulated drafts a green stem eventually pushed its way into the light and formed a bud. This bud contains in miniature the distillation of what I have come to understand about scholarly attempts to define fascism in the past, the prevalent way of defining it now, interwar fascism seen in the light of this definition, and some of the main ways fascism has adapted to the very different conditions of postwar Europe. It is only when the book is bought, read, discussed, and USED to inform essays, articles, lectures, debates, controversies, and new books, that the bud will begin to flower. The last chapter takes stock of exciting developments in fascist studies which are occurring as I write. It invites a new generation (not necessarily young) to contribute their interests and expertise to giving the subject more breadth, more depth, a wider international range of movements and topics. If it has done its job, some of you reading this will take up that invitation, and this bud will eventually propagate even more flowers.

Roger Griffin is Professor of Modern History at Oxford Brookes University.

His new book Fascism is now available from Polity.