June 1, 2006


-REVIEW: of A HISTORY OF FASCISM, 1914-1945 By Stanley G. Payne (John Gray, NY Times Book Review)
Anyone seeking a guide to thinking about the history and essential characteristics of fascism could do no better than read Stanley G. Payne's invaluable book, A History of Fascism, 1914-1945, which is likely to be the definitive study of its subject for a considerable time. Mr. Payne, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has given us a study that is a model of historical narrative, analysis and interpretation. His account of European fascism, and of fascist-like movements in Latin America, Asia and elsewhere, is authoritative, exhaustive and suggestive. One of the vital distinctions he is concerned to make is between fascism and the political movements of the right. In most countries, fascist movements distinguished themselves from even the authoritarian far right by their uncompromising modernism, their rejection of any kind of reactionary nostalgia for the past and, in many cases, by their pronounced hostility to Christianity.

Mr. Payne makes the interesting and perceptive observation that, insofar as fascism had anything resembling a coherent framework of distinctive ideas, this owed much to the European Enlightenment as that had been interpreted and developed by thinkers like Nietzsche and Henri Bergson. In fact, as he rightly argues, fascist ideology is in many ways an echo of Europe's fin de sicle intellectual ferment in the arts, literature and philosophy. In support of this interpretation we may note that in many countries fascism in its earlier stages attracted the sympathy of avant-garde artists -- particularly in Italy, where the Futurist painter Filippo Marinetti was for a time a prominent supporter. Again, fascist economic programs were a mixed bag of proposals that were rarely worked out seriously and never implemented, yet they all involved large changes in existing economic policies. In important respects, the claim of the early fascists that they were not conservatives or reactionaries but rather radicals or revolutionaries who repudiated the bourgeois culture and institutions of the 19th century is well founded in the realities of history. One conclusion to be drawn from Mr. Payne's account is that we will not advance our understanding if we rest content with the clich that fascism represented a regression into atavism, a step backward in historical development. It is often better understood as a form of perverse modernity.

A t the same time, fascism was from its beginnings allied with antiliberal and xenophobic forms of nationalism. In many countries -- Spain, Portugal and much of the Balkans, for example -- it was virtually indistinguishable from movements and parties of the authoritarian, clerical right. In these countries a reactionary political mythology of peasant life was an important component of fascism. In much of central and eastern Europe, anti-Semitism -- which was not a defining element in fascism in Italy or Spain -- was a central and fundamental theme both of the authoritarian right and of fascist parties that modeled themselves on the example of National Socialist Germany. In Nazism, fascism was able to combine the most contradictory tendencies, representing itself as at once the embodiment of a new world order and the savior of the social order in Germany and Europe. A small part of the measureless moral horror of the Holocaust may derive from its combination of the most atavistic human impulses with some of the more advanced applications of technology and modern science (or its perversions, in Nazi eugenics and racist theories). This fusion of apparent opposites in the prototypical Nazi exemplar makes any simple definition of fascism unhelpful. Perhaps, in the end, fascism has no essential nature at all, and there is really nothing more to it than its history.

Most of which is self-evident to all except those who so despise religion that they find it necessary to blame Nazism on Christianity. In fact, the more closely aligned with the Church the less likely the fascists were to be anti-Semitic. It was the modernist secularist iteration that was exterminationist. [originally posted: 2003-08-21] Posted by Orrin Judd at June 1, 2006 8:00 PM


Posted by: oj at June 1, 2006 9:15 PM

The article correctly portrays Nazism as a fusion of "progressive" and "reactionary" ideas. Nazism was neither a purely right-wing movement, like the left has claimed, nor a purely leftist one, like Orrin et al. claim.

I don't agree with the idea that the more closely aligned with the Church the fascists were the less likely they were to be anti-Semitic. I think Spain and Italy are perhaps traditionally less anti-Semitic than, say, Germany or Poland, and this may explain some of the difference in attitudes to Jews. Additionally, neither Mussolini nor Franco were racialists in the Nazi sense, which also explains the relative lack of anti-Semitism in Italian and Spanish fascism.

Posted by: Mörkö at June 2, 2006 7:54 AM

No one's claiming Nazism was a purely leftwing movement. Many on the Right still cling to Darwinism to justify racism, which is why guys like Gould and Lewontin abandoned it.

Carson Holloway's The Right Darwin? is very good on the topic.

Posted by: oj at June 2, 2006 8:00 AM