Sunday, 27 February 2011

Review of "Fascism: A Very Short Introduction" by Kevin Passmore

"Along with liberalism, conservatism, communism, socialism, and democracy, fascism is one of the great political ideologies that shaped the 20th century....  Yet how can we make sense of an ideology that appeals to skinheads and intellectuals; denounces the bourgeoisie while forming alliances with conservatives; adopts a macho style yet attracts many women; calls for a return to tradition and is fascinated by technology; idealizes the people and is contemptuous of mass society; and preaches violence in the name of order?"

For a movement that appears to deal in iron-hard certainties, fascism is notoriously inconsistent and difficult to define.  In this short and interesting study, Kevin Passmore well brings out the unique and protean nature of fascist ideology and politics.  His definition of fascism is quite lengthy and subtle, though its keystone is the primacy of the idea of the nation: fascists sought above all else to create a "mobilized national community".

Passmore looks for the origins of fascism (and its sibling, Nazism) in various diverse places, including the Jacobins of the French Revolution, the Ku Klux Klan, the antisemitic Austrian politician Karl Lueger, Social Darwinism, and nineteenth-century French ultranationalism.  He touches on some of the classic explanations for the rise of fascism, including the Marxist theory that it represented a kind of capitalism on steroids, and Max Weber's view that it was a vehicle for pre-capitalist ruling classes such as rural landowners in Spain and the old Japanese military caste.

Passmore also notes, however, that fascism was closely linked to a particular time and place: Europe between the two World Wars.  Every modern Western political movement of any importance - conservatism, socialism, capitalism, liberalism, Christian democracy, nationalism, even feminism - was in place by 1914, and the only two exceptions were environmentalism and fascism.  Fascism, an exotic compound of nationalism and elements of conservatism and socialism, was essentially a product of a continent that had been brutalised and bankrupted by a catastrophic war and was fearful of the prospect of communist revolution.  The links with older movements were tenuous: as Passmore notes, there was no clear link between Nazism and the antisemitic movements of Wilhelmine Germany.  Passmore ends the book with the suggestion that fascism might re-emerge in the future, but this surely goes too far.  While it is unfortunately possible to imagine in general terms the return of authoritarian racist politics in the West, fascism was a very specific phenomenon which has thankfully had its day.

The sheer strangeness of fascism is striking.  Its extreme nationalism and its murderous hostility towards socialism mean that it tends to be placed on the far right of the political spectrum, despite the entertainingly silly efforts of right-wingers like Jonah Goldberg and Daniel Hannan to link it with the left.  But it differed significantly from traditional conservatism.  Unlike conservatives, fascists were prepared to exert state authority over the economy, interfere in private family life, disrespect monarchies and churches, and reshape traditional institutions like the army and the civil service.  In some countries, such as Salazar's Portugal and Baldwin's Britain, orthodox conservative governments sought to suppress the local fascists, and Mussolini's original squadristi were radicals who fought with conservatives and Catholics as well as socialists.  On the other hand, there was in practice more to unite conservatives and fascists than to divide them: fascists generally respected private property (as long it wasn't owned by Jews or other undesirables), and the two movements shared the common reference points of veneration for the nation, the state and the military.  There were good reasons why they both viewed socialism as their mortal enemy.

Passmore rightly rejects the idea that modern parties of the extreme right like the BNP and the French National Front are fascist organisations - their ideal state would be closer to Verwoerd's South Africa than to the Third Reich.  The fortunate truth is that genuine neofascist parties have been confined to the lunatic fringes of politics since 1945 - the one exception being the MSI in postwar Italy, which attracted significant support from right-wingers who were disenchanted with the centrism of the Christian Democrats.  It has since renamed itself and sought to distance itself from its fascist roots.

This is a good little book, well-judged and containing a body of useful information.  It is essential reading for anyone who wishes to inform themselves before using the political f-word.