Sunday, 25 September 2011

Review of "Fascism" by Roger Griffin

"It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless.... I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley's broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else."

So wrote George Orwell.  This is a book which is essentially dedicated to the opposite view: that fascism exists as a coherent phenomenon which can be defined and studied.  It is a reader compiled by one of the great academic experts on the subject, the Oxford Brookes scholar Roger Griffin.

Griffin has selected 213 texts on the phenomenon of fascism, beginning with protofascist texts from the Italy of 1914 and ending with Primo Levi.  His selection takes in both texts from the high noon of Italian and German fascism in the 1930s and the rantings of more recent neo-fascists, crypto-fascists, Holocaust deniers and so forth, from Alain de Benoist and the MSI to our own dear John Tyndall and David Irving.  He even looks at some of the more obscure variants of fascism in places like Estonia, Belgium, Hungary and - courtesy of the faintly ridiculous character of Eoin O'Duffy - the Irish Free State.  He also includes a useful selection of political and scholarly interpretations of the phenomenon of fascism from sources ranging from Russian communists to academic sociologists to Harold Laski and Renzo de Felice to Klaus Theweleit and his theory that fascism had something to do with "the phallus climbing to a higher level".

There is no generally agreed definition of fascism - indeed, prior to the 1960s, scholars were reluctant to recognise fascism as having any coherent ideological content at all.  Griffin's approach is to define the "mythic core" of fascism as palingenetic ultranationalism - "palingenetic" being an archaic term meaning "concerned with rebirth".  In the various places where it operated, fascism consistently promoted the idea that the nation had fallen into decadence and stood in need of revolutionary regeneration.  This conviction was sometimes expressed through the metaphors of disease and health, and it was bound up with a preoccupation with youth and the future.  The promised rebirth could be presented as the return of a past golden age - the grandeur of the Roman Empire, for example, or the "First" and "Second" Reichs of German history.  These ideas were pioneered by Mussolini in Italy.  Mussolini started off as a socialist, but from the early part of his career he stayed (as Griffin says) "remarkably faithful to a single core myth, that of the creation of a new Italy based on a regenerated national community".  However, as Griffin is also aware, the myths of decadence and rebirth are too deeply engrained in the human psyche to see them as purely fascist motifs.

So much for palingenetic ultranationalism.  What were the other features of fascism that emerge from the texts?

Most importantly, it was an anti-Enlightenment, anti-liberal movement, rejecting the values of pluralism, rationality and constitutional governance in favour of a charismatic, irrationalist politics which promised to create a spiritually recharged totalitarian society.  Here is the Brazilian fascist leader Plínio Salgado:
The soul of a people awakens through courage, through faith, through continuous regimentation, through permanent indoctrination, through perfect discipline, through ever-renewed hope, through spiritually uplifting moments, through high morale, through ceaseless struggle against soporific liberals and literary prejudices, against depersonalizing cosmopolitanism, against crude opportunism, against the general aimlessness which peoples without historical destiny are forced into by degrading pragmatism, against the premature decrepitude of generations corroded by scepticism, and, most of all, against the pestilential stagnation, the moral swamps in which decadent races go under and nationalities are enslaved.
The soul of a people awakens through the spread of sound, generous ideas, ideas of courage, force, national ambition, in complete contrast to emasculating passivity, to the gangrene of negativity, to the cancer of materialism.
Yet part of the fundamental ambivalence of fascism was that the movement was also anti-conservative.  It demanded the creation of a new, all-embracing national community rather than a return to a premodern world of kings, princes and pontiffs.  This side of fascism is downplayed by, for example, Umberto Eco, who appears to see it as a traditionalist, élitist movement.  But the ethos of fascism was not aristocratic or reactionary: it was populist and revolutionary.  Nor did it have much time for the modern aristocracy of big business.  Fascists loathed communism, but they also attacked capitalism and promised to bring about a form of "national socialism" within an organic corporative state.  José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Falange Española, had this to say:
Well then: if communism puts an end to many good things, such as family attachments and national sentiment; if it provides neither bread nor freedom and makes us subservient to a foreign country, what is to be done?  We are not going to resign ourselves to the continuation of the capitalist regime.  One thing today is painfully obvious: the crisis of the capitalist system and its devastating consequences which communism is doing nothing to attenuate.  What is to be done, then?  Are we in a cul-de-sac?  Is there no way of placating the hunger of the masses for bread and justice?  Do we have to choose between the desperation of the bourgeois regime and the slavery of Russia?...
The National Syndicalist Movement, conscious that it has strength and reason on its side, will keep up the assault on all its enemies: the right, the left, communism, capitalism.  For the Fatherland, Bread and Justice....  We will impose a new order of things, without people starving, without professional politicians, without bosses, without usurers, without speculators.

Neither right, nor left!  Neither communism nor capitalism!  A national regime.  The National Syndicalist regime!
It is worth noting in this connection that the widespread stereotype of fascists as small-minded small shopkeepers is of limited accuracy.  Fascism had something of an anti-bourgeois ethos.  After World War II, the Belgian fascist leader Léon Degrelle wrote from his exile in Franco's Spain of "the asphyxiating conservatism of the bourgeois with his gloves and starched collars, with no vision, red in the face through eating too much rich food and drinking too much claret".  The nationalism, militarism and anti-Marxism of the fascist movement mean that it is most naturally placed on the far right of the political spectrum - much as this irritates some modern-day right-wingers who clearly don't like the idea of having the bad guys on their side - but this classification is something of an over-simplification.

One frequent misconception is that fascism equated with racism.  This was undoubtedly true in the case of its German variant, which was morbidly obsessed with racial doctrines, but fascists generally had only limited interest in racial matters.  Mussolini said:
We Fascists acknowledge the existence of races, their differences and their hierarchy, but we do not propose to present ourselves to the world as the embodiment of the White race set against other races, we do not intend to make ourselves the preachers of segregation and of racial hatreds when we see that our fiercest critics are not the Negroes of Harlem - who could profitably use their time to take care of their colleagues who are daily and Christianly lynched in the United States - but are mostly genuine Whites in Europe and America.
Nonetheless, one finds undeniable evidence of antisemitism even in texts emanating from outside the Nazi movement.

Inevitably, there are limits to Griffin's scope.  He passes over the Croatian Ustaše, despite its "profound analogies" with fascism.  He also avoids the various old-school conservative regimes that borrowed fascist trappings without really becoming fascist in spirit.  These included Franco's Spain - in which the Falange was forcibly merged with the conservative Comunión Tradicionalista and converted into a claque for the Caudillo - Schuschnigg's Austria and Tojo's Japan.

In all, this is a valuable and informative collection of texts written both by and about fascist movements, and I have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone with a serious interest in the subject.