Europe Presented More (and more serious) Divergences than Actual Similarities

When G. Allardyce published his famous polemical article ‘What
Fascism is Not’, in which he endeavoured to demolish the heuristic
value of any generic definition of the concept of fascism,1 very
few people could have envisaged the dramatic revival of academic
interest in the comparative study of fascism in the 1990s.
Allardyce’s diatribe was emblematic of the then prevalent
historiographical view that the various inter-war dictatorships in
Europe presented more (and more serious) divergences than
actual similarities, and that the generic framework of analysis
should have been dropped in favour of individual accounts in
their specific national context. Overwhelmed by the breadth and
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small magnetsdiversity of empirical evidence, historians appeared much more
alert to, and fascinated by, individual characteristics than the
challenge of constructing a general model for banding together
this unique historic experience in Euro
manifestations.2 Distance from the events prompted a more dispassionate
view of the recent past, which could at last concede an
otherwise self-evident truth: that even the most atrocious,
uncomfortable phenomena of human pathology usually originate
from commonplace, and far less abominable causes and intentions.
The first major development in this direction pertained to
the understanding of ‘fascist ideology’. A group of scholars
(Nolte, Griffin, Eatwell, Payne, Gentile, Sternhell and Soucy,3 to
name but the most prominent) asserted that fascist ideology
could be coherent, claim its own place in the intellectual history
of modern Europe and derive its main themes from long-term
national traditions. This novel proposition amounted to a previously
unthinkable challenge to the most profound historiographical
orthodoxies in the early study of fascism — that it was
a historic ‘parenthesis’ in the course of national and European
past, that it was devoid of any intellectual substance and that it
originated from alien, pathological ideological currents that had
nothing to do with mainstream beliefs and aspirations.4
In defending their interest in the intellectual dimension of
fascism, historians who attempted to construct an ‘ideological
minimum’ of fascism maintained that they were simply replicating
what was common ground as regards all other ‘-isms’. In fact,
their task was significantly more formidable for, unlike socialism
or liberalism, the experience of fascism was a kaleidoscope of
distinct national responses to a special set of historic circumstances
(or, even more accurately, to national perceptions of these
circumstances). This accentuated the significance of country
variations and rendered the attempts to produce concise definitions
far less all-embracing than similar projects describe, for
instance, the international nature of socialism. Yet, emphasis on
the intellectual origins and postulates of fascism made very good
use of historic hindsight, codifying a puzzling set of comparable
experiences in constructive and plausible interpretive models.
At last, fascism could make sense on its own, be that as a
‘palingenetic form of hyper-nationalism’,5 a ‘holistic third-way
nationalism’6 or a ‘populist, socialist but anti-Marxist, revolutionary
nationalist project’.7
These and other models of generic fascism have been reviewed
in detail elsewhere. They tend to vary in emphasis, or sometimes
disagree on a series of specific definitional aspects and emphases.
But they can also claim a degree of what Griffin has called ‘con10
European History Quarterly Vol. 34 No. 1
sensus’, converging upon the crucial importance of nationalism,
‘third way’ ideas, populism, organic conceptions of the nation
and revolutionary techniques. The aim of this article is not to
contest their intellectual validity or re-arrange their emphases.
Rather, it is to argue that, in the same way that the study of
fascism has greatly benefited from this more systematic approach
to fascist ideology as a conceptual ‘ideal type’, it also needs to
engage more fruitfully with the dynamics of change in the ideas
and actions of inter-war fascism, the way that beliefs were shaped
or transformed under the experience of power or of external
stimuli, and the implications of these elements for understanding
the place of fascism in time (origins, epochal nature, etc.). The
recent and lively exchange of ideas on this subject has exposed a
paradigmatic clash between two different perceptions and
methodological frameworks for the study of fascism: one, that is
rooted in the history of ideas and cultural trends that deals with
fascism as a coherent, diachronic intellectual system, regardless
of its subsequent adaptations and distortions in practice; the
other, that is derived from the specific experience of inter-war
fascism, with a heavy emphasis on examining the political
choices that movements and regimes made. Instead, this article
asserts that this persistent definitional dichotomy has the potential
to make a virtue out of a current state of confusion and
divergence — not through the declared victory of one over the
other, but through a heightened awareness of the current absence
of a methodological/conceptual common ground and the need to
reclaim one. Essentially, the current debate on the nature of
‘fascism’ has gone a long way towards establishing the conceptual
and heuristic parameters within which some sort of
consensus may be meaningfully sought and perhaps attained.
When treated in dialectical terms, indeed these two levels of
analysis may provide deeper insight into, first, how inter-war
fascism constituted a period- and context-specific articulation of
a broad ideological genus, shaped under the dialectics of ideas,
actions and reactions to the outside world; and, second, how the
experience of this ‘fascism’ can be exploited fruitfully in order
to shed light on the diachronic mould from which it derived,
historically and intellectually.
Kallis, Studying Inter-war Fascism 11
The ‘Concept’: Fascism as Ideology as a Borrowed Utopia for
Radical Nationalism
Any generic definition of fascist ideology, including even the
nowadays terse aphorisms, locate fascism’s ideological coordinates
in relation to the major established political doctrines of
the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Fascism is usually
described as non-mainstream (that is, non-conservative and nonliberal)
nationalism — qualified by a plethora of different adjectives
such as ‘holistic’, ‘organic’, ‘ultra’, ‘extreme’ and ‘radical’.
Its understanding as a ‘third way’ doctrine insinuates its intention
to oppose and transcend socialism and liberalism. Similarly, the
dismissal of its function as ‘counter revolutionary’ (particularly
by Marxist analysts)8 again suggests that fascism was instrumental
in the efforts of the capitalist system to curb socialist
mobilization, while its alleged ‘nihilism’ implies a rejection of the
humanistic and progressivist legacy of the Enlightenment.9
Finally, its interpretation as ‘dissident Marxist socialism’ suggests
both the ideological debts of fascism to the wider socialist
tradition and its parallel rebuff of the marxist–bolshevik rendition
of revolutionary left-wing politics.
All these — and many more — attempts to offer concise but precise
definitions of fascism qua ideology have lent considerable
validity to J.J. Linz’s view of fascism as a ‘late-comer’ in an
already overcrowded spectrum of political ideologies.10 The historiographical
tendency to determine its intellectual profile in terms
of antithesis to established doctrines betrays fascism’s origins as
an ideology borne out of crisis, its essentially activist character and
its largely negative originality, as a novel synthesis of rejections.11
At the same time, the methodological importance of this type of
brief generic definition lies in the shifting emphasis away from the
all-embracing, exhaustive models of fascism to minimalist paradigms
which are intended to be pliable enough to accommodate
the diversity of features that are exhibited by numerous ‘fascist’
case-studies. Needless to say, such projects have been treated with
overt scepticism by those who still profess the validity of a narrative
approach to fascism as the history of its actions only, thus
rejecting the genericists’ tendency to attribute coherence and originality
to fascist ideology.12 Yet debates and disagreements have
also punctuated the efforts to construct a plausible ‘ideological
minimum’ of fascism. What is at stake here is locating that differ

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