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Response to Review no. 208

In writing a book which he expects (while hoping otherwise) to be read chiefly by a student audience, the last thing an author anticipates is a 4000-word exclusive review. My sincere thanks are therefore due both to the editors of Reviews in History for commissioning such a review of Fascism and the Right in Europe 1919-1945 and to Tobias Abse for undertaking it.

I am even more grateful to Dr Abse for the overall warmth and enthusiasm of his review, and in particular his judgement that Fascism and the Right in Europe ‘frequently transcends the genre for which it was conceived’ in ‘making an important contribution to . the debates about fascism’. This was of course my hope and intention. On one the obvious level Fascism and the Right in Europe is a short and modest book; on another, as I quickly realised when I started to write, it was actually a project whose ambitiousness stood in inverse proportion to the space allowed for it. In the first place, it represented a culmination of something like 37 years’ interest as postgraduate student, as researcher and writer, and as teacher and supervisor in fascism and the wider European right. Second, and because of this, it gave me an opportunity even if, genre-wise, not perhaps the ideal one to inject into the debates mentioned earlier a new and reflective contribution. (Since my interests are now shifting elsewhere, it may even prove to have been a valedictory one.) Third, the very genre which potentially limited the book’s scholarly impact offered a different opportunity, and with it a responsibility. For this book was actually going to be read ideally, for sure, by fellow-scholars engaged in academic debate, but certainly by substantial numbers of intellectually and politically ‘unformed’ young people. In Britain, as throughout much of present-day Europe, some of the young are even now being exposed to the blandishments of far-right organisations that simultaneously demonise their ethnically different contemporaries. Perhaps it is even more important that some of them read Fascism and the Right in Europe than that academic colleagues do.

In addressing my ‘genre’ readers, but also in seeking to contribute to academic debates on fascism, I make no apology for wearing my heart and convictions on my sleeve. Dr Abse quite correctly recognises the position from which I write as ‘unashamedly anti-fascist’. Readers unfamiliar with the arcana of ‘fascism studies’ may wonder why this should be worthy of note, and especially why anyone should feel, or be expected to feel, ‘shame’ about his negative view of a phenomenon with so clearly negative a historical and moral balance-sheet. That the phrase could be used (albeit, by Dr Abse, with equally unashamed approval) is, I suppose, a kind of tribute to the recent voguishness of academic and intellectual ‘anti-anti-fascism’, based on the belief that in writing about fascism it is impossible to be both ‘anti-fascist’ and display scholarly objectivity. This is of course as absurd as it would be to insist (as earlier anti-fascist historians admittedly sometimes did) that a shrinking from explicit anti-fascism equals implicit pro-fascism. Attempted methodological objectivity and cool judgement in the face of fascism are entirely compatible with a clear moral, ethical and ideological stance. So, while respecting much of the work that has contributed to modish ‘anti-anti-fascism’, I cannot help feeling that the hour may have struck to let the bandwagon of ‘anti-anti-anti-fascism’ roll.

Dr Abse is so generous towards Fascism and the Right in Europe as to render the task of ‘responding’ less straightforward than a frankly critical review would have done. I can have no complaints about that. His descriptions of me are all ones I am happy to embrace: ‘avowedly anti-fascist’, a ‘left liberal’ nevertheless ‘more sympathetic to Marxist theories of fascism than . to the “totalitarianism” approach or to the approach that focuses too exclusively on fascist ideas’, ‘self-consciously presenting himself as an historian, as opposed to a political scientist or any kind of theorist’ – yes, guilty on all counts. I am flattered that Dr Abse should find me ‘courageous’ (despite the word’s Sir Humphrey Appleby-ish associations) in my treatment of Croatian fascism, though here I would suggest the only choice lay between ‘courageousness’ and craven cowardice. Finally, I welcome his positive response both to my scepticism regarding the ‘post-ness’ of present-day ‘post-fascism’ and to my monitory conclusions concerning, in effect, the intrinsic darkness of fascist and far-right values. I am left with only the mildest of complaints at the suggestion that I might have been unaware of some of A. James Gregor’s early political associations and activities. Far from it: if such appeared to be the case, put it down to the perhaps too ‘measured’ critical tone of which Dr Abse elsewhere (in a different context) writes approvingly.

With so little to argue about, where should my response go from here? The obvious course is surely to use some of Dr Abse’s salient observations as cues for further reflections of my own, one or two of which may go slightly beyond what was possible in the book itself.

First let us consider the never-ending preoccupation with ‘generic fascism’ and the claimed ‘new consensus’ that may or not have been reached. As Dr Abse implies, I am indeed uncomfortable with the latter notion and (though this is less evident in the book than perhaps it should be) increasingly impatient with the whole ‘generic fascism’ grail quest. Students of fascism, surely, should of all people be wary of hailing the arrival of ‘consensus’, let alone expecting others to agree with them. For my own part, like any dissenter in the supposedly (but spuriously) consensual Italy of the early 1930s though here far less courageously I claim the right to say: ‘I am not part of it; therefore it does not exist.’ This is not, as I make clear in Fascism and the Right in Europe, to deny the enormous value of the work of (e.g.) Roger Griffin, Roger Eatwell, Zeev Sternhell, Emilio Gentile or (though I am not convinced he really ‘belongs’) Stanley Payne. They and other scholars are correct not only to differentiate sharply between discernibly ‘fascist’ ideas and those of other strands of the right, but also to treat those ideas with a seriousness others too long denied them. The trend can, however, be carried too far, and too far is where matters go when selected ideas, with ‘fascism’ ideas must almost always be are taken to define fascism in such a way as to erect artificially clear and enduring boundaries within the history of the European right. Ideas provide us with an analytical point of departure; they may tell us what convinced and thoughtful fascists wanted fascism to be; but they do make only a limited contribution towards telling us what fascism actually was, what it did, or what indeed it still might be. That, as I have tried to suggest in Fascism and the Right in Europe, is an altogether less tidy and more problematical matter.

Fascism and the Right in Europe has a number of intertwining threads of argument running through it. They may be summed up as follows:

  1. ‘Fascism’ as a loose body of ideas may, if only for ‘ideal type’ purposes and as a point d’appui, be differentiated from other elements of the right.
  2. ‘Fascist’ (and/or national socialist or national syndicalist) parties, movements, etc., defined by their acceptance of these ideas, sprang up in most European countries between the two world wars.
  3. Most of these failed abjectly either to attract mass support or to challenge seriously for power; a few did make serious but unsuccessful bids for power; but only a few achieved power, a share in it, or the illusion of it. This last minority achieved whatever power it won or tasted via accommodation, either with other, more ‘conservative’ domestic right-wing forces or with one or both of two foreign ‘fascist’ powers, Italy and Germany.
  4. ‘Fascism’ (whether viewed as a body of ideas, a political ‘style’, or a species of regime) nevertheless operated as a powerful inspiration, influence, example, etc. within a European ‘broad right’ which, between 1919 and 1941, overturned parliamentary democracy, suppressed liberal freedoms, etc. in all but a few countries. Not only is understanding this process and the complexities within it more important, historically speaking, than chasing ‘generic fascism’, but the chase itself may inhibit rather than assist that understanding.

  5. ‘Fascism’, viewed historically, is best understood not simply in terms of a fixed, discrete body of ideas, defining and separating out some movements and regimes from others, though this is valuable as far as it goes, but also (rather?) as something much looser, involving ideas, movements, regimes, inspiration, influences, adaptation, (mis)interpretation, subjective (and selective) borrowings, and objective overlappings.

Crucially, it must also be seen (i) as both diachronically and (so to speak) laterally dynamic, and (ii) where ‘successful’, either in attracting support and in the pursuit of power or in infecting other bodies (parties, governments), as subject to metamorphosis into something many of its own often found unrecognisable. Illustration of these points is a central purpose of the ‘template’ I offer readers in place of the usual definitions. However useful these may be, I find them ultimately unsatisfactory, whether (like, for example, Griffin’s) they are static and theory-based or (like Payne’s) limited by their very multi-factoralism.

History is (in every sense) a messy business, and twentieth-century European history was and is especially so. Definition has a purpose, as does the construction of ideal types, but the neater they make things seem, the more they risk misrepresenting reality, and the more sceptical towards them historians perhaps should be.

Moving on, I was intrigued by Dr Abse’s juxtaposition of Fascism and the Right in Europe with the work of others whose reservations on the subject of ‘generic fascism’ I have come to share: notably the forthright Dave Renton and the pugnacious MacGregor Knox. I shall need to reflect further on the relationship between, especially, the latter’s position and my own. That Knox goes further than I would wish to do in questioning or even rejecting the utility of ‘fascism’ as a descriptive or analytical concept is obviously true. Rather like Gilbert Allardyce many years ago, Knox appears to believe the heuristic currency of ‘fascism’ to have been fatally devalued; Italy and Germany were so ‘different’ from the rest, and other instances of ‘fascism’ so different from each other, as to render the term conceptually dubious. At first sight, certainly, my own approach looks very different from Knox’s. A less kind reviewer than Dr Abse might suggest that where Knox sees ‘fascism’, as a phenomenon worthy of serious attention, hardly anywhere in interwar Europe, I see it everywhere: not only within much of the interwar European extreme right but also in areas of the supposedly parliamentary right. (A by-product of the ‘generic fascism’ quest that we unashamed anti-anti-anti-fascists can hardly be expected to swallow is the tendency to treat right-wing ‘non-fascists’ [Salazar, Horthy, P├ętain, even Franco] as implicit ‘anti-fascists’ themselves.) Yet despite the apparently radical disagreement implied by my willingness and Knox’s reluctance to employ ‘fascism’ as a descriptive and/or analytical term, I sense, as does Dr Abse, that in our view of the underlying character of interwar European history we are closer together than we may seem. Perhaps Professor Knox will have something to say about this.

Finally, I should like to offer a thought concerning ‘neo-fascism and post-fascism’, on my treatment of which Dr Abse again comments favourably. Even as I write, the British Conservative Party is grappling with its relationship, or at least that of elements within it, with far-right attitudes, ideas and organisations. This sad fact may serve, among other things, to remind us that boundaries on the right, now just as seventy years ago, are sometimes less precise, more easily crossed and recrossed, than they appear and than some would have us believe. In Fascism and the Right in Europe I conclude by suggesting that while overt ‘neo-fascism’, acting alone, may offer little threat to the current or future political or constitutional realities of Europe, it remains a disturbing and unacceptable menace to individuals and communities. More disturbing politically, nevertheless, is the ostensibly parliamentarian, even ‘democratic’, ‘post-fascism’ of Alleanza Nazionale, the Vlaamse Blok, the two versions of the Front National, the Austrian Freedom Party, and the rest, even the noisome British National Party. To suggest that such parties’ conversion or commitment to liberal democracy is either heartfelt or irreversible, indeed, that their ‘parliamentarism’ reflects the definitive ideological triumph of liberal democracy and an element in the ‘end of history’, would be (to put it no more strongly) premature.

Let us indeed hope that the ‘end of fascism’, at least as a high-level political threat, is indeed upon us. But it is al least possible that all we are witnessing is another (and not necessarily final) fascist metamorphosis. We cannot be certain that, in different and difficult circumstances, parliamentarism might not lose its appeal, both for actual ‘post-fascists’ and also, as during the 1920s and 1930s, for a wider right-wing European constituency. Whether in that situation an academic consensus regarding ‘generic fascism’ (even if one existed) would be of much relevance, much less help, I rather doubt.