Fascism: How Do We Study and Define It?

**The following post is a guest blog from my friend, Dr. Alessandro Saluppo. Alessandro studies the development of fascism in pre-WWII Italy. You can connect with him on Twitter. I learned a lot from this essay and I hope you enjoy it! –Steve

“Perhaps the word Fascism should be banned, at least temporarily, from our political vocabulary. For like other large words  – democracy, reactionary, radical, anarchy – it has been so misused that it has lost its original meaning,” British historian S. J. Woolf wrote over 50 years ago.[1] Attempts at “deflationing” the concept have not produced anything but partial or temporary understandings.[2] The current political debate has loutishly brought to the foreground the extent of this failure. Today the term Fascism is either conceived as the product of an irreproducible historical conjuncture, and therefore a pure phenomenon incapable of mutation or adaptation to contemporary contexts; or is morphed into an anthropological or moral category whose properties have proven exceedingly susceptible to the multiple contexts of assessment. Essentially, understandings of Fascism are either far too broad or specific.

The Problem of Defining Fascism

Perhaps, at the origin of this “definitional crisis,” is the lack of consensus on how Fascism should be “generically” defined. Ever since Mussolini’s seizure of power, scholars have produced studies of the “fascist phenomenon” and sought to define its nature. Among the earlier interpretations of Fascism, were the ones that conceived it as “a moral crisis” (e.g. B. Croce, F. Meinecke, G. Ritter, G. Mann; H. Kohn); as a radical form of capitalist reaction (e.g. Gyula Šaš; G. Sandorminski; A. Labriola; D. Guerin; R. Palme Dutte, B.R. Lopukhov etc.); as the product of pathological psychosocial states (e.g. E. Froom, W. Reich etc.); as the rise of “amorphous masses” (e.g. Ortega Y. Gasset, E. Lederer and T. Parsons); as a revolt of the middle classes (e.g. L. Salvatorelli; G. Pischel; R. De Felice); as a function of an atypical economic development or a degenerate variant of the modernization process in certain countries (e.g. F. Borkenau, J., A.F.K Organski, G. Germani); as a type of Bonapartism (e.g. A. Thalheimer); and as a totalitarianism (H. Arendt; C.J. Friedrich, Z.K. Brzezinskj). With the “fascist debate” of the 1960s and 1970s, the classic interpretations of Fascism were supplemented and, in certain cases, refined by the metapolitical formulations of Ernst Nolte, the culturalist approach of Mosse, Emilio Gentile’s pioneering work on political religions and the Marxist-functionalist studies of Mihaly Vajda, Nicos Poulantzas and Ernesto Laclau. Notwithstanding, the search for a commonly accepted definition of fascism remained perplexingly inconclusive. Some scholars (e.g K. Bracher, R. De Felice) even denied the definability or heuristic utility of the concept of “generic fascism.”[3]

After a period of stasis, which obligedOxford professor Tim Mason to ask “Whatever Happened to Fascism?” (1989), a new wave of studies emerged.[4] In search for a “minimum fascist”, Roger Griffin defined fascism as a political ideology “whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism.”[5] Unlike many of the previous definitions, the negatives or “the anti’s” of Fascism (anti-democracy, anti-liberalism, anti-socialism etc.)[6] were downplayed in favor of its affirmative propositions, i.e. the idea of rebirth of the national or ethnical community via the destruction of the moral order of parliamentary democracy. In spite of accusations of unoriginality, idealism, inappropriate dichotomies and applications, Griffin’s interpretation has achieved an “authoritative status” in the field of Fascism research.[7]

A corrective to Griffin’s Weberian ideal-type methodology, which was pursued before him by Stanley Payne, British politologist Roger Eatwell proposed the use of the concept of “fascist matrix” to contain the high syncretism of fascist movements. In his definition, fascism “strives to forge social rebirth based on a holistic-radical third way.” Lacking a detailed program, Eatwell adds, Fascism has produced a distinctive political style based on activism, charismatic leadership and demonization of the enemy.[8] While Eatwell’s definition moved away from oxymoronic interpretationsof fascism as a “revolutionary reaction” (M. Neocleus)[9] and “reactionary modernism” (J. Herf)[10], his emphasis on the “contradictions intrinsic” to fascism have been equally or more stressed by other historians (e.g. K. Passmore). In his Anatomy of Fascism, Robert Paxton wrote that “Fascism does not rest explicitly upon an elaborated philosophical system, bur rather upon popular feelings about master races […] and their rightful predominance over inferior peoples. It has not been given intellectual underpinnings by any system builder, like Marx, or by any critical intelligence, like Mill, Burke or Tocqueville. In a way […] the rightness of fascism does not depend on truth of any of the propositions advanced in its name.”[11]

Stages of Fascist Development

By recognizing the epistemological limitations of reducing Fascism to its ideological dimension, sociologist Michael Mann has proposed a definition that comprises its “key values, actions and power organizations”. It emerges that fascism is generically definable as the “pursuit of a transcendent and cleansing nation-statism through paramilitarism.” This is a definition that contains five elements: 1) an organic or “integral” understanding of the nation and, therefore “an unusually strong sense [o]f its ‘enemies’ both abroad and (especially) at home”.”; 2) a worshipping of state power; 3) a transcendence or an attempt to eliminate class conflict by finding a “Third Way” between socialism and capitalism; 4) a cleansing or violence aimed  at satisfying  narcissistic ideals of homogeneity and unity through the removal of any ethnic or cultural variability.[12] 5) paramilitarism as the key organizational form of fascism.[13] German historian Karl Heinz Roth has similarly identified four “constituent criteria” for the definition of fascism: 1) a chauvinist and völkisch nationalism; 2) a socio-economic base of declassed groups or groups in processof being declassed; 3) extreme levels of violence; and 4) the continuance of colonial mentalities and practices.[14]

Beyond ideal-types and taxonomies, scholars have also advanced a non-static interpretation of the fascist phenomenon. “A historical, rather than an a priori […] conceptual approach”, historian Philip Morgan wrote, “is probably the best way to trace the dynamics and trajectories of fascist movements and regimes.”[15] Other scholars have underlined the necessity of studying Fascism as “an action oriented movement” (R. Thurlow)[16] or a “dynamic practice” (D. Renton).[17] Wolfgang Schieder, for instance, distinguished three phases of transformation of Fascism: “the movement phase”, the seizure of power and the dictatorship.[18] Robert O. Paxton has, instead, proposed five developmental stages (creating fascist movements; taking root; getting power; exercising power; radicalization or entropy). This helps us see”, Paxton says, “that fascism […] was a succession of processes and choices: seeking a following, forming alliances, bidding for power, then exercising it”. From here he derives a definition of fascism “as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”[19] A lengthy definition, which the author of this short note subscribes in large part; but that is also testimony of the problems scholars have faced and continue to face in the definition of the phenomenon fascism.


[1] Woolf, Introduction to S.J. Woolf (ed), European Fascism (New York, 1969), 1.

[2] Gilbert Allardyce, “What Fascism Is Not: Thoughts on the Deflation of a Concept,” American Historical Review 84, no. 2 (April 1979): 367–398.

[3] Renzo De Felice, Interpretations of Fascism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977); A. James Gregor, Interpretations of Fascism (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1997); Emilio Gentile, Fascismo. Storia e interpretazione (Laterza, Bari, 2003). Aristotele Kallis (ed)., The Fascist Reader (London, Routledge, 2003); Matthew Feldman and Roger Griffin, Fascism: Critical Concepts in Political Science (London: Routledge, 2004); Cyprian Blamires. World Fascism: A Historical Encyclopedia (London,  ABC-CLIO, 2007).

[4] Tim Mason, ‘Whatever Happened to Fascism?’, in T. Childers and J. Caplan (eds), Reevaluating the Third Reich, (New York, 1993), 253-256.

[5] Roger Griffin, The Nature of Fascism (London, Pinter Publishers 1991).

[6] On the “anti” dimension of fascism, see, in particular, Juan Linz, “Some Notes toward a Comparative Study of Fascism in Sociological Historical Perspective,” in W. Laqueur (ed.). Fascism: A Reader’s Guide (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979); Stanley Payne, Interpretations of Fascism.” in id., A History of Fascism 1914–1945 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), 441–461.

[7] Roger Griffin, Werner Loh and Andreas Umland (eds.), Fascism Past and Present, West and East: An International Debate on Concepts and Cases in the Comparative Study of the Extreme Right (Stuttgart: Ibidem, 2006).

[8] Roger Eatwell, Fascism: A History(London: Chatto & Windus, 1995).

[9] Mark Neocleous, Fascism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

[10] Jeffrey Herf, Reactionary Modernism, Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

[11] Robert O. Paxton, Anatomy of Fascism (New York, Knopf, 2004), 16.

[12] In reference to this paranoid process, Theodore Adorno already spoke of “psychic totalitarianism:” “Nothing can be left untouched, everything must be aligned with the ego ideal of the rigid, hypostasized “band of brothers”. Theodor Adorno, Studien zum autoritaren Character (Frankfurt a. M., 1973). Quoted in trans. Werner Bohleber, Destructiveness, Intersubjectivity and Trauma: The Identity Crisis of Modern Psychoanalysis (2011), 169.

[13] Michael Mann, Fascists (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[14] Karl Heinz Roth, “Faschismus oder Nationalsozialismus? Kontroversen im Spannungsfeld zwischen Geschichtspolitik Gefühl und Wissenschaft,” in Sozial.Geschichte 2 (2004), S. 31-52

[15] Philip Morgan, Fascism in Europe, 1919-1945 (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), 6.

[16] Richard Thurlow, Fascism in Britain: A History, 1918–1985 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), x.

[17] David Renton, Fascism: Theory and Practice (London: Pluto Press, 1999), 47.

[18] Wolfgang Schieder, “Faschismus”, in R. van Diilmen (ed.), Fischer-Lexikon Geschichte, Frankfurt a. M. 1990, 199-221.

[19] Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, 218-220. Ibid.,Five Stages of Fascism” in Journal of Modern History 70, 1998, 1-23.

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