Fascism: Comparison and Definition

By Stanley Payne, 1980

88 years since the March on Rome, and historians still can’t agree even on a definition of fascism.  As Stanley Payne shows in this book, one reason must be the fundamental differences between the regimes asserted to be fascist.  Even the two “classic” fascisms—in Italy and Germany—differed profoundly.  Nazi ideology was founded on race, fascist ideology on the nation as a political-cultural entity.  Nazism established a nearly totalitarian state, while Mussolini mostly just talked about being totalitarian.  The Nazi party was a powerful body in Germany; the Fascist party was largely absorbed in the Italian state.  Until the late thirties, the Fascists ridiculed Nazi anti-Semitism.  (I sometimes wonder if Mussolini would have been remembered as a good leader if only he had kept out of WWII.)

Confusion also comes from the tendency of some historians to label as “fascist” certain ideas or practices that were shared by fascists and others.  For example, having party militias and militant youth groups was common practice in the thirties, having been pioneered by the radical Left.   The most important example would be the economic doctrine of corporatism, which was embraced but not invented by many Fascist groups.  Payne helpfully notes that the corporatism of Catholic traditionalists was different in intention from that of the Fascists.  The former wanted to limit the state by making it recognize other authoritative bodies; the latter wanted to bring these bodies under direct government control.  To clarify matters, Payne distinguishes between three classes of authoritarian nationalism:  the conservative Right (think Franco, Salazar, or Dollfuss), the radical Right (not clearly defined to my satisfaction—examples include the Austrian Heimwehren, the Mexican Cristeros, and the Spanish Carlists), and the Fascists (such as the Spanish Falange, the Croatian Ustasa, the Romanian Iron Guard, Mussolini, and Hitler).  Only the latter had all the main fascist characteristics.

And what would those be?  Here is Payne’s list of the characteristic Fascist ideology and goals:

1)      Creation of a new (nontraditional) nationalist authoritarian state

2)      Organization of a regulated, integrated national economy (corporatist or syndicalist)

3)      The desire to radically change the nation’s relationship with other powers

4)      Espousal of an idealist, vitalist creed (anti-materialism)

This is a very suggestive list, but Payne himself admits that it doesn’t add up to identifying a unitary fascist essence, as does Nolte’s definition of fascism as the rejection of theoretical and practical transcendence.  Payne doesn’t think that such an ahistorical definition exists.  He thinks of “fascism” as a vaguer term to describe the historical reaction of some countries to very particular circumstances in the interwar period.  These countries were in the middle of a transition to urban industrialism, with traditional norms broken and liberal democratic norms not yet solidified.  They were radically dissatisfied with their international status (e.g. because of losing WWI).  They were threatened by Marxism.  They were immersed in a culture enthralled by idealism, vitalism, and social Darwinism.  Under these conditions, an anti-communist, anti-traditional nationalist authoritarian movement can naturally arise.  Payne thinks that fascism has now definitely passed from the scene and cannot return unless this particular set of circumstances should recur.  Assuming they do not, he thinks it unhelpful to call any contemporary movement “fascist” just because it shares some particular fascist characteristic.  No one fascist characteristic is enough to make a movement meaningfully fascist.

2 Responses

  1. […] I’ve reviewed Stanley Payne’s Fascism.  Payne wrote an excellent history of the Franco regime, in which I first found him to be a […]

  2. These circumstances could very easily recur. Simply because technology is always changing. It seems fascism is opposed to traditionalism, but is also dialectically bound to it, because modernism is inherently oppressive of traditional social forms, so modernism exudes pressure on cultures that don’t adopt new technologies. Nations that are more traditionalism don’t transition with new tecnoligy and because technology is just the harnesing of power these nations have to harnes power by other means. Because authority is a traditional form of power these nations counter technology with totalitarianism.

    The solution is to realize that technology is nether determined nor value free. The work of Marshall Mcluhan and can help with this. Liberal culture is not liberated it is bound to the technological forms which produce it. Economic liberalism and cultural liberalism are only opposed on the surfice, they also have a dialectical relationship. They are produced by technological forces like advancements in ship sail desine, map making, and currency monipulation, (aka modern money mechanics). What is called traditional culture has not always exsisted ether. It is dependent on certen agrarian technologies that informed the nature of the sacred and familial relations. The only way for a traditionalists to avoid becoming reactionary is if they develop technologies that reinforce their values. Not all technological development has lead to losing of moral authority. The times when moral authority was more intact where also times when technology was less conducive to vice and averse. Neither is history always a leaner march toward vice, more wholesome future is possible.

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