April 12, 2011

New chapters

New chapters by Roger Griffin:

Roger Griffin, "Fascism and Culture: A Mosse-Centric Meta-Narrative (or how Fascist Studies Reinvented the Wheel)", in António Costa Pinto (ed.), Rethinking the Nature of Fascism: Comparative Perspectives (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 85-116.

Roger Griffin, "Rechtsextremismusforschung in Europa: 'From new consensus to new wave?'", in Claudia Globisch, Agnieszka Pufelska, Volker Weiß (eds), Die Dynamik der europäischen Rechten: Geschichte, Kontinuitäten und Wandel (Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2011), pp. 295-314. Read more...

August 10, 2010

Book series: Modernism and...

Roger Griffin has started writing his new monograph Modernism and Terrorism for his book series "Modernism and..." (Palgrave Macmillan).

Meanwhile, the first monograph in series, Modernism and Eugenics by Marius Turda, is in press and will be available on 20 August 2010.

Is the nation an ‘imagined community’ centered on culture or rather a biological community determined by heredity? Modernism and Eugenics examines this question from a bifocal perspective. On the one hand, it looks at technologies through which the individual body was redefined eugenically by a diverse range of European scientists and politicians between 1870 and 1940; on the other, it illuminates how the national community was represented by eugenic discourses that strove to battle a perceived process of cultural decay and biological degeneration. In the wake of a renewed interest in the history of science and fascism, Modernism and Eugenics treats the history of eugenics not as a distorted version of crude social Darwinism that found its culmination in the Nazi policies of genocide, but as an integral part of European modernity, one in which the state and the individual embarked on an unprecedented quest to renew an idealized national community. Read more...

Conference talk: The ontology of Judeophobia

Holocaust Memorial Center and the Hungarian Historical Society is holding conference on anti-Semitism in Budapest, Hungary on 15-16 October 2010.

Roger Griffin's talk is entitled "The ontology of Judeophobia: The role of modernity in the transformations of anti-Semitism in the 20th century". Read more...

Keynote address: Religion secular and profane

Roger Griffin will take part in the conference "Catholicism and Fascism(s) in Europe 1918-1945: Beyond a Manichean Approach" which will take place at Academia Belgica (Roma, Italy) on 15-17 September 2010.

His keynote address is called "Religion secular and profane: the contorted relationship between the revealed religion of Catholicism and the sacralized politics of fascism in inter-war Europe" and will be delivered on 16 September. Read more...

Conference talk: Homo Humanus

Roger Griffin will deliver a talk "Homo Humanus? Towards a primordialist and universalist view of humanism" at the international conference "Intercultural Humanism
Challenges, Experiences, Visions, Strategies", to be held in Oxford on 9-12 September 2010. Read more...

April 23, 2010

Web-site updated

Roger Griffin's web-site updated.

Immediate research projects

At present Roger Griffin is

* commissioning volumes for the new Palgrave series 'Modernism and',
* preparing to write his own volume in the series, Modernism and Terrorism,
* co-editing the political religion section of the online journal Religion Compass,
* awaiting the outcome of the bid (July 2010) for a 4-year project for the EU on threats to democracy in Europe (he would coordinate the establishment of the conceptual framework for investigating populism and totalitarianism),
* planning the Cantemir Institute at Brookes,
* seeing through to fruition numerous publications commitments.

In the next five years he hopes to obtain the funding for a major monograph project on the modern concept of 'blood' in the mythic discourses of utopian projects as the intersection of science and myth (e.g. in the notion of sacrifice to the nation, race, or socialist future). Read more...

February 03, 2010

Definitions and Double Standards - A Rebuttal

A response to Jonah Goldberg's critique of 'An Academic Book — Not!':

Definitions and Double Standards - A Rebuttal

"If you’re catching flak, you must be over the target." That Jonah Goldberg spontaneously uses a metaphor drawn from the Anglo-American bombing campaigns on Nazi Germany is, if nothing else, indicative of his mindset about the subject at hand. The fact is that he does NOT conceive his book as a reasoned, empirically grounded, original contribution to comparative fascist studies, but rather has executed a thinly disguised propaganda attack on "liberals."

Genuine academics use reasoned arguments that do not wilfully distort their sources to rhetorical ends. They do not use footnoted polemics without destroying their own credibility among their peers. That has been Goldberg’s approach.

I wrote NOT as a "liberal"' engaged in fending off attacks on the freedom to think. I wrote as an academic concerned that the tools of the specialism to which I contribute are being abused by a neoconservative with no academic track record in fascist studies that qualifies him to denigrate, by association, a form of social democracy or liberal socialist agenda that is generically different from fascism. I did not set out to discredit Liberal Fascism in the spirit of a type of political Star Wars, but as a university lecturer professionally offended by Goldberg's impersonation of a historian whose publishing success is in inverse proportion to its merits and significance as a scholarly monograph.

Genuine academics target truth, conceived as a complex, multifactorial, contested reality reconstructed through collaborative effort. They do not "target" particular groups of people defined by their affiliations or beliefs. In strictly academic terms, Jonah Goldberg does not understand fascism. Perhaps he should also brush up on his liberalism. (HISTORICALLY, that is, not politically).

As for the tone of Jonah's self defense: its slanderous, offensive tone reminds me of the way bad drivers react when other motorists hoot them for dangerous maneuvers. Their insulting behaviour smacks of bad faith: they know they are in the wrong, but have not the honesty or moral courage to admit it. All the book sales, chat shows, and plaudits from the anti-Obama clique cannot compensate for Goldberg's intellectual and moral vacuity.

Incidentally, my point about parallels between Goldberg's technique of discrediting liberalism by tarring it with connotations of fascism, and the way Nazi propaganda associated Jews with Communists - and even Negroes with Jews - is a sober reference to a familiar technique for discrediting the targets of persecution by association - cf. the equation of social liberals with Bolshevism and Stalinism in the McCarthy era. It was NOT an ad hominem argument as Goldberg alleges. I, at least, can make a distinction between chalk and cheese, or in this case tell radical anti-Democrats out to malign and discredit the sort of welfare policies commonplace in all advanced liberal democracies in Europe, apart from the rantings of neo-Nazis and Christian fundamentalists (loosely called by some of their opponents "Christian fascists," a term I also have problems with on academic grounds).

By misrepresenting my critique as a personalized, "ad hominem" attack, neoconservative partisans like Goldberg give themselves license to dismiss every word I write. After all, even if I am, at least on paper, an internationally known professor of modern history who has devoted several decades of specialist research and writing to probing into the nature of fascism, I am "actually" simply "unhinged," cannot marshal evidence or arguments to support a position, and can only "hyperventilate."

It’s true that Goldberg’s book made me angry, and no doubt my review reflected that. But the anger is not partisan – it’s professional and ethical. Frauds, after all, have that effect on the people watching as they’re perpetrated if they understand the subterfuge.

It would be one thing if Goldberg’s fraud were limited in scope. But it has spread – to the Tea Parties, to the TV talk shows, to the blogs. And try as Goldberg might to complain that liberals misunderstand his thesis – he insists he’s not identifying liberals with fascism – the problem is hardly limited to liberals. Many of his sign-carrying acolytes at the Tea Parties, and his TV friend Glenn Beck, explicitly identify liberals and President Obama with fascism.

Here is a revealing sample of the support garnered by Jonah's book, from fellow neoconservative Mark Noonan:

My view: Goldberg gets it exactly right. This is especially true in light of my own assertion that all non-conservative views ultimately stem from the same, flawed source. Liberalism, as I’ve said, rests upon the falsehood that Man is perfectible by men. That our problems stem not from our fallen nature, but from the unjust systems and that if we can just change the system, we’ll change ourselves. Heaven on earth will result.

From that initial folly has stemmed all the rest - and thus liberalism, socialism, communism, fascism and Nazism are branches of the same, poisoned tree. Of course, to point any of this out - especially in a best-selling book - is to irk the liberals to no end. They insist that things like Nazism and fascism have nothing to do with liberalism - in spite of the obviousness of the relationship.

I rest my case, satisfied that I, at least, am trying to water the oak of liberal humanism and democracy through disinterested intellectual labour in the pursuit of historical truth — always complex, always contested — not poison it with a version of history genetically modified to achieve thinly veiled political ends.

January 29, 2010

Review: Liberal Fascism

Roger Griffin's review of:

Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning (London: Penguin, 2007).

An Academic Book — Not!

[All page references are to the Penguin paperback edition of 2007]

Even if it purports to be (i.e. masquerades as) a thoroughly researched ‘alternative’ or ‘secret’ analysis and history of fascism, Liberal Fascism is to the trained eye a patent exercise in propaganda. Even ‘polemics’ is a euphemism here, implying a provocation to heated debate rather than the attempt to pass off an Ersatz for the real thing. An example of such propagandistic ‘substitution’ is the Nazi attempt to popularize an anti-Semitic variant of jazz to counter the appeal to young Germans of the ‘degenerate’ U.S. original, resulting in grotesque and deeply unfunny parodies which fooled no genuine jazz lover anywhere in the Reich!

Goldberg’s book perverts historical and historiographical truth with the scarcely hidden agenda (perhaps the real ‘secret’ alluded to unwittingly in the subtitle) of tarring and feathering with negative, anti-democratic, and inhumane connotations a broad current of reformist policy and social justice campaigns which has for decades been a legitimate current of liberalism within U.S. democracy (and not exclusively the Democratic sector of it). It does so with the blatant aim of making this current guilty (by association) of some of the most heinous crimes ever committed against humanity. It is a work of sustained pseudo-historical calumny and defamation disguised under the (constantly slipping) carnival mask of an ‘alternative history’.

Liberal Fascism is to be seen as a mischievous exercise in party-political journalism writ large as a pseudo-academic monograph, its revisionism far removed from that of a legitimate academic exercise in rethinking a basic historical issue from a fresh angle. Rather, its revisionism directly parallels that of the Institute of Historical Review, which produces euphemistic essays in Holocaust Denial misleadingly adorned with full scholarly apparatus, an airbrushed Playboy variant of racist political pornography.

Historiographically, Liberal Fascism is, as the insidiously clever ‘Hitler smiley’ within a red cover on its cover semiotically proclaims so blatantly, from start to finish a piece of fiction. It is no more ‘true’ than the Da Vinci Code (and contains for the gullible an equivalently alluring subtext of conspiracy theory). But instead of stirring up latent anti-Christian/anti-Vatican paranoia, it aims to enlist the political passions of neo-Conservatives and Republican fundamentalists with its barely subliminal equation of Obama with Hitler ― an equation that Nazis themselves would actually have found mind-blowing, given their obsession with restoring Aryan purity and white supremacy!

The elision of the distinction between progressive or social liberalism with Nazism becomes grotesquely explicit on p. 81 when he claims that Wilson’s followers, called progressives in the U.S., were called National Socialists in Nazi Germany.

A sample of Goldberg’s academic fallacies concerning ‘fascism’

Given this situation, it is pointless to expend more than a few ergs of serious scholarly energy on refuting the legion distortions, calumnies, and lies ― both historiographical and definitional ― that pullulate in the pages of Goldberg’s book. Despite its duplicitous format and linguistic register, it is not written as an academic monograph and is hence is not to be judged by academic yard-sticks.

If we focus simply on the abuse of the term fascism, the result of the book’s tendentious purpose means that it at no point attempts to treat fascism or the scholarly debate surrounding it seriously from an academic point of view or to make a genuine contribution to comparative fascist studies (had it done so it would not have been devoured by broad swathes of the general public). Symptomatic of this is the blend of obscurantism (borne of perverse propagandistic intent blended with sheer ignorance) and tautology (expressing a deep-seated desire to deceive the reader: the con of neo-Con) surrounding the concept of fascism which is the alleged subject of the book.


Regarding the obscurantism, it speaks volumes that only one of the 32 pages referred to in the index under the heading ‘definition of fascism’ (p. 24) actually yields a definition of fascism.

When Goldberg refers to other people’s definitions in an early passage citing the work of a variety of academics (including mine), he clearly has no understanding of what I or anyone else actually has meant by the words and certainly has not made it the brief of his researchers to find out, let alone try to find out himself. He cites theories solely to ridicule their abstruseness.

In fact, the definitions are reproduced in a section whose sole purpose is to lampoon academic scholarship in a spirit consistent with the generally anti-intellectual tenor of Bushite politics. In so doing, Goldberg deliberately muddies the conceptual waters so as to convince the uninitiated that academics either 1) deny fascism has a meaning and find the term impenetrable (thereby justifying a fresh bid to redefine the term since ‘anything goes’), and 2) offer definitions so impenetrable or contested that it is reasonable for anyone to enter the debate to shed some new light on the term whatever their background and ― lack of ― qualifications to do so. Either way, Goldberg’s radical redefinition is implicitly legitimized.

Any unwary or complicit reader duped by/compliant with this line of argument is thus liable to assume it is acceptable and even desirable for a maverick journalistic with no academic credentials (but actually with well-documented anti-Democrat, anti-Clinton, and pro-Bush credentials) to storm into this area with barrels blazing to pepper ‘conventional’ historians with ill-aimed pellets and then force a shot-gun marriage on two political concepts conventionally (at least among ‘progressives’) considered antithetical: liberalism and fascism.

Neo-Cons have previously arranged a similarly grotesque marriage between Islam and fascism to beget the abortive concept Islamo-fascism, another attempt to wrest cultural hegemony in a right-wing Gramscian spirit away from a demonized Left and conquer the citadel of ideas for neo-Con fundamentalism.

Typical of the misleading, ahistorical analysis that permeates this book is that it presents the debate about fascism as still being hopelessly confused. There was a time, namely between the 1960s and early 1990s, when many academics outside the Marxist camp expressed despair at the prospects of ever finding a broadly consensual definition but this is no longer true and has not been for well over a decade.

Symptomatic of this willful distortion of facts is the way he cites my assertion about the ‘welter of divergent opinion’ concerning the definition of fascism without mentioning (there is no endnote) the awkward point that this was written in 1990 (published in 1991) and that it is a statement now radically superseded by the growth of a general acceptance of fascism’s futural thrust towards a reborn national or ethnic order beyond conservative communism, and above all liberalism (in the economic, political and ethical sense).

To repeat (since Goldberg perversely writes as if it is not the case): the core of the partial new consensus that has emerged since 1991 (partly, but only partly, as a result of my work in this field) is not that fascism was mainly right wing or left wing, but that it was and remains a revolutionary form of racism/nationalism, one whose sworn enemies include Soviet communism, pluralist liberal democracy and the multi-cultural, multi-faith society celebrated by ‘progressive liberals’.

In fact many scholars would today accept Zeev Sternhell’s basic thesis (expounded in his in Neither Right nor Left) that fascism produced various syntheses (including Nazism, though Sternhell denies this) of elements taken from left and right welded into a revolutionary assault on conservative or liberal or democratic society.

However, no serious scholar has ever suggested that fascism a) drew exclusively on left wing traditions of state intervention in laissez-faire social and economic politics b) that it did not want to overthrow and replace liberal democracy.


After much misleading rumination aimed at producing a smoke-screen of doubt about the meaning of the term (a bit like a detective story writer laying false clues and offering red-herrings), Goldberg finally offers, Poirot-like, his solution to the mystery. (p. 23) Et voilà: “Fascism is a religion of the state. It assumes the organic unity of the body politic and longs for a national leader attuned to the will of the people. It is totalitarian in that it views everything as political and holds that any action by the state is justified to achieve that common good. It takes responsibility for all aspects of life, including our health and well-being, and seeks to impose uniformity of thought and action, whether by force or through regulation and social pressure. Everything, including the economy and religion, must be aligned with its objectives. Any rival identity is part of the "problem" and therefore defined as the enemy.”

He then adds “I will argue that contemporary American liberalism embodies all these aspects of fascism.” [The original in my edition reads “liberalsim”, which perhaps alludes to some secret mobile phone network through which political elites communicate!].

This last, almost throwaway, phrase is the clue that Goldberg has unwittingly left for anyone who wants to get to the bottom of the motivation for the various crimes and misdemeanors against historical truth and scholarly precision he has committed with intent in this book. He has succeeded in dramatically pulling a definition out of the hat that seems to fit his misrepresentation of social liberalism because he deliberately cropped the definition to fit his target, butchering it down crudely to a size where it can be tethered to the Procrustean bed he has already prepared for it in his mind at the outset of the project: an approach methodologically flawed in inverse proportion to its rhetorical and propagandistic effectiveness.

The key fallacies of this definition, judged by the broadly prevailing scholarly consensus in comparative fascist studies, are:

1. There is now wide scholarly agreement that fascism exists a) as an ideology of total national rebirth and renewal in anew order, b) as a revolutionary movement bent on overthrowing liberal democratic, communist, absolutist, or conservative authoritarian regimes, or c) as a regime which attempts to inaugurate a new order based on a utopia vision of the reborn national or racial community;

2. The ‘organic unity’ Goldberg alludes to is thus completely at variance with the pluralistic, non-homogenous society which social liberals conceive of as constituting the nation, the ‘unum’ never being welded ‘ex pluribus’ through mass coercion or imposed on it through the abolition of representative institutions or the separation of powers or the state monopoly of the organs and institutions of commercial activity culture, or thought;

3. The ‘national leader’ of fascism is a charismatic one whose authority and legitimacy resides in his person as the spontaneous embodiment of organically conceived nation, national will, and national destiny and is thus utterly incompatible with the U.S. presidential system even at its most corrupt and dynastic: the election of such a leader to power (which only happened in the case of Hitler) is the prelude for the wholesale destruction of the democratic state not just in ethos but in a series of systemic constitutional and institutional changes;

4. Such fascist ‘totalitarianism’ is rooted in a bid to create a social and anthropological revolution anathema to social or progressive liberalism since it means the suppression or destruction of autonomous liberal political and social institutions and the eradication of effective liberal humanist values and the civil society on which their survival and health depends. These are then replaced by a highly centralized state with no countervailing forces, a process promoted and theorized by all fascist ideologues and movements and extensively actualized in very different ways by Fascism, Nazism and the Ustasha State, the last two with genocidal consequences for the enemy.

5. The possibility of ‘imposition’ and ‘alignment’ brought about by any administration which retains democratic institutions and the demonization of ‘enemy’ opposition parties or policies possible in a liberal democratic society, no matter how corrupt, can never be as radical in the measures taken to crush freedom or silence remove perceived enemies as in a fascist regime. To take the three historical examples of such a regime, forced ‘alignment’ involved in the case of Fascism internal exile, prison, internment, assassination and the suppression of opposition parties and freedom of speech. In the case of Nazism and the Ustasha state it involved beyond this not just mass internment, forced labor, and torture in concentration camps, but mass murder and genocide in extermination camps.

6. The ‘political religion’ of fascism alluded to by Goldberg in the first sentence is thus integral to the destruction of liberalism and the inauguration of a national, political, social, and temporal revolution which is incomparably more radical and permanent than in any democratic system with its imposed limited terms of administration and presidency and guaranteed separation of powers and party-political pluralism.

Despite not being an academically trained historian, Goldberg is too astute and educated (in a general knowledge sense) not to know or sense all these points. His decision to create a definition which omits any reference to the REVOLUTIONARY dimension of fascist politics so that it can be insidiously stretched to accommodate a caricature of progressive liberalism and Democrat politics thus smacks of Machiavelli and Joseph Goebbels rather than of Thomas Jefferson or J. S. Mill.

There are other symptoms of pseudo-scholarship later in the book where ‘facts’ have been deliberately and cynically distorted to serve a revisionist thesis in a spirit worthy of the Holocaust Denier David Irving rather than any genuine academic historian (I will leave comment on Goldberg’s hatchet job on the French Revolution to others):

1. The verbal sleight-of-style which turns Woodrow Wilson into a fascist on p. 80: ‘Fascism, at its core, is the view that every nook and cranny of society should work together in spiritual union towards the same goals overseen by the state... (Within Mussolini’s concept of totalitarianism) (t)he militarization of society and politics was considered simply the best available means toward this end. Call it what you like ― progressivism, fascism, communism, or totalitarianism ― the first true enterprise of this kind was established not in Russia or Italy or Germany but in the United States, and Woodrow Wilson was the twentieth century’s first fascist dictator.’ Goldberg is actually calling ‘it’ what he likes in a crudely manipulative way.

2. The way (p. 148) he cites Mussolini as independent testimony for the assertion that Franklin Roosevelt was imposing a fascist state on the U.S. (e.g. in the New Deal), implying that they ‘recognized their own’. It would be equally revealing if a critic of Goldberg’s characterization of social liberalism as itself ‘fascist’ cited Stalin or Trotsky as corroboration of his accusation.

3. The elision of fascism of totalitarianism with any movement towards government intervention in society or the economy within a democracy. This lies at the nub of the book’s wilful perversion of historical truth and political scientific theory evident in such passages. Significantly it occurs again without the word being used explicitly in the slightly modified short definition Goldberg gives in his interview for California Literary Review (http://calitreview.com/303): “an instinctual religious impulse – usually gussied-up [sic] as a secular or modern ideology – that seeks to impose uniformity in thought and action throughout the entire society. All oars in a fascistic society must pull together. The personal is political because everything goes together. Political correctness is one name we give to such efforts in civil society.”

Note the way that this definition is, even more obviously than the original one, not of fascism at all, but actually of totalitarianism, which is now stretched even to embrace the ‘PC’ culture of modern liberal democracy. Goldberg thus abandons any notion that totalitarianism involves state monopolizing or harnessing of political, economic, and cultural power to create a new order in which individual human rights, pluralism and diversity are severely compromised.

The idea that the U.S. under FDR was a totalitarian society in this sense is another example of the distortion of language and history that permeates this book (Marcuse accused liberal society of being totalitarian but at least this was based on a consistent Marxist critique of capitalism).

The illegitimate stretching of fascism and totalitarianism to embrace progressive liberalism is the hallmark of the illiberalism at the cold heart of Goldberg’s thesis and its bid to demonize democratic and Democratic opposition to the neo-Con travesty of U.S. politics.

In the same interview Goldberg states: "If I had to pick a single overall theme in the book, I would say it’s to rectify the misunderstanding of what fascism is and to highlight the deep historical, ideological and emotional ties between progressivism (now called liberalism) and fascism." Note: a) his disingenuous claim that the book sets out to correct misunderstandings about fascism (rather than admitting that it hijacks the term fascism and attaches it to social or democratic liberalism for strictly propagandistic ends; b) his candid admission that he is seeking to establish continuities between fascism and progressive liberalism, in other words that it is tendentious and propagandistic in its very conception.

A Polemical Verdict on a Propagandistic Tract

Since the journalist Goldberg has appropriated an academic register to attack progressive liberalism, then it is perhaps appropriate for a genuine academic to finish his critique by appropriating a journalistic register to attack the thinly disguised political subtext of this mendaciously and perversely anti-academic and anti-liberal book.

Liberal Fascism is a Business Class airport read for those who sit smugly in Priority Lounges and, once airborne, feel a sense of superiority as they sip alcohol in front of the flimsy curtain which separates them from ‘economy class’ fellow passengers whose fate they are likely to share only in the event of a crash (in contrast to The Titanic, where passenger class determined death rates).

Its purpose is to airlift complicit readers who feel threatened by the return of a Democratic administration to the moral equivalent of the Cayman Islands. Here they can rationalize their fear and loathing of ‘socialists’ and ‘progressives’, while basking in the satisfaction of having thoroughly ‘earned’ a lifestyle from which the bulk of the world’s population is excluded because, apparently, they have NOT earned it, or, in the phraseology of the L'Oréal advert, they are NOT ‘worth it’.

In academic terms the idea of a political force termed ‘liberal fascism’ is not just oxymoronic but moronic. The accompanying ‘history’ is predictably as devoid of substance as candy floss, but one that leaves a sour taste for all those who resist the sweep of its populist diatribe against social liberalism and are not taken in by the crudely travestied and demonized simulacrum of the Democrats it fashions out of a viciously ransacked history.

In short, it thus owes its success partly to masquerading as a serious work of academic analysis, one which mendaciously claims to unmask the conventional wisdom within the political and historical sciences on the subject of fascism as politically biased and conceptually confused. Its true purpose is to uncover subterranean (and, to the non-paranoid, wholly fictitious) links between contemporary U.S. Democrats and the values of the same Axis regimes the U.S. fought so heroically on D-Day and beyond to rid the world of genuinely fascist totalitarian regimes.

If it has become the Mein Kampf of Neo-Cons in their assault on the Democratic Left, the Obama administration, and any sort of liberal radicalism (whether in the context of the welfare state, ecology, the South, or the ‘War on Terror’), it is because as a contribution to fascist studies it is not worth the paper it is printed on. Abridged to become an undergraduate essay, its neo-McCarthyite rhetoric (now curiously directed against fascists rather than commies under the bed) would condemn it to fail miserably in any academic institution (apart perhaps from those that sell degrees on the internet).

As a work of fiction, it is more akin in genus and in reasons for its publishing success to the apocalyptic fantasies of the U.S. Christian extreme right Left Behind (another airport bestseller) than The End of History.

As an elaborate piece of conspiracy theory and demonization of an alleged internal enemy, Liberal Fascism also has some affinity with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Not only does Goldberg’s tract serve to rationalize the antidemocratic resentments and anxieties of the neo-Con and Bushite electoral constituency in the U.S., it also serves to bolster the anti-liberal passions of the genuine fascist right in the U.S. If this sounds hysterical, consider the T-shirts worn in 2005, well before Goldberg’s book hit the stands, by 13-year-old twins Lynx and Lamb Gaede (a.k.a. Prussian Blue, a white supremacist music act), who ‘tour the nation performing at white nationalist rallies’. They are allegedly fans of the Prussian Blue computer game Ethnic Cleansing, made by Resistance Records.

I rest my case.


On page 10, Goldberg, in a revealing passage, asserts that in the 1930s, “Stalin stumbled on a brilliant tactic of simply labelling all inconvenient ideas and movements fascist.” I accuse Goldberg of brazenly deploying the identical tactic, albeit in a totally different historical context, in order to discredit the involvement of the democratic left and Democrats in U.S. politics and social policy.

This does NOT, of course, make Goldberg a Stalinist. Nor am I alleging he is a fascist. But nor is he a liberal. Two hundred years ago he might have been considered an embodiment of classical liberalism (which was a profoundly anti-democratic force generally opposed to racial, social, and gender equality), but history moves on, such values are now a perversion of liberal democracy and his technique for diffusing them a parody of the intellectual tradition of liberal humanism. The pandemic success of his book underlines the need for liberalism always to be seen as a value system to be constantly revised and reasserted rather than taken for granted.

Contrary to what was proclaimed by Jefferson and Timothy McVeigh’s T-Shirt, the tree of liberty needs to be watered and tended constantly by the words and actions of liberals in the defence of basic human freedoms and rights, and NOT refreshed from time to time by the blood of patriots and tyrants (or the incitement to hatred emanating from pseudo-liberal journalists).

See also:
- Poor Scholarship, Wrong Conclusions by Matthew Feldman.
- An Open Letter to Mr. Jonah Goldberg by Matthew Feldman.
- The Scholarly Flaws of Liberal Fascism by Robert Paxton.
- The Roots of Liberal Fascism: The Book by Chip Berlet.

November 18, 2009

Review: The Oxford Handbook of Fascism

Roger Griffin's review of:

The Oxford Handbook of Fascism, ed. R.J.B. Bosworth (Oxford : Oxford U.P., 2009; pp. 626. £85).

When probably the most famous Anglophone historian of Mussolini and ‘his’ Fascist regime is selected by one of the world’s most prestigious university presses to commission thirty-one new essays on both Italian Fascism and generic fascism, the resulting publication is bound to be irresistible reading to all those seriously engaged with comparative fascist studies. This important and somewhat sumptuous publishing event is given an extra piquancy by the fact that the Australian academic entrusted with the task, Richard Bosworth, has in the past often expressed his irritation with those concerned with ‘the history of fascism’ (or rather ‘comparative fascist studies’), whose ‘intention’ he still erroneously assumes to be that of ‘unearthing a final pure lode that will identify fascism in a few words or paragraphs’ and to ‘stop the machine’ of events and processes so as to extract a ‘pure history’ from the rest (p. 5). Certainly his own substantial volume of work on the Italian regime has always been characterised by a studious concern to avoid engaging with fascism as a European phenomenon within which to locate the fruits of his imposing archival research. In some respects, then, asking Bosworth to be the Duce of OUP’s ambitious project is like asking a vegan restaurateur to head a team of cooks preparing a medieval banquet where spits rotate slowly, laden with basted pigs and lambs. Fortunately, Bosworth has adopted a respectfully hands-off attitude to his sous-chefs. Nevertheless, the result is (to stay within the realm of culinary metaphors) a half-boiled curate’s egg of emu-like proportions. It conspicuously lacks the cogent conceptual framework which would identify or delimit the contours of the central subject (and which would distinguish fascism from authoritarianism or personal dictatorship). The authors are left to their own devices in the approach they adopt towards generic fascism, with the consequence that, though each chapter is in some respects a case-study in the larger subject of the handbook, they are denied the possibility of referring to a broadly shared definition or ‘paradigm’ acting not as a strait-jacket but as the functional work-clothes needed for the job. This makes for an unsatisfying inconsistency of approaches. The definitional features of fascism as an ideal type surely needed to be established at the outset in a reference work of this ambition and addressed in a coherent (but not uniform or ‘gleichgeschaltet’) way by the various contributors — be they concerned with Mussolini’s regime or with events and movements outside Italy. As it is, the whole is inevitably less than the sum of its parts.

Certainly some of these parts are valuable in their own right, especially those in Part Four laconically entitled ‘Others’, which is intended to make readers, whether students or professional academics, more aware of the fate of fascism in countries that often occupy a marginal place in such volumes. This brief is admirably fulfilled by chapters on Spain (Mary Vincent), Hungary (Mark Pittaway), Romania (Radu Ioanid), Yugoslavia (Marko Hoare), Austria (Corinna Peniston-Bird), the Netherlands (Bob Moore), Belgium (Bruno De Wever), Britain (Martin Pugh), France (Joan Tumblety), and Japan (Rikki Kersten). One might ask why the fascist movements in these countries have been selected as suitable cases for treatment, and not others such as Norway, Sweden, Ireland, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, or Brazil which also hosted revealing putative specimens of the genus, some of which were far from peripheral (for example, at its high point the Brazilian Integralist Action boasted a million supporters). Nevertheless, what is provided is more than ample fare for those seeking to sample fascism as an international historical phenomenon, though it is regrettable that not all of the authors have been asked to bring the reader up to date with how the revolutionary right has metamorphosed itself in the post-war, post-Soviet or ‘post-fascist’ age, or to address how their case-studies relate to the debate about ‘generic fascism’, which should surely have been one of the principal themes of such a ‘handbook’ instead of being tucked away inconspicuously in a concluding section.

The section on Italy (Part Two) as ‘The First Fascist Nation’, though blithely unconcerned with how Fascism fits into the wider phenomenon of fascism, is also in its own disconnected way an impressive series of essays on ten aspects of Mussolini’s regime: squadrismo (Mimmo Franzinelli), culture (Guido Bonsaver), the peasant experience (Roger Absalom), economics (Philip Morgan), Catholicism (John Pollard), youth (Patrizia Dogliani), women (Perry Willson), crime and repression (Mauro Canali), war (Davide Rodogno), and Mussolini (Bosworth). Taken together with the three chapters in the next section which compare ‘state and society’, race, and diplomacy and World War in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, they constitute a valuable book on Fascism in its own right. It would have made for a far tidier, more rigorous impression, though, if Pollard’s chapter on the Catholic Church and that of Dogliani on youth, both of which include extensive reference to Nazi Germany as well as Italy, had been moved from the Italian section to this comparative section. There is also a notable absence of treatment in either section of such central topics as imperialism, ‘political religion’, technology, and modernity. More serious a weakness, however, is the way in which Nazism is handled. By relegating the Third Reich simply to an element of comparison with Fascist Italy in five disparate chapters, the unparalleled devastation caused by Nazi imperialism, the eugenics programme, and anti-Semitism as the extreme manifestation and implementation of the utopia of a new order, is effectively ‘disappeared’. In a handbook of more than six hundred pages Hitler’s regime required more sustained coverage as a fascist regime in its own right. This is certainly not to suggest any intent on the part of the editor to minimise the importance of Nazism. Instead, it is surely to be seen as the consequence of entrusting responsibility for such a comparative volume to one of the world’s leading authorities on Mussolini’s Italy who (like Renzo de Felice and A.J. Gregor before him) distrusts the very idea that Fascism and Nazism can be usefully investigated as manifestations of the same generic phenomenon. He thus subliminally applies to the subject a historical perspective generated exclusively on the Mediterranean side of the Brenner Pass.

If Parts Two, Three, and Four have a certain cumulative cogency (with the exception of Roger Marwick’s ill-conceived essay on Communism as ‘fascism’s other’) and deliver on the implicit promise of a handbook on fascism both in Italy and beyond, Parts One and Five left this reader at least hungry for more nourishing fare. The four essays that make up the opening section entitled ‘Ideas and Formative Experience’ obfuscate rather than illuminate. Kevin Passmore in particular fails to recognise the need for the opening chapter in this volume to establish a working definition of fascism and, apparently seduced by essentialist assumptions about its nature as a genus of political thought (which he has so roundly criticised in print in the past), does not grasp that there were almost as many ideological origins of fascism as there were fascists. Each country in which a fascist movement developed after 1918 provided a unique cultural and historical context on which its ideologues and ‘thinkers’ could draw, producing many diverse strands of utopianism even within the same movement, each with their own origins and often mythicised sources. After this false start, the three chapters on the First World War which follow (by Alan Kramer, Richard Bessel, and Glenda Sluga) fail to connect in any concrete way with the book’s purported subject, since fascism is conceived by them too nebulously to allow concrete causal connections to be made.

In fact it is only after 547 pages (in Robert Paxton’s chapter for the last section entitled ‘Reflections and Legacies’) that the handbook finally offers the reader some guidance on how to conceptualise fascism with any rigour. This, however, is immediately followed by a chapter on the collective memory of fascism in Germany and Italy by Nathan Stoltzfus and Bosworth, which again reduces the scope of the book to the two fascist regimes of inter-war Europe. At least the book ends on a high note, with Anna Bull’s impressively comprehensive survey of neofascism which, in its refined conceptual handling of its subject, remains curiously out on a limb with respect to what has gone before. This is an uneven, curiously conceived, and in places poorly proof-read handbook with a conspicuous absence of joined-up thinking about its subject, and thus lacks the authoritative status we have come to expect of OUP handbooks. It compounds rather than resolves the ambiguity of the relationship between Fascism (in Italy) and fascism (the generic term): the inconsistency in the capitalisation of these terms is symptomatic of the deep-seated conceptual malaise that hovers over the whole work. It is not without a certain irony, therefore, that the cumulative impression conveyed by the book confirms rather than refutes the strength of the new scholarly consensus that has arisen concerning the centrality of the myth of total societal regeneration, of a national and even anthropological revolution, to an understanding of fascism’s genesis, ideology, programmes, and praxis. Aspects of the protean palingenetic myth which lay at the affective core of fascism as a utopian project and socio-political movement occur throughout the book (notably on pages 92, 110, 126, 152-4, 176, 194, 208, 239-40, 267, 294, 303, 315, 321, 367, 381, 401-2, 426, 436, 451, 474, 493, 508, and 601). Moreover, there is bathos in the fact that the characterisation of fascism which Paxton belatedly delivers on page 549 is entirely consistent with this new consensus, with its stress on fascism’s ultra-nationalist ‘cults of unity, energy and purity’ and pursuit of ‘redemptive violence [ … ] internal cleansing and external expansion’ which was driven by an ‘obsessive preoccupation’ with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood. As a text, therefore, the handbook has the merit of offering the reader access to many complex and fascinating episodes and aspects in fascism’s history. Meanwhile, as a subtext, it also unwittingly provides extensive corroboration of the new consensus in comparative fascist studies, even if the reluctance of the editor to engage with it directly has severely compromised the book’s capacity to refine the conceptual and methodological basis of that consensus. Indeed, it is tempting to contrast both the prohibitive cost of this volume (which confines it to the shelves of libraries) and its lack of conceptual coherence with the student-friendly price and sense of direction characterised by the now classic Penguin edition of Walter Laqueur’s Fascism: A Reader’s Guide (1977, reprinted 1993). Indeed, it is instructive to compare the dust cover of Bosworth’s volume with Heartfield’s photo-montage of four fascist axes configured as a lethal Swastika chosen as the memorable jacket illustration of Laqueur’s handbook. That the handbook should be graced by the ghostly shell of an edifice built for the Rome World Fair of 1942 (EUR ’42) which never took place, not only underlines Bosworth’s Italo-centrism, but resonates with unintended symbolic significance. As he points out, there is no definitional ‘pure lode’ to enable a ‘pure’ history of fascism to be extracted (though perhaps he should enlighten us about the metaphorical or geological role played by ‘lodes’ in such a process anyway). What redeems this book is that at least the bulk of his collaborators realise intuitively that, when applied to a case-study in fascism or any other generic concept, historical empiricism uninformed by sophisticated conceptualisation can only produce seams of empirical ‘facts’ glittering with the fool’s gold of brilliant but ultimately inconsequential anecdotes. It is fortunate that, despite being flawed in its conception, the quality of the majority of its essays makes this handbook not just a useful work on fascism, if read selectively, but an unintentional milestone in the progress of Anglophone comparative fascist studies.

Roger Griffin
Oxford Brookes University

Published in: The English Historical Review 2009 CXXIV(511): 1535-1539.

November 01, 2009

Discussion of 'The Rainbow Bridge'

Discussion of the keynote lecture "'The Rainbow Bridge’: Reflections on Interdisciplinarity in the Cybernetic Age" -

Wendy J. Turner (19 October 2009):

I’m not sure I’m ready to comment. That was quite a paper. I appreciate the connections between various elements, especially between fascism and modernity and how that is being melted down into more than just a discussion of right and might. I will have to look for the works you mentioned (your own). As a medievalist, but having enjoyed intellectual history as a student, I have been cut off from much of this discussion for a while. Thank you for a great talk.

Roger Griffin (19 October 2009):

Dear Wendy

Glad something came across despite the painful process of listening to a paper being read with a tired voice!!! I hope my generalizations about the Renaissance being made up of both splitters and lumpers made sense to a real historian and that they might even have a resonance with the Middle Ages as well.
Thanks for going to the trouble to comment: much appreciated. Have you written anything I should know about?

Roger Griffin

Wendy J. Turner (19 October 2009):


I am giving a paper in this conference and, I believe, there will be biographies of each of us. I have several major works in production that will come out in the next year, and a few chapters already out on the mentally disabled in medieval England as well as a piece on the regulation and licensing of alchemists under Henry VI. I would love to hear what you think of my paper in the Compass conference.

On the topic of splitters and lumpers — I think both can be appropriate depending on what one wishes to learn. I find that if I need to do number crunching of data — say for statistically analysing the use (and abuse) of terminology for the mentally incapacitated in a given time period — I would have to say I’m a splitter. At the same time, when I give that data in a conference panel or roundtable discussion with other disciplines represented — I learn and share as a lumper. In other words, the act of sharing information with scholars in literature reveals that I may have (and this is a true story) the right information for administration of the law in England, but not the correct terminology or meanings for medieval medicine, or the Church, or literature. By coming together, we can see that each of us only holds part of the picture, and that by analyzing the data together, a much more complete picture of how the mentally ill and impaired were categorized emerges.


Roger Griffin (19 October 2009):

I will indeed read your paper: what you say about your relationship to academics in contiguous fields of inquiry fits my model well. But I also was referring to the fact that the intellectual world of the Christian Middle Ages also hosted splitters (neo-scholastics) and lumpers (experimental thinkers open to Islamic metaphysics, for example).

Wendy J. Turner (19 October 2009):

That reflection was not lost on me. I think you’re right.

That may actually explain why the terminology I was discussing earlier varies so widely. Those wanting to define people as good or bad, saw those with mental illness as possessed or ‘cleansed’ by God or devils; they wanted a simple ordered world (I’m thinking geometric forms and the ‘ordered’ universe). Those engaging in a wider mentalite’ were aware of finer distinctions between illness and potential possession as well as gradations (which I see in law and administration) of impairment, memory loss, and extreme mental confusion accompanied by physical action. Many late medieval physicians were informed by Islamic medical authorities and had a broader view of what mental conditions could be and how they might be treated.


Stefan Mueller (19 October 2009):

Dear Roger,
thank your for your interesting and comprehensive introduction to the conference. Two or maybe three thinks are in my mind (sorry for my English).
First, in my field of research, contemporary history of labour (in particular trade unions ) I face a vast quantity of contemporary political, economic and sociological literature, and data, perhaps incomparable to medievalists. These I have to use as social description of reality, e.g. opinion surveys, statistics and so on, and I have to know the theoretical discourse on this topics and handling this contemporary research as an intepretation embedded in that time. Though, interdisciplinarity is nessecary unlike we want to go back to the narratives of kings, leaders or the mere political history of states (Ranke) etc.
Second, I don’t know what is the original methode of historiography. Of course, there are a lot of instruments (and so called ancilarry science) but acutally no “own” methode.
Third, Your arguments on modernity of fascist movements sounds interesting to me. But what I’m missing are the protagonists (I don’t know your work but will I have look). The historical German fascist movement contained, among other, of para-troopers that were left behind after First World War, of old anti-Semites, or of young men without any perspective. I would agree that a huge output o Marxist theory on this topic is boring, or better: deformes reality more than explaines it. Very unseful for me was the concept of downgrading (don’t know if this is the English term). Consider this concept, the fascist movements were (of course not only) composed of people downgraded, and they acted against a very special output of modernity, the liberal republic (that was the result of the monarchy’s defeat) . What do You think?
Best regards, Stefan Mueller

Roger Griffin (20 October 2009):

Dear Stefan

Obviously deliberate interdisciplinarity is an approach to be adopted to some aspects of history (like explaining the broader ideological and cultural context of the rise of working class movements that apply the principles of ‘human rights’ to working class men and the complex relationship between individual ideologues/leaders and events which push individual movements into revolutionary or reformist paths. Some specialist areas require minimal interdisciplinarity while others involve lots.

Historiography has a complex history and even for the Greeks and Romans there were different methodologies/core myths/moral purposes behind writing history.

The origins/causes of Nazism are extremely complex as are its sociological make-up: all I could allude to in the keynote was the fact that there is lot to be gained from seeing Nazism as an attempt to create an alternative modernity which exerted in the exceptional circumstances of Weimar after 1929 a powerful attraction on a wide variety of individuals who were for one reason or another deeply dissatisfied with the prevailing modern world they were experiencing.

I can send more stuff if wanted (rdgriffin@brookes.ac.uk)

All the best in your own historiographical inquiries and thanks for participating

Eileen Joy (19 October 2009):

Dear Roger:

thanks very much for your comprehensive talk. I myself am always intrigued by those scholar-researchers who are extremely idiosyncratic and who often help to create new paradigms through their visionary, iconoclastic thinking, and I was further intrigued by the description of these thinkers in your talk as operating from “passion,” as opposed to, say, more bloodless, supposedly more “rational” forms of thinking–although I think it would also be useful here to think about work that been going on for a while now in cognitive science and cognitive philosophy [the work of Antonio Damasio, including "Descartes' Error" and "Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain," and also George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's "Philosophy in the Flesh"] that breaks down some of the long-cemented oppositions between “feeling” and “thinking,” “rationality” and “emotion,” etc. that have for a long while now structured Western philosophical thought. It may be that there is no such thing as “reason” that is not, in some sense, both embodied [hence highly individualistic and even situational in relation to that individual's embodiment/placement in the world] and also emotionally contoured.

I was also very interested to hear some of your insights into the relations between fascism and modernity. I am not a scholar of fascism, but some of my research involves work on the Holocaust [in relation to matters of how traumatic historical memory is represented/mediated in art], and I have thought myself for a long while now that the very things that, historically, we have associated with modern “progress” were also hallmarks of the Final Solution [in other words, it was not regressive or “medieval,” as some aver, but highly modern, while at the same time, of course it’s “purgative,” as you point out, and therefore also attempts to start historical time over, as it were–similar to the Taliban smashing ancient Buddhist statues or the Khmer Rouge emptying cities of its clerks and doctors and professors and modernist laborers in order to start a new agrarian society.

Thanks again for your talk.

Best, Eileen

Roger Griffin (20 October 2009):

Dear Eileen

Of course you are right: the dichotomy between cold reason and hot passion is a false one, as is dispelled in every genuine creative, committed individual I know of whether in science (Madame Curie/Einstein), humanistic philosophy (Voltaire, Nietzsche), or politics (Thomas More/Ghandi). Brecht’s use of the word Vernunft (reason) embraces a passionate commitment to socio-political change to remove tyrannies and injustices he bitterly resented. So thanks for bringing this out.
As for Nazism and Modernity and a mischannelled instrumental/bureaucratic reason, the classic that should be read by all those interested in this topic is Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust (though sections of my Modernism and Fascis are not bad!). The creative destruction of the Taliban or Pol Pot and even the 9/11 attack by Al Qaeda re absolutely bound up with the palingenetic logic of inaugurating a new age through symbolic violence (a syndrome explored by Dostoevsky in his The Possessed)

Thanks for your comments

Glenn W. Muschert (19 October 2009):

Dear Roger,

Thank you for your paper, which I viewed today with great interest. By trade, I am a sociologist, however I find disciplinary boundaries increasingly irrelevant. Once one has a secure job (which not everyone is able to achieve), then one no longer has a professional need to align oneself with any particular discipline. However, I find that for many of our least secure colleagues (particularly those at the early stages of their careers, or who operate on a political, disciplinary, or social margin), it is impossible to disregard the need to align yourself professionally with a particular discipline. This is ironic, as those who are new and/or on the margins are probably those folks who are most apt to open up new and fruitful interstices in the already-existing fields of knowledge. I think it is up to those of us who are secure in our positions to encourage those who are less so. Perhaps we will make some of these connections at this conference. In a practical sense, I encourage the participants to make some connections (social, intellectual) that could help to stimulate the types of academic productivity that we seem to be advocating here.

I like your thoughts on splitters and lumpers. This is similar to what the sociologist Georg Simmel said. To paraphrase, Simmel wrote that we are all either those who connect the seemingly unconnected, or those who make distinctions where none were previously seen. The key is to understand when we need to split, and when we need to lump. This point was well-made in your talk. Beyond that, we should perhaps also understand why something is lumped in the first place before splitting it, and vice versa. This is basically what Robert Frost had to say about tearing down walls. Also, we should understand that we need to make sure that we don’t re-split or re-lump, unless we know why we’re doing so, and to what end.

Thanks very much for a stimulating paper, and I look forward to your response.


Roger Griffin (20 October 2009):

Dear Glenn

Thanks for your comments on lumping: I am glad they had a certain resonance for you. However I would probably find reading you that you still operate within a certain conceptual framework and paradigm and wit a network of internal reference points to secondary literature that are recognizable those of sociology rather than of, say, History of Art or Political theory, no matter how creatively you interpret your briefs or trespass onto neighbouring disciplines. But I agree with you that once an academic has the qualifications and security of tenure to ‘break new ground’ he/she will almost inevitably move into transdisciplinary areas of conceptualization or phenomena to reveal hitherto invisible connections. At an undergraduate level such an openness of mind (which often demands MORE WORK than safe traditional scholarship) can be inhibited or encouraged among brighter students, and I am sure you and I encourage it from what it sounds.
Relevant to this discussion is also Isaiah Berlin’s essay on the hedgehog and the fox, which I always think is a false dichotomy because in trying to ONE BIG THING (the hedgehog) I am forced to behave like a frenzied fox (who knows many things)

All the best

Susan Morrison (20 October 2009):

Dear Roger, I really liked what you wrote about lumping and splitting and the need to figure out when to do one or the other. I’m in lumping mode now — I’m working on “Waste Studies” as applied to literature and my paper goes up Thursday–and it’s a massive field that draws on various disciplines (including sociology, anthropology, history, ecology, etc.). But you articulate so nicely what you call the “semi-permeable membranes that exist between disciplines.” That’s a nice metaphor and a lesson for the exchange those of us situated in one field (for me — literature) ideally should undertake–growth in knowledge shouldn’t be a vampiric act of merely taking from one field to enhance another, rather there should be a dialogue (or “trialogue”!) going on among practitioners of different disciplines. Best, Susan

Roger Griffin (22 October 2009):

Dear Susan
Thanks for taking the trouble to write. I had never heard of Waste Studies: I wonder what T.S. Eliot would have thought of such a thing in his Wasteland days. The project sounds fascinating and clearly means you trespassing all over the place to piece together a composite research topic. The only thing I would say is that the researching mind normally does not need to ‘figure out’ when to lump or split because it does so quite instinctively if it is in a healthy state: it is only when a researcher gets permanently stuck in one mode or the other and colleagues are too polite or disinterested to alert him/her that he/she has lost the plot that things go wrong. I am happy to send you a brief statement I make about methodology in my Modernism and Fascism if you send me your email (to rdgriffin@brookes.ac.uk), which you may find illuminating

All the best with your work

Roger Griffin

Scott Noegel (24 October 2009):

Dear Roger,

I very much appreciated your call for transdisciplinarity and I agree that we need to erect rainbow bridges in the academy. My question is, what practical, pragmatic steps might we take as academics to do this? Put another way, other than by producing work that demonstrates the utility of such an approach, what can we do structurally? As you observe, the academy tends to resist such efforts, or at least, often pays lip service to them. In the Humanities, for example, even the most interdisciplinary of programs tends to include some disciplinary elements of the social sciences, but not many disciplines beyond. What might you suggest as a means for helping to change the academic culture in this regard?



Roger Griffin (26 October 2009):

Dear Scott
You are quite right to home in on the practical implications of the call for interdisciplinarity. Ultimately I think the deciding element is the general cultural ethos, which is at present encouraging the breaking down of barriers thanks to such factors as the Web, the rise of a new generation of students used to plugging in and out of sources of information of the most varied kinds, the shift to academic career trajectories that move through a number of posts in different academic or professional environments, the rise of to prominence of the life sciences and ecology because of the looming ecological crisis both of which demand interdisciplinarity and the advances in various sciences which make interdisicplinarity essential. Such a shift can be encouraged by award-granting bodies being prepared to fund sound projects which set out to use cross-disciplinary specialisms in collaborative research, and could be promoted further in the way disciplines are presented at school, so that the porous membranes between some of them are stressed. I think the best text books do this already. However, I think such official promotion of interdisciplinarity would only be healthy if it was also accompanied by the stress even at school level on just how important specialization is and on the need to create a healthy dialectic between what I called centripetal and centrifugal tendencies in research. In educational terms I think the key period is between 6 and 16 when the sense of wonder at the universe that is natural to children tends to get replaced by an increasingly narrow understanding of disciplines as unconnected spheres of enquiry, only to have the barriers broken down again if they are lucky at university. The trouble is that most of the school children released into the world as adults have left whatever science they have studied at the time when it has been narrowed down and split up into separate disciplines and the sense of wonder at the interconnectedness of the universe has been lost in dim childhood memories. So in a word, school curriculum and teacher trainer reform is an important issue for long-term change. Ultimately, though government and educational policy can do little. It is for individual researchers, programme makers, publishers to do what they can to foster the New Enlightenment! Wiley-Blackwell’s conference is a small step in that direction.

Have you got any practical suggestions yourself?