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.


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