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Roger Griffin offers a radically new conceptual framework for the study of fascism by locating its driving force in a distinctive form of utopian myth, that of the regenerated national community destined to rise up from the ashes of a decadent society ("palingenetic ultra-nationalism").
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The Nature of Fascism

The Nature of Fascism

Roger Griffin

First published in Great Britain in 1991

by Pinter Publishers Limited

Reprinted 1993

by Routledge

2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, OX14 4RN

Simultaneously published in the USA and Canada

by Routledge

270 Madison Ave, New York NY 10016

Transferred to Digital Printing 2006

© Roger Griffin

Typeset by Florencetype Ltd, Kewstoke, Avon

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue reference for this book is available from the British Library.

ISBN 0-415-09661-8

Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication Data has been applied for.

ISBN 0-415-09661-8

Publisher's Note

The publisher has gone to great lengths to ensure the quality of this reprint but points out that some imperfections in the original may be apparent



Preface to the paperback edition



The ‘Nature’ of Generic Fascism


A New Ideal Type of Generic Fascism


Italian Fascism


German Fascism


Abortive Fascist Movements in Inter-war Europe


Non-European and Post-war Fascisms


The Psycho-historical Bases of Generic Fascism


Socio-political Determinants of Fascism's Success




For Mariella


There are moments when from above the horizon of the mind a new constellation dazzles the eyes of all those who cannot find inner peace, an annunciation and storm-siren betokening a turning point in world history, just as it once did for the kings from the East. From this point on the surrounding stars are engulfed in a fiery blaze, idols shatter into shards of clay, and everything that has taken shape hitherto is melted d; own in a thousand furnaces to be cast into new values.

The epiphany to which the German Ernst Jünger was alluding here on the first page of his novel, Battle as Inner Experience, was bound up with his personal experience of front-line combat during the First World War. However, his words express a central component of all revolutionary sentiment: that privileged moment when frustration and despair in the contemporary state of human affairs are suddenly transfigured into the visionary sense of an imminent metamorphosis, a new world.

There is no need to be a modern Nostradamus to predict that all societies which operate the Judaeo-Christian scheme of historical time will, as the year 2000 approaches, be rife with speculations about the immediate fate of the world. Prophets of doom will vie with Utopian futurologists in announcing competing visions of decadence and renewal as our fin de siècle gives way to the third millennium, a prospect laden with mythic force even for ‘modern’ minds. The collective sense of an historical watershed can only be reinforced by a number of major transformations in the perceived and objective structures of world society: the rise of fundamentalist, separatist and tribal nationalisms; the overthrow or dissolution of oppressive state communisms through revolutionary and gradualist democratic movements; the proposal of a ‘new world order’ safeguarded by a United Nations which finally lives up to the visionary ideals which led to its foundation; the growing realization of how imminent ecological catastrophe might be, and the efforts to transform a suicidal and biocidal modern civilization into an indefinitely sustainable framework for all terrestrial life, including that of our own species. To say that humanity is at a crossroads may for once not be a piece of ethnocentric rhetoric.

At such a time it may well be asked if an investigation into ‘the nature of fascism’ can really justify the intellectual, publishing and paper resources expended on it. After all, if by ‘fascism’ we mean Fascism and Nazism and movements which sought to emulate them, it comprehensively failed in its bid to lay the foundations of a post-liberal society immune from the evils which it attributed to liberalism and socialism, despite the horrendously destructive persecutions and wars it unleashed. The New Order in which nations would be refounded on ‘healthy’ principles and the New Man who would inhabit it remained a chimera. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War it was only too natural that the human sciences devoted considerable resources to explaining the meteoric trajectory traced by Nazism and Fascism before they both burnt out and to investigating kindred movements which had not achieved power but were symptoms of the same international crisis. Half a century on, in an age dominated by dreams, not of the reborn national community but the international one, does a preoccupation with the definition and dynamics of fascism have any direct ‘relevance’ except as a contribution to a well-established sub-discipline of history already overflowing with data and theories?

It is one of the premises underlying this book that it is precisely in the turbulent social and ideological climate of the late twentieth century that the dynamics of fascism and the place it occupies in the unfolding of modern history can best be understood by the non-fascist. Fascism was no freak display of anti-modernism or of social pathological processes in the special paths of development followed by a few nation-states. Its raw materials were such forces as militarism, racism, charismatic leadership, populist nationalism, fears that the nation or civilization as a whole was being undermined by the forces of decadence, deep anxiety about the modern age and longings for a new era to begin, all of which are active ingredients in contemporary history. What made it possible for these ingredients to be forged together into popular, and even mass movements in the inter-war period and for two of them, Fascism and Nazism, eventually to erect a new type of single party state, was an extraordinary conjuncture of acute socio-political tensions resulting directly or indirectly from the First World War and the Russian Revolution. Fascism is thus very much a child of the twentieth century. At a time when ethnic nationalisms are displaying increasing virulence, and even the most dispassionate armchair politician or contemporary historian is torn between premonitions of cataclysm and hopes of a new dawn, it makes smaller demands on the ‘historical imagination’ to understand the perverse mythic logic which underlies the fascist project of destroying the old order so that the nation can be created anew.

Hopefully it will be shown that when the elusive ‘fascist minimum’ is defined strictly in terms of the reborn nation and the post-liberal society which will supposedly underpin it, the resulting ideal type is not only more concise and ‘elegant’ than those formulated to date but provides new insights into the dynamics of individual fascist movements. Clearly, a book on the ‘nature of fascism’ written on this basis will be an exercise in the applied history of ideas. As such it will pay the scantiest attention to the myriad events in which each fascist movement is enmeshed or the particular sociopolitical and economic factors which facilitate or inhibit its success, but will instead focus on the core ideology of fascism. Given the vast range of diverse phenomena in which this ideology manifests itself, the text which results will necessarily be short on detail and original research but long on theorizing and judgments based on secondary sources.

Considerations of space preclude all but the most fleeting allusions to the extensive primary sources of fascist ideology subsumed within the analysis this book offers, especially in Chapters 3 to 6. (Incidentally, all translations of quotations or passages taken from books published in languages other than English are my own.) The result is a book which as far as its register and format are concerned, addresses itself primarily to undergraduates, non-academic researchers and to sixth-form or high school teachers, as well as to postgraduates and (more hesitantly) experts working in this field. Obviously these represent two quite different constituencies of readers. The first will clearly need to avail themselves of secondary works on some of the phenomena which I treat so schematically, as well as of ‘rival’ generic theories, if they are to gain an adequate grasp of specific aspects of the many issues I touch on and a rounded view of the debate as a whole. I trust that the abundant (but far from exhaustive) bibliographical references to (mainly English-language) sources will be helpful to this end. The second group will be acutely aware of the contentiousness of the theory I develop and the considerable simplifications and omissions which its exposition has necessitated. I would be very grateful, both for my own research purposes and for the sake of improving any revised edition that might be contemplated, if readers of either category would write to me personally care of the Humanities Department of Oxford Polytechnic to point out sections of the argument which are confusing or obscure, to put me right on particularly disturbing empirical gaffes and lapses or to point out material which might corroborate or refine my thesis on fascism but of which I seem to be oblivious.

In the case of Fascism and Nazism, the only two fascisms to have formed a government autonomously as a result of a successful (and partly ‘legal’) assault on state power, I have integrated my analysis into an historical overview of their evolution from movement to regime. This is for the benefit both of the general reader new to the subject and of those experts familiar with one but not the other. To bring out the structural kinship in the political ecology and geology of the many more highly disparate varieties of fascisms which in one way or another remained abortive revolutionary movements, Chapters 5 and 6 provide satellite photos, or artist's impressions, of vast areas of fascist terrain, parts of which may be well trodden by some readers on the ground but completely new to others. My aim throughout has not been to offer a ‘potted history’ of fascism but rather to throw into relief the high degree of cohesion which ‘structurally’ underlies the extraordinary surface heterogeneity of its ideology and at the same time to identify the veins of regularity which run through the apparent chaos of the fates which befall its various manifestations. Such a book clearly runs the risk of being neither the fish of a general reader nor the fowl of a specialist text, but I hope that all those fascinated by the enigma of fascism will find that, like the curate's egg, it is at least edible in parts.

Roger Griffin

Oxford, February 1991

Preface to the Paperback Edition

Eighteen months have passed since I wrote the first preface to The Nature of Fascism. The fact that a new one to a paperback edition is being written at all testifies to the favourable reaction that a number of eminent specialists in fascist studies have had to the basic approach which it adopts to the ideological dynamics of fascism, notably Ian Kershaw, Paul Mazgaj, George Mosse, Stanley Payne, Richard Thurlow and Zeev Sternhell. I thank them all for the confidence which they have shown in the book, which in no small measure helped to convince commissioning editors at Routledge that it merited a wider circulation. However, their comments, along with feedback from students at Oxford Polytechnic, have made me only too aware of various aspects of the text which could have been improved. Naturally, minor errors which slipped through the last proofreading process have been corrected as far as was possible without upsetting the printers. However, some potential sources of difficulty or confusion have been pointed out which are intrinsic to the way the book was conceived and thus are not so easily dealt with. I am pleased to take this opportunity to alert the reader to them early on.

Firstly, it is in the nature of a book about the ‘nature of fascism’ that the tone is overwhelmingly theoretical at the outset, for it cannot avoid taking stock of the intense and convoluted academic debate that has grown up around this issue before explaining the essential features of the ‘new’ approach. For better or for worse, I also decided to go into the methodological premises behind this approach in some detail. As a result, parts of the first two chapters are certainly demanding for undergraduates who have never wrestled with basic concepts in the human sciences before, or with the heated academic controversies they can generate. This is particularly true if the events associated with the word ‘fascism’ do not already inspire in the reader a mixture of horror and fascination, and if the acute lack of consensus among experts about it has not generated in advance some of the intellectual curiosity and frustration which this book sets out to placate.

A further consequence of the book's bias towards political theory rather than history is that it contains a number of words some students (in the widest sense of the term) will find off-putting, not to say ‘jargonous’. I have added a short glossary to this edition to cater for those unfamiliar with some of the key terms which may pose problems, but I would suggest to those who find that the whole style of exposition initially seems to erect more barricades to understanding the subject than it tears down, that they should seriously consider the following option: they skip from the end of the section ‘The Continuing Search for a Consensus Definition’ of fascism at the bottom of page 8 directly to its ‘discursive definition’ on page 44, availing themselves of the glossary where necessary. They can then take a rain-check on the invitation to return to the rest of Chapters 1 and 2 if sufficiently intrigued by the deeper implications of terms such as ‘ideology’, ‘ideal type’, ‘ultra-nationalism’ and ‘palingenetic’.

Secondly, some basic implications of my theory of fascism may tend to get obscured in the attempt to treat the subject as comprehensively as possible in such a small book. It boils down to the assertion that fascism is best defined as a revolutionary form of nationalism, one which sets out to be a political, social and ethical revolution, welding the ‘people’ into a dynamic national community under new elites infused with new heroic values. The core myth which inspires this project is that only a populist, trans-class movement of purifying, cathartic national rebirth (palingenesis) can stem the tide of decadence. While on this point it is worth stressing that, though this book give scant attention to the social basis of fascism, the theory which it elaborates is entirely consistent with the detailed empirical research which has accumulated demonstrating that no fascist movement has recruited its followers exclusively from a particular social grouping, let alone from a single ‘class’ (cf. pp.222–4).

Another important inference from this premise is that the whole thrust of the fascist revolutionary programme is anti-conservative, though not in the same way that it is anti-liberal or anti-Marxist. Like modern conservatives (and here I am referring to illiberal conservatives rather than liberal ones), many fascists celebrate the virtues of the nation, the family, hierarchy, (state) law and (natural) order, discipline and patriotism. In inter-war Europe, when illiberal conservatism was still such a powerful force, fascists therefore often found themselves allied with its upholders against common enemies perceived as undermining these institutions and values, even if at bottom fascism has always been bent on revolutionizing their content in ways which would eventually transform, marginalize or sweep away conservative elites (cf. pp.49–50).

A further matter to be clarified relates to my identification of ‘ultra-nationalism’ as a definitional component of fascism. Some would argue that I use the term in a way which obscures the distinction between nationalism and racism, especially biological racism of the sort so central to Nazism. Against this I would argue that illiberal nationalism (‘ultra-nationalism’) is a force which always has recourse to some mythical component to create an artificial sense of common destiny and identity, and that ‘purity of the blood’ is simply one of them. Thus an obsession with racial history and eugenics merely indicates that a particular variety of ultra-nationalism is at work rather than its contradiction. What is more important to stress in this context is that fascist ultra-nationalism does not necessarily preclude alliances with other nations as long as they are perceived as experiencing their own parallel process of ‘awakening’ (palingenesis), thus becoming kindred spirits rather than enemies (what I call ‘universalist’ fascism – see p.49). It is thus quite consistent with the way fascism is defined here if the concept of a ‘Europe of nations’ has become increasingly important to fascist ideology since 1945 (see p. 171).

Other central features of my argument which might not emerge sufficiently clearly on a first reading are that: i) fascism is a relatively original, coherent and homogeneous ideology in terms not of its doctrine or surface rationalization, but of its core myth of national rebirth; ii) Nazism proves to be an outstanding specimen of generic fascism once it is analysed in terms of this core myth; iii) fascism was not interred within Hitler's bunker in 1945 but continues to inspire both theorists and activists down to the present day; iv) far from being mere imitations of inter-war variants, some neo-fascisms represent original syntheses of ideas.

The upshot of this argument is that, while fascism's potential for creating a regime may be safely regarded as extinguished with the defeat of the Axis powers in the Second World War, as apolitical ideology capable of spawning new movements it should be treated as a permanent feature of modern political culture. Indeed, it may suddenly appear on the stage of contemporary history dressed up in strikingly new doctrinal clothes, and is liable to undergo a headline-grabbing ‘resurgence’ whenever objective conditions of social, economic or political crisis in an established nation-state awaken a generalized longing to transform ‘decadence’ into ‘rebirth’ (as events in South Africa, the former Eastern bloc and the new Germany have amply borne out since this book was first published). Moreover, its current potency as a self-renewing source of organized racial hatred is deeply bound up both socio-politically and psychologically with the growing virulence of ethnic nationalism, tribalism, separatism and xenophobia all over the world. Seen in this light, fascism underlines yet again (as if history had not sated us with examples already) how easily the ‘healthy’ human need for transcendence and belonging can be perverted into pathological forms of social and political energy even, or rather especially, in the ‘modern world’.

Finally, though the book defines fascism in terms of its generic ‘core myth’, the myth of the nation rising phoenix-like from the ashes of decadence, there was only space for tantalizing snippets from primary sources to illustrate the type of political thought this vision generates. Oxford University Press have recently commissioned an anthology of passages selected from a wide range of primary and secondary sources relating to fascism which will be published in their Oxford Readers series, thus filling the ‘regrettable lacuna’ referred to on page 20. But to give the flavour of fascist discourse and so prepare the reader for the somewhat abstract theory expounded in Chapter 2, it may be useful to offer a ‘free sample’. It is taken from The Political Soldier, a lengthy pamphlet written in the late 1980s by the British fascist Derek Holland and produced in English, Swedish, German and Portuguese to be circulated among a ‘select’ readership in Europe and the United States, and to act as an ideological manual for his own revolutionary faction (see p. 174). With their constant stress on the mission of ‘true’ nationalists to combat decline and decadence (here expressed in both national and pan-European terms profoundly influenced by Julius Evola, see p. 169), such passages epitomize a purging, palingenetic brand of ultra-nationalistic political myth which goes well beyond conservative longings in the call for a New Order:

If we are to have a redeeming National Revolution, that will act as a cleansing fire of purification, we must go beneath the surface, we must go to the heart of the matter: the New Man that will build the New Social Order must of necessity appear before the National Revolution because the Builder must precede in time and space the Building which he has undertaken to construct … If the British Family of Nations is to survive the double headed axe of Capitalism and Marxism, those who would defend this family must act now…. But if the glorification of Thought, unconnected to objective reality – daily life, real life – is a gross error resulting in political impotence, so too is the glorification of Action. The Fascists are perhaps the best example of this aberration: faced with a world of sterility and immobility, the call to pure action is indeed tempting. To feel the heart pound once again, to feel the blood coursing through the arteries of our European culture is highly attractive. But if we truly love Europe, we must not be blindly impetuous…. As the modern world goes up in flames, we who would be Political Soldiers, are called upon to found a sacred brotherhood dedicated to the redemption of our People, and to the salvation of the European Motherland.

Such nebulous utopianism would not be worth analysing by political scientists if the activists it inspires (for whom it is not a utopia but a ‘vision of the world’) did not continue to foment racial hatred and orchestrate political violence in contemporary society. Nor would the aberrant ideology it embodies be of much concern to historians if it were not a blood relation of Nazism, which a mere two generations ago used the state power it had seized to carry out ‘purification’ on a mass scale in the bid to realize its structurally identical Weltanschauung, one which also called for a ‘national revolution’ and a ‘New Man’.

Roger Griffin

Oxford, August 1992


I would like to thank the British Academy for a timely ‘small personal research grant’ which enabled me to call on the invaluable services of William Goodall to make primary and secondary sources in Portuguese accessible. There are also a number of persons without whose encouragement at crucial moments this book and the D.Phil research on which it draws would not have seen the light of day (but who naturally cannot be held responsible for any of the conclusions I have reached). I am particularly indebted in this respect to Cyprian Blamires, Detlef Mühlberger, Peter Pulzer, Herminio Martins, Ian Kershaw, Roger Eatwell, Iain Stevenson, John Pollard, Martin Blinkhorn, and Stein Larsen. Thanks are due also to the Humanities Department of Oxford Brookes University (formerly Oxford Polytechnic) which has been very supportive throughout this venture. A very special role has also been played by my English family at Forest Green and my Italian family at Campomorone.


The ‘Nature’ of Generic Fascism

The ‘Conundrum’ of Fascism

‘Although enormous amounts of research time and mental energy have been put into the study of it … fascism has stubbornly remained the great conundrum for students of the twentieth century’ (Robinson, 1981, p.1). Such is the welter of divergent opinion surrounding the term that it is almost de rigueur to open contributions to the debate on fascism with some such observation. Indeed, one of the few uncontroversial statements that can be made about fascism is that it was the name given to the political force headed by Mussolini between March 1919 and April 1945 and which became the official ideological basis of a dictatorial regime established in Italy by him between 1925 and 1943. The word fascism here, however, is the anglicized form of the Italian proper name fascism (henceforth to be referred to as ‘Fascism’). To apply it to phenomena outside Italy is to change the status of the word: it becomes a generic term. The use of fascism in this sense (for which we will always use the lower case) is documented by the Oxford English Dictionary as having already established itself in English as early as 1923 when The Contemporary Review made a comment on the political situation in the Weimar Republic which, given Hitler's accession to power a decade later, is laden with tragic irony: ‘Fascism in Germany will never be more than one of several factors.’ As the inter-war period unfolded the term was soon subject to a process which one historian has described as ‘inflation’ (Huizinga, 1956, pp.295–6), which, as we all know, inevitably leads to devaluation. In the case of words this means that they are used to embrace more and more phenomena and so progressively lose their discriminating power: the ‘blanket term’ or ‘conceptual hold-all’ is born.

When political movements such as Valois's Faisceau or Mosley's British Union of Fascists appropriated the word as a badge of honour it showed that some political activists at least were convinced that Mussolini's dictatorship was to be emulated as the manifestation of a positive new force in modern politics, one not confined to the Italian peninsula but supra-national, and hence ‘generic’. But it was opponents of this force who were mainly responsible for its depreciation. By the mid-thirties the word had gained wide currency within the left as a pejorative term for any movement or regime bent on destroying Marxism and representative government, so that most of Europe could be seen as threatened by ‘fascism’ in one form or another. The concrete support Franco was given by Mussolini and Hitler made it far from hysterical to conceive the Spanish Civil War as a conflict between fascism and democracy, especially for the thousands of volunteers from abroad prepared to sacrifice their lives to defend the Republic.

Since the Second World War was easily seen as a show-down between ‘fascist’ and ‘anti-fascist’ forces, the term has predictably been passed on to post-war generations as an emotionally charged word of condemnation for any political regime or action perceived as oppressive, authoritarian or elitist. Few would blame the Chinese students encamped in Peking in June 1989 or the Romanian citizens in the streets of Bucharest and Timisoara six months later when they denounced the ‘fascism’ of the state power which resorted to ruthless brutality against them on the pretext of defending Communism. It was less understandable when practically on the anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre, Romania's democratically elected president, Ion Iliesco claimed anti-government demonstrations were the work of ‘fascists’ and sent in miners to do the work of repression once performed by the Securitate. Meanwhile, in colloquial usage the term has been distorted out of all recognition. It raises few eyebrows nowadays to hear an officious bureaucrat or an overbearing ‘phallocrat’ being called by their victims ‘a bit of a fascist’, to read an article in The Face (September 1990, no. 24) exposing ‘fashion fascism’, or to hear radical anti-smokers being referred to as ‘health fascists’. Obviously this book is not proposing counter-inflationary measures to remedy the situation at the level of common speech: given the relative impotence of academics to affect the evolution of the spoken language, this would not only be unrealistic, but also patronizing, not to say ‘fascist’ in intent (which shows how contagious this loose usage is!).

What makes a book like this potentially ‘relevant’ as a contribution to the human sciences, however, is that the word has suffered an unacceptable loss of precision within academic circles as well. An example is the word ‘ecofascist’. It sounds perhaps like an embittered taunt directed at manufacturers who claim that ‘Man’ has a natural right to exploit the planet's resources irrespective of the ecological consequences. Quite the reverse: it is a technical term used in environmental studies for ‘dark’ Greens who propose that the state should be empowered to take Draconian interventionist measures to solve ecological problems (Pepper, 1985). At this point the term's inflation seems to have spread like a semantic virus, contaminating even the social sciences where key words are supposed to operate under controlled conditions.

Historically, if not morally, some of the blame for eroding fascism's lexical value must be placed at the door of Marxist theoreticians. In November 1922, only weeks after Mussolini's March on Rome, the Fourth Congress of the Communist International held in Moscow debated how Fascism was to be explained within a Marxist-Leninist perspective. One interpretation which resulted predictably saw it as an essentially reactionary movement which had been forced into existence when the attempted proletarian revolution of the so-called ‘red biennium’ (1919–21) threatened the bourgeois-liberal order (see Bordiga, 1922; and especially Togliatti, 1970). Like colonialism, imperialism and the First World War before it, Fascism was thus accommodated without too much soul-searching (or ‘self-criticism’) within the teleological scheme of revolutionary socialism which predicted the imminent collapse of capitalism. As new forms of openly anti-Bolshevik military dictatorships sprouted up like baleful toadstools in the very countries where the weakness of liberalism had raised hopes of communist breakthroughs, they were automatically identified as new permutations of Fascism (that is as fascism) by hard-line Marxists. These even came to brand as ‘social fascists’ their historical kith and kin, the social democrats, whose reformism was regarded as a betrayal of the revolutionary class struggle in which all ‘true’ socialists were meant to engage, one consequence of which was that left-wing opposition to Nazism in the last years of Weimar was tragically split. In this way both the generic and the inflated use of the term was to become established in left-wing academic usage well before the outbreak of the Second World War. Generally, for the extreme left, the theoretical analysis of fascism pursued in the quiet of the library has largely corroborated the gut reaction to it experienced in the heat of battle: it is counter-revolution by the forces of capitalism in league with the vestiges of feudalism.

As long as the Iron Curtain stood, social scientists behind it remained advocates of the timeless laws of dialectical materialism. They therefore continued to carry out their analyses broadly in line with Dimitroff's assertion at the Seventh Congress of the Comintern in 1935 which had characterized fascism as ‘the most open terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinist and most imperialist elements of finance capital’ (Dimitroff, 1982, p.50). This definition is repeated word for word in the 1980 edition of the Philosophical Dictionary published by Moscow's Progress Editions. Just what an indiscriminate term it became on the basis of such a definition can be gleaned from the wide-ranging survey of fascist studies carried out by two East German academics (Eichholtz and Gossweiler, 1980, p.234) in which the British National Front sits in the same category as the Monday Club and the National Association for Freedom, both of which may be on the far right of the spectrum of parliamentary politics but have no revolutionary plans to overthrow liberal democracy as such.

Since Lenin was only one of countless revisionists intent on adapting Marx's theories to the particular historical conditions of their country, it is hardly surprising if some highly nuanced Marxist interpretations of fascism came into being outside the hegemony of the Comintern even before the Second World War. The most significant of these were the elaborations of Marx's concept of Bonapartism by Thalheimer and Bauer, and the sophisticated explanatory model of Fascism which Gramsci constructed on the basis of his concept of ideological hegemony and of Lenin's theory of a ‘Prussian’ path to capitalism, both of which influenced post-war Marxist theorists. By the 1980s, crude equations of fascism with monopoly capitalism (for example Guerin, 1973) had become largely a thing of the past outside the East bloc (see Poulantzas, 1974; Botz, 1976; Dülffer, 1976; Bottomore and Goode, 1978; Davis, 1979). In addition over the years some valuable information has emerged by the application of ‘sophisticated’ Marxist analysis (even by some non-Marxists) to such topics as the collusion between fascism and big business or middle class interests (for an overview of this and other economic aspects of the fascist debate see Milward, 1979).

However, the tendency to reduce fascism to an aggressive form of capitalism always lurks when Marxists approach the subject, and the historian of what was then the GDR, Petzold, speaks for even the most ‘unvulgar’ of his comrades when he reaffirms Horkheimer's 1939 dictum according to which ‘whosoever refuses to speak of capitalism should equally be silent on the subject of fascism’ (Petzold, 1983, p.viii). By assuming fascism to be an essentially anti-proletarian force, they play down its antagonism to the ethos of laissez-faire economics, consumerist materialism and the bourgeoisie, and are unable to take seriously its claim to be the negation of nineteenth-century liberalism rather than its perpetuation in a different guise. More seriously, they are reluctant to grant it any autonomous revolutionary thrust as a new ideological force. It will be interesting to see how long it takes before the democratic movements in former Warsaw Pact countries, which in 1989 began repudiating communism and embracing elements of capitalist economics along with pluralist political institutions, lead to the waning of Leninist and Stalinist influence in the fascist studies carried out in their universities. Western Marxists could eventually find themselves in an untenably reactionary position vis-à-vis their reformed Eastern colleagues. (For an excellent overview of Marxist theories of fascism and Nazism see Kershaw, 1985, pp.24–6, 43–50.)

The Continuing Search for a Consensus Definition

In the academic ‘Free World’ where market forces prevail as much in intellectual as in commercial matters, the concept of a generic fascism has suffered not only from inflation, but from a process which is equally damaging for the precision and usefulness of a concept. To stay within the register of commercial English we might call it ‘diversification’. Each academic who has turned his or her mind to defining the term has tended to give it distinct connotations. At one extreme there are those who treat fascism as little more than a twentieth-century radicalization of the extreme right which came into being as an anti-liberal tradition in European thought in the wake of 1789. This is implied by the series ‘Roots of the Right’, in which the ultra-conservative de Maistre (McClellan, 1970) and the Fascist Mussolini (Lyttleton, 1973) are forced into uneasy cohabitation (cf. Rogger and Weber, 1966; Rees, 1985; and Ó Maoláin, 1987 for a similar blurring of the demarcation line).

Then there are scholars who see fascism as an essentially new force, distinct from the radical right and, moreover, a major factor in contemporary history both within Europe and outside it (for example – in quite different ways – Moore, 1966; Gregor, 1969). Another interpretation sees it as a phenomenon restricted to inter-war Europe but with a significant distinction between the ideologically motivated Nazi and more opportunistic Fascist variants (Weber, 1964). Alternatively, there are those who treat it as an international phenomenon which found its most complete ‘paradigmatic’ expression in Nazism and Fascism (for example O'Sullivan, 1983; Organski, 1968), or Nazism alone (for example Hayes, 1973; and most Marxists). This latter position conflicts head-on with the conviction that there is unquestionably a family of generic fascisms but that Nazism is too different (too ‘biologically’ racist) to be included as a member of it (for example Sternhell, 1979 and 1987; cf. again Gregor, 1969, pp.xiii–iv, who comes to a similar conclusion via a different route). Students and academic specialists alike thus find they have strayed into a conceptual labyrinth whenever their research intersects with fascist studies. Scores of self-appointed Ariadnes dangle threads temptingly in front of their faces showing them the way out, but each route leads to a different exit, or, as often as not, to another point in the maze. So many conflicting assessments are in circulation that there have been several attempts to provide guides to them as well, though each inevitably has its own emphasis on how the debate can be broken into different schools of thought (such ‘paradigms of paradigms’ are offered by Nolte, 1967; Gregor, 1974; Kitchen, 1976; De Felice, 1977; Carsten, 1979; Hagtvet and Kühnl, 1980; Payne, 1980; Revelli, 1981).

As a result, all the major questions pertaining to one of the most powerful historical forces to have shaped modern history in the first half of the twentieth century are still wide open: are Italian Fascism and Nazism related and if so how, and are they part of a wider phenomenon? If there is a generic fascism, is it one confined to Europe, or has it a global dimension? For example, was there a Russian (Rogger and Weber, 1966), South American (Hennessy, 1979), or Japanese fascism (Kasza, 1984; Payne, 1984)? Does the cage of fascism’ extend beyond 1945? Nolte (1965, p.401), Trevor-Roper (1968, p. 18) and Payne (1980) imply it did not, and the whole issue of neo-fascism is largely ignored by the standard anthologies of essays on fascism (for example Woolf, 1968; Laqueur, 1969; Mosse, 1979). What is the relationship between fascism and conservatism, the radical right, totalitarianism, modernization, nationalism, racism, socialism, capitalism, imperialism? Is it to be associated with a special stage in the evolution of the nation-state (for example Moore, 1966; Gregor, 1979), psychological predisposition (Reich, 1946; Fromm, 1960; Theweleit, 1987 and 1989) or social grouping? In the latter case was it a middle class or a mass movement (contrast Lipset, 1960 with Mühlberger, 1987)?

Then again, did fascism, if its generic existence is accepted, have a ‘real’ ideology, or is it right to say that it had ‘the form of an ideology but without the specific content’? (Scruton, 1982, p. 169; cf. Schüddekopf, 1973, p. 18)? If it had a specific content, was this a ‘positive’ one (as variously suggested by Gregor, 1969; Sternhell, 1979; or Mosse, 1979, ch.1) or basically negative, making fascism at bottom an ‘anti-phenomenon’ definable primarily in terms of what it opposed rather than what it stood for (cf. the different emphasis given to the anti-dimension by Nolte, 1969; Linz, 1979; Payne, 1980; Billig, 1989)? De Felice and Ledeen (1976) go so far as to suggest that fascism had a ‘negative common denominator, that is a series of things which fascisms refute’, but question whether they shared anything in terms of positive goals. Taking this argument to its logical conclusion, was fascism ultimately a revolutionary form of ‘nihilism’, as Rauschning postulated about Nazism, or just plain ‘evil’, as the repeat of a Channel 4 documentary series of that title was still insisting on British television in the autumn of 1990?

As an example of the divergence of opinions (by no means the most extreme which could have been chosen) it is instructive to compare the approach to fascism of two of its most famous contemporary theorists, the Israeli scholar Zeev Sternhell and the American Stanley Payne, both non-Marxists. Sternhell has written detailed studies of francophone fascism (1973, 1978, 1983), as well as contributing a major article on fascist ideology (1979) and supplying a generic definition for The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Thought (Miller, 1987) – one which inevitably conflicts with those proffered by Paul Wilkinson and myself in two companion volumes on political institutions (Bogdanor, 1987) and social thought (Outhwaite and Bottomore, 1992) respectively. The contentious nature of the fascist debate at the highest level of scholarship is well illustrated by Sternhell's short survey of the course it had taken up to the mid-seventies (1979, pp.385–98), especially the space he devotes to a courteous but damning critique of one of the best known (but least used) theories of generic fascism, the one formulated on ‘phenomenological’ principles by Ernst Nolte (1965). What distinguishes Sternhell's own approach is his belief that: (i) the student of fascism should look to various movements at work in inter-war France in order to construct a paradigm of its ideological make-up undistorted by being implemented as the basis of a regime; (ii) fascist ideology represents a fairly coherent synthesis of two major currents of modern political thought, anti-materialist socialism and nationalism; (iii) the central thrust of this synthesis is that it makes possible a third way between liberalism and communism which is neither ‘right’ nor ‘left’; (iv) it is thus a movement in political ideas peculiar to the twentieth century with its own intellectual and historical roots and rationale (he ascribes particular importance to the fin-de-siècle revolt against positivism, especially among such thinkers as Nietzsche, Sorel, Barrès and Michels); (v) while several inter-war movements fit the pattern he has discerned, Nazism is too different (for example ‘biologically’ racist) to be associated with it.

Paradoxically, though Sternhell is often cited as an authority in his field, and his meticulous studies of three generations of radical right thought in France demonstrate the fertility of his approach, his definition of fascism has generated more polemic than consensus. Among the objections which have been raised to his theory are that (i) it creates a rigid dichotomy which causes thinkers in inter-war France to be classified as either ‘democratic’ or ‘fascist’, thus ignoring the existence of, for example, a powerful current of political Catholicism which sought to forge a viable alternative to liberalism, communism and fascism (see Conway, 1990, p.1); (ii) it applies the history of ideas to fascism in a way which takes insufficient account of the unique sociological and national preconditions of its different permutations, of its bias towards action rather than theory and of its practical consequences (see Pinto, 1986). The reader will have to judge whether the ‘ideocentric’ premises of my own approach have lured me into making similar errors.

In terms of consumer ‘demand’, the most successful paradigm of generic fascism is apparently that supplied by Stanley Payne, the author of a major work on the Spanish Falange (1961) and numerous contributions to fascist studies. His ‘typological definition’ of fascism is presented in a book which goes on to demonstrate its considerable taxonomic value in categorizing ultra-right movements in the inter-war period. Since its publication, it has been cited by several scholars as the most useful approach to date, if only in a spirit of faute de mieux (for example Kasza, 1984; Cullen, 1986; van der Wusten, 1987; Botz, 1987). It consists of a restatement of the ‘anti-dimension’ of fascism (which has greatly impressed anti-fascists), followed by a synthetic description of ‘ideology and goals’ and ‘style and organization’. Together these three sets of criteria are offered as a sort of check-list, specific enough to distinguish between fascist and non-fascist movements (which include the conservative and radical right) but still flexible enough to accommodate a number of movements other than those of Mussolini or Hitler. For example the Falange is pin-pointed as a genuinely fascist element within Franco's radical right (that is non-fascist) regime. Significantly, Nazism emerges as a prime specimen of fascism, pace Sternhell.

Payne's definition convincingly articulates much prevailing ‘common sense’ among non-Marxists on the nature of fascism. Its weakness is not only that the elaborate tripartite ‘typology’ is somewhat cumbersome as a conceptual framework but that it marks out fascism as a genus of political energy which is unique in apparently requiring its self-professed ideological goals to be supplemented by its ‘style’ and ‘negations’ before they can serve as an adequate basis for a definition. It is not surprising, therefore, that one scholar should regard its increasing adoption as a symptom of ‘resignation’ (Eley, 1983), while another who uses it nevertheless begins his article by saying that ‘the academic search for some workable definition of fascism that embraces the various manifestations of this phenomenon will be a long one’ (Cullen, 1986). The limited success of Payne's typology to provide an adequate degree of consensus among academics working on fascism is reflected too in the convoluted passage in which Richard Thurlow, an expert on British fascism, deals with the problem of delimiting his subject, and which at one point offers a tautological ‘operational definition’ of fascism embracing all those movements ‘which called themselves fascist’ (Thurlow, 1987, pp.xv–xvii). It should not raise eyebrows, then, if the American scholar, Robert Soucy, after more than two decades of outstanding work on French fascism, can still use it in a loose way which draws the charge from a colleague that he seriously confuses basic issues (Watson, 1988, reviewing Soucy, 1986).

Given the prevailing state of confusion, it is equally understandable to come across the extreme scepticism of the American scholar, Gilbert Allardyce, who exhorts his colleagues to dispense with the term altogether. He asserts dogmatically that ‘fascism is not a generic concept’, and then, somewhat tautologically, that ‘the word fascism has no meaning outside Italy’ (Allardyce, 1979, p.370), even if Oswald Mosley for one obviously thought it did when he formed his British Union of Fascists. The whole raison d'être of the present book thus vanishes with a wave of a lexicographical magic wand. No wonder if a note of despair occasionally creeps into academic contributions to the debate, as when Paul Preston (1985, p.46) remarks ‘the study of fascism becomes every year a more daunting and bewildering task’ (cf. Woolf, 1968, ch.1; Schüddekopf, 1973, pp. 16–24; Larsene et al., 1980, p.19). Even in the most recent literature on the subject scholars still feel the need to draw attention to the continuing disagreement over what its salient features were (for example Billig, 1989, p. 147).

If readers are tempted to feel that such a lack of agreement on the semantics of a political concept is irrelevant to the so-called ‘real world’ outside academia, then they should consider the problems faced by the EEC's 1985 Committee of Inquiry into the Rise of Fascism and Racism in Europe as its members tried to establish precisely what they were meant to investigate. They picked their way laboriously through the brambles of conflicting theories and assertions offered by numerous books and expert witnesses and at the end of the day resorted to a working definition which comes across as more of an implicit reassertion of EEC liberalism than a characterization of fascism:

A nationalistic attitude essentially hostile to the principles of democracy, to the rule of law and to the fundamental rights and freedoms, as well as the irrational exaltation of a particular community, in relation to which people outside it are systematically excluded. (Evrigenis, 1986, Part A, pp. 17–8).

Not surprisingly, the committee were unable to clarify the precise relationship of modern fascism to racism on the basis of such a model.

An outsider might think that the rampant inflation and prolific diversification of the term is no more than an extreme example of the problem of using language to describe any experiential reality, as in the quip: ‘I can't describe an elephant, but I know one when I see it.’ But it has more in common with the elephant described in an ancient parable (Shah, 1979, p.84) which is brought for the first time to a remote Indian village where all the inhabitants are blind. When the local sages are invited to examine it, each one creates a completely false picture by imagining the whole animal from the part they happen to have grasped initially (a tusk, a foot, an ear). As a result each of their theories cannot be reconciled with any other. There is a tendency for this to happen with the key words of all intellectual debates; however, in the case of ‘fascism’ there is not even a consensus about whether there is a unique genus of animal in the menagerie of political phenomena to merit a distinctive name. Some experts feel that the discipline has in fact been dealing with the mutation of a more familiar creature such as a water-buffalo or rhinoceros or that it was a one-off ‘freak’ rather than a new species.

Fascism as an Ideal Type

We spoke earlier of the dilemma faced by someone who is drawn sufficiently into the semantics of the debate over fascism to feel frustrated by the maze of conflicting definitional pathways to follow and the dead ends they often run into eventually. Clearly a book entitled ‘the nature of fascism’ must offer its own map to enable readers to extricate themselves from methodological issues in order to concentrate on the particularity of social and historical events. The clue to finding a ‘way out’ of the fascist debate is to recognize that any new theory of fascism must take full account of how the existing maze of diverging definitions first came into being.

One elegant explanation for the tendency towards inflation and diversification of all social scientific terms is to consider them to be ‘ideal types’. Indeed, the ‘conundrum’ which fascism poses is largely solved once the deeper implications of the expression are appreciated. The term ‘ideal type’ was coined by Max Weber as a result of his sustained methodological musings on the special status acquired by any generic concept which is made central to the investigation of processes and events concerning human beings. Once it is applied to phenomena outside Italy, ‘fascism’ is just such a concept. The starting point for appreciating Weber's approach is to accept one of its basic premises, namely that before human consciousness acts upon the world to derive the meaning and values which form the fabric of experiential reality, it consists of a ‘meaningless infinity’ of phenomena (quoted in Burger, 1976, p.80 – since Weber's own methodological theories are scattered through his voluminous writings, I recommend Burger's detailed reconstruction of how he conceived the ‘ideal type’ for a fuller and more scholarly exposition of what follows). To perceive or know anything at all, the mind needs a filter capable of drastically editing this infinity, much in the way a camera needs a lens before it will photograph anything recognizable. A total autobiography or biography of just one individual, for example, would be far longer than Proust's multi-volume fictional reconstruction of his life even if it were ‘only’ to take into account most of what she or he had ever said or done. Such an undertaking would pose literally infinite problems if it attempted to recreate the countless psychological, cultural, social, political and historical realities which that life embodied or impinged upon.

How much more superhuman, then, in absolute terms is the task undertaken by the most elementary history book, namely to give an account of episodes which involve the interaction of hundreds, thousands or even millions of lives, not to mention the ‘impersonal’ (that is structural and collective) forces which affected them, whether socio-economic or politico-cultural. Just as some stars are revealed by powerful telescopes to be entire galaxies made up of millions of stars, so individual historical events consist on closer inspection of countless interacting personal and supra-personal systems of ‘facts’. Each of these dissolves into yet smaller or even larger patterns of phenomena as research moves up and down the scales of time and ‘event horizons’ shift. When reconstituted as historiography, then, the seamless web of history is woven in fibres which are highly synthetic (and, as gender historians rightly point out, have till recently been largely man-made). It is language-based thought which organizes complex constellations of data into a single entity by means of a verbal expression which allows the imagination to ‘get hold of’ them (the original meaning of the verb ‘conceive’) and so investigate them. In the social sciences the single concept, the ‘it’, under investigation, is nearly always a collective pronoun, subsuming a myriad realities.

Singularities such as ‘the Renaissance’, ‘the French Revolution’ or ‘the democratization of the Eastern bloc’ are thus code words for entities which have to be consciously or not ‘modelled’ in the mind to reduce them to manageable proportions for the purpose of investigation. Once the subject becomes renaissances, revolutions or democratization ‘in general’, then insights can only be generated about them if the individual episodes or events embraced by such terms are shorn of the countless elements which make them unique, and we concentrate instead on the common properties, the shared patterns which make them case studies in a recurring ‘genus’ or type of phenomena. For Weber it is precisely those concepts or linguistic models in the human sciences which allow disparate singularities of the external world to be conceptualized as a single entity and explored which he designated ‘ideal types’. The homogeneous ‘type’ is ‘ideal’ because it does not exist empirically but only at the level of abstraction in an intellectual world stripped of the heterogeneity and (for the investigator of regularities and causal patterns) ‘messiness’ of real phenomena. Its relationship to reality is analogous to that of the caricature to the subject. Weber himself implied this in the following definition:

An ideal type is formed by the one-sided exaggeration (Steigerung) of one or several viewpoints and by the combination of a great many single phenomena (Einzelerscheinungen) existing diffusely and discretely, more or less present and occasionally absent, which are compatible with those one-sidedly emphasized viewpoints, into an internally consistent thought-picture (Gedankenbild). In its conceptual purity this thought-picture cannot be found empirically anywhere in reality, it is a utopia. (Burger, 1976, pp. 127–8)

In other words, the power that an ideal type gives the researcher to exercise conceptual control over aspects of external reality derives from a piece of ‘sleight-of-mind’ jointly performed by language, the discursive intellect and the social scientific imagination. The image it creates is an illusion (a ‘utopia’), though not one created in the world of fantasy alone, but based on or inferred from the ‘real world’ of human affairs. Only in this way can concepts such as ‘modernization’ or ‘class’ conjure up a discrete and constant pattern or genus of human reality to be defined and studied in its different permutations. Such a genus exists as an internally consistent whole only ‘on paper’. In external reality the regular pattern of human phenomena it posits is present only incompletely and is inextricably bound up with vast areas of phenomena which have been censured out (whether consciously or not) and whose inclusion would make it unmanageable as a concept (and hence useless for the purposes of scientific research). Since the ideal type does not correspond to an objective entity, any number of different ones can be devised appropriate to the ‘same’ phenomena, depending on the researcher's point of view. Weber's own example of the proliferation of ideal types of a given phenomenon (and hence the infinite regress of any ultimate definition of it) was one central to his own research interests: capitalism.

It is possible, or rather it must be accepted that several, indeed in each case very numerous Utopias (e.g. of capitalism) of this sort can be worked out, of which none is like another, of which none ever can be observed in empirical reality as the actually existing organization of the [capitalistic] society, but each of which, however, claims that it is a representation of the ‘idea’ of capitalistic culture. Each of these can claim this in so far as each has actually taken certain features of our culture, which are significant in their particularity, from reality and brought them together into a unified ideal picture. (Quoted in Burger, 1976, p. 129)

The immediate inference to be drawn from this way of approaching conceptualization in the social sciences is that no definition of any key generic term used in them can be ‘true’ in the descriptive sense, but only useful. In other words, applied consciously as an ideal type, it allows valuable research to be carried out into particular issues on which empirically sound methods can be brought to bear. Ideal types are misused if they are treated as definitive taxonomic categories, for their value is purely ‘heuristic’: they serve not to describe or explain facts as such but to provide tentative conceptual frameworks with which significant patterns of facts can be identified, causal relationships investigated and phenomena classified. Similarly, there can be no ‘objective’ use of a generic term: the impression of objectivity (an illusion, if ‘objective’ is taken to mean ‘value free’) is generated when enough people tacitly accept the ideal-typical interpretation placed on it to the point of creating a community in which everybody means more or less the same thing by it.

The implications of Weber's theory for this, and for any book on fascism are far-reaching. First, the various positions which have emerged concerning the definition of fascism since the 1920s have all been competing ideal types, a fraction of the number that could potentially be formulated. The fact that they are so many but only partially, if at all, reconcilable is consistent with what must be expected to happen when generations of theoreticians attempt to get to the bottom of any historical phenomenon. It is all the more predictable when the phenomenon in question is associated with an intense period of political transformations and destruction on an unprecedented scale, events completely at odds with the confident vision of human progress which dominated liberal societies up to the First World War. Moreover, they occurred when both information technology and the human sciences had advanced to a point unthinkable even a hundred years before, thus leaving a documentation of gargantuan proportions just at a time when more professionals were on hand than ever before to study them.

Therefore, if the divergence of opinion about the term ‘fascist’ is even more acute than that concerning other key political ideologies, whether older ones such as ‘nationalism’ or newer ones such as ‘terrorism’, it says little about the intractable nature of the phenomenon itself. What it does speak volumes for is the sheer amount of attention it has attracted both within and outside the social sciences, attention which has inevitably militated against the emergence of a high degree of consensus about the most suitable ideal type to use. An exception is constituted by pre-1989 Marxists, whose broad agreement on the materialist conception of history ensured a fair measure of overlap on basics, if by no means total uniformity in actual interpretation. Even this pocket of ‘objectivity’ (that is interpersonal subjectivity) in fascist studies is likely to break down further with the new stage in the crisis of Marxism as an all-embracing social science which is almost certain to ensue from the collapse of a number of regimes purporting to be based on it. Nor will any amount of effort or research resolve the lack of consensus: in fact it can only tend to make it more acute because as new historical perspectives emerge with the unfolding of contemporary events, as new paradigms come to be employed in the social sciences and as researchers make empirical advances and creative leaps in their investigations of fascism in its concrete manifestations, so the term ‘fascism’ itself will be turned into any number of new ideal types.

The fact that fascism is to be approached from this methodological perspective has been explicitly recognized in some recent scholarship, as when Kershaw talks of ‘the need of a generic “ideal type” of fascism’ (1985, p.150 – cf. Payne 1980; Herf, 1984; Kasza, 1984; Robinson, 1981; Cullen, 1986; van den Wusten, 1987; Botz, 1987). It is also implicit in the way many experts deliberately resort to the construction of a ‘model’ of fascism in order to investigate it (for example Hayes, 1973; O'Sullivan, 1983; Eccleshall et al., 1984), and in Kater's call for fascism to be ‘defined more clearly vis-à-vis the other concepts that abound’ such as authoritarianism (1988). One of the clearest acknowledgments of the central role played by ‘idealizing abstraction’ in any definition of fascism is to be found in Zeev Sternhell's introduction to his Ni droite ni gauche, where he states ‘It is up to the researcher to discern the common denominator, the fascist “minimum”, that is shared not only by the different political movements and ideologies which claim to be fascist, but also by those which reject the description yet nevertheless belong to the same family’ (Sternhell, 1983, p. 18; my emphasis).

A book such as this can therefore never hope to resolve the debate over fascism. What it can do, though, is offer a consciously constructed ideal type of fascism which sets out to be more heuristically useful to academic research than existing ones.

The ‘Nature’ of Fascism

Now that our ruminations on basic methodological issues have been aired we are in a position to be more precise about the way the problems of defining fascism will be approached in this book. The main premises are:


The term ‘fascism’ has come into being because of an intuitive recognition that a new genus of revolutionary politics entered European history with the establishment of Fascism in Italy. The currency it subsequently gained as a political category registered the underlying affinity which Mussolini's revolutionary form of politics was sensed to have with a growing number of other political movements and ideologies in the inter-war period.


Used generically, the term ‘fascism’ cannot be given an absolute definition by social scientists because it is an ideal type. Nevertheless, it is still capable of serving as a valuable heuristic and taxonomic device within the human sciences, if a broad consensus could be achieved about what that ideal type should be.


Outside Marxist social science even a working consensus concerning the appropriate model has not materialized, resulting in a bewildering variety of conflicting definitions and theories about the nature of fascism.


The time is ripe in the social sciences for a new theory of the fascist minimum, especially if, when reduced to its bare essentials, the resulting definition is more economical and ‘elegant’ than previous ones.

The aim of what follows, then, is to offer a new ideal type of fascism with which to identify what constitutes its ‘family’ trait in response to recurrent appeals for a more satisfactory definition than is currently available. Some of the specifications which this new ideal type should satisfy are that it should:


identify a common core of fascist phenomena which can be treated as its definitional minimum, while allowing for the profound differences which exist between the Fascism which took power in Italy and all other movements subsequently associated with it;


clarify how fascism relates to a number of other social scientific terms which abound in fascist scholarship, the most obvious being ‘the right’, ‘conservatism’ and ‘totalitarianism’ (others which will occur in the course of the analysis are ‘cultural pessimism’, ‘nihilism’, ‘anti-modernism’, ‘millenarianism’, ‘political religion’, ‘revolution’);


complement as far as possible what has been established by existing historical scholarship about the dynamics of particular movements and regimes which it identifies as members of the family of generic fascism;


represent an advance on existing ideal types in terms of succinctness and manageability (even if the new definition based on it will in the first instance require considerable elaboration and ‘unpacking’ because of its unfamiliarity).

The assumption on which the construction of this ideal type will proceed is that fascism is broadly on a par with such concepts as ‘liberalism’, ‘socialism’, ‘conservatism’ or ‘nationalism’ (not that the semantic problems these pose are by any means identical). All such concepts refer just as much to political thought as to the behaviour, events and institutions to which this thought gives rise. Yet within the social sciences this has not inhibited researchers from defining such generic ideological terms primarily in respect of what their ‘carriers’ believed in, rather than the concrete phenomena which their beliefs brought about (for example, see the definitions given in Scruton, 1982). I propose to approach fascism in like manner, namely as a political force definable ideal-typically in terms of its generic ideological core, even if one scholar has commented that such an approach is ‘temporarily out of fashion’ (Preston, 1985, p.48).

I do not wish to deny the validity of empirical investigations of fascism which attach central importance either to (i) its characteristic ‘style’ of political activity as expressed in rallies, paramilitary violence, uniforms, symbols, leader cult (an aspect stressed even by an intellectual historian such as O'Sullivan, 1983), or to (ii) typical structures which it aimed to produce in fulfilment of its theory (such as youth organizations, corporative economic institutions, a single-party ‘totalitarian’ state etc.) or which it ended up creating in practice, such as a terror apparatus, a propaganda machine, a leader cult (see for example Hayes, 1973). Certainly, its ‘negations’ must also be taken into account (as by Nolte, 1965). I do however question the heuristic value of using such criteria as the basis of ideal types of generic fascism, even when all three are ingeniously woven into a composite ‘typological definition’ by Payne (1980).

All political ideologies when put into practice engender a certain style of political behaviour: one only has to think of the display of ‘aesthetic politics’ made by liberalism at the state opening of the British Parliament or in American presidential primaries. Similarly, when the liberal ideal of society is given institutional form it also generates characteristic constitutional, legal and economic structures (for example representative assemblies, independent judiciaries, stock exchanges), yet these are not taken as the starting point for defining liberalism. In any case, what might be considered a typically fascist structure, such as a secret police, might be created by any authoritarian regime (see Kertzer, 1988), while any number of political forces can found youth organizations, thus blurring distinctions rather than sharpening them if either are taken as definitional criteria. As for the value of concentrating on fascism's ‘anti-’ dimension, I find this particularly unhelpful and misleading. Liberalism is anti-despotism, and Marxism is (or was) anti-capitalist, which merely demonstrates that every ideology rejects certain values as a corollary of what it stands for. It thus seems desirable to attempt a definition of fascism primarily in terms of its ‘positive’ ideological axioms, from which its characteristic style, structures and negations follow.

Clearly, the attempt to define fascism in terms of its ‘positive’ ideology is open to a number of objections in principle. For example:


to search for a minimal definition of fascism based on its ideology is to lose sight of the material socio-economic conditions and objective political context which formed the preconditions for the genesis and structure of its particular manifestations;


fascism never had any major theorists to rank with Locke or Marx, hence to concentrate on its ideology is to impose an artificially homogeneous intellectual coherence on a rag-bag of third-hand ideas and specious rationalizations. It is especially perverse to try to do so, given that the rhetoric of fascism openly attacked party-political programmes, celebrated violence and irrational values, and justified the systematic use of state terrorism;


approaching fascism primarily in terms of political theory and the history of ideas is misleading because it detracts attention from concrete events which constitute the real ‘nature of fascism’ and moreover euphemizes the immense human suffering caused when nebulous fascist ideals and policies become translated into gruesome political realities.

The danger of generating misleading impressions about the nature of fascism when taking its thought seriously is indeed grave, as is illustrated by the example set by several scholars who have made it central to their definition before me (for example Nolte, 1965; Gregor, 1969; Sternhell, 1986). It should therefore help forestall a number of misunderstandings if we establish at some length the concept of ideology which will inform this book.

‘Ideology’ in the Context of Generic Fascism

Predictably, the term ideology is no less contentious a word than fascism, being in the last analysis yet another particularly protean and inflated ideal type. Useful overviews of its complex semantic history have been given by Plamenatz (1970), Hall (1978) and Rossi-Landi (1990), while Hamilton (1987) has made an interesting attempt at a counter-inflationary definition. As for the way it will be used here, it has already been made clear that fascism is not being analysed from a Marxist point of view. A corollary is that several ‘vulgar’ Marxist assumptions about ideology do not apply here, particularly ones suggesting that (i) it is extensively determined by the socio-economic infrastructure, (ii) is rooted in ‘false consciousness’ and (iii) results in the ‘mystification’ of an essentially anti-socialist, and hence untenable, political system. More ‘sophisticated’ Marxist axioms which do have a bearing on our study of fascism relate to the insight that ideologies do not emanate from individual minds. Rather they are to be conceived as being ‘passively’ inherited in a historically determined situation by individuals who then modify them ‘actively’ in the process which Giddens (1976; 1984) calls ‘structuration’, that is in turn an integral part of ‘social reproduction’. In other words, just as light behaves both as a wave and as a beam, ideology is simultaneously individual and supra-individual, depending on how it is being investigated. It exists at the point of conjuncture where individual consciousness, intention and rationalization of behaviour interact with the external ‘supra-personal’ forces which condition human existence.

Elaborating this approach, the following premises are implicit in the way ideology is conceived in the present investigation of the ‘nature of fascism’ (several of these points will be implicitly taken up and explored further both in the next chapter which unveils our own new model of fascism and in Chapters 7 and 8 which investigate its causes):


Ideology embraces any expression of human thought, whether verbal, symbolic or behavioural when considered in terms of its role in legitimating or challenging all or part of a particular economic, social, political and cultural order (cf. Eccleshall et al., 1984).


Ideology can assume a reactionary, progressive or revolutionary aspect, according to whether it acts in a given situation as (a) a conformist, conservative, hegemonic force, (b) an idealistic, reforming, but ‘systemic’ force or (c) a Utopian, subversive, ‘extra-systemic’ one (this trichotomy seems more appropriate than the usual dichotomy between ‘conservative’ and ‘revolutionary’ suggested in Mannheim, 1960; Rossi-Landi, 1990). In all three aspects the corollary of an ideology's positive ideals will be the rejection of those with which these conflict, so that all ideologies have an ‘anti-’ dimension (cf. Seliger, 1976).


The utopia of an ideology can never be fully realized in practice, for it is in the transition from the ‘ideal’ postulated in its revolutionary aspect to the ‘reality’ it generates as the basis of a regime (that is in its hegemonic aspect) that falls the shadow of which T.S. Eliot spoke in ‘The Hollow Men’ (a point implicit in Mannheim, 1960). As a result, each new system tends to create new social tensions, inequalities, tyrannies and forms of inhumanity which had not been anticipated in the ideology which it invokes in its legitimation (which is not to say that all systems are equal in the degree of human misery or happiness they generate).


Ideologies are lived out as truths, being perceived as ideologies only when observed with critical detachment from outside. Their carriers experience them ‘from within’ as an integral part of their world-view and associate them with normality, common sense, reasonableness, convictions, self-evident facts. As such, ideologies embrace both the spoken and unspoken assumptions which ensure that all behaviour and actions ‘make sense’ subjectively to their protagonists (that is, ideologies have a normative function without which life and all activity is experienced as absurd).


An ideology is intrinsically irrational, for even if it claims to be rational in its self-legitimation and is articulated by some of its carriers or reconstituted by those studying it with a high degree of theoretical coherence, it owes its power to inspire action and provide a sense of reality to the fact that it is rooted in pre-verbal, subconscious feelings and affective drives (cf. Rossi-Landi, 1990).


There are many levels of commitment to an ideology, ranging from the intensity of the activists, leadership and ideologues of a movement at the heart of its propagation to the more passive or pragmatic ‘fellow travellers’ at the periphery with no deep or lasting involvement with it. The contents of an ideology will become more nuanced and sophisticated towards a movement's activist core and more simplistic and crudely propagandistic towards the periphery (cf. Billig, 1978, chs 4–6, who distinguishes an ideology's ‘depth’ from its ‘surface’, and Thurlow, 1987, p. 146 who uses the terms ‘esoteric’ and ‘exoteric’ in a similar sense).


Commitment to an ideology is largely determined by self-interest, as long as this phrase is taken to refer not only to narrow materialist egotism and immediate issues of survival, but also to complex psychological needs and irrational drives which may express themselves even in forms of ‘selfless’ idealism or the urge for ‘self-transcendence’ (cf. Koestler, 1967). Thus individuals gravitate towards a particular ideology on the basis of a largely subliminal ‘elective affinity’ with it (cf. Weber, 1948, pp. 284–5), both material and psychological. It is worth pointing out that in a modern pluralistic society it will be rare for the lives of even the most fanatical ideologues to be conditioned exclusively by one ideology, others coming into play in particular compartments of their existence.


Ideologies are not homogeneous at a lived level, for every individual will rationalize them in a unique way, emphasize different aspects of the cluster of values and policies which they propound and have a personal elective affinity with them. This leads to the existence of highly nuanced and even conflicting intuitions and conceptions as to what an ideology's salient principles are and how best to implement them (what Billig, 1988, calls its ‘dilemmatic’ property).


Ideologies are not located in individuals as such and can never be incarnated in, or fully expounded by, any one ideologue (cf. Mannheim, 1960, pp. 189–90; Sewel, 1985, p.61) for they exist in their entirety only at a collective, ‘transpersonal’ level. On this level they act as structural forces in conditioning people's lives and shaping historical events on a par with social, economic and political structures and in interaction with them. As such neither their currency nor their impact on history can ever be explained in terms of ideas alone, but only as an integral aspect of the particular historical context in which they exist.


Each ideology can he defined ideal-typically in terms of a core of values and perceptions of history (cf. Freeden, 1986, pp.4–5, who uses ‘core’ in this sense; similarly Connolly, 1974, p. 14, talks about a ‘cluster’ of axioms). This core underlies its vision of the ideal society, its evaluation of the present one and, if the perceived discrepancy is too great, its strategy for improving or transforming it (cf. Eccleshall, 1984, ch.1). A generic ideology is one in which a number of distinct political movements or regimes can be shown to share the same (ideally-typically constructed) ideological core.

These ten attributes of ideology can be synthesized into a definition on the following lines:

Ideology is a set of beliefs, values and goals considered in terms of their implications for the maintenance of the socio-political status quo (where ideology will tend to act as a conservative, reactionary force), for its improvement (where it becomes a reformist, gradualist force) or for its overthrow and replacement by an alternative order (where it will exhibit its Utopian, revolutionary dimension). The socio-historical system created in the name of an ideology will always represent a travesty of the ideal society envisaged by those committed to it in its Utopian, revolutionary aspect.

As a supra-personal structure an ideology can be pictured as a dynamic interaction of moral and political convictions, rejections of opposing values, and nuanced but converging visions of an ideal order of society and the policies to achieve it, all of which are capable of formulation at a high level of theoretical analysis. However, the extraordinary normative power of ideology, which is manifested historically in its ability to serve as the rationale of behaviour, the basis of social cohesion, the legitimation of a particular political regime and the inspiration of revolutionary action, is rooted in sub-rational and pre-verbal layers of consciousness within the individual and may express itself in a wide variety of both verbal and non-verbal cultural phenomena.

All ideologies may seem rational and coherent when articulated by a major theorist or reconstructed by an outside observer. However, they will tend to exhibit considerable heterogeneity at a ‘lived’ level, since all individuals will embody them in a partial and incomplete way as a function both of their unique social situation and of the specific psychological and material interests which condition their personal ‘elective affinity’ with it. There will also be notable differences in the level of affective commitment and theoretical selfconsciousness on which individuals act as its ‘carriers’. While rooted in human consciousness, ideologies do not originate or operate solely in the mind but both shape and are shaped by the cultural, social, economic and political structures which create the preconditions for the influence they exert on human behaviour and historical processes.

Each particular ideology can be ideal-typically defined in terms of an underlying core of values and goals which inform various policies and tactics, while a generic ideology is one whose core values and goals have expressed themselves in a variety of distinct, or even apparently conflicting surface manifestations.

This way of conceiving ideology acts as a built-in safeguard against (i) ignoring the crucial role played by non-ideological factors and structures in conditioning both fascism's emergence and success; (ii) reducing fascism to the world-view of a single individual; (hi) homogenizing into simplistic intellectual formulas the diverse and sometimes conflicting ideological currents which made up individual fascisms. It is also consistent with it that fascism can be defined primarily in terms of its ‘positive’ ideological goals for the overthrow of existing society and the creation of a new order as formulated by its own thinkers and propagandists, despite the notorious absence of major systematizers to rank with the pioneers of liberal or socialist thought. Furthermore, the extreme irrationality of fascism or the radical differences between its promises as the creed of a revolutionary movement and the realities to which it gives rise as the orthodoxy of a regime, far from being ‘awkward’ to reconcile with our theory, become to a large extent predictable by it.

Thus the first two objections we earlier raised rhetorically to our own way of approaching fascism have been met. To forestall the third possible charge to which this approach is open, namely of treating fascism at a level of analysis and synthesis which is so abstract as to be dehumanizing, it is necessary to spell out a major implication of the recognition that generic fascism is an ideal type. Whenever ‘idealizing abstraction’ sets to work on singularities so as to be able to treat them as case studies in a genus of phenomena, it produces a picture of them which is more like an X-ray than a photograph: the skeleton is thrown into relief while the surface features so vital to a person's physical individuality become little more than shadows or disappear entirely. Though this book will be concentrating on the genus ‘fascism’, this is not to deny that every movement ideal-typically categorized as such is also unique. Not only will it comprise ideologies, policies, personalities, structures and a style all peculiar to it, but it must operate in and interact with its own historical context. Every manifestation of fascism is thus both atypical and typical, according to whether it is being investigated in its uniqueness (that is in the ‘idiographic’ register in which historians specialize) or in terms of what makes it symptomatic of the genus.

To take a striking example, let us consider National Socialism. The personality of its leader, the success of its drive to take over the instruments of state power, the virulence of its anti-Semitism, the scale of its territorial ambitions and the ruthlessness with which they were pursued are just some of the features which make Nazism ‘stand out from’ other ultra-right movements in inter-war Europe. None the less, if its unique characteristics can be shown to be concrete permutations of what has been identified ideal-typically as the common structural core of fascism, then Nazism is still, for taxonomic purposes, fascist. It is at this structural ‘nomothetic’ level that political and social science generally operate. Even so, to have demonstrated how Nazism exhibits an aspect of the ‘nature of fascism’ can be no more than a small contribution to revealing the ‘nature of Nazism’.

Though this may seem obvious enough there is always the danger that once Nazism or any other movement, is analyzed as an example of ‘generic fascism’ the insights gained will be construed in a reductionist spirit, as if the ‘structural core’ was all that mattered, rather like a doctor becoming more interested in the illness than the patient. When this perverse perspective is applied, the millions of human beings who suffered or who died in the most atrocious circumstances as the result of Nazism's uniqueness, risk becoming the mere epiphenomena of a ‘deeper’ reality. Let me categorically dissociate this book, then, from any implication that to identify those phenomena which ‘fit’ an ideal type in some measure is to suggest that their particular features and the experiential realities associated with them are being consigned to a kind of limbo of accidence or irrelevance. Human lives are not lived ‘structurally’, nor even ‘historically’, and any readers who risk losing sight of this fact while studying fascism are well advised to read an autobiographical account of just one person's experiences of what it could mean in human terms: Primo Levi's magnificent If This is a Man (1987).

The concepts to which intellectuals resort in order to ‘grasp’ human realities should never be allowed to imply the primacy of theory over lived experience. Instead, theories should always remain subordinate to the task of understanding and explaining the ‘real’ phenomena for which they were originally created. To take the example of Nazism once more, the heuristic function of applying to it an ideal type of the term ‘fascism’ is fulfilled only if certain aspects of its uniqueness and of concrete realities associated with it are illuminated by categorizing it as such. Otherwise it is a vain intellectual game which betrays the humanistic purpose which all research into social realities should serve. As long as these points are kept in mind there should be no psychological barrier to reconciling the unity (homogeneity) of different fascisms which exists at a structural level with the extreme contrasts (heterogeneity) which separate them at a historiographical level or to being constantly aware of the human realities subsumed in generalizations and causal models.

The Scope of this Book

Now that some of the methodological spadework has been completed, it should be clear that the approach we have adopted considerably narrows the scope of what this book will have to say about fascism's ‘nature’. For one thing, there is clearly no question of it revealing the ‘essence’ of fascism. Fascism has already been demonized quite enough into a suprahuman force at the level of popular mythology (consider for example works on the ‘occultist’ basis of Nazism: for example Brennan, 1974; Pauwels and Bergier, 1972; for a corrective see Goodrick-Clarke, 1985) without the waters being muddied even further by an academic work with ‘essentialist’ implications. Even if the metaphorical power of language may sometimes mean that the ideological core which forms the basis of our ideal type is being treated like a ‘matrix’ generating historical realities from some occult a-temporal realm, the reader should never forget that it is the result of ‘idealizing abstraction’. It is the result of consciously elaborating, formulating and systematizing a pattern ‘seen’ by me at a largely intuitive or unconscious level, only one of the many patterns which other researchers might ‘read into’ putative fascist phenomena when studied for analogies and parallels (nomothetically) rather than in their particularity (idiographically). Thus no attempt will be made to ‘prove’ the existence of the common ideological core we have invented (in the etymological sense of discovered and constructed).Instead it will be set out concisely at the beginning of Chapter 2 as a fait accompli of my earlier empirical investigation into the subject, and in particular into the original writings of scores of ideologues of different putative fascist movements.

It might be added at this point that a regrettable lacuna in this text is an appendix providing extensive and wide-ranging samples of fascist ideology, both inter- and post-war, to illustrate the highly nuanced and varied permutations that the same core of ideas can generate. An excellent prototype of this was provided for inter-war European fascism in a pioneering book on comparative fascism by Eugen Weber (1964), but to my knowledge nothing of its kind yet exists for post-war fascism. Until the situation is remedied, the reader is urged to consult original sources where possible as an integral part of any foray into fascist studies, a task which soon rewards the effort for those concerned to understand its unique ideological dynamics (and also provides a valuable empirical test of the interpretation of them which I am offering here).

A consequence of the emphasis on common ideological components is that the political, economic and sociological preconditions or bases of individual fascist movements which did not achieve power will be referred to only peripherally, if at all. Chapters 7 and 8 will consider how the ideal type constructed in this book correlates to existing research into the various levels of the causes of fascism as a generic phenomenon, but the causes, or ‘aetiology’, of specific fascisms, however important in other contexts, are not my primary concern. All I would say at this point is that the model of fascism expounded here anticipates that the social base of generic fascism, and even of one of its particular manifestations, will be far from homogeneous in terms of class, status, occupation, age group, or psychological type. Nor will it be associated with any particular stage in ‘nationbuilding’ or socio-economic ‘development’ (modernization), except in so far as it is structurally related to specific consequences of secularization and pluralism.

It also follows from the approach adopted that this book makes no claim to provide an inventory of all the forms fascism has taken, and that especially in the post-war period there are any number of groupings which I do not even name, since their existence adds nothing to the argument I am developing. In any case such labour would not only be Herculean but superfluous, since an excellent survey of world-wide inter-war fascism exists already (Payne, 1980) as well as a comprehensive world directory of the contemporary radical right (Ó Máolain, 1987).

The approach adopted in this book similarly precludes any attempt to demonstrate the nature of fascism through reconstructing the history of the many discrete movements which comprise it. Such an exercise would rapidly degenerate into a series of potted histories culled from the many admirable monographs already in existence which are devoted to the fascism of individual countries, thus swelling the volume inordinately without throwing any light on the genus ‘fascism’. The Italian historian Tasca is often quoted by those who believe that generic fascism is not susceptible to definition and that scholars should concentrate their energies on reconstructing its history. It is worth noting, however, that after his famous statement that ‘for us to define Fascism is to write its history’, he went on to add that any account of generic fascism must be based on ‘common properties susceptible of being incorporated into a general definition’ (quoted in Lyttleton, 1979, p.82), precisely what we have set out to provide. Historiographical detail is thus avoided on principle in the treatment of particular fascisms as quite incompatible with the length and scope of this book. The two exceptions to this principle are Fascism and Nazism, which merit special treatment because, as the only two fascist movements autonomously to ‘seize’ power, they provide important case studies in the all-important transition from revolutionary force to regime. It should be noted that the narrative information I build into my analysis is intended to help non-experts get their bearings on the ocean of particular events which constitutes the history of both, events fraught with complexity and controversy at every critical point. Experts are asked to bear with the writer for the all-too obvious signs of compression in the synopses given and to remember that the central aim of the two chapters is to highlight those aspects of Fascism and Nazism which assume particular relevance in the light of the theory I am developing. All other permutations of fascism will be dealt with in a highly condensed fashion, sometimes in a single sentence. I am confident that readers using this book at undergraduate level will be sufficiently interested in their subject, not to say academically ‘street-wise’, to realize that familiarity with ‘competing’ theories of fascism as well as knowledge of representative forms of it culled from other secondary sources are both essential if the elaborate theory and rudimentary background which I offer here is to be of any value at all in essay work or research.

If the ‘nature of fascism’ is not being investigated primarily in terms of its aetiology or, to stay within the medical register, individual case histories, and makes no attempt to be a comprehensive classification of all known forms it has taken (i.e. its ‘nosology’), it could be said that this book does hope to offer fresh insights into its ‘diagnostics’. Having established in Chapter 2 our ideal type of fascism, the four chapters which follow aim to build up a picture of the wide range of permutations in which that genus has manifested itself. Chapters 3 and 4 will deal with Fascism and Nazism respectively, Chapter 5 with other (abortive) inter-war fascisms in Europe and 6 with non-European and post-war fascisms. What should emerge cumulatively is how the same genus of political energy has acted as a remarkably protean force in the twentieth century, endowed as it is with an ideological core which can draw on the most varied and contradictory cultural components. At the same time, not only should the essentially Utopian and unrealizable nature of its ideological goals (even when implemented by an authoritarian regime) become increasingly apparent, but also its fundamental impotence to do more than exert the most marginal influence on mainstream politics, except in the freak circumstances which prevailed in two nations in the inter-war period in Italy and Germany.

Readers of whatever category may well feel an understandable sense of disenchantment now that the highly circumscribed scope of this book has been made clear and the title ‘unpacked’. It makes no claim to reveal an occult essence underlying fascism, to supply an absolute definition of it, to provide an exhaustive catalogue raisonné of phenomena embraced by the term or to survey the principal secondary sources dealing with it. I have written this book not with the Olympian perspective of an acknowledged expert ensconced in a private belvedere at the peak of his career, but as a relative newcomer to the subject bivouacked precariously some way up one of its unclimbed but scree-strewn slopes. In short, the truths in which this book deals are exploratory, tentative and light years removed from the mythical world of absolutes aspired to by the fascist mentality, for which doubt was a symptom of decadence.

Despite being consciously partial and necessarily incomplete, this book aims to convince those for whom fascism is still a bewildering conundrum that a distinctive ideology, one unleashing considerable affective energy in those who accepted its internal logic, underlies what could so easily be dismissed as fanatical ravings or cynical propaganda. Those content with their own ideal type of fascism will see for themselves whether this approach adds anything to what they already know. The new one merely sets out to offer a conceptual net to catch a particularly slippery and voracious genus of political fish. As an oriental proverb suggests, ‘once you have caught the fish, throw away the net’.


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