The first volume of what promises to be by far the most rigorous and methodologically exciting analysis of Italian Fascism yet to have appeared has recently come out in France: Robert Paris’ Histoire du Fascisme en Italie.footnote1 Showing complete familiarity with the mass of published material on the subject, Paris’ book is doubly welcome since it is clearly deeply indebted for its method and inspiration to the work of Antonio Gramsci, whose studies of Italian history and culture are fundamental to an understanding of Italian society of the last hundred and fifty years. The richness of Paris’ method and scholarship is high-lighted by the simultaneous publication in English translation of a slim volume on recent Italian history by an eminent liberal historian: A History of Italian Fascismfootnote2 by Federico Chabod, which, despite its manifest inadequacies of content and weaknesses of analysis, has received warm acclaim from reviewers. The appearance of Chabod's book, however, suggests that some dis-cussion of the nature of Fascism may be timely.

Although Fascism is one of the most familiar terms in our political vocabulary, it is hardly ever used in a way that suggests both an analytical grasp of its essential nature, and a real awareness of its autonomy as a category. Most writing either signally fails to advance beyond simple description of its external characteristics, or reduces it totally to its infrastructural base, effectively abdicating before its historical and concrete existence.

The usual Marxist interpretation of Fascism in the inter-war period, despite serious attempts in certain cases to define the sociological conditions for its existencefootnote3, was vitiated by one fatal false premise, the direct outcome of a mechanistic-evolutionary view of history. Fascism was seen as an inevitable, or typical stage in capitalist development. R. Palme Dutt in his “Fascism and Social Revolution” (1934) describes Roosevelt’s New Deal policies as a “near-Fascist or pre-Fascist stage on the road to full Fascism” (my italics). It is, of course, obvious that Fascism and the New Deal were attempts to salvage a capitalist economy in crisis by the creation of a dirigiste state. But they were different solutions, not the same ones at different stages of development. The assimilation of Fascism to a determinate stage of capitalism sprang from an over-evaluation of objective and infrastructural forces and a corresponding devaluation of subjective and superstructural factors —from an evolutionary as opposed to an authentically historical way of thinking.

Nevertheless, it should be remembered that this analysis of Fascism was at least practical and geared to active opposition— although this opposition was later critically weakened by Stalin’s disastrous thesis that Fascism and Social Democracy were “not antipodes but twins”. Whereas for the English middle-class in the twenties and early thirties, Fascism was a system which, although perhaps idiosyncratic by British parliamentary standards, seemed the sort of strong government that was needed for Italians. During the thirties the Nazi rise to power in Germany, the Abyssinian war, the Spanish Civil War, and Mosleyism, helped to produce a moral and emotional anti-Fascism in the Liberal bourgeoisie, which was consolidated by World War II propaganda, in which the issue of “democracy against Fascism” was presented as the reason for the war, and was accepted as such (at least overtly) even by those who had been impressed with the punctuality of Italian trains. Perhaps the most eloquent example of this kind of seeming inconsistency was provided by Winston Churchill. In 1927, speaking in Rome to the Roman Fascists, he said: “If I had been an Italian, I am sure I should have been entirely with you from the beginning to the end of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.” Yet in 1940 he was able to become the spokesman of “democracy” in its struggle against Fascism, without any basic change in his political philosophy. In fact, of course, the anti-Fascist aspect of the war against Italy and Germany was of negligible importance, if any, in deciding the British government to go to war; although it later became the real and felt rationale of the struggle.

It is important to contrast the sincere condemnation, indeed often violent abhorrence, of the actual manifestations of Fascism which was and still is widespread among all strata in this country (including—why not?—industrialists, generals, cabinet ministers, etc.) with the complete lack of any real attempt to analyse what it was essentially, whose interests it served, and how it could be opposed. Liberal and social-democrat interpretations were in this respect utterly mystified, even when most hostile and most serious in their attempts to capture the concrete reality of Fascism in its immediate forms. Condemnation—and analysis—remained at the level of secondary phenomena (lack of civil liberties, lack of elections, cult of violence) and involved little or no probing beneath the surface. But it was condemnation which involved no necessary hypocrisy.