It is not easy today to say something original about fascism. Exceptionally, Dylan Riley’s intelligent study succeeds in opening fresh perspectives.footnote1 The book leaves aside many matters that are normally at the centre of a work on fascism: there is little here about such familiar issues as how fascist movements arose in the first place; the nature and appeal of fascist ideology; the social composition of fascist parties; the specific effects of World War i and the Bolshevik Revolution; or even the proper definition of the term fascism. Nationalism and anti-semitism receive only passing allusions. Instead, this monograph hews closely to its chosen subject and leaves the reader to relate it to the larger picture. A sociologist at Berkeley, Riley focuses his work closely on civil society, and especially on the tissue of associations that arose in Western societies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He finds that associationism is a neglected key to the question of why fascism succeeded in some places and not in others. The core of the book consists of three narrative chapters, sandwiched between more theoretical opening and closing sections, which examine the cases of Italy, Spain and Romania—chosen because, in his view, their authoritarian outcomes are anomalous in terms of classical Marxist or Weberian analysis. Riley’s re-examinations of these familiar cases are deeply researched and often illuminating.

He begins, however, with Tocqueville’s influential assumption that civic associations encourage and support liberal democracy, by stimulating citizen participation and by blocking despotism. Riley maintains, to the contrary, that under certain conditions Tocqueville’s much vaunted intermediary bodies may actually encourage and support authoritarian democracy—his term for fascism (a definition to which we will return). Those conditions are explained, Riley holds, by Gramsci’s conception of hegemony. If associations grow rapidly at a moment when existing elites have been unable to establish either intra-class hegemony—an alliance among the various holders of economic power—or inter-class hegemony, reaching out and incorporating other classes in a broader national project; and, further, if those out of power have not been able to form a democratic counter-hegemony, then fascism’s occupation of the available space is actually facilitated by a rich associational life. In other words, for Riley, the emergence of intermediary bodies and the establishment of democracy are separate developments, not parts of a single process.

There is considerable empirical evidence for a connection between fascist success and a rich associational life. In Italy, it was the more advanced North, with its dense fabric of cooperatives, unions, producers’ associations and the like, where fascism grew rapidly and achieved local power, and not the South, where little stood between the individual peasant and the local boss, except possibly the priest. Riley documents scrupulously the rapid expansion of associational life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in each of the countries he considers—states where ‘authoritarian democracies succeeded later in one form or another’. He thus establishes beyond doubt a major point that is too often overlooked. Fascism is a phenomenon of polities that are undergoing, or have recently undergone, a rapid development of mass citizen participation. That is to say, it is a modern and not an archaic phenomenon, though Riley does not raise explicitly the issue of modernity. That fascism is unthinkable in societies without mass citizen mobilization has not always been made sufficiently clear, and some authors have carelessly thrown all sorts of Third World dictatorships into a shapeless catch-all category of fascism.

Next Riley has to demonstrate how associations might expedite a fascist victory. At first his argument might be taken to suggest that when workers’ associations threaten the elites, the latter may respond with their own defensive associations, such as fascist leagues or militias. This is indeed what happened in the Po Valley of northeastern Italy. But Riley is not espousing the familiar narrative of mass organizations challenging an elite, which then responds by hiring ‘fascist’ associations for self-protection, although he concedes that this is part of the story. He really seems to mean that any kind of association may facilitate fascism, not only ‘autonomous’ associations, but even those created by elites or by the state, in the absence of a hegemonic elite. Fascists may ‘colonize’ these associations, as the Italian Fascist theorist Alfredo Rocco put it, by processes of infiltration and appropriation. These may then serve as what Riley terms ‘conveyor belts’ for fascism. There is sound empirical evidence for this, and Riley makes good use of such work. In the German instance, for example, Rudy Koshar showed in his 1986 study Social Life, Local Politics and Nazism how the Nazis penetrated the rich associational life of Marburg, thereby attaining a dominant position in the city.

Riley’s argument places him among those who attribute fascist outcomes to the weakness of conservatives, rather than to their strength. This is a highly controversial point, for scholars commonly blame conservatives for assisting fascists into power, and may even exaggerate the similarities between the two; an analogous mental short-cut on the other side regards Social Democracy as a stepping stone to Communism rather than its most serious opponent. The fascist–conservative relationship is a complex one that evolves over time, and it is one of Riley’s great strengths to see it as a matter of processes and choices rather than as a static position. On the one hand, strong conservative alliances (Hungary is Riley’s example) may keep fascism weak. On the other hand, in every case known to us where fascists reached office, conservatives invited them in. Riley’s complex model can encompass these opposites handily: fragmented conservatives who have failed to achieve hegemony, in cases where no viable democratic counterhegemony can impose itself, may find an alliance with fascists their best remaining option.