Was fascism a revolutionary or a counter-revolutionary phenomenon? This question has always been the central dividing-line in the literature about it. If fascism was revolutionary, then it belongs with communism as a variant of totalitarian politics, and offers yet another example of the disasters to which twentieth-century revolutions led—Hitler and Stalin as twin monsters of the age. If, on the other hand, fascism was counter-revolutionary, then its place in European history looks quite different. Rather than standing as a warning against the dangers of revolutionary ideology, its success in defeating socialism can be seen as laying the groundwork for the spread of liberal-democratic capitalism thereafter, with the disappearance of any radical threat to the bourgeois order in post-war Germany and Italy, or post-Franco Spain. Interpretations of fascism are thus intimately bound up with alternative readings of the history of the twentieth century as a whole.

The appearance of two new books on the subject, by Michael Mann and Robert Paxton, each in their own way of high quality, illustrates this pattern vividly once again. Mann, the world’s most prolific historical sociologist, is best known for his magisterial Sources of Social Power, which runs (so far) from neolithic times to the Belle Epoque. He has recently offered a critical assessment of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy, Incoherent Empire. Paxton is one of the rare living historians to have demonstrably altered a country’s understanding of itself, with his classic work Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order (1972) which showed not only the breadth of social support for Pétain’s regime, but the extent to which it actively pursued a partnership with the Third Reich, rather than simply being forced to do its will. The two writers could hardly have reached more opposite conclusions. Mann insists that fascists were a revolutionary force possessing a powerful ideology, a coherent social base and a distinctive set of goals that would ultimately have created a regime incompatible with capitalism. Paxton argues that, on the contrary, fascism was a counter-revolutionary movement, whose medley of notions was intrinsically opportunistic; which came to power only through an alliance with terrified conservatives; and proved incapable of producing stable or coherent political institutions. What are the relative merits of each approach?

Mann’s Fascists is an impressive book by any standards. It deals skilfully and fair-mindedly with a vast empirical literature, while sure-footedly—if sometimes selectively—picking its way through a treacherous jungle of competing theoretical models. Through all of this Mann crafts an original and well-documented central argument. Many of his trademark strengths as a sociologist are powerfully on display. He is excellent on the religious and regional dimensions of his problem and, while forcefully making his own case, is careful to consider the relative merits of what he takes to be the most significant alternatives. His book is organized into two parts. The first asks why ‘over half, but not all, of the relatively advanced part of the world and of Europe’ turned in a right-wing authoritarian direction after the First World War, and then why, within this zone, fascism arose as a subset of a wider drift. Mann conceptualizes the right-wing authoritarianism of the time as a continuum from mild to extreme variants, distinguishing four regime types within it, according to the relative powers enjoyed by the executive and legislative branches of the state, and the degree of popular integration into politics. While more articulated than most other discussions of interwar authoritarianism, this classification follows a basic logic common to much work on the subject, which is concerned to distinguish between the various regimes of the right in Southern and Eastern Europe that were often sharply opposed to their own local fascist parties, and fascist regimes proper.

More distinctive is the explanation Mann offers for the rise of right-wing authoritarianism and the—more localized—emergence of fascism, which he seeks to show can only be fully understood in terms of his ‘iemp’ model of the four sources of social power: ideological, economic, military and political. By 1919, the strains of war, economic dislocation and the arrival of mass politics had destabilized to a greater or lesser extent all European regimes. How the ensuing crisis was resolved, he argues, depended on two factors: the nature of pre-existing political arrangements and the extent of long-term economic development. In ‘dual’ states—that is, where the executive was largely independent of the legislature, or there was no party alternation—conservatives, fearing mass political participation as a threat to the traditional ‘neutrality’ of the state, were tempted to fall back on strong-arm rule by the executive. In states where parliaments were dominant before the war, the crisis took the form of intensified party competition. The result was a division of the continent between a democratic North and West, and an authoritarian Centre, South and East.

After laying out this larger geopolitical setting, in the second and much longer part of his book Mann proceeds to six case studies of fascist movements: in Italy, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania and Spain. Here Mann sharply narrows his focus. Ideological power becomes the central mechanism for explaining the rise of fascism within the authoritarian zone. In essence, Mann argues that fascist ideology promised a ‘transcendence’ of social conflict that had a magnetic appeal for a ‘nation-statist’ core constituency that lay at a tangent to the major protagonists of industrial class conflict. This claim entails two equally important negative arguments. The first is that the social base of mass fascism was structurally classless, not simply because it included recruits from virtually all social strata, but above all because it pre-eminently featured groups outside the main class forces of a capitalist society—industrialists and financiers on one side, organized labour on the other. The second is that fascism was not a response to any significant threat from the left. Fascism was thus neither a counter-revolution, nor was it rooted in basic class antagonisms. Mann provides a wealth of fascinating detail on the movements it generated. But he makes little attempt here to provide an account of the regimes it installed, a task he defers to subsequent work. Essentially, his book stops short of the threshold of rule.

Paxton’s Anatomy of Fascism offers an almost complete, formal and substantive, contrast to Mann’s Fascists. Although about half the length of Mann’s work, it covers a much wider historical span, running from the earliest origins to the final downfall of the two major European fascisms in Germany and Italy, with significant side-lights on lesser movements elsewhere. Like Mann, Paxton has mastered an extraordinary range of materials, and brought them into a highly lucid and manageable compass. But rather than a series of side-by-side case studies, Paxton has constructed an elegant analytic narrative, no less comparative, but with a quite distinct focus, that yields a central argument sharply at odds with Mann’s. The differences begin with Paxton’s central question. The Anatomy of Fascism asks: ‘Why did [fascist] movements of similar inspiration have such different outcomes in different societies?’—that is, success in Italy and Germany, compared with a much more chequered or frustrated record elsewhere. It is no surprise, given his disciplinary background, that time is at the centre of Paxton’s study in a way that it is not for Mann. But less usually for a historian, Paxton’s research design is sculpted conceptually in a particularly pointed and lucid way. The core of his analysis carefully tracks Italian and German fascism through five distinct stages: the creation of the movements, their rooting in the political system, their seizure of power, their exercise of power, and their trajectory as regimes.

Paxton starts by identifying four broad preconditions that set the stage for what he calls the ‘epoch’ of fascism: the experience of the First World War, the victory of the Bolshevik Revolution, the rise of mass socialist parties, and the emergence of a repertoire of cultural themes exalting the values of race, community or nation over those of the individual and of reason. Turning to an analysis of the varying extent to which fascist movements became effective players in their respective political systems, he deftly sketches Italian and German success in inserting themselves into a ‘diagonal’ class conflict pitting urban (and in the Italian case also rural) socialists against conservative small and medium-sized farmers, as against French failure to do so. Here his general argument is that to become a significant political force, fascist movements had to establish an alliance between small and medium-sized farmers and some urban elements, in the context of a weakly institutionalized liberal democracy.