Fascist movements

Image: resistance to Spanish fascism, Abraham Lincoln Brigade

The crimes of fascist governments in Spain, Italy, and Germany are among the most terrible pages of twentieth-century history.  And these governments commonly came to power by long mass-based mobilization by right-wing nationalist parties rather than by seizure of power by a strategically located minority.  How was it possible for parties based on hatred and violence to be able to gain support from large parts of the populations of these states?  And how should the social sciences proceed in efforts to diagnose and explain these processes?

In Fascists Michael Mann offers a thorough and nuanced account of the rise of fascist movements in many countries in Europe in the early part of the twentieth century.  And in The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing he looks at the processes that have led to genocidal violence by a range of modern states.  These are important books by a particularly acute historical sociologist of political power and the state.  It is particularly interesting to examine Mann’s research strategy — the empirical research he brings to bear to his research questions and the assumptions he makes about what is needed in order to arrive at an explanation of various aspects of fascism.  (Another important sociological contribution to the study of fascism is Juan Linz, Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes.)

Mann’s approach is through the people, ideologies, and social movements that led to the establishment of fascist regimes:

This book seeks to explain fascism by understanding fascists — who they were, where they came from, what their motivations were, how they rose to power.  I focus here on the rise of fascist movements rather than on established fascist regimes.  I investigate fascists at their flood tide, in their major redoubts in interwar Europe, that is, in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Romania, and Spain.  To understand fascists will require understanding fascist movements.  We can understand little of individual fascists and their deeds unless we appreciate that they were joined together into distinctive power organizations.  (9)

Here is Mann’s definition of fascism:

I define fascism in terms of the key values, actions, and power organizations of fascists. Most concisely, fascism is the pursuit of a transcendent and cleansing nation-statism through paramilitarism. (13)

Mann disputes the common dichotomy between “idealist” and “materialist” theories of large movements and structures such as fascism.  Instead, he brings forward his own long-developed analysis of the four major sources of power in complex societies:

But my own approach to fascism derives from a more general model of human societies that rejects the idealism-versus-materialism dualism. My earlier work identified four primary “sources of social power” in human societies: ideological, economic, military, and political. … To attain their goals, social movements wield combinations of control over ultimate meaning systems (ideological), control over means of production and exchange (economic), control over organized physical violence (military), and control over centralized and territorial institutions of regulation (political). (5)

His analysis of the fascisms of Europe attempts to assess each of them in terms of these sources of power.  This analysis also plays into his account of the failure of fascism in countries such as France or Sweden.  Mann makes an important point when he observes that fascism never prevailed in countries where parliamentary democracy had developed a secure base.  There were fascist parties and leaders in France, Great Britain, and Sweden; but democratic institutions held, and fascism did not prevail in these countries.

Mann makes a very important point when he emphasizes that fascism was not an historical anomaly; rather, it was the expression of forces and crises that can recur in the twenty-first century as well.  “Fascists have been at the heart of modernity….  Fascists only embraced more fervently than anyone else the central political icon of our time, the nation-state, together with its ideologies and pathologies” (9).

The largest single topic in each of the country studies is Mann’s effort to understand the motivations of the fascist followers themselves.  Who were the committed followers?  Who were the sympathetic but less-engaged followers?

As in all my case studies I examine in some detail the social backgrounds of the fascists. They offer the best evidence regarding ordinary fascists. Yet social movements are not mere aggregations of individuals, each of whom can be counted equally and statically. Movements contain particular social structures and processes. This fascist movement greatly respected order and hierarchy, and the attainment of substantial power within the movement was an important part of the “career” of fascists. Moreover, paramilitary violence conferred distinctive powers on a “mass” (though less than “majority”) movement committed to violence.  (100)

Mann uses a variety of empirical sources to answer simple questions: what were the occupational backgrounds of the members?  What can we infer about their values and motivations?

Which particular social groups within these countries were most attracted to fascism? I spend many pages over several chapters examining the social backgrounds of fascist leaders, militants, members, fellow-travelers, coconspirators and voters – compared (wherever possible) with their counterparts in other political movements. How old were fascists, were they men or women, military or civilian, urban or rural, religious or secular, economic winners or losers, and from which regions, economic sectors, and social classes did they come? (25-26)

He goes to some effort to refute the Marxist interpretation of fascist movements: that they were led and supported by the lesser bourgeoisie.  Instead, he finds that there was significant support for fascist ideology and movements across a wide range of social-class locations.

Ideology and values play a large role in Mann’s interpretation and explanation of the program of fascism.  He rejects the view that fascism was wholly opportunistic and succeeded solely through its adeptness with propaganda; rather, he takes fascist social and political theory seriously, judging that fascist parties offered plausible solutions to perceived social problems (p. 2).  These parties attracted followers because they persuaded large numbers of Italians, Germans, or Spaniards that they had the ability to solve the problems their societies faced.  Key ideological themes were nationalism (the aggressive values and emotions of ethnicity and the nation) and “state-ism” (the legitimacy and necessity of a strong state with few limits on its power as an institution for solving “modern” problems).  “Fascists were motivated by a highly emotional struggle to cleanse their nation of “enemies,” and so they indulged in reckless aggression and terrible evil” (22).

Another key characteristic of fascist movements in the 1930s was the role played by paramilitary organizations as tools of intimidation, coercion, and mobilization.

Paramilitarism also conferred a concrete and enveloping social identity. The returning soldiers were young, mostly unmarried with little labor market experience, poorly integrated into local communities centered on family, occupation, and religion, prone to identify with the nation as a whole – which the mass army had claimed to “represent” (104).

Mann also spends some time assessing the role that “crisis” played in the rise of fascism: war, defeat, economic crisis.  He does not believe that crisis was the primary cause of the rise of fascism; rather, it was a contributing condition that helped to accelerate processes that were underway already.  And Mann notes that there is a pronounced geographical dimension to fascism and authoritarianism, as indicated in the following map representing the state of affairs in 1929.

So what does Mann’s explanatory scheme amount to?  It comes down to something like this: fascist parties and leaders articulated a vision of the current problems and their solutions.  A significant proportion of the young adults (18-35) were receptive to these messages, including the call for radical change and the use of street violence.  War, financial crisis, class conflict, and insecure parliamentary institutions created an environment in which the ideology of fascism could flourish and fascist mobilization was feasible.  In several countries demobilized and defeated veterans represented a population of prospective recruits to fascist groups.  Paramilitary violence could not defeat the military arm of the state; but it could intimidate other parties and pressure governments.  The experience of a fascist organization was itself a reinforcing one; young people who found their way into a fascist group were reinforced in the attitudes that had brought them there in the first place.  State and military organizations varied in effectiveness across the map of Europe, and those states whose governments were weak and unstable were less able to repress the rising fascist challenge.

There is a deep question implicated in the effort to provide a definition of fascism.  Is the definition Mann offers a stipulative statement about how Mann will use the word “fascism”?  Or is it a condensed empirical theory, abstracted from the small number of clear cases — Italy, Austria, Germany?  Is it an inductive discovery that “fascism is the extreme version of nation-ism and state-ism”; or is it a purely conventional stipulation?  Put it another way; does it make a difference that Mann finds that Spain is not “fascist” by this definition?  Does such a finding provide any genuine sociological/empirical insight?  Does it allow us to judge that “Spain’s regime was likely to have other important behavioral differences relative to Italy”?  I am tempted to think that Weber’s conception of the ideal type is relevant here; the definition offered above is a description of the ideal type of fascism, and each of the existing fascisms differ in various ways from this description.  The empirical issue is one level lower: not at the level of “fascism”, but rather at the cluster of characteristics that are invoked in the ideal-type theory (paramilitary organizations, ideology of nationalism, authoritarian theory of the state, anti-democratic rhetoric).

It is interesting to think back to Fritz Ringer’s analysis of the intellectual climate of the German mandarins (link) and relate his interpretation to Mann’s treatment of the conservative-authoritarian ideologies of central Europe. Ringer’s treatment singles out many of the same ideological themes and dissatisfactions that Mann identifies — hostility to class conflict and mass democracy and the main elements of liberal modernity.  Ringer’s narrative serves as something like a snapshot of the educated elites going through the intellectual-ideological progressions Mann describes.

These crises were exacerbated by an ideological crisis. On the right, though only in one half of Europe, this became a sense that modernity was desirable but dangerous, that liberalism was corrupt or disorderly, that socialism meant chaos, that secularism threatened moral absolutes – and so cumulatively that civilization needed rescuing before modernization could proceed further. So there emerged a more authoritarian rightist view of modernity, emphasizing a more top-down populist nationalism, developmental statism, order, and hierarchy. (355)

The book also suggests something else about the present: that there are good reasons to pay close attention to the claims, complaints, values, and resentments of the American right today. As Mann discovered a coherent worldview and programme for the future in the rightist authoritarian movements he discusses, so we may find there is greater coherence, greater popular appeal, and greater danger in the rightist movements today. Conservative Christian values, hostility to government and to social welfare provisioning, hostility to unions, antipathy to immigrants, and hateful, inflammatory rhetoric give talk radio and cable television a worrisome coherence.

Here is a sobering and tragic video (in Spanish) documenting the Spanish Nationalist government’s expulsion of thousands of Republican veterans to the Austrian concentration camp Mathausen, where most of them were murdered.  There is a Facebook group, Plataforma Memoria Histórica – Guerra Civil Español (link), which is collecting materials on the Civil War.  This is a great collective effort to remember and to make sense of that struggle with fascism.



5 responses

  1. To finish up the thought just expressed, it might be the case that the author could explain what happened in Spain as a counter-revolution rather than a fascist movement. The idea being that there wasn't the kind of central, ideological basis that one would typically see in a fascist movement. Franco's seizing of power was extremely ad hoc compared to, say, Hitler.

  2. The Fascist do not correlate very well with what we today would call the right. The right in Europe were generally Monarchists. Sometimes the Fascists and Monarchists made common cause, but they were not the same thing. They are viewed as being part of the right because they were enemies of the communists, but that is somewhat misleading.The Fascists were Socialists and believed in heavy state intervention in the economy. Their key difference from the Communists would be in their belief in individual property, and in having a very strong state/cultural identity.Chavis probably comes closer to the Fascists than todays religious right. Today religious right (the rebellious ones) would probably push for some sort of theocratic state, with an odd combination of extreme federalism. Since that would make for an odd way to run a country, what they likely would wind up with is some sort of nasty military regime without too much direct control of the economy.Fortunately, most of the more extreme religious right are more interested in the end times, then in taking control of society.As a side note: Adam Tooze in "The Wages of Destruction" does a very good job of showing what the post WW1 economic agenda of Germany, and the Nazi'z in particular, was.

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