Book Review: Roger Griffin (2018) Fascism – An Introduction to Comparative Fascist Studies

Roger Griffin, Fascism: An Introduction to Comparative Fascist Studies (Cambridge: Polity, 2018) £14.99 paperback and ebook, £45.00 hardback

Courtesy of Polity Press

What is ‘fascism’? This question has driven the work of Professor Roger Griffin throughout his influential academic career. In books, journal article and at conferences, Griffin has spent a lifetime discussing and debating how fascism should be conceptualised and studied. He has made many friends and allies, and has generated numerous critics too. Along the way, he has helped to establish the academic field of ‘comparative fascism studies’. His latest book has been written as an accessible introduction to his method of studying fascism. It is an excellent place to start for anyone looking for a clear and nuanced way to think about the history and ideological dynamics of this much-debated phenomenon.

For Griffin, fascism can be summarised as a revolutionary form of populist ultra-nationalism. Commonly associated features of fascism, such as uniformed party members, charismatic leaders and even anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, are important though not, in and of themselves, definitional. He has also become notorious for promoting the somewhat esoteric word ‘palingenesis’, used by Griffin as a synonym for ‘revolution’, to explore the mythic and even spiritual way fascists conceptualise a sense of total renewal, and project into the future a fantasy of creating an alternate modern world. (Think the Thousand-Year Reich.) While Griffin is well known within academic circles for his single sentence definition of fascism, in this book he stresses that fascism should not be reduced to a simplistic model. Nor is fascism is not static. He argues his approach as an ideal type; in the spirit of Max Weber, it is a virtual model, not so much ‘true’ as a ‘heuristically useful’ guide.

Griffin has been making these arguments for decades now, and has received critical attention in particular from Marxist historians and theorists. Notably, Griffin’s focus on fascism being revolutionary, or ‘palingenetic’, contrasts strongly with Marxist approaches that typically argue fascism lacks ideological coherence, and ultimate serves to prevent a revolution overthrowing the capitalist era. While Griffin disagrees with any assessment that denies the revolutionary dynamics of fascism, he also recognises Marxist approaches have helped to provoke much worthwhile debate.

After an introduction explaining why fascism needs to be studied seriously, the first two chapters of the book engage with these debates about conceptualising fascism. Chapter 1 sets out Griffin’s critiques of competing Marxists approaches, alongside other models for studying generic fascism. Here, Griffin roots himself in a trend of studying the cultural and intellectual history of fascism that was pioneered by George L. Mosse, among others. Strikingly, he stresses the need to move away from using ‘fascism’ as a pejorative term, and even argues for ‘methodological empathy’ to think into the fascist mind-set. While certainly not arguing we should be sympathetic towards fascists that have promoted racist ideals and genocidal dynamics, Griffin stresses that academic analysts do need to listen to, and try to understand, what fascists say. By taking fascists seriously, he continues, it is possible to work out how they think, and construct a better appreciation of their ideological worldviews.

A second chapter then sets out Griffin’s own model for fascism, which aims to help achieve methodological empathy. This offers a clear summary of many discussions Griffin has presented at greater length in previous books and journal articles. This chapter again stresses that, while theoretical models help us recognise fascism, we should not get caught up in the theory alone. Fascism has a real and complex history, one that continues to evolve. Examining empirically the diversity of fascist agendas in different times and different contexts, exploring their myriad forms of combining anti-liberal nationalisms with emotive stories of social and political rebirth following a revolutionary break with the past, is far more important than continually debating definitions.

While the first two chapters cover issues related to definitions of fascism, the final two chapters explore the diverse forms fascism has taken throughout its history. Chapter three focuses on interwar fascisms, and an era when fascism was at its height. It discusses a vast range of cases, starting with the regimes of Mussolini and Hitler. Moreover, Romania’s Legion of the Archangel Michael, Hungary’s Arrow Cross, Norway’s Nasjonal Samling, Croatia’s Ustasha and the British Union of Fascists, are all examined, as are fascisms outside Europe, such as Brazilian Integralist Action.

Here, Griffin also moves beyond a simple country-by-country approach, and instead explores a range of themes, such as fascist economics, fascist gender politics, fascist modernisms, and finally fascist failures. We know a lot about the histories of some forms of fascism at this time, especially Italy, Germany and Britain, yet other countries remain understudied, at least in English language scholarship. Hopefully, one of Griffin’s legacies will be more interest in the history of fascism in places such as Central and Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and South America, allowing historians recognise the truly international nature of fascism in the 1930s and 1940s.

While the period up to 1945 was a time where many fascists remained marginal, or were crushed by authoritarian regimes that saw fascist radicalism as threatening, they could at least say they had successes in some parts of Europe. After 1945, fascists have only ever really operated at the margins of society, lacking the credibility to succeed politically. Griffin’s final chapter explores this more recent history of marginalisation, and notes in particular the adaptability of fascism to new contexts.

Here, Griffin’s approach seeing external trappings of interwar fascists – such as militia parties, charismatic leaders and an overtly anti-Semitic language – as secondary to the core of generic fascism becomes particularly incisive. While fascist movements in the interwar period usually had a clearer sense of common style, after 1945 they adapted in a wide variety of ways to circumstances where they were, and still are, marginalised. Some fascists have turned to violence, others to creating revolutionary sub-cultures offering a cultic worldview steeped in past fascist glories alongside fantasies of a new revolutionary era to come. In America, a violent white supremacist and neo-Nazi culture emerged; in Britain, phenomena such as the White Power music scene were created; and in Europe ideologues such as Alain de Benoist invented new forms of intellectualised fascism, steeped a philosophical language that denied such phenomena were even fascist. These diverse forms of neo-fascism have increasingly sought to network internationally, Griffin explains, and adds they have also found numerous ways to exploit the Internet in recent decades.

Contentiously for some, Griffin concludes that that modern day figures such as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are not fascists. Trump lacks the ideological complexity to be considered a fascist, and his time in power (so far, at least!) has not led to a political revolution overturning democracy. Putin has certainly created a new form of authoritarianism, but Griffin does not see this as fascism either. A much better example of a twenty-first century fascist, for Griffin, is Anders Breivik. His terrorism was justified by his manifesto, a text that projected into the future a revolutionary transformation of Europe by 2083. By this time Europe would be purged of ‘traitors’, and those deemed racially unfit for the new time, through a period of civil war. This is a much clearer articulation of the ‘palingenetic’, or rebirth, fantasy that Griffin suggests is at the core of fascist politics.

In his conclusion, Griffin explains that he hopes his book will help readers move beyond simply exploring what fascists did, and help them understand why they acted as they did. His approach certainly helps achieve this bold aim. Indeed, for anyone looking for a readable ‘primer’ on the history of twentieth and twenty-first century fascism, this book is a must read. It offers a lively introduction to a wide range of academic approaches to analysing fascism, and is packed with pithy summaries of key figures, groups and agendas. Finally, as well as being a respected academic expert, Griffin is also an entertaining guide.

Dr Paul Jackson is Senior Fellow at CARR, and Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Northampton. See his profile here:

© Paul Jackson. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).