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Fascists: A Book Talk

Fascists: A Book Talk

Michael Mann (Sociology, UCLA) discusses his new book

Richard Gunde Email RichardGunde

In a talk in the Book Discussion series of the Center for European and Eurasian Studies, UCLA's Professor Michael Mann (Department of Sociology) on October 14 discussed his recently published Fascists (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Who were the fascists? It is on this question that Mann's book, a study of fascist movements in six countries in the interwar period--"classic fascism in its heyday," as Mann put it--concentrates. In answering this question, Mann rejects various explanations of the origins of fascism that have been offered over the years, and puts forward instead an interpretation that relies on "the four sources of social power."

Scope of the Book

The six countries discussed in Mann's book "are countries where fascist movements were considerable, but where there was a gradation of their influence, from the top--Nazi Germany--to . . . Austria, Italy, and down through Romania and Hungary, to Spain, where there were fascists, but they were always a very subordinate part of a more diverse, authoritarian, rightist regime."

"What the book tries to do," Mann explained, "is to recapture who the fascists were and what was their worldview. . . . Fascism was, of course, the major political ideology created during the twentieth century. It dominated Europe . . . and it was also influential across the Middle East and Asia especially."

The "theoretical starting point" of the book "is the position that the nation-state is the core political institution of the twentieth century and that varieties of nation-statism have been the dominant rising ideology. . . Fascism was in a sense only an extreme version of this. . . . It must not be seen as a thing quite separate."

Interpretations of Fascism

"Recently there have been two main schools of interpretation of fascism. There has been an idealist school, which focuses on fascist beliefs and doctrines. . . . Second, and longer lasting, has been a materialist school, focusing on fascism's supposed class base--said to be lower-middle class, petty bourgeois, or bourgeois--and fascism's supposed role in saving capitalism when it was in difficulty around the time of the Great Depression."

While Mann stated that all of these factors were important in fascism, his own approach "relies on the four sources of social power: ideological, economic, military, and political. All four are need to explain important social movements."

Essential Features of Fascism

In Mann's view, fascism comprised four essential ingredients:

1) a cleansing form of nationalism,

2) statism,

3) a class transcendence, and

4) paramilitarism.

Cleansing Nationalism

Mann stated that "fascism is a version of what is generally called either organic or integral nationalism: a believe in the essential unity of the nation, which has one singular quality in some way. Fascists disliked any conception of diversity in the nation, which they saw as undermining its unity and purity. So they sought to cleanse alien element from the nation."


"Politically, fascists worshipped state power. . . . The notion that the state was the bearer of a moral project was something that began to dominate most social though in the post–First World War period. After that, in the Russian Revolution and afterward, that we have the notion that Marxist were interested in a strong state. . . . The fascist version took the notion of statism further in terms of advocating explicitly an authoritarian state."

Class Transcendence

In the fascist doctrine, nation-statism would "transcend social conflict. The fascists rejected conservative notions that the existing social order is harmonious; they rejected liberal and social democratic notions that the conflict of interest groups is normal in society; and they rejected socialist notions that harmony would be reached by overthrowing capitalism. Fascists attached both capital and labor, saying they would 'knock both their heads together.' Fascist economic programs were always important and were consistent with this. Private interests would be subordinate to national ones, planning and social welfare would be imposed from above, and interest groups would be brought into the state by syndicalist or corporatist institutions."

While this was fascist doctrine, practice was somewhat different. Fascists, in Mann's words, "never achieved this kind of neutrality. . . . In practice, once in power fascists leaned toward capitalism, they made deals with old regimes, and they sided more with upper and lower classes."

"Fascists tended to attack not capitalism per se, but particularly unpatriotic conceptions of capitalism, like finance capital, foreign capital, or Jewish capital."


"No fascist movement was simply a political party. Paramilitarism essentially caged the militants, . . . and made their violence an integral part of what they did and made them regard violence as a principle of social organization. Paramilitarism was, of course, not strong enough to overcome regular armies and only when fascists neutralized regular armies could they seize power. But the violence was always important in their seizing and maintaining power."

The combination of these four ingredients, Mann argued, "made fascist revolutionary, though not in the conventional left/right terms. . . . They had a distinctive notion of revolution which focused on the nation-state, not on capitalism or class."

What Accounts for the Rise of Fascism?

The rise of fascism across Europe, Mann contended, was the outgrowth of an intertwining of two broad trends. The first concerns "the surge of rightist authoritarian movements across Europe in the interwar period. This was very general movement across one-half of Europe. Fascists appeared dominant in only a few of those cases," and thus one has to explain "both the general rightist authoritarian surge and the particular appearance of fascism as dominant in a few countries."


All the post-Russian empire states and Austro-Hungarian states in Central and East Europe fell to rightist coups in the interwar period. So too did the Southern European states of Italy and Portugal. The states of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain, Ireland, and Switzerland, however, avoided this fate. A third group of states--France, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and some others--constituted "mixed cases, cases where there was a long battle between authoritarian rightists and defenders of democracy. . . . There was in a way two Europes: a northwest, and an east and southeast, with an intermediate zone between them." This will not, Mann argued, "generally permit the kind of comparative analysis based on atomistic variables--like levels of economic development--because they will not be spread in this particular geographical way. Not that they are irrelevant, but they are probably not going to yield a proper explanation."

Economic Crises

"Can," Mann asked, "one give an economic explanation of the rightist authoritarian surge and in particular the rise of fascism in a small number of countries in the non-northwestern part of the continent? Were they, first of all, the more developed, or the less developed? The answer is no: the countries with the major fascist movements were spread through levels of economic development, with Germany at the top. . . . The timing of fascist or rightist authoritarian coups was not significantly correlated with recession." Similarly, "the places that [fascist or rightist authoritarian coups] occurred were not the countries most deeply affected by either inflation or the Great Depression. Not that they were not the countries least affect either -- there is no relationship. The actual macro-state of the economy is not something that gives you a powerful explanation of where and when. However, it is relevant that this is in general when the continent is not buoyant anywhere."

Marxist explanation

Mann next challenged the Marxian argument: Were fascists the agents of capital to suppress labor when capitalism gets into difficulties? That turns out to be less true of fascists than other rightists. . . . Fascists remained very distrusted by the dominant classes. . . . Also the timing is wrong. The greatest threat from labor is 1918 to 1920, when there were revolutions, but they were defeated. . . . By the time you get to the late 1920s and early 1930s, the notion of a threat of Bolshevik revolution is implausible." Moreover, "by the time of the Great Depression that if you want to discipline labor, if you want capitalism to survive, the liberal strategy, in its various versions, is superior. . . Parliamentary institutions at this time were proving more effective in dealing with any threat from the left."

Petty bourgeois explanation

"All my data on the fascist movement," Mann declared, ". . . show overall there is no relationship fascist movements and class background. . . . In the case of Germany, studies of the Nazi party show a petty bourgeois and middle class bias, but if you add in the SA and the SS, that combination eliminates the bias, because the SA especially was far more working class. There is a little bit of petty bourgeois bias in Italy, and a proletarian bias in Romania, and in Austria there is no significant relationship." However, "there are sectoral biases: those who have a special relationship to either the nation the state are far more likely to be fascists than not. Secondly, those who are in industrial sectors which are not in the front line of class conflict" are more likely to be fascists. . . . If we want to know why people become fascists, it is not essentially a question of class but of people's relationship to the nation and state."

"All serious fascist movements emerged as embittered veteran paramilitaries at the end of World War I," Mann observed. In view of this "is it defeat that legitimizes government and produces a radical right movement?" In a few cases--notably defeated powers that were deprived of territory --this may have been so: Germany and Hungary especially. "But there are also two victors: Italy and Romania. But they are special cases. Italy was a nominal winner, but believed itself to be betrayed at the end of the war because it did not get the territorial concessions from the Allies that it believed had been promised to it. . . . In Romania, which made massive territorial gains in World War I, there may have been in fear of being relieved of those territories. . . . None of the neutrals developed major fascist movements, except for Spain."

"It is clear then that this is not a sufficient condition, though it does look as if the actual organization evolved under fascist parties and that distinctive paramilitarism may well be a necessary condition."

Ideological explanation

"Fascism was a very important ideology. . . . It was fairly coherent and it certainly embraced most areas of life. . . . And the notion of a civilization being in crisis, that you have to recapture order before you can embrace modernity is a very general fascist belief. And it certainly resonated with the youth. . . . It attracted higher educated youth as well as those who had experience in the army, and made them into converts."

But the question remains, "why did this happen only in parts of half of Europe, and not in the other half of Europe. This," Mann declared, "is where political institutions and power relations will yield the best explanation."

Political explanation

The regimes in northwest Europe were, Mann pointed out, "those in which liberal regimes were already institutionalized. . . . All the political crises in these countries are dealt with through liberal institutions. Governments affected by the Great Depression may have been deligitimated, but another government came in from within the institutions of the country. . . . The middle belt of Europe is one in which there are already significant parliamentary institutions before World War I, but where there are also authoritarian pasts, like Germany." As for fascism, Mann contended that "if you don't have liberal institutions institutionalized, if you have more authoritarian institutions already institutionalized" (as in Hungary and Romania), then the likely outcome is not fascism but "another type of authoritarianism rightism."

A Revival of Fascism?

Mann argued that fascism in the sense he has defined it--the classic fascism of interwar Europe--is not reviving itself. "The far rightist movements of Europe today are not principally fascist movements: they have very limited ideologies and they are not pro-statest. Indeed, pro-statist political movements are rare in the world today, given the history of both fascism and communism."
"On the other hand," Mann continued, "there are some movements across the world today which bear some resemblance to fascism, and rather curiously they tend to be religious ones. . . . You might also say that some of the Islamic jihadis today" may fall in this category, but as Mann pointed out "it is a theocracy that is their goal, which is quite different from that of classic fascism."

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An interview of Michael Mann, in the Conversations with History series produced at UC Berkeley, is available via UCTV webcast here.

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