The Civic Foundations of Fascism in Europe

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This book was first published in 2010 by John Hopkins University Press. Presumably the decision by Verso to bring out a paperback edition this year was prompted at least in part by the resurgence of the far right in the US, much of Europe, in Brazil and elsewhere. How useful is it?

Riley focuses his attention on the supposed establishment of the fascist state in three countries, Italy, Spain and Romania. He certainly deploys considerable knowledge of developments in those three countries between the two World Wars. His intention is to conduct a “dialogue” with two theoretical traditions: “Marxism and Tocquevillian analysis”. His touchstone is very much the Gramsci of the Prison Notebooks, however, while Trotsky, whose revolutionary ideas continue to have a very contemporary relevance, gets barely a mention.

He explores three models of fascist state: “Party Fascism” in Italy, “Traditionalist Fascism” in Spain and “Statist Fascism” in Romania. This approach is seriously flawed. The Franco regime, for example, was not some new concoction, “Traditionalist Fascism”, but was instead a military dictatorship, imposed on Spain after a failed military coup and bloody civil war only won by Franco because of the support he received from fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Certainly, the dictatorship adopted some of the trappings of Fascism, but it cannot really be put forward as a new kind of Fascist regime, as some kind of “Traditionalist Fascism”.

Similarly with Romania. Dictatorship was imposed on the country by a royal coup that eventually saw the establishment of a military dictatorship under Marshal Antonescu. According to Riley, this was “fascism from above”, that is “Statist Fascism”. One minor problem is that Antonescu, while, once again adopting many of the trappings of fascism, had the fascist Iron Guard, the Greenshirts, suppressed in January 1941. It is worth noticing here that the Iron Guard’s antisemitic atrocities and murders even shocked some Nazis.

And just to compound all this Riley insists on characterising all three of these regimes as “authoritarian democracies”! He himself acknowledges how perverse this might seem, especially regarding the Franco regime, but, in fact, the whole idea, regarding all three regimes, is thoroughly misconceived. This particular formulation does not advance our understanding at all.

What we have when we look at fascist movements is, to begin with, often small groups of individuals bound together by shared ultra-nationalist, anti-democratic, authoritarian beliefs. Most fascist organisations never develop beyond this stage. They can become mass movements in times of economic, political and social crisis. Crucial throughout is their relationship to the ruling class, the extent to which the ruling class needs them to keep itself safe by dividing the working class and using them to destroy the left.

Only in Italy and Germany, have the ruling class acquiesced in their actual takeover of the machinery of the state, resulting in what can be legitimately described as fascist regimes. Elsewhere, they remained in a subordinate position, made use of but in the end either tamed (by Franco) or dispensed with (by Antonescu).