Until the Great War of 1914-1918, it seemed to most observers as if all the countries of Europe were marching, slowly but surely, toward greater and greater political democracy. In the economically troubled years after the war, however, antidemocratic movements arose in almost every European state. In the Kingdom of Italy, a liberal Parliamentary regime was replaced, in 1933, by the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini. In Germany, the peace-loving liberal democracy of the Weimar Republic was replaced, in 1933, by the brutal and warlike regime of Adolf Hitler. By the 1930’s, it seemed to many anxious liberals that a new plague was sweeping Europe, a plague of movements and governments that they called Fascist. A period of worldwide economic depression and of growing disrespect for international law culminated in a second, and far more disastrous, Great War, that of 1939-1945, one that witnessed atrocities and persecutions once thought to be part of a dead medieval past.
Given the economic troubles that afflict the advanced industrial countries of the world today, given the present-day instability in international relations, could such a universal catastrophe happen once again? Could a Fascist plague once again sweep the Western world? Is fascism merely part of a dead past, or a very real and living danger?
Much of the answer to this question depends on how one defines the word fascism. In his new book, Fascism: Comparison and Definition, Stanley G. Payne, a Professor of Spanish history at the University of Wisconsin, tries to arrive at a definition of a political bogey-word that still haunts us today. Making use not only of the results of his own many years of research on Spanish politics in the 1930’s, but also of the works of other scholars on a score of movements and governments around the world, Payne gives the reader a rigorous analysis of this twentieth century political phenomenon.
Bertram Gross alleges that the United States is moving toward a form of Friendly Fascism. Penny Lernoux, in her book, Cry of the People, accuses the United States government of having given aid to Fascist regimes in Latin America. More than thirty-five years after the end of World War II, the term “fascism” still has the power to arouse passion. Payne tries to discuss the whole subject of fascism in a dispassionate, objective, and impartial fashion. He wants to take the word out of the realm of partisan polemics and into the sphere of historical scholarship.
Payne’s approach is topical rather than chronological. There is no attempt to give a blow-by-blow account of the rise to power of the two most famous European Fascists, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Instead, the author tries, throughout the various chapters, to answer a series of questions about the phenomenon of fascism. He uses comparisons of different allegedly Fascist movements and regimes as part of his search for a meaningful definition. Again and again, he points out how difficult it is to find a common content of fascism. The differences among the various so-called Fascist movements and regimes, the author finds, were almost as great, if not greater than, the similarities.
The use of the term fascism, Payne believes, has been far too broad. It cannot, he argues, be applied to every authoritarian political movement or government which happens to be both anti-liberal and anti-Marxist. Among the various forces opposed to both liberalism and Marxism, Payne sharply distinguishes between the conservative right and the radical right, on the one hand, and the Fascists, on the other. He provides the reader with a table illustrating this threefold distinction for various countries of the world.
Although all three forces were united in their opposition to Parliamentary democracy, they differed, Payne contends, over questions of politics, economics, and culture. The conservative right generally wished to bring about only a partial transformation of the system in an authoritarian direction,...
(The entire section is 4,970 words.)