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BOOK REVIEW / NONFUCTION

The Flowering and the Failing of Fascism : FASCISM: A History by Roger Eatwell; Viking $34.95, 406 pages

August 16, 1996|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fascism has been so much a part of the 20th century that, though by now largely spent as a political force, it has come to be taken for granted. The word "fascist" itself was thrown at figures of authority--such as policemen, even presidents--during the '60s.

Roger Eatwell, a senior lecturer in the social sciences at the University of Bath in England, in this careful, thorough book both rescues fascism from trivialization and, soberingly, places it squarely in the currents of modern European thought.

"Fascist ideology," Eatwell writes, ". . . is a form of thought that preaches the need for social rebirth in order to forge a holistic-national radical Third Way" between capitalism and socialism.

That's the ideology. In practice, Eatwell says, "fascism has tended to stress style, especially activism and the charismatic leader, more than detailed programs."

In excessively sociological prose, Eatwell finds four main poles of fascist ideology:

First, people could be "remolded in a new, more communal and virile society."

Second, "There was a view of geopolitics: nation, region or race were seen as the driving forces of history, a motor that pointed to the need for military preparedness or aggression."

Third, "Central . . . was a critique of democracy and capitalism as weak and socially divisive.

"Finally there was an emphasis, derived largely from the view of human nature, on the need for propaganda, often related to the celebration of the charismatic leader, to induct people into the new values.

"Although fascism at times could appear populist, it was essentially manipulative and often held common people in contempt," Eatwell adds.

In those clumsy paragraphs, Eatwell sums up fascism's achievements: the glorification of brute force, cruelty, war and conquest; the contempt for civility and reason; the hatred of Jews and other "outsiders" and "subhuman" men and women, and, in the end, the orgiastic embrace of nihilism and death.

Eatwell believes that "paradoxically, fascism was both a product of the Enlightenment and a reaction to it."

A product, in the idea that "violence might be necessary to purge the existing order, and that only as mass-based form of politics could incorporate the will of the people."

A reaction, in that fascism rejected individualism, laissez faire economics and "the limited, constitutional state."

Eatwell finds closer ideological ancestors of fascism in 19th century Europe, among them German romanticism with its "worship of nature, the glorification of the national and historical against the universal and timeless, and the exaltation of genius over the mediocrity of the masses."

In 19th century Germany there arose the notion of a German soul, rooted in the land and blood, and with it virulent anti-Semitism.

After Europe blew up in World War I, fascism germinated in the debris.

Why did it flourish--and fail--where it did?

Eatwell's answers are the ones most people would come up with. Fascism failed in England because the English are too decent and sensible. It did much better in France, but ultimately failed there too because the French tradition of liberty was too strong.

But in Italy it flourished because Benito Mussolini was a powerful leader, and because the Italian nation was too young to have developed a strong civic sense.

And it came into full and poisonous flower in Germany, because of the country's culture and political and economic turmoil. The Germans had gone into the war to grasp the greatness they believed was rightfully theirs. Whipped, they felt betrayed, and upon their sullen envy Adolf Hitler preyed.

The defeat of the Nazis was the end of fascism. Eatwell examines the postwar neo-fascists in the four countries he focused on. He concludes that neo-fascism may have a certain appeal if Europe cannot find a way to include its marginal citizens in its economic system. But he believes that Europe has changed too much in the last 50 years for fascism to have much of a future there.

I think that most people, no matter how disheartened by the experiences of this century, will agree with him.

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