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Fascism as a historical entity began in 1922 when Mussolini came to power in Italy. As a political ideology, fascism defines many of the movements that were present in post-World War I Europe from the British Union of Fascists to the Romanian Iron Guard. Fascism could have remained simply a characteristic of a group of historically specific political formations, but the term rather quickly developed a life of its own. Today, it serves as what Alexander (2003) has described as a bridging metaphor, that is, a term that one uses independently of historical or definitional context when confronted with acts of arbitrary violence or authoritarianism in political and, in some instances, social life.
The death-knell of fascism has not sounded either in the real world of political practice or in the relatively cloistered world of the academy. For example, Griffin (1991: 26) begins where earlier studies left off. He argues that the term fascism has undergone an ”unacceptable loss of precision” and proposes a new ”ideal type” of fascism based on the following definition: ”Fascism is a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism.” The collapse of communism in 1989, the electoral success of European right-wing populist parties that began in the early 1990s coupled with a resurgence of neo-Nazi violence, and the more recent rise of Islamic fundamentalism have reawakened social science interest in historical fascism.
Existing studies of fascism fall into two schools that may be broadly categorized as follows. The first tries to answer the ”what” or definitional question. Frequently, this is articulated in a discussion of whether or not fascism is a ”generic” concept or a national variation of historically specific political instances. For those who try to define fascism, the central theme is the impossibility of definition. The second approach bypasses definition and tries to establish the characteristics of regimes and constituencies. Lipset’s (1981) classic account of the class composition of fascist movements attributes fascism’s success to the political disaffection of the middle classes. Fascism, for Linz, was a peculiar combination of law and violence.
A central weakness in much of the writing on fascism, past and present, has been a failure to draw a sharp distinction between fascist movements and regimes, between fascism as ideology and fascism as state, between political impulse and political institution.
- Alexander, J. C. (2003) The Meanings of Social Life. Oxford University Press, New York.
- Griffin, R. (1991) The Nature of Fascism. St. Martin’s Press, New York.
- Lipset, S. M. (1981) Political Man. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD.