Fascism: historical phenomenon and political concept
Chercheur en histoire

(Université d’Uppsala - Hugo Valentin Center)


Tempio della Vittoria, Sacrario dei caduti Milanesi

arch. Giovanni Muzio, Gio Ponti, Ottavio Cabiati, Alberto AlpagoNovello & Tomaso Buzzi 1927-1929

Statua di Adolfo Wildt, bassorilievi di Carlo Carrà


Roger Griffin is professor emeritus at Oxford Brookes University and the world’s leading authorities on comparative fascism studies. In 1991 Griffin published The Nature of Fascism. His first and most important work on the topic included a definition of fascism as “a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism”0. Griffin situated ideology and the myth of national rebirth, or palingenesis, at the center of his understanding of fascism.

During the 1980s, when working on the PhD which later became his first book, he had identified a shortcoming in research on fascism. Although numerous scholars were working on the topic in its various forms, there seemed to be no working definition of what fascism actually was. In Griffin’s view, Marxist scholars tended to reduce fascism to a reactionary defense of the capitalist order. Their non-Marxist or liberal colleagues, on the other hand, regarded fascism as little more than a form of irrational nihilism. In both cases, scholars defined fascism more based on what it opposed, rather than what it stood for. Following the lead of George Mosse0, Griffin not only explored the purported degeneration that fascists reacted against but also the society that they sought to replace it with. What emerged from this approach was an attempt to create a distinct form of modernity, in which the violence commonly associated with fascism was merely the first step.

What makes Griffin’s contribution to this number of Passés Futurs particularly relevant is the fact that he has reached further that most other scholars in exploring the meaning of fascism as general political and historical concept. Contrary to many of his colleagues in the field, he does not restrict the term fascism to its classical phase during the interwar period. In his view, 1945 was not end but rather a turning point for fascists who had to adapt to new circumstances. The old forms of mass party politics were no longer viable and they turned instead to forming small but internationally connected groups on the political fringe. Fascist ideology in its new iterations have inspired terrorist attacks and welcomed the illiberal turn in politics. In the following interview, Griffin explains his understanding of fascism as a historical and political phenomenon, while also commenting on the relevance of this concept today.

Olof Bortz – How would you describe the main features of fascist movements and regimes during the “classical” epoch before the Second World War?

Roger Griffin – To be answered fully this question would require a whole book to itself. At least a chapter would have to be devoted to establishing which definition of fascism was being applied, because there are many different approaches and schools of thought. Some major historians have been so exasperated by the lack of agreement about what it means that they have called for the term to be banned altogether outside Italy, but that is naïve because a number of interwar ultranationalist movements called themselves fascist (notably the Faisceau in France and the British Union of Fascists in the UK) or saw themselves as allied to Italian Fascism (the NSDAP under Hitler, or Spain’s Falange).

Using the working definition which I helped to pioneer in the 1990s and which has now been broadly adopted by the growing number of contributors to the journal Fascism3 and members of COMFAS, the International Association of Comparative Fascist Studies, fascism is best seen as a revolutionary form of ultranationalism (organic, anti-liberal, “tribal” nationalism). Since ultranationalism is shaped by a unique national history, (religious or secular) culture and socio-political context, it varies significantly in specific ideology, programme, organization, and historical impact according to the movement under examination, and its precondition is the existence of a heightened sense of national or ethnic uniqueness, patriotism, and historical destiny.

In the early interwar period ideal conditions existed in Italy for Fascism to emerge as revolutionary ultranationalist movement and its successful conquest of state power not only provided the generic concept “fascism”, but the general template on which other fascisms based themselves before the Nazi break-through. These include a war on perceived national weakness, disunity and “decadence”, uniformed paramilitarism, the belief in a single party and charismatic leader, an emphasis on national homogeneity that demands the end of political and cultural pluralism, the persecution of “alien” ideologies and beliefs, and the pursuit of a nebulous “national rebirth” (“palingenesis”). The goal of total societal renewal may well (though not necessarily) embrace territorial or imperialist expansion, and the suppression, marginalization, “ethnic cleansing” or physical extermination of outgroups. However, in interwar Europe it did demand the social engineering of consensus through propaganda, censorship, and nation-wide “re-education” of the masses to produce “new national human beings” (“New Men”), as well as experiments with a new form of centralized (though not necessarily corporatist) economy, and forced cultural cleansing and artistic renaissance.

In practice this nexus of shared generalized features creates a wide range of unique revolutionary fascisms and parafascist (i.e. authoritarian but non-revolutionary) regimes which associate themselves with the fascist era. These demand careful historical and taxonomic scrutiny to avoid misleading evaluations and categorizations, a process that can produce some counter-intuitive results. The degree of state terror and exterminatory violence advocated by the two fully-fledged fascist regimes varied widely, and while all interwar fascisms were tendentially racist because of the intensity of their ultranationalism, not all were biologically or eugenically racist (the Brazilian Integralist Movement, for example, celebrated the unique blend of races that guaranteed the country’s potential greatness). Similarly, though all fascisms celebrated male chauvinist ideas of militarism, strength, and violent action, the British Union of Fascists called for appeasement, not war. More significantly, though Nazism was unique in the obsessiveness of its fixations with Germany’s re-Aryanization, with the enslavement or extermination of racial and ideological non-Aryans, and with the need to conquer an enormous European Empire – and also in the scale of systematic inhumanity this programme led to – it was simultaneously a variant of “palingenetic ultranationalism” and hence a form of fascism of extraordinary revolutionary and radical power. However, Franco’s regime in Spain, though outwardly fascist as long as the Axis Powers were in the ascendency, at bottom lacked the radical revolutionary vision of a “new Spain” to be fascist, which enabled it to mutate into a personal dictatorship after 1944. Before this it had succeeded in absorbing Falangism which pursued an uncompromisingly revolutionary, reactionary and traditionalist, and hence fascist nationalist vision of total rebirth, which lacked eugenic or exterminatory programmes.

A final feature common to all but two interwar fascisms was that they failed to conquer state power, being either crushed, marginalized or absorbed by the existing state. Even in power, as a revolutionary movement for the permanent and total transformation of the nation, fascism failed catastrophically. Tragically for humanity, Mussolini’s success in founding the Fascist State in 1925 and bringing about a rapid, but ultimately illusionary and eventually delusional “national rebirth” created the role model for Nazism to seize power in the midst of a far deeper national crisis in 1933. Once it had ruthlessly achieved a monopoly of state and cultural power, it exploited Germany’s advanced state of modernity, socialization, industry, bureaucratic efficiency, and militarization to be able to pursue the destructive phase of its “national revolution” to an unparalleled degree till the tide turned. The unholy military alliance of capitalist Britain and the US with Stalinist Russia ensured that eventually the very different forms of fascism represented in the Berlin-Rome Axis met their nemesis, but only at the cost of scores of millions of lives.

Olof Bortz – What were the conditions that made them central in some countries and marginal in others?

Roger Griffin –The approach to conceptualizing fascism outlined here understands it as a revolutionary form of ultranationalism which rejects liberal democratic values and the individualism, pluralism, humanism and rationalism that are supposed to be their foundation. On this premise it follows that the precondition for a fascist vision of a new order and reborn nation to emerge in the first place in a state is a powerful element of patriotic (or what might be called now “populist”) and tendentially bellicose nationalism. For its radicalization into a revolutionary movement to occur and gain traction within a wide body of the public in the inter-war Europeanized world, what was needed was a liberal state undergoing a structural crisis accompanied by a wide-spread subjective existential crisis of identity, meaning and belonging (sometimes called a “nomic crisis”).

However, the emphasis here on “liberal” societies in crisis is important, since another crucial factor is the amount of “political space” available for extremist politics. A totalizing authoritarian state such as Salazar’s Portugal, Vargas’ Brazil, Piłsudski’s Poland, Horthy’s Hungary, or Stalin’s Russia, precluded the development of a powerful revolutionary ultranationalist movement. In Spain, Brazil, Hungary and Romania fascist movements were crushed or marginalized before they could gain populist momentum. Others only gained a semblance of autonomous state power as puppets states of the Nazis (e.g. in Norway, Belgium, Holland, France – to the degree that the Vichy government was fascist), Slovakia, and Hungary. Sweden, officially neutral, managed to remain formally a liberal democracy while tolerating a powerful fascist and racist subculture. In short, the particular conjuncture of liberalism, authoritarianism, ultranationalism, that prevailed in each country after 1918, some of which were new states or emerged from the Paris Peace Conferences with completely changed borders and ethnic compositions, has to be examined to see why fascism “broke through” in some countries and not in others.

Even the two “successful” fascist movements followed different trajectories in their path to state power. Italy was on the winning side in the First World War but emerged not just economically and politically bankrupt with a weak and unpopular central government threatened by revolution on the left and paramilitary anarchy on the right. It was King Victor Emmanuel III who invited Mussolini into the citadel of state power as head of government, but not as Duce, and it needed a “coup d’État” by default for him to inaugurate the fascist experiment and grow what became immense but shallow popular consensus for his regime which quickly evaporated once Italy found itself allied to the Third Reich and fighting a second World War. By contrast Nazism remained marginalized after the failed Munich Putsch of 1923, and polled only 2.4 % of the vote in 1928. It was the extraordinary conditions of the national emergency and existential crisis created in Weimar by the Wall Street Crash that unleashed a tide of populist enthusiasm for Hitler. However, this in itself would not enabled the Nazi “seizure of power”, which could only made possible once a group of deeply anti-communist conservative politicians nostalgic for the Second Reich backed Hitler in the mistaken belief they could use him to shore up the Weimar Republic.

In short, the understanding of fascist success and failure requires a judicious blend of sophisticated political science with in-depth historical knowledge to be able to capture some of the dynamics dictating the narrative arc of each fascist movement.

Olof Bortz – What is the relation between the specific history of fascism and fascism as a general political concept?

Roger Griffin – I touched on this issue when I referred to the need to blend political science with history in order to get a “handle” on fascism as a phenomenon. The technical terms that come to mind are “idiographic” (NOT “ideographic”), or “writing about unique events in all their particularity and peculiarity” (generally the province of historiography) and “nomothetic”, or geared to identifying general patterns and generic features and processes (generally the province of the social and political sciences). Thus, Italian fascism (Fascism) and contemporary neo-Nazism can both be considered ideographically as unique historical phenomena but simultaneously nomothetically as specific forms of (generic) fascism. Any “history of fascism” (for example the ones offered by Stanley Payne or Roger Eatwell in the 1990s)4 consists of an attempt to create a cohesive narrative out of the individual histories of a multitude of unique, specific fascisms. The problem for the historian who sets out to do such a thing is that he or she cannot identify which movements, regimes and events to introduce into the “story” without developing an original definition of generic fascism (i.e. adopting the role of a political scientist) or borrowing a ready-made one.

This is not as easy as it sounds since until the 1990s there was an “embarras de richesses” of conflicting definitions of fascism on offer and minimal scholarly consensus about which, if any, was of practical use to historians. This matters because each generic definition adopted changes “the story”. If all right-wing, anti-Left-wing authoritarian regimes and movements, or maybe all capitalist societies, are fascist then the history of fascism becomes enormous and global. But some definitions restrict its manifestations to inter-war Europe, some include Franco’s regime as fascist, while others dismiss Nazism as too “unique” to belong to the fascist family, and others still see the Japanese imperialism of 1930-1945 and even Maoist China as fascist. Thus, the initial identification of examples of fascism, the historical period in which fascism is located, and the geographical area in which its nature is investigated are all dependent on the definition of fascism.

Mine, for example, includes Nazism, but excludes Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, Vichy France, and Horthy’s Hungary (because, despite the official propaganda, none pursued a revolutionary agenda for a new nation and “new human beings”). On the other hand, it identifies significant but under-researched fascist phenomena in Brazil (but not Vargas’ regime), Chile, Argentina, South Africa, and movements indebted to fascism’s concept of right-wing, populist and anti-conservative transformation in Japan, India and China. This is because it approaches fascism, as a revolutionary form of ultranationalism, radically adapting to the transformed historical climate of the non-Communist world by spawning many original iterations of itself. Clearly, such a concept of “fascism” must thus not be treated as essentialist, or “true”, just as is the case of all generic historical and political concepts. If fascism is understood as an “ideal type”, or what Max Weber called a “utopian” construct, the product of idealizing abstraction, the only difference between different ideal types of the “same” phenomenon lies in their heuristic value in investigating empirical phenomena.

Nor must fascism be seen as a static phenomenon. Fascism, like all political ideologies enacted in history, are subject to the process Michael Freeden5 called “ideological morphology” in which their “ineliminable core” remains intact and hence static – according to my definition of fascism this core is palingenetic ultranationalism – while its “peripheral” attributes (which in the interwar period include such features as charismatic leadership, uniformed paramilitarism, and corporatist economics) can change radically over time. The relationship between the specific history of a particular fascism or of “fascism” in general and fascism as a generic political concept is thus a dialectical and evolving one: advances in empirical study refines the general (nomothetic) concept, while at the same time refinement of the generic concept enriches (idiographic) empirical understanding and analysis.

Olof Bortz – In what sense is this connection different when compared to, for example, socialism and liberalism?


Roger Griffin – For once the answer can be short. What I have just claimed about the relationship between fascism as a historical phenomenon and a political concept holds true for all political concepts: a constant dialectic/dialogue/dynamic between the nomothetic and idiographic uses of the term.


Deposito Tram e Trolleybus, Milano

Depôt pour les trams et les trolleybus ATM Zara, ing. Giuseppe Casalis, 1940-1941

Olof Bortz  Recent political developments in Europe and the world have taken an authoritarian and illiberal turn. Do you think that fascism is a useful concept to understand this development?

Roger Griffin – I must unfortunately give the infuriating answer of an academic and not a journalist: the answer depends on how you define fascism, and with what conceptual and empirical rigour it is applied. This in turn depends on the context in which the term fascism is used. If the aim is to communicate and encourage a sense of alarm about the current state of national/international politics, the rise of nationalism and racism, and the crisis of liberal democracy, then the declaration that the US or Europe are steadily moving towards fascism, or that fascism is on the rise, then the term presses certain highly emotive buttons which derive ultimately from the deep trauma of the war against the Axis Powers. However, it is so overused as term of polemic, abuse and denigration for any form of authoritarianism or racism that much of its offensive and affective impact has been eroded.

If on the other hand the context is a serious, open-minded debate about identifying and evaluating the threats to democracy which tries to progress towards greater understanding, then “fascism” is only useful if it retains its classificatory (“taxonomic”) value as a term for a particular, discrete category of the illiberal right. Nowadays there is far too much sloppy thinking and semantic slippage between “the right”, “the radical/far/extreme right”, racism, hard-line conservatism, “populism”, religious fundamentalism, and “radical right-wing populism”, to the point where such terms end up obfuscating more than they illuminate. Moreover, the misuse and abuse of fascism as a concept is even more pronounced in pulp journalism and the blogosphere, where illiberal leaders as far apart as Erdogan, Putin, Trump, Orban, Bolsonaro, Kim Jong-Un and Xi Jinping can be found being routinely dismissed as fascists.

Applying the ideal type that has already been outlined, “fascism” regains its inclusive and exclusive, and hence forensic function as a political science concept within academia – as well as being suitable to be used discriminately by serious journalists and politicians as well – if it is used for ultranationalist projects that are genuinely revolutionary and driven by palingenetic myths of renewal and regeneration. To do this they must aim to replace any form of liberal democracy based on individualism, pluralism, multi-culturalism, and globalization with a new order which will enforce a homogeneous national identity within a reborn national community and integrated national culture, wipe away decadence and weakness however it is conceived, and make the nation or race “strong” again by marginalizing, excluding or exterminating those forces alleged to be undermining national, ethnic, or racial strength (an ambivalence deriving from the ambiguity of the concept “nation” itself, which can refer both to a nation state and an ethnic or religious group, as in the phrase “Native American nation” or “Nation of Islam”).

It is worth noting that the “identitarian politics” of the European New Right, though it does not openly advocate violence to achieve its ends but “only” the elimination of cultural and ethnic diversity, nevertheless (and despite the protestations its so-called intellectuals) betrays its fascist origins and ultimately fascist goals. In practice, to realize the New Right utopia of a socio-political new order based on the preservation of “difference” in the name of “ethno-pluralism” would necessitate a violent campaign of what came to be known in the Yugoslav Wars as ethnic cleansing, the revolutionary purging of demonized others leading to racial wars and mass murder within an alliance of undemocratic racial states.

Olof Bortz – How do you distinguish fascism from populism or other forms of right-wing politics?

Roger Griffin – This question lies at the heart of modern confusion over the term “fascism”. According to my own taxonomic scheme, democratic right-wing populism (there are also left-wing populisms challenging the status quo in western societies) can refer to forms of politics which cultivate the nostalgia or longing for a more ethnically, culturally, religiously homogenous and traditional nation-state protected from the impact of mass migration, globalization, membership of the EU or the uncertainties and insecurities of the “modern world” in general, and represented by politicians in touch with the feelings of “ordinary people” and thus able to help liberate them from the shackles of “alien” values, political correctness and foreign competition to the point where the country at least feels “great” again. This form of populism is compatible with democratic processes which it does not seek to overthrow but “re-nationalize” so that the advantages of national citizenship are not “squandered” on “aliens” and cultural diversity and exposure to supranational or superpower economics and politics is minimalized.

Once these sentiments are expressed in more overtly racist, xenophobic, Manichaean, hate-filled, fanatical, simplistic ways which are conducive to or actively incite xenophobic or political violence and acts of aggression/terrorism against “the system”, “foreigners” or “enemies of the people”, democratic populism morphs into “radical right-wing populism”. However, only when radical right-wing resentment of the status quo is translated into revolutionary aspirations to bring about a new national order (which may well be conceived as part of an international process of racial or civilizational regeneration) is it legitimate or helpful to talk of fascism.

As a result of applying this schema, none of the leaders of illiberal democracies are actually fascist, and referring to Trump or Putin as fascist is to fail to appreciate the danger posed by radical populism of such parties as the Rassemblement National (formerly le Front National), which is precisely that they are NOT fascist but adopt policies which in practice would lead to the deeply ILLIBERAL apartheid state which the US became before the partial victory of the Civil Rights Movement in the US and which the South African Republic was till the release of Mandela from prison. Illiberal democracy imposed by authoritarian nationalists from above or the gradual contamination of liberal democracy by the orchestrated forces of marginal politics from below are arguably greater threats to democracy than fascism either in its “classic” interwar, postwar neo-Nazi, New Right cultural, violent terroristic forms. It is time for liberals to realize that they face an existential threat to the progress of humanistic values and are reluctantly engaged in a global battle for hegemony.

Unfold notes and references
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Roger Griffin, The Nature of Fascism, Londres, Palgrave Macmillan, 1991, p. 26.

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George Mosse, historien germano-américain, était un spécialiste du fascisme, du nazisme et de l’histoire des Juifs en Allemagne.

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Fascism: Journal of Comparative Fascist Studies was founded in 2012. It deals with fascism in all its dimensions and variations and is published twice a year.

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Stanley Payne is an American historian known for his work on the Spanish Falange and the general history of fascism during the interwar period. Roger Eatwell is a British political scientist specialized on fascism, populism and right wing politics.

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Michael Freeden is a British professor of political science at the University of London and an expert on the study of political ideologies.