Geplaatst op 9 augustus 2001 door Frank van Mil
The study of fascism is nearly as old as the phenomenon itself. As soon as it stormed the European political stage after World War I, it evoked reactions from multiple directions. From the Soviet Union came the authoritative marxist interpretation of fascism as an extreme agent of capitalism. Many conservatives saw it as a vulgar expression of the new political role of the amorphous masses and many other views followed. From the very beginning of fascism as an active force in European politics, it posed a problem of definition. If one thing was clear about it, it was that it could not easily and one-sidedly be defined. Thus it was in the inter-war years; and so it is even now, more than fifty years after the defeat of fascism.
The study of fascism is nearly as old as the phenomenon itself. As soon as it stormed the European political stage after World War I, it evoked reactions from multiple directions. From the Soviet Union came the authoritative marxist interpretation of fascism as an extreme agent of capitalism. Many conservatives saw it as a vulgar expression of the new political role of the amorphous masses and many other views followed. From the very beginning of fascism as an active force in European politics, it posed a problem of definition. If one thing was clear about it, it was that it could not easily and one-sidedly be defined. Thus it was in the inter-war years; and so it is even now, more than fifty years after the defeat of fascism.

In his 1995 A history of fascism, 1914-1945, Stanley Payne gives a thorough and elaborate account of the wide variety of definitions and identities fascism has been granted through the years. At the very start of the book, he essentially distinguishes the Italian - capitalized - Fascist movement and Fascism, from the generically used - non-capitalized - fascism. In fact, the whole book can be read as a very extended definition, with the historical case-part as argumentative addition. Payne distinguishes thirteen different interpretations of fascism. Of these, some are that fascism can be viewed as a unique radicalism of the middle classes; a manifestation of twentieth-century totalitarianism; a consequence of unique national histories; a reaction against modernization; or a cultural revolution, to name a few.

Payne"s objective is to determine whether or not something as generic fascism existed in the interbellum. This means: was there a common denominator with which all European fascist movements can be defined and distinguished from other right-wing movements? The study of fascism however can also be focused on for instance ideology, movement or regime. These studies tend to be more specific but they can suffer from the broad definitional discussion. Historians might get mixed up in a hybrid treatment, writing about their topic and about sidesteps to what the definition of fascism is.

The subject of this paper is the so called "Sternhell controversy". It is centered around a trio of books, written by the Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell. I will argue that the Sternhell controversy is the result of this incredible span of historical discussions on fascism. This might seem a truism but my estimation is that many questions get blurred: about the ideology of fascism, its nature, its definition or specific historical aspects of it.
Chapter 1
In the study of fascism historians encounter a moral factor. The apparent evil outcomings of its development has driven many to define fascism as a special case in history, a "Betriebsunfall" (corporate accident) as the Germans put it. As an independent movement, fascism was given little credit. It was more seen as anti-Marxist, anti-liberal, anti-revolutionary, to name a few examples. One of Sternhell"s main concerns, throughout the years, has been to refute this. In the latest of the three books, The birth of fascist ideology, he states that “fascism is regarded as an independent cultural and political phenomenon that was no less intellectually self-sufficient than socialism or liberalism." Next to that he also “assumes that the intellectual content of fascism had the same importance in the growth and development of the movement as it had in liberalism or later in Marxism."

Sternhell had come to these conclusions in the course of two decades. In 1972 he published what might now be considered a preliminary study about Maurice Barrès and French nationalism. In the 1978 follow-up, La droite révolutionaire, about the French origins of fascism, he sets out his theoretical and methodological framework. In the conclusion to this work he states his important premise that fascism subordinated economics and placed it in the service of the fascist revolt. This was to be done by placing capitalism in the service of the community, and giving a primacy to politics. This notion will return in his later books. Another recurring theme in the controversy, which comes from the book, is Sternhell"s conviction that every idea that contributed to the development of fascism was formed by men of the generation of 1890. The fact however, that La droite révolutionaire has never been translated to English supports Costa Pinto"s claim that it is not the most controversial book of the trilogy. In 1986 this Portuguese scholar gave a comprehensive account of the controversy until then.
Chapter 2
In 1983 Sternhell wrote Ni droite, ni gauche, which was translated to English three years later under the title Neither right, nor left - fascist ideology in France. This book triggered off a controversy; many scholars of fascism did not agree on Sternhell"s analyses and conclusions.

The book finished Sternhell"s interpretation of the origins of fascist ideology. Simply put, it goes back to an old way of seeing fascism as the sum of nationalism and socialism. Sternhell sees this mix having come into being in late nineteenth-century France. In these years a new kind of right-wing politics had evolved; the revolutionary right of the 1978 book. In this new right, anti-rationalism, anti-positivism, racism and nationalism came together. Because France was the most mature continental democracy, these developments had also gone furthest. Next to this, it was also the result of nineteenth-century urbanization and industrialization. Fin-de-siècle culture provided a sense of élitism and attention to the irrational. This new nationalist right rejected liberal democracy. In general this movement was an expression of the intellectual challenges and changes of the era. In this view, World War I is not a characterizing breakpoint in the development of fascism. This is very important in Sternhell"s theses. In fact, all his work is determined by the desire to prove the double identity of fascist ideology - from revolutionary right and revisionist Marxism; an identity that was impregnated in European cultural and intellectual life.
The new aspect of Neither right nor left was however not the analyses of French right-wing politics. It was the claim that extreme left and extreme right came together in a crypto-fascist mode: according to Sternhell these people were fascist without even knowing it themselves. The binding factors in this were a fanatic anti-democratic sentiment, a revolutionary feeling and anti-materialism. Especially this latter part would be elaborated upon in the 1989 Birth of fascist ideology. Many historians disagreed with Sternhell on his interpretation of fascist without knowing it, stating that it ignores the subjective dimension of what people thought they were doing.
This analysis of the origins of fascism was combined with Sternhell"s conclusion that fascism had French roots. With this he connected remarks about Vichy-France; and these sparked up antagony. Namely, Sternhell said that French cultural life in the thirties had been impregnated with fascism and therefore it was not strange at all for its democratic institutions to be destroyed in less then six months. This aroused a lot of anxiety.
The synthesis of left and right, in Sternhell"s eyes, was not a very strange development. During the last decade of the nineteenth century, Marxism had undergone very much criticism from the inside. This resulted on the one hand in a faction of reformist socialists; people who saw how liberal democracy tended to grant socialism compromises through labor laws and such, and decided to better the workers position from the inside. Another group rejected Marxist historical materialism, but did not want to give up the anti-bourgeois revolution. In Sternhell"s eyes, it was only logical that these left-wing critics allied with extreme right politics. One of these anti-materialist revisionists was the Frenchman Georges Sorel.
In a response to the ideological crisis that struck Marxism at the end of the nineteenth century, Sorel more or less "undressed" the orthodox teachings. When he was finished, he had rejected historical materialism, Marxist economics and even the revolutionary role of the proletariat. What was left was an irrationalist ideology that was grounded in myths, action and violence.

It was this interaction between left and right, the coming together of several European cultural/intellectual currents that made it possible for many different people to have fascist thoughts. Thus, it is clear to Sternhell, in the interbellum fascism was a perfectly accepted ideology and - it being embedded in European culture - many people could “be fascists without knowing it".

Sternhell has not been the first to approach fascism as a mix of left and right. In a 1965 study Eugen Weber first of all states the whole conceptual distinction between left and right to be highly arbitrary. He claims that we “ might understand certain political phenomena better by identifying them as radical or moderate, theoretical or spontaneous, than by trying to fit them into categories experience is rendering out of date". Just like Sternhell, Weber points out the interaction between left and right. He stresses the rights use of LeBonian mass psychology and the urge for an “apocalyptic purification of European society" and states that this was exactly where left and right could meet.
Chapter 3
There are differences between Weber and Sternhell. To Weber these developments certainly constituted the European intellectual climate, but they did not form a fascist ideology avant-la-lèttre. One of the reasons for this difference is that in Webers opinion fascism had no doctrine. To him (proto-) fascists were merely “wandering minstrels, troubadours of a sterner, plainer world, or leaders into battle, the bright, terrible lunatic fringe of the dull and prudent, the damned compact liberal majority." (It must be stated that this is Webers interpretation of the French extreme right.) Remembering Sternhell"s opening premises about the position of ideology in fascism, it is obvious that he can never agree with this reading of the matter. Although Weber wrote that "left" and "right" were not useful phrases, he does not reject them. On the contrary, he takes these controversial concepts and tries to understand how they have been interpreted. Sternhell rejects the dichotomy and puts fascism in neither box.

Payne also distinguishes fascism from forms of extreme right-wing politics. According to him the main difference was the role of religion in their doctrines, traditional rightists giving it a (bigger) role. It seems that at present, this part of Sternhell"s thesis is at least not completely rejected.
Another influential work is Ernst Nolte"s Three faces of fascism. In an almost philosophical epilogue to this triptich on French, Italian and German fascism, Nolte gives a description of fascism as a metapolitical phenomenon. It is a concept of fascism as a resistance to practical transcendence. To Nolte, practical transcendence means the removal of old pre-modern ties which had limited man"s freedom. Ties like tradition or family were growing less, because of industrialization and modernization. However, this view never got accepted as a useful analytical concept. To the untrained eye, Nolte"s interpretation can very well look similar to Sternhell"s "intellectual revolt against liberal democracy"-analyses. Nonetheless the latter clearly does not follow the former. Nolte stressed the forming impact of World War I, whereas the continuity of ideas, and the importance of the generation of 1890 are some of Sternhell"s main focuses. And, according to Nolte fascism was very strongly a product of anti-marxism and the communist challenge in particular. This is a reading which Sternhell firmly rejects. Nevertheless, Nolte did clearly show fascism to be a new phenomenon with an "original" set of ideas and objectives. So even though Sternhell distances himself from the German scholar, he definitely comes from the same academic pedigree.
Chapter 4
In 1979 David Roberts wrote The syndicalist tradition and Italian Fascism. This book may be seen in the tradition of Weber and Nolte as well. Roberts" presuppositions very much resemble Sternhell"s, especially in his The birth of fascist ideology. According to Roberts, “the syndicalists were never Mussolinians or nationalists, (...) They had something of their own to offer to fascism." He considers many of the Italian syndicalists as most influential fascist ideologues. And, just as Sternhell does, Roberts also acknowledges the contributions of syndicalism to fascism. The reason however that there is no such thing as a "Roberts controversy", is that he quite simply avoided this. He clearly states in his introduction that “the syndicalists cannot be understood in terms of the personal and ontological malaise that we find underlying the appeal of fascism to many discontented European intellectuals between the wars." Furthermore, Roberts quite specifically states that he did not intend to write about the intellectual origins of fascism.
And there you have the main difference with Sternhell. Roberts clearly sets out the goals of his research and manages to not get lost in the incredible woods of fascism-interpretations. He is also not tempted to present his findings as the ultimate answer to fascism.

It was exactly an attitude like this that brought quite some criticism to Sternhell"s direction. Already mentioned above, Antonio Costa Pinto gave a review on the Sternhell controversy up until that point in 1986 in the European history quarterly. Five years later, Robert Wohl also reflected on the matter, but didn"t include The birth of fascist ideology which had already been written by then.

According to Costa, most reactions to Neither right nor left were outright rejections. Many objections were related to Sternhell"s methodology and historic genre. Putting too much stress on ideology, Sternhell supposedly separated the ideological world from social and political reality; not properly regarding the “acquisitions of social history". Sand, Winock and Julliard did not deny the fact that fascism can be analyzed ideologically, but they did stress the stronger pragmatic side of fascism. They saw the lacking of this side as a big flaw in Sternhell"s enterprise. His critics also reproached him with over-crediting the left-wing influence in fascist ideology. In his later book, however, Sternhell states the revolutionary right as the most important factor in the formation of fascism. Sternhell originally replied by a number of additions to Neither right nor left in professional magazines. He reaffirmed his positions and made them more precise.

The rejections to Sternhell"s viewpoints have also been formulated in teleological terms. All his critics saw in the developments as sketched by him no more than a heterogeneous collection of elements. Opposed to this Sternhell interpreted it as an already solid conceptual framework. All his critics grant him is a mere expression of pre-fascism.

Sand accuses Sternhell of "false identity syllogism". He is said to bring various anti-communist currents together under the name of fascism. Burrin and Berstein blame Sternhell for confusing fascism with the "family of national reunification ideologies". But basically these criticisms are very similar. Another objection is Sternhell"s poor definition of fascism. As we will see, this criticism will later also be used by Roger Griffin. However, as in the case of Berstein this just seems to be the problem. If two people use two different definitions with which to work, it is very hard to come to any constructive debate. If any, this would have to be my criticism to the criticisms; a lack of conceptual flexibility that completely diminishes the chances for a fruitful debate. Dino Confrancesco"s contribution therefore is a lot more helpful. He rejects the degree to which Sternhell uses ideology as a central concept, but he maintains that Sternhell"s analysis is valid.

As a reply to this all, Sternhell did come up with a fascist minimum: “a denial of individualism, capitalism, liberalism, marxist determinism and its social democratic variant, and their replacement by "a conception of man as a social animal, an integral part of an organic whole"".
Chapter 5
Costa Pinto also had an opinion of his own. It most resembled Confrancesco"s. He stresses that historical continuity needs to be regarded if we want to understand what happened in the inter-war period. However, what he does note is that Sternhell confused culture with ideology. Therefore he concludes that Sternhell"s “work is a useful tool for understanding cultural origins, it is less valuable regarding what seems to be his objective: defining fascist ideology itself." It seems that Sternhell stretched the definition of ideology.

Robert Wohl, in 1991, took a very similar standpoint. Wohl"s criticism was directed at Sternhell"s most controversial conclusions. Namely, by showing fascism to have French roots, the whole discussion on the nature of the Vichy-regime was brought back to life. In Sternhell"s mind, the origins of Vichy were indigenous and their nature radical. According to Wohl, this train of thought gave way too less credit to the earth shaking influence of World War I. Added to that, so Wohl said, Sternhell put too much stress on ideology, not keeping in mind the active force of fascism. With this, Wohl chose sides with most of the critics. He also points out that most historians rejected Sternhell"s analysis of fascism as the outcoming of a revision of Marxism.

Wohl very sharply puts Sternhell in his place, by saying that he “imposes on this interpretative scaffolding more weight than it can bear and opens himself to criticisms". Wohl thinks that Sternhell did not do a good job at showing the motivation of those who according to Sternhell were drawn to fascism. He also thinks that Sternhell might have jumped a bit to conclusions by stating the road to fascism having been an inevitable one in search of a fourth way in politics - next to liberalism, communism and social-democracy.

In the meantime Sternhell had already launched another successor into the controversy: The birth of fascist ideology. Also originally published in French in 1989, it was translated into English in 1994. Just like Neither right nor left, it builds upon his earlier theses. The two basic assumptions of this volume are that fascism was a cultural phenomenon before it became a political force; and second that the development of its conceptual framework played a crucial role in this process. In this book, Sternhell made some adaptions in response to his critics. He for instance clearly gives the revolutionary right primacy over the influences of the left. He does not give his critics credit by quite simply stating that this, by then, ought to be clear. This book however did not provoke as many reactions as the previous one did. As a matter of fact, later publications about the whole controversy still focused on Neither right nor left.

In spite of these small accommodations, Sternhell keeps his definitions a bit vague. He sees ideology, as an interaction between culture and politics. In this way, working on his premise of culture preceding politics, the study of cultural origins entails the study of early ideological beginnings. Although in his thinking he does seem to distinguish between Fascism and fascism, he does not state this, getting quite confusing in the end.
In The birth of fascist ideology Sternhell takes a closer look at the mechanistics at work in the Franco-Italian anti-materialist revision of Marxism, that gradually contributed to the growth of fascism. This regional distinction comes from Sternhell"s assertion that reactions to the crisis of Marxism varied per region. Whereas Italy and France were characterized by an anti-materialist revision, the Eastern European countries stayed closer to orthodox Marxist teachings. In the book Sternhell sticks to his conclusion that there was ideological continuity before and after World War I. He adds to this that “only the social and psychological conditions were different" (!)

Let us not take Sternhell for a fool. Even though he never significantly weakened his claims for his conclusions, I think we should definitely put these kinds of remarks in the light of the polemic. In his epilogue he namely does react to his critics. He sees his approach as a contribution to go from culture to ideology to practice; and he states that to not do this would be an apologetic approach of history. Furthermore, he concludes that today “anyone who seeks a comprehensive explanation of the causes of the liquidation of freedom in Western Europe will find that a reading of the writing of Spengler, Jünger, Miguel de Unamuno, Croce and Mounier will be no less useful than a study of the founders of fascism." My conclusion from this is that - even though he doesn"t admit it - Sternhell did not mean to give the Ultimate answer about the definition of fascism, but maybe an ultimate assist for further research. This is why I think that reactions like those by Costa Pinto and Wohl are more useful than any outright and complete rejection.

Roger Griffin came to different conclusions in his 1995 and 1997 reviews on the controversy. In a way, he just follows in the footsteps of earlier critics, by remarking that Sternhell did not "honor" the heritage of World War I enough; or that he is wrong in thinking that his definition is an ideal type. Next to this it is also clear to Griffin that Sternhell misses out on many of fascism by focusing solely on the dichotomy of extreme nationalism and anti-materialist revision of Marxism. Herewith Griffin thinks of ultra-racism or the myth of rebirth, which were important in many forms of fascism. What is more, Griffin also reproaches Sternhell with not giving decent replies to his critics but just reaffirming his positions. And taking the 1994 book in account, there can be no other conclusion than that Griffin is right.

Even more so, in the 1996 introduction for a bundle of essays on the intellectual revolt against liberal democracy, Sternhell does nothing but repeat earlier statements. This goes even to the extent that he copies exact phrases from The birth of fascist ideology.

One major objection that is being made against Sternhells thesis is that he completely does not consider Nazism in it. Sternhell clearly limits himself to the capitalized Fascism and its French forebears, and states Nazism to be something completely different from this. Many antagonists claim that this is easier said than done, and that Sternhell too easily bypasses this problem.

Griffin is less kind to Sternhell than Costa Pinto and Wohl were. He really seems to blame Sternhell for not living up to the appearance of ideal definition. Strictly speaking this is right of course but - as said above - I wonder how much this will benefit the future study of fascism. According to Griffin, Sternhell could never succeed at a good study as long as he does not consider Nazism as a form of fascism. In addition to this, he rightly points out that there were many forms of fascism that did not draw on a revised Marxism. And in conclusion Griffin agrees with so many critics that Sternhell focuses too much on ideology, in which he underestimates the importance of "action" in fascism.
So, in this controversy Zeev Sternhell does not seem to come off very well. His methodology is poorly chosen, he over-spans his working area, he leaves out essential elements; and yet he did manage to unleash a fierce scholarly debate. Can this only be attributed to the impressive research that accompanied his theses? I think not. Of course, many of the objections that were raised were definitely valid. Sternhell"s theses however stirred many emotions as well.

The study of fascism is hindered by its sheer scope and by the fact that it arouses many sentiments. These two things are made clear by the affairs concerning the Sternhell controversy. The interpretations Sternhell has brought can, in Payne"s conception, be seen as "fascism as a cultural revolution." It is clear that Sternhell"s interpretation by no means covers all the possible view points as so meticulously uncovered in Payne"s work. Writing the history of fascism had often been considered equal to writing the history of the interbellum. What Sternhell had showed us, is that it would also have to include writing the history of the late nineteenth century. Sternhell had grasped definite features of historical reality that contributed to what eventually happened, but by no means has he uncovered everything. However, it would be a pity to reject Sternhell"s theses completely as "not defining the ideal type of fascism", even though this is what he had set out to do. It would pass out on many interesting ways of approaching a very intriguing part of history about which there is still a lot to be learned. And in spite of all controversies and polemics, is not that what academia is supposed to do?

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Griffin, R., “Solving the fascist conundrum." European history quarterly (1997).

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Idem, Neither right nor left: fascist ideology in France. (Berkely/Los Angeles, 1986).

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