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Fascism & the Meaning of Life

griffin1,601 words

Roger Griffin
Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of a Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007

Roger Griffin, Professor in Modern History at Oxford Brookes University, first introduced the idea of “Palingenesis” to the field of fascist studies over 15 years ago, making him immediately a leading figure in his chosen vocation. He isolated the syncretic fascist core as being palingenetic, populist ultra-nationalism, with overtones of a phoenix-like heroic rebirth. Since then he has extended and elaborated his theory that essential to the definition of the “fascist minimum” is the notion of national rebirth or renaissance — “myths that generated policies and actions designed to bring about collective redemption, a new national community, a new society, a new man…engineered through the power of the modern state.” — culminating in this masterwork which rightly places fascism at the centre of wider modernist movements.

Epiphanic versus Programmatic Modernism

Griffin’s insights have previously been recognized as audacious and perceptive, no more so than here. Part One of the book tackles the at first seemingly tricky concept of Modernism itself, which Griffin clarifies brilliantly. Modernism’s “common denominator lies in the bid to achieve a sense of transcendent value, meaning of purpose despite Western culture’s progressive loss of a homogeneous value system and overarching cosmology (nomos) caused by the secularizing and disembedding forces of modernization.” Modernization is experienced by those caught up in its slipstream as a relentless juggernaut unzipping the fabric of meaningful existence and leaving in its wake the abyss of permanently unresolved ambivalence. In short, Modernism is defined as a reaction against the decadent[1] nihilism of intellectual, societal and technical modernization.

While Marx, other Leftists and liberals consider modern man’s condition as one of angst and alienation induced by class warfare and industrial production, the Right sees anomie as both the cause and the principle symptom of our modern malaise. “It is the black hole of existential self-awareness in all of us, our fear of ‘the eternal silence of infinite spaces’ that so alarmed [Blaise] Pascal, which produces culture.”

This modern culture is further divided by Griffin into what might be called introvert and extrovert reactions: the introvert reaction is generally individualistic and in Griffin’s expression an “epiphanic modernism” — the path of the artist — while the extrovert, collective reaction is defined as “programmatic modernism.” The latter seeks to change the world and resolve the permanent crisis of modernity (“all that is solid melts into air” – Marx) by a collective act of “reconnection forwards” (Moeller van den Bruck). It is not difficult to make the short step from “programmatic modernism” to fascism; the transcendent politics proposed by van den Bruck at the beginning of the Twentieth Century are not so different from Guillaume Faye’s “Archaic Futurism” at its end. Both are, in the phrase of Guy Debord, “technically equipped archaism.”

Amongst the epiphanic modernists Griffin includes Nietzsche, Eliot, Joyce, Proust, van Gogh, Kandinsky, and Malevich, but perhaps the truth of Griffin’s argument is demonstrated by the man widely acknowledged as the greatest modern painter: Picasso. In his earlier cubist works, Picasso sought inspiration from the primitivism of African masks, and later in the archetypal Mediterranean symbols of horses and particularly bulls (which surprisingly Griffin doesn’t mention).

Gardening State

Following the exhaustive and enlightening dissection of modernism in Part One, Griffin explores the implications and applied politics in Part Two, where “modernity turbocharged by the conjuncture of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the collapse of three absolutist regimes and a powerful monarchy, with an influenza epidemic that killed as many as 100 million people world wide had made the modernist drive to ward off the terror of the void — cultural, social and political — a phenomenon of mass culture. The new era would be a creatio ex profundis, an act of creativity defying the void.” Fascism aimed for a complete overhaul, in accordance with Emilio Gentile’s observation of totalitarianism as “an experiment in political domination undertaken by a revolutionary movement.”

Griffin introduces the idea of the pre-War Fascist and National Socialist regimes as “gardening states” striking a successful balance between idyllic ruralism and technocratic modernism, the “compelling new imperative” that it obeyed “to clean up, to sterilize, to re-order, to eliminate dirt and dust” (Frances Saunders). Or neatly, if flippantly, summed up by Lars Lindholm, “For example, the Aryans (i.e. Germans, the blond and blue-eyed) are direct descendants from the Atlantean root-race, whereas the Jews, Negroes, Slavs, and anyone else for that matter, are unfortunate mutants, further away from Homo sapiens than the snottiest gorilla. The reason for all the troubles in this world is the presence of these unsavoury species that the master race should mercifully do away with so that peace and quiet could be restored and life imbued with a bit of style” (PILGRIMS OF THE NIGHT: Pathfinders of the Magical Way [Llewellyn, St. Paul MN, 1993]). It was this same vision of hygienic modernity which inspired the building in London of bright new health centres in Peckham and Finsbury during the 1930s. But mild English pragmatism was no match for German determination, where public buildings were “an act of sacralization symbolized in the toned bodies of Aryan workers showering in the washrooms of newly built hygienic factories or playing football on a KdF sportsground, their camaraderie and zest for life expressing the hope for a young, healthy nation.”

Fascist Aesthetics

Included in the book are illustrations of art and architecture not usually associated with the pre-War Fascist and National Socialist regimes: from the soaring arch designed by Adalberto Libera for the aborted EUR ’42 exhibition in Rome (later ripped-off by Eero Saarinen for the St. Louis Gateway Arch), to the cool steel and glass structure designed by Morpugo encasing the Ara Pacis of Augustus, the 1933 blueprint for the new Reichsbank in Berlin by Gropius, or Baron Julius Evola’s painterly experimentations with Dadaism.

Goebbels is revealed as a fan of Edvard Munch and Fritz Lang, while Le Corbusier submitted plans for the new town of Pontinia in the recently-reclaimed Pontine Marshes. Fritz Todt celebrated Aryan technocratic power in his construction of autobahns and later the Atlantic Wall. Irene Guenther is quoted extolling “Nazi Chic” with fashion displaying “another countenance, one that was intensely modern, technologically advanced, supremely stylized and fashionably stylish” and the Bauhaus influence on the new, burgeoning market in consumer durables is emphasised.

Unlike previous historians of fascism with their simplistic and inflexible frameworks, Griffin admirably demonstrates that “fascism, despite the connotations of regression, reaction and flight from modernity it retains for some academics, is to be regarded as an outstanding form of political modernism,” encapsulating a “deadly serious attempt to realize an alternative logic, an alternative modernity and an alternative morality to those pursued by liberalism, socialism, or conservatism.”


Griffin is well aware of the boldness and ambition of his arguments. “Post-modern” academia is notoriously hostile to transdisciplinarity, and historians today are loath to erect grand structures of interpretation and meaning. Few historians are less fashionable than Oswald Spengler, or even Samuel “Clash of Civilizations” Huntington. Griffin is well aware of this problem, and in the introduction he specifically places Modernism and Fascism within the context of “Aufbruch” (a breaking out of conventions). For this reason Griffin’s style is reflexive: he is conscious of the fact that in proposing a new syncretic historical worldview he is in some ways mirroring the dynamics of fascism itself.

Of course, European Identitarians and New Rightists will have no problem with the concept of evolutionary synthesis (it’s no accident that one of the principal English-language New Right websites is called Synthesis), nevertheless Griffin is correctly keen to show and stress that his work is non-totalizing. Overall his style is extremely lucid, and arguments that may appear at first to be mere flights of fancy are revealed as having firm foundations, unlike the convoluted, almost impenetrable, and until recently-fashionable critical theory style of, say, Andrew Hewitt’s Political Inversions: Homosexuality, Fascism and the Modernist Imaginary (1996) or the late Lacoue-Labarthe’s Heidegger, Art, and Politics (1990).

“The sky is falling on our heads”

At the end of his book, Griffin draws attention to a BBC News report from September 1998. “The sky is falling” it announces dramatically (shades of Asterix and Obelix here) “The height of the sky has dropped by 8km in the last 38 years, according to scientists from the British Antarctic Survey. Greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide are believed to be responsible for creating the effect.” He goes on to speculate, “Had Nietzsche been philosophizing at the beginning of the twenty-first century instead of the end of the nineteenth, amidst Swiss glaciers shrivelling under skies where the abstract art of vapour trails punctures illusions of transcending Good and Evil, maybe he would have ‘rethought all his ideas’ in a different, greener ‘framework’. Instead of railing against the advent of ‘nihilism’, ‘decadence’ and ‘the last man’, he might have realized that the time for any sort of ‘eternal return’ is rapidly running out in a literal, not symbolic sense.”

In the intervening 9 years since that ominous BBC report, our carbon emissions have escalated tremendously while our climate has deteriorated further, thanks to global capitalism, free market economics, liberalism, population increase, mass migration across borders, and above all the profound weakness and myopia in confronting the issue which is inherent to liberal democracies. We need to get a grip.


[1] Not the frivolous, glamourized Sally Bowles Weimar “decadence” that the word conjures up in the minds of many gay men, but rather the very real awareness of decay; that all our greatest achievements as a civilization — the Renaissance, the Age of Discovery, the Moonshots — are behind us.



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  1. Adam Hunter Taylor
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    This is on my to read (soon list) list, Also going to look into “Reactionary Modernism” by Jeremy Herf, hopefully it is a fresh perspective.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted March 15, 2013 at 7:03 am | Permalink

      Herf’s book is dreadfully dull.

      • Adam Hunter Taylor
        Posted March 15, 2013 at 11:42 am | Permalink

        oh dear, mabye i’ll give it a miss.

  2. Lucian Tudor
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    I hope nobody here has the impression that Roger Griffin is somehow friendly to the Right; he is an intellectual liberal anti-fascist who likes to, as Michael O’Meara once mentioned, basically place “every anti-liberal bad guy under its rubric, [which] is quite typcial of what passes for scholarshup in this field today” (“New Culture, New Right”, p. 33). I will admit that I have not bothered to read any of Griffin’s works except a few articles, but I have read a some secondary descriptions about what he does and it is really nothing more than a pseudo-intellectual justification for the wild, broad, and nonsensical manner in which liberals and Leftists use the term “fascism”. With the kind of definition Griffin provides, almost anyone who does not conform to liberal or Leftist ideology can be called a “fascist” or said to have “fascist residues” (an idea Griffin seems to like playing with), which basically drains the term “fascist” of any meaningful content or proper orientation of definition.

    • Lucian Tudor
      Posted March 15, 2013 at 9:45 am | Permalink

      I forgot to note: where O’Meara refers to “its rubric,” it is a reference to fascism.

    • Verlis
      Posted March 16, 2013 at 7:43 am | Permalink

      I have read a some secondary descriptions about what he does and it is really nothing more than a pseudo-intellectual justification for the wild, broad, and nonsensical manner in which liberals and Leftists use the term “fascism”.

      Be that as it may, Griffin is streets ahead of the average lunatic leftist in his understanding of what genuine fascism was all about. He understands it all very well; he simply disagrees with it. The same can’t be said for leftist historians Griffin has crossed swords with, like Dave Renton.

      • Lucian Tudor
        Posted March 16, 2013 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

        I’ve seen plenty of somewhat respectable and knowledgeable liberal or leftist intellectuals, but that does not mean that they are correct in their theories or that they are even honest with how they use their knowledge. I am aware that Griffin has done quite a bit of research into right-wing politics and philosophy and understands it better than an average liberal or leftist, but that does not justify what he does; his theory of what “fascism” is is simply incorrect and misleading (and probably purposely so). The intellectuals (like Griffin) of the systems we live under more often work to intellectually justify the nonesense received by the masses, but these justifications ultimately do not hold up regardless of what academic clothing they wear because the essential ideas they defend are erroneous. So when one reads people like Griffin, it should be with a careful and skeptical eye, and that is especially so because Griffin is not unintelligent.

    • Bobby
      Posted March 17, 2013 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for the warning. It’s vitally important, that people who are aware of leftists and internationalists, be warned about their writings. Time is not on the side of those that are praying for the destruction of leftist, internationalist, open borders, progressive dengeracies. So anything that takes people away from their devious and always agenda driven messages is good.

  3. Posted March 15, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Very enlightening. That one I have to read. I’ve discussed this and linked here:

  4. rhondda
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I have a visceral reaction to the concept of global warming. It is all based on computer models that have been taken for fact. One just needs to look at the computer models that the weather network gives out for hurricane projections. Few ever coincide or predict the same path. The scientific skeptics are right there. On the other hand, we do need to look at how we use the earth’s resources and a complete reorganization of that is needed. I won an argument with a scientist purely based on observation. The use of herbicides was one. I said that isn’t it true that weeds etc only grow where man has disturbed the earth? He agreed. Nature fills the vacuum. However, they use herbicides for farmers and ranchers and demonize weeds which hurt the profits of farmers. They then tell everyone that weeds are bad. But are they? Some put nutrients back in the soil and I read one book which states that they take up bad chemicals from the soil and can even be used medicinally. This scientist backed off then. I did not blame him. His job depends upon the politics of the day. So much for winning. These guys spend very little time actually observing what nature does. I was so mad when they cleaned up the local stream. Yes, take out the tires and human garbage, but the fallen trees and other natural debris actually help the salmon when they travel upstream by providing areas of rest behind the debris. All they ever do is count how many salmon go upstream, not how the fish behave and use the stream.

  5. Posted March 16, 2013 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Even if Griffin is no fascist, this book can easily be read against itself. It is magisterial in its scholarship, and is the best English-language example of how seriously one may take fascism. A traditional Leftist scholar would just parrot Trotsky and move on. Griffin gives fascism credit for many things that the academic Left usually denies it: culture, artistic sensibility, and well-developed critique. His chapter on the fascist conception of history (especially when read in conjunction with Claudio Fogu’s The Historic Imaginary) has enough of our language (“new community” “new nomos” and such concepts are sprinkled liberally throughout) to have a budding fascist chomping at the bit and smiling pridefully.

    • rhondda
      Posted March 16, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

      Oh Dr Dyal, I do think I know what you mean when you say ‘read against itself’. I do not know if it is an academic discipline, may be it is not. But, I think it is an art that can be articulated and perhaps you are the man to do it. For me it has just been picking out key words and phrases and trying to figure out what the author means by using those particular words, especially if they seem to contradict other words. All of which depends on the emotional content of the words. This is hardly scientific.
      If I may ask, The Historic Imaginary associates for me Lacan’s the real, the imaginary and the symbolic, am I wrong? Now I am somewhat curious and will have to put both books on a list. ( not that I am a Lacan follower. Just it is a convenient tool and better than Freud’s id ego and superego)

    • Lucian Tudor
      Posted March 16, 2013 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I had the impression that this was the case; it is similar with Jerry Muller’s work (which strikes me as being largely neutral and straightforward in its descriptions of right-wing thought despite his occasional criticisms). However, I have a great dislike for what Roger Griffin does because I am strongly opposed to equating all right-wing anti-liberal ideas to a generic “fascism.” For example, from my perspective Italian Fascism, German National Socialism, Strasserism, the German Conservative Revolution, Romanian Legionarism, and Radical Traditionalism (in the “Evolian” sense) are all separate worldviews or movements, and it would be dishonest to treat them as if their differences are insignificant or to bring them all under the label “fascism.” I would even argue that Fascism (in the true, particular sense of term, which is based on Mussolini’s movement) is inferior to all the other groups I have listed.

      • Verlis
        Posted March 17, 2013 at 2:41 am | Permalink

        Griffin is fully aware of the intricacies involved in formulating definitions. It’s to be expected that partisans on each side — fascists themselves (or those who fancy themselves as such) and the fanatical leftist opposition — will find the resulting product unsatisfactory. Less committed readers, however, would find the explanations of the common elements among the various manifestations of the ‘fascist spirit’ (if I may) illuminating. What Mark Dyal said of the volume under discussion here — that it can be read against itself — strikes me as true of everything I have read from Griffin, so even people who have internalized fascist worldviews (such as yourself, apparently) could benefit from a close reading.

        And a final note, Griffin takes care to distinguish fascism from certain forms of conservatism that emerged in the early 20th century which are sometimes accused of being fascistic, such as the regimes in Portugal and Spain. So it’s most certainly untrue that he characterizes all rightwing anti-liberal movements as fascist.

      • Lucian Tudor
        Posted March 17, 2013 at 10:50 am | Permalink

        Yes, Griffin is aware of the intricacies yet he still insists on using the term “fascist” in a generic sense (that is, in a misleading sense); probably one guiding motivation for that is because it is helpful to the ruling system. Concerning the issue of Spain and Portugal, even if Griffin distinguishes Franco’s and Salazar’s politics from “fascism” in his exact definition, it appears as though he tries to justify calling them “fascist” anyway by referring to their “fascist tendencies” and assimilation of fascist ideas. Maybe I was inaccurate to state that Griffin labels all right-wing anti-liberal groups as “fascist,” but honestly he does not seem to be very far away from doing just that, especially when I see him directly placing the “New Right” under the label “fascist” (it is absurd and unscholarly, for example, to place a supporter of democracy [even if it is a non-liberal and identitarian democracy] like Alain de Benoist under the label “fascist”).

        As for myself, I would never call myself a “fascist” because although I respect some of the movements which come under that label and even take interest in the thought of some of the intellectuals associated with them, I do not particularly follow any of their worldviews and believe that most of them have outdated qualities and cannot even be revived. I also take a certain amount of influence from people like Julius Evola, but Evola himself clarified that he was not a “fascist” even though he attempted to work with Mussolini’s regime, and for many “Radical Traditionalists” it is misleading and even insulting to be called a “fascist”; and they are not the only ones where this is the case.

  6. Posted March 16, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always found the use of the term palingenesis by Griffin amusing because the general strike is central to to far-left mythos. For them it is a moment of emancipation reminiscent of the Christian Judgement Day. So would he characterize them as palingenetic ultra-internationalists perhaps?

    His use of the term palingenesis, perhaps coincidentally, alludes to Haeckel and his emphasis on Recapitulation Theory. =A according to author Daniel Gasman in his book Haeckel’s Monism and the Birth of Fascist Ideology, Haeckel laid the key ideological groundwork for fascism.

  7. White Republican
    Posted March 17, 2013 at 5:16 am | Permalink

    I recall that Roger Griffin explicitly acknowledges in The Nature of Fascism that his ideal type of generic fascism is quite similar to that formulated by the fascist writer Maurice Bardèche in Qu’est-ce que le fascisme? As I see it, Griffin’s ideal type of fascism is not fundamentally unsound, but his prose is insufferable due to its liberal moralizing and pretentious theorizing and verbiage. The combination of ideological self-righteousness and ethnic self-flagellation that one finds in his work is quite extreme and truly repulsive. It’s little wonder that Michael O’Meara and Lucian Tudor regard his work with contempt. You need to put a great deal of effort into separating the wheat from the chaff with such an author. This isn’t the case with Bardèche.

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