Children in Ballilla Italian Fascist Children's Organisation uniform

Between imagining and institutionalising a society of fascist states

This article was written by Kye J Allen
This article was published on

Kye J Allen discusses his new article in BISA journal Review of International Studies (RIS) - 'An anarchical society (of fascist states): Theorising illiberal solidarism' available on FirstView now. The article combines the historical account of the peculiar body of Italian interwar international thought with theoretical insights derived from Reus-Smit's study on international order under conditions of cultural diversity. Allen argues that the realisation of some form of solidarism necessitates the acceptance of a substantive pluralist component.

In December 1934, Montreux hosted a peculiar conference of European fascists. Organised by the Italian-led Comitati d'Azione per l'Universalità di Roma (Action Committees for the Universality of Rome, CAUR), the ostensible aim of the Montreux Conference was to construct a Fascist International, a prelude to the eventual realisation of a fascistised Europe. The origins of this project are located in a current of international thought which developed within Fascist Italy during the 1920s, what can be referred to, following Aristotle Kallis, as ‘international Fascism’. Propounded foremost by the Italian propagandist, Asvero Gravelli, this internationalist imaginary conceived fascism as the ecumenical force through which to rejuvenate a terminally decadent Western civilisation.

Notwithstanding a burgeoning effort among some scholars to elucidate the implications of fascist and other forms of right-wing internationalism for International Relations (IR) theory, the study of Gravelli and Italian conceptions of international order has been primarily confined to fascist studies, international history, and cognate historical enterprises. My recent piece in the BISA journal, Review of International Studies, attempts to partially redress this lacuna. While it endeavours to introduce IR and the history of international thought to a thinker and historical episode which has been neglected within the boundaries of the discipline, this introduction alone is not the primary intent behind the paper. Rather, enquiry into this peculiar case and reference to the extant historical literature serves a more theoretical intervention. Indeed, Gravelli imagined a pan-European project to jointly realise a purportedly just and pacific international order in and through a society of sovereign states. It is precisely this idea of solidarity within an international society, albeit typically conceived in terms of a liberal or cosmopolitan agenda, which underpins the central English School concept of solidarism.

Recent studies have highlighted the multiplicity of forms in which solidarism can manifest. Foremost among such scholars, Barry Buzan has challenged the ideological reductionism inherent in classic interpretations. While Buzan’s normatively agnostic definition is of value, and indeed my understanding of the concept develops on such a reconfiguration, his enquiry is primarily confined to an abstract social structural level. Yet the English School has often understood the term as not merely a conceptual descriptor against which to measure developments within the society of states, but a moral ideal. Stated differently, scholars have utilised solidarism to denote both a vision for international society, and a potentially existent reality; that is, a description of international society.

By discussing the hypothetical of a fascist or communist society of states, Buzan’s primary focus is on the descriptive use of the concept. Buzan is therefore somewhat less concerned with solidarism as it pertains to the process through which radical illiberal projects for international society are to be translated from the realm of international thought into practice, the feasibility thereof, and indeed the coherence or otherwise of illiberal forms of solidarism. Disaggregating solidarism in this manner therefore provides the opportunity to consider pertinent conceptual issues for the English School. Is the prospect of a solidarist international society, despite efforts to discern illiberal variants à la Buzan, nevertheless a peculiarly liberal or cosmopolitan phenomenon? What challenges confront the actualisation of illiberal forms of solidarism? By discerning both an account of Gravelli’s thought and the manner by which the project to export fascism mutated as it transformed from an abstract vision to an initiative affiliated with the Fascist regime, this case offers historical and theoretical insights into the coherence and realisability of different forms of solidarism.

Specifically, I posit that a fascist society of states imagined in the style of Gravelli was (perhaps intuitively) futile, lest the envisaged system was to be coercively imposed. This is not, however, to suggest that an illiberal solidarism is intrinsically unrealisable and therefore solidarism is, by default, inherently liberal or cosmopolitan. One can readily turn towards examples where forms of illiberal solidarism have managed to establish a reasonable degree of consensus within regional states-systems, from the interventionist practices of the Holy Alliance during the nineteenth century to the presence of what Filippo Costa Buranelli has astutely identified as an ‘authoritarian state-centric solidarity’ within Central Asia. By utilising insights derived from Christian Reus-Smit's study on international order under conditions of cultural diversity, I argue that the realisation of an illiberal solidarism necessitates an acceptance of a substantive pluralist component. Yet messianic illiberal visions that endeavour to retain the states-system, while simultaneously asserting the superiority of one exclusive community or vision of the ‘good life’, ostensibly lack the capacity to reconcile, through dialogue and debate, the contradictions inherent in efforts to universalise such projects.

A solidarist international society or a vision thereof extends considerably further than the ‘practical association’ which underpins a more pluralistic international society. In turn, it is precisely the character of these substantive, often universal, values that feasibly present challenges to their realisation. In this regard, Reus-Smit's notion of a ‘diversity regime’ provides a valuable means through which to conceptualise some of the key challenges confronting various forms of solidarism. These regimes are integral to sustaining international order, the former comprising ‘institutional norms and practices that define legitimate units of political authority, authorize certain forms of cultural difference, and relate the two’. Diversity regimes are thus Janus-faced. While institutionalising and legitimating certain forms of cultural recognition, they simultaneously ‘produce social and political hierarchies’ that are inherently imbued with the ‘potential for alienation, humiliation, stigmatization, and, in turn, political resistance and mobilization’. This appears to be an issue particularly acute for solidarism in general, and especially illiberal variants. Unless the norms and values professed attract sufficient consensus among diverse actors, or are otherwise successfully imposed by hegemonic means, then it is probable that neither the necessary solidarity will be forthcoming nor tacit support sustainable.

While the internationalism professed by Gravelli amounted to an illiberal solidarism, it is the trajectory and ultimate demise of this effort to construct a Fascist International that exposes the abundant challenges and internal contradictions confronting such a form of solidarism. To elucidate, Gravelli’s internationalist imaginary was animated by an endeavour to revert the supposed degeneracy of liberal-capitalist modernity and the perceived decline of Western civilisation. It was only through a fascistised pan-European movement that the continent was to ‘regain an equilibrium of ideas and spirit’, the ‘precondition for a new Europe’. In turn, Gravelli reasoned that fascism was to confront the prevailing gerontocratic international order and ‘create the spiritual basis that permits mutual understanding’ between states, thereby providing the foundation for an orderly European peace, ‘a new pact of European fraternity’. Intriguingly, the envisioned order and the project towards its realisation were underpinned by an ostensible rejection of (intra-European) racial supremacy and a defence of European cultural diversity, albeit on the radically anti-pluralist precondition that the movements were fascist in nature.

Gravelli’s vision ought not be reduced to a mere imperial mission in defence of Italian aggrandisement, nor did he advocate for the fundamental transcendence of the states-system into some post-Westphalian empire. Rather, Gravelli seemingly accepted the perpetuity of a European society of states, yet agitated for an order fundamentally transformed under the ideological aegis of fascism. Such a project was therefore not simply a messianic crusade against liberal and socialist alternatives for international society, but could be described as an opposing and rather abhorrent form of solidarism.

While efforts towards the internalisation of fascism acquired traction – leading to the inauguration of CAUR in 1933 – the project would ultimately falter over tensions internal to the idea of a fascistised, yet culturally-tolerant and solidarist, European society of independent states. Indeed, one of the major impetuses behind the project is located in the ascension of the Third Reich and the mimetic rivalry which ensued as Italian thinkers became apprehensive that Germany endeavoured to replace Rome as the transnational centre of European fascism. Attempting to reassert its position, Italian efforts were increasingly imbued with a palpable Germanophobia and a hegemonic and paternalistic orientation under the rubric of Roman Universalità. Despite efforts to reconcile the particularities and concerns of foreign fascist movements which professed, to varying degrees, a commitment to the internationalisation of fascism, Italian efforts eventually proved fruitless. In particular, other European movements were sceptical of the peculiarly ‘Mediterranean’ model of fascism which CAUR attempted to project, the side-lining of Hitler vis-à-vis what appeared the evermore dynamic model of German National Socialism, divergences over the supposed ‘Jewish Question’, or indeed the degree to which their respective movements were actually part of, or could be publicly viewed as, members of the same ideological genus and transnational front.

Naturally, the failure of the Italian effort to export fascism cannot be accredited solely to its internal contradictions. The inferiority of Italy relative to the other great powers, for example, was undoubtedly a key contributory factor. Yet as a project for the exportation of fascism, the seemingly inherent inability to reconcile points of difference among ideologically similar movements presents the foremost challenge besetting such an endeavour, limiting the ability of its culturally and politically diverse proponents and prospective followers to locate, through dialogue and consent, a common transnational movement and a platform around which to mobilise towards mutually agreeable, tangible, and sustainable ends. In fact, when a system approximating a fascistised order materialised during the Second World War, it was not the anarchical society of fascist states previously professed by Gravelli, but the German imperium of the ‘New Order’. The most rudimentary degree of pluralism, and indeed even the anarchical constitutional configuration of international society, were seemingly antithetical to such a system, relying instead on coercive and imperial imposition. The ensuing order and its highly stratified diversity regime made, as Roger Griffin aptly notes, the imperialism of Napoleon or even Ancient Rome appear ‘positively liberal and federal in comparison’.

To follow Andrew Hurrell, pluralism should not be viewed solely in the negative as a sort of practical association, but – as in the context of the contemporary ‘liberal’ order – a positive and necessary ‘institutional framework’ through which ‘a more legitimate and morally more ambitious political community … [can] emerge’. Despite Gravelli’s highly qualified degree of pluralism, fascist variants of solidarism – among both Italian internationalists and those movements they attempted to attract – professed the superiority of their respective communities and an attendant vision of the international ‘good life’. Consequently, the revolutionary character and national parochialisms of interwar fascist internationalists appeared to prohibit such a relationship with pluralism. While a form of fascist solidarism was therefore imagined by Italian thinkers, the institutionalisation of such a vision, and even the construction of a movement towards its actualisation, remained highly elusive in practice.

Want to know more? You can read Kye’s full article 'An anarchical society (of fascist states): Theorising illiberal solidarism' at DOI:

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