Edited by William D. Irvine
Introduction by William D. Irvine
Comments by William D. Irvine, Kathryn E. Amdur, Sam Goodfellow, and Steven Zdatny
Reply by Robert O. Paxton
Second Thoughts by William D. Irvine, Kathryn E. Amdur, Sam Goodfellow, and Steven Zdatny
William D. Irvine
It is almost axiomatic to assert that any book by Robert Paxton is a major contribution to the historical literature on Modern France. All contributors to this forum on his French Peasant Fascism agree on that much. Moreover, they agree that the much neglected story of the French peasantry is critical to our understanding of the politics of the troubled decade of the 1930s. Finally, no one can dispute that, in light of experiences elsewhere, any attempt to come to grips with the issue of French fascism, must take into account the agricultural sector. Beyond that, there is less consensus. Not all contributors are convinced that Henry Dorgeres and the Greenshirts are central to or typical of the French peasant experience of the 1930s. More important still, all contributors (much like Paxton himself) exhibit an uneasiness with the very concept of French fascism. Most, it seems safe to say, would agree with Paxton’s preference for a “functional” rather than a “programmatic” definition of fascism. But none are entirely confident in saying exactly what fascism is, where it begins and where it ends. Locating fascism on a continuum, at the other end of which is “authoritarianism” is suggestive but ultimately unhelpful. After all, how useful is it to describe a protest movement, one quite literally challenging the existing authorities, as “authoritarian”? “Reactionary” is not much more helpful either. The farmers in the United States and Canada who mobilized against low commodity prices, the banks, and a political system which appeared to ignore their plight, are not usually described by historians as “reactionary”.
All this is to say that this forum, like the previous one, will raise as many questions as it answers. This is probably not a bad thing.
William D. Irvine
William D. Irvine:
Studies of France in the 1930s typically concentrate on such urban events as the riots of 6 February 1934, the occupation of the factories of June 1936 or the Clichy riots of early 1937. Robert Paxton reminds us that the decade also experienced an unprecedented crisis in the French rural community. At the heart of it was the spectacular decline in commodity prices: wheat, wine, and dairy products all experienced a precipitous drop in prices. The attendant suffering of the French peasantry was only aggravated by a variety of irritants: ministerial instability and perceived governmental incompetence; growing administrative tracasseries, be it the paper work (and costs) associated with the recently introduced social insurance legislation, the rapaciousness of thefisc, or the bureaucratic hassling of hard cider brewers and the belief that in the eyes of official (read urban) France, Jacques Bonhomme, proud peasant, had been replaced by a crude caricature of the country bumpkin. The result was a series of violent peasant protests, above all in the years 1933-35, at the head of which, more often than not, was the demagogic and self proclaimed peasant radical, Henry Dorgeres. A crude, violent orator, he was the uncontested master of the market day podium. His angry denunciation of the governments of the day both reflected and fuelled the pent up anger of an often desperate peasantry.
Peasant anger is both understandable and somewhat paradoxical. However ineffective (and at times contradictory) the agricultural policies of succeeding governments in fact were, there can be no denying that all of them took the agrarian plight very seriously. Indeed, as Gordon Wright long ago demonstrated, rare was the Third Republican politician who felt he could ignore peasant interests. As Paxton reminds us, in one of his many intriguing revelations, at the height of the crisis in 1935, the French government was spending nearly 50% more on supporting the wheat market than it was spending on national defence! (p. 17). While farmers usually feel unappreciated by city dwellers, Charles Rearick has recently reminded us that the urban cinema goer was at least as likely to be treated to a heroic and romantic portrayal of the peasantry as to an image that might have come out of Zola’s La Terre. But none of this was calculated to diminish the frustration and anger of French peasants in the middle years of the 1930s.
One of the most virulent manifestations of this anger was the appearance of Dorgeres and his Greenshirts. While most French historians have always been dimly aware of the man and his movement, the full story has never before been told and never before has the plight of the French peasant in the 1930s been recounted as vividly and with such clarity.
Why have Dorgeres and the Greenshirts been so long overlooked by mainstream historians? A partial answer, one suggested by Paxton, is that most historians, city folks in the main, are uncomfortable with the rural world and more attuned to the plight of the industrial working class or the reactions of an urban middle class. All of this might well explain an historical pre-occupation with the militants of the Confederation generale du travail (CGT) or the activists of the Croix de feu. Still, the historical inattention to the Greenshirts inevitably poses the question: at the end of the day, how important were they? Dorgeres himself was a major political actor for a relatively brief period. He came to national attention in June 1933 and had probably attained his maximum influence by the late spring of 1935 at the time of his unsuccessful bid for electoral office. After that point he was increasingly relegated to the political margins.
What is striking in Paxton’s account is just how little we learn about the size of the organization or its geographical implantation. This is no criticism of the author who has diligently scoured the national and local archives and who is justly renowned for his ability to ferret out findings from the most elusive sources. The problem lies with the curious silences of the official and archival documents.
And yet. And yet, it is uncommonly difficult to avoid the conclusion that archival silences speak not just to the perverseness of mid-century sub-prefects (or to late century departmental archivists), but to the real question of the inherent importance of Dorgeres and his movement. Absent any hard data on membership, Paxton must rely on Dorgeres’ own estimates. At the beginning of 1935 Dorgeres claimed 35,000 members; he also claimed that membership in the Greenshirts had quadrupled by the end of that year, the year of his greatest public impact. Given the rapid political mobilization of disaffected elements in French society in the mid-1930s, these claims, even if taken at face value (and here Paxton can only say that they “are not inconceivable” (p. 125), do not seem very impressive. To be sure, two years later Dorgeres would claim some 550,000 members, a claim that Paxton writes off as “improbable”. Certainly these numbers pale in comparison with the 1.2 million members of the older conservative Union nationale des syndicats agricoles (UNSA). Dorgeres was predictably dismissive of the UNSA’s membership, arguing that its members were mostly opportunistic veterinarians and notaries rather than true peasant militants. He may have been right, but the UNSA incontestably had a solidly implanted organization, something that Dorgeres’ organization always lacked. Dorgeres seems not to have given a great deal of thought to organizational questions. His Greenshirts were largely limited to the north and the west of France and even here their hold appears to have been precarious. Dorgeres could attract huge crowds to hear his market day oratory. But the organizations springing up in the wake of these meetings often withered away within months. By the later 1930s Dorgeres and his people were often beginning regional organizational drives for the second or third time. Paxton has a lengthy discussion of the first annual congress of the Greenshirts in December 1935 which attracted 8,000-10,000 members. The fact that the Greenshirts never held a second congress receives one sentence. In 1935 Dorgeres was behind the creation of a Peasant Front, a Comite d’action paysanne, and a peasant tax strike. The effective result of all of this, to quote Paxton, was “a fizzle” (p. 132). It is hard not to agree with his assessment of Dorgerism: “a lot of theatre and verbal fury but meager concrete results” (p. 133).
Numbers are not everything, of course, and Paxton assigns great significance to the demonstrated anxiety that Dorgeres provoked among Ministers of the Interior in 1935. Against this, however, has to be the fact that the Popular Front government, keen though it was to dissolve the para-military leagues, apparently saw no reason to dissolve the Greenshirts. Throughout, it is never entirely clear what the criteria of political significance are. Paxton dismisses the Parti agraire francaise which elected only eleven deputies in 1936 as a “failure”. Fair enough, but this was still eleven deputies more than the Greenshirts ever elected. Paxton suggests that one way to assess the influence of the Dorgeristes is to trace their presence in Vichy’s Corporation paysanne. During the Vichy period four out of approximately 80 of the Corporation’s departmental syndics had been Dorgeristes (although one of these turns out to have been “an old Parti Agraire militant friendly to Dorgeres” (p. 120). These numbers do not suggest that Dorgeres had won over many of the pre-war agricultural activists. Indeed, everything in Paxton’s scrupulous analysis suggests that Dorgeres and his movement were a flash in the pan, briefly appearing on the national scene during the two worst years of the agricultural crisis and declining rapidly in importance thereafter. The gradual improvement in commodity prices after 1935, the firm stance of (and relatively sympathetic approach by) the Popular Front governments and the effective dominance of movements like the UNSA pushed Dorgeres and his movement to the margins of peasant political life.
A second (and related) issue is the question of fascism. The debate about French fascism has lately become so disputatious that any historian, and above all one as judicious as Paxton, is bound to tread carefully. Yet the book’s main title is French Peasant Fascism. Now it is tempting, (not to say mischievous) to wonder if the title (as opposed to the sub-title) were not the work of Oxford’s publicity department rather than that of the author. Yet Paxton clearly takes the issue of fascism seriously. In a critical passage he notes “In a curious failure of historical imagination, no one has ever explored rural fascism in [France]. The abundant works on French fascism deal, without exception, with urban movements and intellectuals. The fault lies with the writers’ overestimation of their own kind and with insufficient attention to comparison” (pp. 154-55). The relevant “comparison”, of course is the experience of Italy and Germany, where fascists movements made their first major breakthroughs in rural areas, the Po Valley and Schleswig-Holstein. This is an argument which must be taken seriously. Yet from the outset it raises the question: was Dorgeres really a fascist, and if so by what criteria? Paxton, however, is clearly uncomfortable with this question and his discussion is uncharacteristically ambivalent and inconclusive. The style of the Greenshirts–their uniforms, insignia, rallies and symbols are reminiscent of fascist movements, but of non-fascist ones as well. Dorgeres’ illiberalism, anti- parliamentarianism and anti-socialism might put him “squarely within the ‘magnetic field’ of fascism” (p. 156), but his “commitment to family and to the professions as organic building blocks places him closer to authoritarianism” (p. 157). In the end one learns that he belongs “somewhere along that continuum of fascist-authoritarian mixtures” (p. 158). This is almost certainly true but not very helpful either. Much the same, after all, could be said about Colonel Francois de La Rocque, but that has not shaken the conviction of most historians that he was no fascist. Paxton seems to realize the unsatisfactory nature of his discussion and leaves it with evident relief.
By contrast, what Paxton’s account does masterfully explain, is why agrarian fascism–if that it what it was–never had a chance in France and how it was radically different from agrarian fascism elsewhere in Europe. In marked contrast to the French case, the first great manifestations of rural fascism in the Italian Po Valley had little to do with commodity prices and were almost entirely the result of the reaction by large landowners to the post-war militancy of the braccianti–the agricultural day labourers. France, of course, has no exact agrarian equivalent of the Po Valley, but the large scale and labour intensive wheat and sugar beet agriculture of the Parisian basin was roughly comparable. Moreover, as Paxton reminds us, in 1936 and 1937 landowners in these regions did face an unprecedented wave of labour militancy. The Popular Front was in power, the newly triumphant CGT was making a serious effort to organize rural labourers and the result was a wave of agricultural strikes heretofore largely ignored by historians. Because these agrarian actions had the potential to inflict great economic loss, the large landowners of northern France were, much like their Italian counter-parts, briefly terrorized. But here the similarities end. The Popular Front government’s complacency with respect to the factory occupations of June 1936 manifestly did not extend to the comparable claims of rural workers and it, and its local administration, worked actively to prevent a massive disruption of the rural economy. Moreover, and it is to the point, no Third Republic administration, and certainly not that of the Popular Front era, was prepared to tolerate the kind of counter- revolutionary violence unleashed by the Italian squadristi. Dorgeres’ Greenshirts did see the opportunity to provide strikebreakers–or as they preferred to call them, “harvest volunteers”. But they were hardly alone in this activity–indeed Paxton suggests that their role was decidedly secondary and Colonel de La Rocque’s (much larger) Parti social francais seems to have been at least as active.
The difference between the French and Italian experiences is best illustrated by Paxton’s case study of the department of the Seine-Maritime. Here the Greenshirts, led by Dorgeres’ lieutenant, Pierre Suplice, played a key role in dealing with 1937 agricultural strikes in the region of Dieppe. As strike waves go, this one was modest, involving at its height 200 farms and 650 workers. Both sides in the strike seem to have behaved with some considerable moderation; for the landowners the chief sticking point was not higher wages but the issue of recognition of the CGT. Most of the employers seem to have settled within four days; Suplice settled within 12. Early in the strike Suplice let it be known that he had some 20 Greenshirts (although they did not actually wear that garment) ready to break the strike. The local gendarmes clearly anticipated trouble but, despite a certain amount of low level provocation by both sides, there seems to have been no violence. There is in fact no evidence that the Greenshirts did anything at all. In short, nothing in this case study even remotely reassembles the events in Italy in 1920-21. The agrarian elites felt far less vulnerable than their Italian counter-parts, the influence of the CGT among day labourers was a fraction of that of the Italian Federterra and above all the government always maintained effective control over the French countryside. Moreover, and despite the high profile of Suplice, the Greenshirts seem to have derived little advantage from this episode since their organization “melted away” almost immediately thereafter.
Even had objective conditions been more promising than they were, it is doubtful that Dorgeres could ever have attained the success of his German and Italian counter-parts. He was, at best, a single issue politician, unable, in Paxton’s words “to transcend an exclusive peasant interest” and incapable of forging alliances with the urban middle and lower middle classes. Some of this might have been an accident of timing; the grande peur of the Popular Front years took place after the worst of the agricultural crisis was over. But in February 1934 rural and urban protests did coincide, yet Dorgeres had no contact with the leaders of the 6 February riots. Nor did he have clear ideas about how to attain power. He dimly recognized that a direct assault on the state was impossible but seems to have thought, somewhat implausibly, that a series of violent and illegal peasant protests would cause the republican regime to collapse of its own weight. He certainly did not see any merit in ensuring electoral representation for his movement. This was presumably a reflection of his visceral contempt for parliament (to say nothing of his own failure to get elected). But elsewhere anti-parliamentarianism notoriously did not prevent fascists from seeking election. The agricultural crisis of the late 1920s in Schleswig-Holstein bore striking similarities to those experience in many parts of France in the early 1930s. There the peasantry deserted their traditional political representatives and gave the Nazis their single most important electoral break-through. This was an electoral response, made possible because disaffected peasants had a protest party for which to vote. To be sure, the results of the 1936 elections suggest that traditional French parties retained a far more secure hold on their peasant clientele than did their German equivalents. But, given Dorgeres’ disinclination for electoral politics, that allegiance was never severely tested.
A critical pre-condition for fascist success anywhere is the support or at least the complicity of the traditional conservative elite. For a brief time Dorgeres did enjoy the cautious support of the rural notables and their organizations. In principle they distrusted his demagogic rhetoric and his penchant for violence. At the height of the agricultural crisis, however, they were prepared to overlook these characteristics and recognized Dorgeres as a useful, if somewhat distasteful auxiliary. For his part Dorgeres was prepared to moderate his suspicions of these representatives of the rural elite. The presence of Jacques Leroy-Ladurie, head of the powerful UNSA, at the congress of the Greenshirts and the formation of the short lived Peasant Front were the practical manifestation of these temporary accommodations. But, at the first opportunity–that is to say when the worst of the agricultural crisis had passed–Le Roy Ladurie and his allies, wasted no time in marking their distance from the unruly peasant orator. Absent elite support, Dorgeres became a minor actor on the French agricultural stage.
In a way French Peasant Fascism is the history of a fascism that might have been. If the agricultural crisis had lasted into the late 1930s; if the authority of the French state had been less effective, if the traditional agricultural elite had been less secure, and If Dorgeres had been blessed with more political acumen, he might not have been relegated to what has heretofore been the status of a footnote. This is not to minimize Paxton’s contribution. It may be, in some respects, the history of the Dog That Did Not Bark. But, as admirers of Sherlock Holmes will know, the fact that the dog did not bark and the reasons why it did not bark, are matters of great importance and often the core of the story.
Kathryn E. Amdur:
In the autumn of 1997, at virtually the moment of publication of French Peasant Fascism, and in honour of Robert Paxton’s coming retirement, a symposium at Columbia University celebrated his seminal work on Vichy France and its lasting legacy for modern French history. Perhaps to his own regret, Paxton’s durable reputation has loomed large over his later work, no doubt hindering his access to French archives. In characteristic modesty, the author mutes the Vichy connection in French Peasant Fascism, stressing instead the centrality of the peasantry in French society and of the countryside as “the most rewarding setting within which to study the potential and the limits of French fascism in the 1930s” (p. 6). But Greenshirt leader Henry Dorgeres’ own appointment to Vichy’s Conseil national, plus his election to parliament in 1956, are but a hint of deeper links among prewar, wartime, and postwar peasant politics and of the ways by which Vichy’s “old guard and new order” formed a bridge from the social crises of the Third Republic to the social reconstruction of postwar France.
Combining political biography with a broader analysis of “the triple crisis” (economic, cultural, and political) of French agriculture, Paxton sees the Greenshirts’ movement of the 1930s as a response to declining farm prices, rural exodus, low esteem for peasant life, and the failure of local or national leadership to draw public attention to the plight of France’s peasantry. Dorgeres himself, no peasant, was a small-town activist and publicist with early ties to the Action francaise and a taste for its corporatist and anti-republican biases. Defeated in a first run for parliament in 1935, Dorgeres helped to found the Peasant Youth (Jeunesses paysannes) as action squads to battle hecklers, quash strikes of farm workers (or “save the harvests”), and block seizures of property for nonpayment of taxes. The movement, often led by sons of landowners or tenants who worked on their fathers’ farms, claimed to seek rural unity across class lines, unlike leftist unions which targeted smaller peasants and wage labourers. Clearly right-wing in style, and with fascist trappings from its coloured shirts to its slogans, oaths, and rallies, the movement (Paxton concludes) was more ritual than substance but still lay within what Philippe Burrin has termed the “magnetic field” of fascism in the 1930s, or “on the fascist side of this great divide” (pp. 5, 157).
For Paxton, the rural setting was no sideshow but the main stage for the theatrics of a movement too often reduced to its urban and intellectual players. Both Hitler and Mussolini, he notes, first gained mass support in the countryside. Dorgeres had more in common with the reactionary authoritarianism of the dictators Antonio Salazar or Francisco Franco. Having once boasted of being a fascist, Dorgeres later hedged his bets with “third-way” slogans (“neither fascism nor anti-fascism”; “neither fascism nor communism”), rejected the statism of both extremes, and preferred a “reform of the State based upon the family and the profession (metier)” (pp. 155-56).
What most distinguished Dorgerism from its foreign analogs was its failure to come to power, a result (Paxton argues) of France’s unique social and political context. Fascism found more obstacles than affinities in France, including the state’s relative vigour (even under Popular Front premier Leon Blum) in defending big farmers against the labour strikes which in Italy had driven landlords into Mussolini’s arms. Dorgerism, at best a “weapon of the weak” (p. 112) among growers lacking a well- organized union to defend them, also dimmed once agricultural prices began rebounding in 1936. Like the Republic itself, France’s rural elites were “shaken” but not toppled in the 1930s (p. 50), and they rejoined the traditionalists’ camp after a brief flirtation with Dorgeres’s radical right. The regime’s greater legitimacy in France, plus the less catastrophic social crisis of the 1930s, meant that the Republic was “not seriously shaken… until foreign armies had occupied its soil in 1940” (p. 162)–a remarkable conclusion from the author of Vichy France.
So, what to make of the crises of malaise, “decadence”, and political polarization widely blamed for France’s military defeat and the rise of a defeatist and quasi-fascist successor regime at Vichy? “Fortunately for the Third Republic,” says Paxton, “[Dorgerism’s] 1935 peak did not coincide with the peak of urban anti-republican activism, the Stavisky riots of February 1934, or even with the polarization of 1936” (p. 124). Later threats to the Republic, not recounted here, apparently had no greater resonance in the countryside. Was “la France profonde” more deeply democratic, or at least anti-totalitarian, and somehow immune from the social and cultural traumas which panicked the urban middle classes? Paxton further cites Vichy’s agrarian ideology as a key reason why the regime fell closer to the authoritarian than to the fascist model, “at least until its last desperate days” (p. 164). Dorgeres became one of nine directors of Vichy’s “Peasant Corporation”, but its “real backbone” was the network of agrarian unions which Dorgeres and his militants had so despised (p. 143).
Like many corporatists, Dorgeres had greater faith in Philippe Petain’s National Revolution than in the centralized institutions which evolved to meet German demands for goods and which left their mark on postwar professional organizations, both agricultural and industrial. Paxton traces this postwar legacy (termed here “cogestion”) among agrarian notables, including some former Greenshirts, who chose to work with the state toward corporatist self-administration of agriculture. Dorgeres held parliamentary office from 1956 until the Gaullist landslide of 1958, and he sought to form a new Rassemblement paysan in partnership with right-wing peasant and shopkeeper followers of Pierre Poujade. But he remained tainted by his Vichy past and ignored by most rural elites. With direct action “normalized” into calculated pressure tactics (just as a generation earlier among industrial workers), Dorgerism survived in wildcat strikes sometimes targeting farm leaders blamed for complicity with the state.
A final note on sources. Paxton revolutionized Vichy historiography by using German sources when French ones were not yet open for scrutiny. With access to “sensitive” public documents still often subject to state or local interdiction, Paxton’s reputation must have proved less a help than a hindrance in his subsequent research. In a recent report on the strength of the “custodial tradition” among archivists, especially in France, Paxton stated: “We all know that librarians are happiest when their books are on the shelf” (B. Giudice, “France Reassesses its History and its Historical Records,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 4 April 1998). In the case of Vichy and fascism, still among the most troubling of France’s “realms of memory”, the nation’s need for this two-fold reassessment is particularly crucial. This fine book, already published in French translation, is a valuable extension of the process which Paxton helped to begin.
Kathryn E. Amdur
France is the country to study if you want to understand interwar European fascism, for only in France can you see the entire range of fascist options. Paxton’s new book fleshes out the rural variant–something which has been notably lacking in the Anglo- American repertoire and which has only been thinly considered in French. Almost all of the tempests which have stormed across the historiography–from Zeev Sternhell’s notion of fascism as an attempt to revise Marxism to whether or not the Croix de feu/Parti social francais was fascist–have willfully ignored the stubborn presence of Dorgeres and his Greenshirts. Probably the most significant French fascist movement outside the cities were Dorgeres’ Greenshirts. First as a writer, then as an activist, Dorgeres carved out a following among farmers in Northwest France, especially in Brittany, which peaked around 1935. He set up a network of Comites de defense paysanne (CDPs) by 1933, which attempted to link grass roots participation to Dorgeres’s vision. The CDPs joined forces in 1934 with the Parti agraire et paysan francais, led by Fleurant Agricola, and the Union nationale des syndicats agricoles, to form the Front paysan which gave Dorgeres a much wider audience and greater legitimacy. To supplement the CDPs, Dorgeres founded in 1935 the Jeunesses paysannes, or Greenshirts, which served as the paramilitary arm of his movement.
Ideologically, Paxton places the Greenshirts on a continuum between authoritarianism and fascism, because Dorgeres was “authoritarian in his organic conception of society, but he leaned toward fascism in his glorification of action, his uniformed young men, and his cult of the ‘chief'” (p. 158). Paxton’s examination of the French rural fascist movement is important for a number of reasons. First, it facilitates comparison with Germany, Italy, and the rest of Europe where numerous studies have demonstrated a powerful connection between rural activity and fascist growth. Second, given the demographic strength of the French peasantry, any assessment of French fascism’s size and influence must consider the rural spin on fascist ideologies, especially since this group probably had the most difficulty of any with the pressures of modernity. Third, since the different French fascist movements tended to cling to their original sociological base, the relationship between fascism and modernity can be parsed more precisely. Were, for example, the rural fascists generally more reactionary (i.e., anti-modern, more backward looking, or more “traditional”) than the urban fascists, or only on specific issues? This leads to a fourth point, which is that fascism meant different things to different groups. Industrialists probably viewed fascism as a means of maintaining their hegemony. Lower middle-class shopkeepers hoped that fascism would ward off department stores and peasants hoped to get higher prices for their goods and, at the same time, reinvigorate peasant culture. Rural fascists, therefore, had to shape ideology and organization differently for their audience. Such divisions were bridged in Germany and Italy, but not in France, and the case of Dorgeres helps explain why not. Finally, rural activity inevitably suggests the importance of region, and the relationship between fascism and regionalism deserves greater explanation.
French Peasant Fascism has several strengths. First, it contextualizes the agricultural issues of the interwar period, which helps show the specific frustrations and anxieties affecting the peasants and pushing them toward more radical activity. The excellent chapter on “The Triple Crisis of the French Peasantry” sketches the grim scenario of a peasantry besieged by the depression, the cultural deterioration of peasant life, and the lack of coherent or systematic representation in the Third Republic. This was an essential context for the rise of Dorgeres’ activity. Also important is the way that Paxton illustrates in a series of five vignettes how Dorgeres’ political activity took place. Paxton’s vivid account of market day rallies, anti-strike activity, and efforts by the peasants to regain control of produce markets demonstrates how different rural organization had to be from that of the urban fascist movements. Mobilization occurred around deeply visceral and communal issues such as the effect of the cost of canning peas on villages which grew peas. Activity tended to come in isolated bursts and, as Paxton puts it, “the enemy of Dorgerism was less active opposition than indifference” (p. 117). When pea harvesting season was over, the peasants dispersed.
Relative to Germany or Italy, French rural regions lacked the systematic exploitation on the local level that would establish a pattern of mobilization and connect the farmers’ frustration with the agrarian crisis to a national critique. Most striking in these vignettes is not only the power and violence which lurked in the background, but the sporadic nature of mobilization as a result of seasonal schedules, regional fragmentation, different crops, and different levels of ownership. Regionalism is not, to be sure, the topic of this book, nevertheless Paxton points to the critical role that region often played in the interwar radical right movements. In the first place, Dorgeres’ movement had to appeal to the farmers’ sense of place and to their specific, localized grievances if it was to have any credibility. At the same time, the network of power within a village, canton, departement, or even region defined the possibility of success for particular fascist movements. Thus, a cure might encourage his parishioners to support the Action francaise, the mayor might favour the Jeunesses patriotes, or one of the municipal counsellors might belong to the Front paysan. Conversely, they might discourage the other fascist movements.
Other regional issues also set limits: Dorgeres had no realistic prospect of extending his movement to Alsace despite the potential similarities between Brittany and Alsace as regional and cultural outsiders in France, because Joseph Bilger’s Bauernbund already filled that political space. The sociological and ideological diversity of the different French fascisms worked against the sort of unity which emerged in Italy and Germany. Groups like the CDPs also had to compete with other interest groups such as the syndicats agricoles, as well as existing political parties, all of which actively sought rural support. The mutual antipathy between rural and urban groups on economic and cultural grounds served as an additional barrier to fascist unity, especially as Dorgeres’ success depended on stimulating rural resentment at the low prices of agricultural products and the corresponding cultural devaluation of the French peasant.
Dorgeres’s story is emblematic of the failure of the French fascist movement. Hemmed in by durable leftist and centrist parties, burdened by a surplus of would-be Fuehrers leading a range of complementary, yet competing movements, and faced with a more resolute government than existed in Italy or Germany, French fascism had considerable difficulty transcending the narrowness of its constituent parts to form a national and mass party. As a result, the national success of any given fascist movement was highly contested, not just by opponents, but by the fascists themselves.
Probably the most overlooked facet of French fascism is the extent to which the different groups were interconnected. The most well-known example is the perfume magnate Rene Coty’s extravagant willingness to subsidize virtually any radical right- wing group crossing his path. Another significant individual who acted as a thread between the different French fascist groups was Marcel Bucard, who was in the Faisceau, the Solidarite francaise, the Croix de feu, among other organizations. The linkages between the various groups on the right are essential to understanding interwar fascism not as a monolithic movement or even as a coherent and discrete ideology, but as an ephemeral mood which could easily shift to fit changing circumstances and constituencies. These ties across groups, especially in the 1930s, stemmed in part from the stark polarization between the left and the right.
In the interwar era, fascism was not outside normal experience and therefore not a marginal movement which could be cleanly excised. Nor did fascism spontaneously generate; it evolved out of existing conservative, socialist, and liberal strands. Moreover, through the interconnections, we can better discern and distinguish the balance of factors which made up fascism. Simon Sabiani of the Parti populaire francais (PPF) drew heavily on the manipulation of city patronage in Marseilles and the powerful appeal of fascist ideology to consolidate his personal power. Jacques Doriot’s communist background animated his view of the PPF as an extremist party. The Action francaise and the Jeunesses patriotes were more overtly conservative in their social constituencies and ideologies, promising radical methods to maintain the status quo.
These examples apply exclusively to the 1930s and do not address the even more controversial questions of linkages over time through Vichy and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front national. What about Dorgeres? Although consistently concerned with agrarian issues, he too followed a fairly consistent pattern of organizational and ideological migration within the right. His first publication was with the Action francaise in 1919; he was a speaker for the Ligue des contribuables; he shared the podium with Joseph Bilger of the Alsatian Bauernbund (from which he also borrowed the idea of the Greenshirts), and the Croix de feu provided shock troops to protect his rallies. Supporters of the Croix de feu show up several times as sympathetic to the Greenshirts. These groups were all different: the Action francaise was royalist, the Ligue des contribuables was a pre- war, conservative anti-tax movement, the Bauernbundhad Nazi affiliations, and the Croix de feu was initially a veteran’s movement. Nevertheless, they shared a set of ideals (corporatism, community over individual, cultural conformity, and authority) which Dorgeres also accepted and which we might loosely consider fascist.
At first glance, it might seem a bit confusing that the title of the book boldly proclaims French Peasant Fascism, while the text identifies the Greenshirts as part authoritarian and part fascist. Defining fascism and categorizing groups as fascist is always fraught with problems. The term carries too much moral baggage to be used objectively. The problem is that all the fascist movements were different, depending on nationality, social constituency, and time, but they also share some commonalities. Balancing variation and similarity for a term which has become as normative as fascism is nearly impossible to achieve to everyone’s satisfaction. In addition, movements like the Greenshirts blur the line between active and dogmatic fascists and those who, perceiving the international momentum of fascism, seek to harness it for their own ends. Paxton’s solution is a relatively graceful one distinguishing Dorgeres from other fascist movements without separating his activity from the broader fascist current. Sam Goodfellow
For all its density, the historiography of interwar France has comparatively little to say about peasants. In his new book Paxton’s bibliographical essay recognizes only a scattering of general works on French agriculture in the twentieth century, a handful of primarily local studies of farmer’s organizations, and an even smaller handful of articles, theses, and memoires de maitrise treating the inter war period. This is hard to justify in view of what we all know to be the demographic presence and disproportionate political weight of rural society in France. Clearly, when British historian E. P. Thompson complained about “the enormous condescension of posterity” he had the wrong group in mind.
Moreover, if we have to look hard to see farmers in histories of the “hollow years”, we will not find them at all in the ample literature about French fascism. This is to be regretted not merely on the admirable principle that all voices should be heard. Rather, as Paxton aptly points out, success in the countryside gave both Mussolini and Hitler a pivotal boost. It was in breaking agricultural strikes in the Po Valley that the Fascists found the road to power. While the Nazis first garnered a mass electoral following among “farmers disillusioned with the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties”. Paxton’s logic seems impeccable: if we want to know about the career of fascism in France, we need to pay attention to its reception among that substantial proportion of the French who still worked the land.
Paxton’s interest in “peasant fascism” seems to derive from a larger project, outlined in the most recent issue of the Journal of Modern History. There he laid out a model which would dispense with polemics and redirect attention away from the study of fascist doctrine–successful fascists being so notoriously unfaithful to their old, “immutable” programmes–and the creation of “bestiaries” of fascism. Instead, he insists, we will do better to concentrate on fascists’ “rooting” in the political system and their acquisition of power. In other words, fascism is most profitably examined in action. Paxton pursues exactly this strategy in French Peasant Fascism. Relatively formless in organizational terms and without much intellectual substance, Dorgerisme revealed itself in its local manifestations, in its rallies and brawls and strikebreaking.
The book therefore does not linger very long over Dorgeres’s life and philosophy. It tells us quickly and in bits and pieces how one more thug with political ambitions, some organizational ability, and a decent measure of demagogic appeal thrust himself into national prominence. Son of a butcher, Dorgeres missed service in the Great War because his home town near Lille was under German occupation. After the war he earned his law degree and launched a career as a right-wing journalist. He came to agrarian affairs almost by accident, as a vehicle for his nationalist, populist, and anti-Republican ideas. But he turned out to have talent for stirring peasant political passions.
Opposition to the application of social welfare laws to farmers–that is, to new fiscal charges which farmers would pay but from which they would not benefit–was Dorgeres’ wedge into agrarian politics. He expanded his repertoire as leader of a rural anti-tax league. Then, as economic conditions in the countryside worsened after 1932, he began to address general questions of peasant existence. As it grew, the strength of Dorgerisme came to rest on individual “committees of peasant defence” (Comites de defense paysanne) and their dynamic local leadership, buzzing around sharply-felt local grievances. It found its most effective voice not in Dorgeres’ “modest press empire”, but on the soap box at market-day rallies, where Dorgerist lieutenants could speak directly to angry peasants.
They were angry because of what Paxton calls the “Triple Crisis of the French Peasantry”. The first dimension of this was the precipitous decline of farm prices during the Depression. The price of wheat, for example, fell from 160 francs per quintal in August 1932 to 55 francs in 1935. Other agricultural products–wine, cattle, dairy, cider, beet sugar–took the same plunge. Moreover, from the peasants’ perspective, the Depression only exacerbated structural problems which had been pressing on them since the globalization of the market in food, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Already feeling like victims of a long-term “rural crisis”, they were in no mood to tolerate a new round of disasters.
The other two dimensions of the “crisis” are more difficult to fix, being primarily a matter of perception. The second dimension, according to Paxton, lay in French farmers’ resentment of urban-industrial society’s disrespect for their way of life, embodied in the person of the school teacher and manifested in the “rural exodus” promoted by the Third Republic. The third dimension consisted a “crisis of representation”; that is, a political life dominated from left to right by the interests and perspectives of city folk. In assessing this “triple crisis”, Paxton mixes the material reality of hard times with the peasants’ sense of cultural disadvantage. The problem is that while the first is palpable, the last two are largely imaginary. It is undeniable that prices were falling fast after 1932 and that this made the economic survival of all farmers very difficult–even more so for the smaller, less competitive producers who were drawn to Dorgeres. It is a good deal less certain that agrarian society was suffering contempt or a “crisis of representation”. Farmers believed that the state was ignoring them and that rural culture was being left to decay by the urban-based Republic. But they believed wrongly.
It is probably true that paysan was often a derisive term in cosmopolitan France, as Paxton demonstrates in a brief discursion on its history. Insults aside, however, the Third Republic was hardly rigged against agrarian interests. Was the “rural exodus” so much a part of reactionary nationalism? It was slower in France than anywhere else in the industrialized world. “Low esteem for peasant life, values, and needs”? France was as soggy and romantic about its peasants as any country. Unfavourable public policy? Successive governments, from Andre Tardieu to Joseph Paul-Boncour to Pierre Laval to Blum, applied all sorts of remedies to the agricultural malaise. None of them worked. But, then again, none of the government’s industrial policies worked either. “Crisis of representation”? How could farmers be under- represented in the Third Republic, given the way that the Senate privileged rural interests. It may be that the political system favoured some agricultural producers over others; big wheat and beet sugar farmers over small peasant holders, for example. That, however, would point to social conflict in the countryside, not the contempt of the bourg for the pays. And while the state certainly had an interest in keeping food prices low, it is also true that public policy kept these prices well above world market levels. Recall the 1892 Meline tariff.
Of course Paxton is right to say that Dorgerisme was more than an automatic response to economic pain. He strains to sympathize with the peasants’ sense of disadvantage, so disproportionate (I would say) to the political and cultural reality of the late Third Republic: thus, while Paxton recognizes the slow pace of urbanization, he adds that, “In emotional terms… the pain felt by those aging remnants was no less sharp because the departures were slower” (p. 27). I suppose it is mean spirited to say that it should have been. In any case, Paxton is right to note that perception and not fact is the mother of grievance.
Dorgeres, the quintessential demagogue, played precisely to these grievances. He told his listeners that the Republic was sacrificing them to the needs of the city–an even greater injustice in view of the extra “blood tax” the peasantry had paid to save the country during the war. Above all–and this was as much subtext as text–he reassured his followers that peasants were the real France, which of course gave their interests both primacy and a sort of transcendental legitimacy. Dorgeres was hardly the only figure pitching this message, of course. The mystique of “les petits” and “la France rurale” was one of the enduring themes of national discourse. French essayist and poet, Charles Peguy, is famous for regretting that “tout commence en mystique et finit en politique.” Peguy, however, had the equation upside down. The fetishizing of “rural France” demonstrates once more that politics begin with interests and degenerate into mystification. This was true of no politics more than fascism, which is one reason why it is such a useless exercise to try to penetrate fascist ideology.
Paxton writes convincingly that we learn more from observing Dorgerist “performances” than from listening to its message. It was at the market-day rally, with its overheated speeches, heckling, drinking, and fist fights; or during the rescue of a poor family from the depredations of some town-basedfonctionnaire; or in bringing in the harvest in defiance of striking labourers that Dorgerisme expressed itself and recruited peasant small holders and local ruffians.
In the end, the Greenshirts turned out to be more fizz than fascist revolution. Dorgerisme, despite Dorgeres’ claim to half-a-million followers and his impressive ability to attract a crowd, never had more than a few tens of thousands of adherents. Its impact was episodic, and its Comites de defense never became a permanent power in peasant politics. The Dorgerists inserted themselves into an agrarian politics already well populated with organizations run by local rural elites. They tried to carve out a place by raising a new and non-notable cadre of peasant politicians and by behaving in more provocative and thuggish ways than established organizations could endorse–at least for themselves. Yet so far as this was French peasant fascism, it was a bust–however much it scared the authorities for a time.
True to his “model”, Paxton takes care to explain why the French countryside provided such poor soil for the growth of native fascism; why, that is, Dorgerisme failed to take root in rural politics. Aside from Dorgeres’ personal limitations as a political operator, the Greenshirts never managed to replace or make themselves indispensable to the old powers in rural politics, the notables. Perhaps this was because the “rural crisis” struck more gently in France than in Italy or Germany. This left French farmers less panicky and the class struggle among agrarians less intense. More critically, according to Paxton, the French state always maintained control of public order in the countryside. Big Agrarian Interests never needed gangs of fascist strikebreakers because government either managed to arrange some accommodation between conflicting groups or acted on its own to make sure that food would be available for the cities. Even the Blum government helped to break strikes of agricultural workers. In other words, the success of fascism was possible only when the established order of government and social authority broke down. Difficult as life became for many farmers in the 1930s, things never came to that sorry pass.
Dorgerisme was not only a failure in practice, it was a dead-end in conception–as was the whole project of rescuing rural France from its “crisis” through some kind of corporatist legerdemain and schemes to train a new generation of blacksmiths and coopers. Just how dead was made clear under Vichy. The National Revolution set up the Corporation paysanne to succour “the living elements” of agrarian life. In the rhetoric of the time, this meant small holders, rather than capitalist farmers, who did not need succouring. In typical fashion, however, Vichy placed businessmen-farmers in charge of this end of the National Revolution. The mass of peasants soon came to hate the Peasant Corporation for being little more that a machine for gathering food for hungry citadins and Germans.
In a second irony, the larger impact of the wartime regime was to push the political economy of French agriculture not backward but forward. Dorgeres’ marginality to Vichy policy, despite a certain symbolic presence, is telling. So is his virtual disappearance after the war. He made a minor splash in postwar politics as a Poujadist fellow-traveller and a street brawler of the Organisation armee secrete. Yet when social revolution finally came to French agriculture Dorgerisme was irrelevant and Dorgeres invisible.
This helps make the book’s larger point. Dorgeres himself was an overblown figure, who never stood the slimmest chance of overthrowing the Republic and establishing some kind of peasant-fascist regime–presuming anyone could figure out what that meant. For Paxton, however, failure as well as success has important lessons to teach. The first is that Dorgerisme marked a critical moment in the evolution of agrarian politics in France. With an ear cocked to the past, we can hear in the Greenshirts’ inflamed rhetoric the echoes of jacqueries long past, of peasants who hate both towns and the agents of the state who come to pick their pockets: Haut les fourches! Dorgeres called one version of his memoirs. Yet in the limits of Dorgeres’ appeal and in the new agrarian politics which were passing him by, we can also discern the profound and amazingly peaceful postwar agrarian revolution– although we should not forget the direct action that French farmers still employ to intimidate the Authorities.
The second lesson pertains to the principle historiographical debate around French fascism; that is, its popularity and its nature. Paxton has no doubt that Dorgeres’ anti-Marxism, anti-semitism, anti-statism, and demagogic populism place him squarely in the fascist camp. Against those, like Rene Remond, who maintain that fascism was a foreign import with no resonance in France, Paxton points to the tens of thousands of French men and women who responded to Dorgeres. The book also speaks to the controversy stirred up by Sternhell’s work. Based on his reading of fascist ideology, Sternhell maintained that fascism was a product of the dissident left–a sort of revisionist Marxism. On the contrary, Paxton establishes the solid right-wing bona fides of Dorgerisme.
French Peasant Fascism will probably have a less decisive impact on these historiographical debates than Vichy France or Vichy France and the Jews, for it is less ambitious than those classic studies. The book nonetheless bears all the marks of Paxton’s earlier work: it considers important matters with logic, clarity, and imagination.
West Virginia University
Reply by Robert O. Paxton:
I thank the panel for its thoughtful comments.
Perhaps I should explain the Dorgeres project’s genesis. While reviewing Zeev Sternhell’s Ni Droite ni gauche for the TLS in 1983, I noted with astonishment that studies of generic fascism and of French fascism ignore rural society while some of the most essential works on Italy and Germany make rural society central to the emergence of fascism.
In the late 1980s I decided to try to fill that gap by looking at Dorgeres. I had two other motives. I wanted to escape Vichy at last. And, after studying France largely through German archives for years, I wanted to approach la France profonde. In the end, I did not really escape Vichy. But I certainly learned a lot about departmental archives: I ended up working in fifteen of them.
I consulted so many partly because Dorgeres worked out less easily than expected. I thought an archival “mother lode” would pop up, permitting me to finish a short study right away, and then go on to something more substantial. There was no such luck.
After many summers and a sabbatical year devoted to Dorgeres, I have to confront the question posed directly by some of the forum participants and implicitly by others, and more than once, in dark moments, by myself: was Dorgeres worth a book? In himself, probably not. Indeed I have violated all the rules: don’t write about a failure, don’t examine a negative proposition. It is also wise never to write about someone you do not admire, but I have been violating that one for forty years.
Another unexpected turn was that the summit of Dorgeres’ movement appeared ephemeral, without serious sources. I was driven to a strategy of multiple grassroots case studies. Nobody used that trendy word microhistory, but that is where I was led. Does the subject of microhistory have to be a major personage? Alain Corbin’s latest study is about a peasant whose name seems to have been picked at random in a parish register.
Irvine puts it very well: this book is about the Dog That Did Not Bark. Dorgeres and his movement never amounted to as much as he, or the media, claimed. But I believed (and still do) that asking why Dorgeres fizzled might reveal much about French rural society and its response to the fascist temptation at the maximum moment of fascism and of rural depression in the 1930s. That is the only basis for any claim that Dorgeres and his movement were significant or representative (I never claimed the latter).
Of course, it is always possible that personal incompetence explains Dorgeres’ failure. But several of his lieutenants were in fact quite competent, and went on to lead reasonably productive lives after the movement died out. I believe the movement failed because of the authority of conservative notables in highly-structured French rural society, and of the order-keeping vigour of the French state in the 1930s.
That leads to Amdur’s question, and it is a probing one. Is it not odd for a Vichy specialist to find the Third Republic more resilient than either Weimar Germany or the Italian liberal monarchy? Maybe not. I believe I have always resisted linking the weaknesses of the Third Republic in a determinist fashion to its end. I believe that it took military defeat to destroy the Third Republic, and that only then did the dissidents of the 1930s surge forward to shape the revenge regime that followed. The links between Vichy and the 1930s dissidents are crucial but not linear.
I think I am in sync here with the literature of the last twenty years which takes a less calamitous view of French defensive military planning as the least unfavourable option, and finds France more unified and decisive under Daladier and Reynaud in 1939-40, to the point where French armaments production nearly matched the German. Too late, of course. I strenuously avoid any implication that France was preordained to lose in 1940 because it was decadent and defeatist. That is to buy Vichy’s diagnosis. I believe France was defeated in 1940 by the high command’s errors (the rash Dyle Plan, the failure to form a strategic reserve, tanks misused). Beyond that, the next proximate cause of defeat was the choice of a deflationist economic policy throughout the Depression (except for a moment under Blum), and consequent low productivity. If the entrenched power of a conservative rural oligarchy left little room for Dorgeres in the crises of the 1930s, that power also helps account for the authoritarian rather than fascist character of the Vichy regime (at least at the beginning).
The other weighty issue raised by almost everyone is the fascism problem. There is no way to engage this issue and emerge intact. Zdatny is right to see connections between my Dorgeres project and a fascism project that has been on my desk for some time. One of its first results is my article in the March 1998 issue of the Journal of Modern History, “The Five Phases of Fascism.”
After having taught undergraduate and graduate seminars on fascism for years, I have become weary of the hoary (and unexamined) convention by which fascism is treated like the other “isms,” Liberalism, Socialism, and Conservatism. As I see it, the conventional student of fascism examines the fascist creed as one examines J. S. Mill or Karl Marx, and then goes on to assume that the fascists chose it like an item on a menu. I propose in my article that fascism must be treated sui generis. It must be examined in action, and in its setting: the available political space and the elites who aided it. I also suggested that fascism evolves through five stages, each of which requires a somewhat different analysis because each involves different historical processes.
The first stage is the emergence of a fascist intellectual challenge to existing political orthodoxies. In a second stage fascist parties or movements become rooted (or not) in a political system by becoming the bearers of specific political interests (usually, by the way, quietly jettisoning some first- phase ideas). The third stage is coming to power, the fourth is exercising power, and the fifth stage is the “long duree” when fascist regimes either subside into mere authoritarianism (as Mussolini did), or escalate into something demonic (as Hitler did). The aim of all this is to urge scholars to examine the choices and actions involved in the process of fascistization, rather than try to explain everything by reference to some kind of ideological template (as Irvine has done very effectively with La Rocque, for example).
So was Dorgeres fascist or not? I am indeed uncomfortable with that question, as everyone observed. I suppose the question is inevitable, but it produces flabby historical thinking. Asking the question is to assume that fascism is a fixed category to which a political or intellectual figure can be clearly assigned. But as Goodfellow notes, each national case is different, and, I would argue, so is each stage (I could be charged here with loading on complexity until fascism disappears, but that would be another debate).
At any rate, the French extreme Right faced a special cultural obstacle. Although they wanted to replace the Republic with something more muscular, they felt nationalist distaste for foreign models, especially German ones.
So, again: was Dorgeres a fascist? My answer (or my way of evading one) refers implicitly to these five stages (though I did not encumber the book with them). Dorgeres avowedly accepted much of first-stage fascism (the ideas) at the beginning (1933-34), but defending corporate rural interests subsequently drew him toward authoritarianism, a tendency reinforced by his visceral anti-Germanism. Beyond that, Dorgeres’ career belongs squarely within a second-stage fascism (rooting). You could hardly lead an anti-parliamentary movement on an avowed mission to overthrow the French Republic in the 1930s without thereby occupying the fascist space, given the salience of Hitler and Mussolini at that moment.
A corollary of my approach to second-stage fascism is that one must spend as much time on the elites who might (or might not) help as on the fascist movement itself. This accounts for what may seem a disconcerting shift of focus away from Dorgeres to his conservative or authoritarian allies, a strategy that fits my approach to fascism as well as adding value to the book (As for the later stages of fascism, of course, they are irrelevant to Dorgeres, although they are what the word usually evokes in the minds of readers).
I should add that I do not agree with Irvine that evoking the fascism-authoritarian distinction is unhelpful. It seems to me important to keep the fascist concept relatively specific, and not confuse it with the other main component of the extreme right in 20th century Europe: rule through traditional elite corporations (army, church, industrialists, landowners, etc), as with Franco, Salazar, Petain, and Admiral Miklos Horthy.
So why, given all these problems with fascism, does it appear so baldly in the title? Those who glimpsed an editor’s hand were right. I would have preferred something more cautious (perhaps a qualifying question mark; perhaps a title like “The Problem of Rural Fascism in France”). The editors were adamant, and no doubt they made publishing sense. My more nuanced title would have been clumsy without clarifying much. Similarly, my French editors insisted on “fascisme rural” in the subtitle of the French edition: Le Temps des chemises vertes: revoltes paysannes et fascisme rural, 1929-1939. You should read my blistering mail from old Greenshirts who deny vehemently ever being fascist (Of course they mean they were never fourth- or fifth-stage fascists, but try explaining that).
Now finally on to some lesser issues. Irvine asks why I dismiss the Parti agraire (PA) as a failure when they elected eleven deputies versus barely one for Dorgeres. To be absolutely precise, eleven deputies joined the Parti Agraire caucus, probably along with several other caucuses, as was permitted in the Third Republic. Dorgeres (as Irvine notes) did not seriously try to mount an electoral party. If he had, he might well have done worse than the PA. Of course I consider Dorgeres a failure, too. Fleurant Agricola and his Parti agraire might well be worth a small study (there is a French MA thesis), but it raises very different (and less interesting) general issues: for instance, the lack of space for categorical parties (like a peasant party or a shopkeepers’ party) in the French Republics.
A minor problem arises when Irvine states that commodity prices were not involved with rural fascism in the Po Valley. Indeed they were. Paul Corner’s classic Fascism in Ferrara makes much of the effect of declining hemp prices after World War I upon the landowners’ reduced tolerance for labour militancy. Two periods of commodity price crash made rural Europe susceptible to extremist movements: one immediately after World War I, and a second after the 1929 crash. The Italian liberal monarchy succumbed to the first; Weimar Germany to the second. France of course survived both (We’re back to Amdur’s question).
I regret that our panel included no Italian and German specialists. My comparisons with the relative weakness of their rural elites and agrarian organizations, and the absence of a republican tradition among them, may be open to debate, of course. A specialist on postwar France might have queried the links I suggest between Dorgeres and present-day peasantist nostalgia.
Finally, the archives. I encountered every possible reaction in the provincial archives, from open arms to overt hostility. Sometimes I suspected my Vichy work influenced both reactions, but at other moments I felt (with relief) that the archivists had never heard of me. The most actively hostile departmental archivist notoriously keeps everyone out. The current Minister of Culture seems determined to open up the 1930s and Vichy; one of my recent PhD students even saw 1950s material on European union. We are approaching an authentic 30-year rule for France.
Robert O. Paxton
Kathryn E Amdur:
On the issue of France’s archives, Professor Paxton has kindly added a clarification regarding his experiences in recent years. As he also previously noted in his Preface to Henry Rousso’s and Eric Conan’s Vichy, An Ever-Present Past (Hanover, N. H., 1998), despite Rousso’s earlier Vichy Syndrome(Cambridge, Mass., 1991), the “myth … that the French are still ‘covering up’ Vichy’s collaboration” still seems “all but invincible in the United States.” The two French authors also take direct issue with the critique of France’s archives and archivists made by Sonia Combe (Archives interdites [Paris, 1994]), cited in the Chronicle article noted in my review and dismissed by Rousso and Conan as “an incompetent author, who had never worked on the subject nor on the archives of [the Vichy] period” (p. 274). Even without automatically generalizing from Vichy to fascism, one can rightly acknowledge the progress the French have made in facing up to their past.
William D. Irvine:
In light of Professor Paxton’s gracious response to my review of his book, I do not believe that I need give an extended rebuttal. This is the more true given that he and I agree on some important points of substance. We may not be of the same mind as to who, exactly, was a fascist in the 1930s, but I have no quarrel with his very sensible insistence on the functional rather than ideological criteria of fascism. Similarly, I think he is right, in his response to Steve Zdatny’s questions about the links between the Third Republic and Vichy to stress the importance of the discontinuities between the two regimes. Let me then limit myself to two more general reflections.
The first, and least important, concerns the question of Paxton’s title. It was somewhat mischievous of me to speculate on the provenance of the title: French Peasant Fascism. I was moved to do so, I must now confess, only because I too once permitted a publisher (Oxford, in the event) to substitute a catchier if somewhat misleading title for my own more prosaic if, alas, more accurate, original. Whatever professional scruples I had about the issue fell victim to my sympathy for Oxford’s entirely legitimate (if ultimately unsuccessful) efforts to improve the sales figures.
A more salient issue involves the archives, and in particular the French departmental archives. In my review I suggested that the paucity of local archival information on Dorgeres and his movement might speak to the overall importance of the phenomenon under investigation. I am not convinced that I was entirely wrong but it may be that the question of archival silences is rather more complex. Many years ago I consulted some 40 odd departmental archives, roughly three times the number I had intended to visit. I did so–and it is to the point–because of the very slim holdings of all but a handful of them on the subject I was exploring: Boulangism. Nor could I detect any correlation between the volume of archival information and the demonstrable importance of Boulangism in any given department.
To my utter frustration, more than once I came upon departmental archives with five or six thick cartons on anarchists and one slim folder with a title like Evenements politiques covering everything else that had happened in the first twenty years of the republic. I suspect that my frustrations were at times shared by central authorities in Paris. Certainly various Ministers of the Interior were forever sending out circulars complaining that Prefects were not faithfully sending in those famous monthly reports, or worse, were not significantly updating them from one month to the next. I remember wondering if they knew or cared if much that did emerge from the Prefects was entirely plagiarized from their respective sub-prefects. So, did archival silences speak to the inherent importance of the subject under investigation, or to the lack of Prefectorial diligence or, my private suspicion, to a highly developed professional reluctance to seeing the fruit of investigations find their way from the Prefecture to the local archive? I do not know the answer to these questions but they are fundamental ones for those of us who work on the politics of provincial France.
Oh yes, and by way of conclusion, Professor Paxton could be forgiven were he to remark on the fact that archival silences did not lead me to minimize the significance of provincial Boulangism.
The story of the Green Shirts is nothing if not the story of a failure, and Dorgeres’ failure is an instructive one. It offers insights into the general weaknesses of French fascism, despite the number of movements and adherents. Dorgeres’ failure to come to power hardly distinguishes it from most fascist groups, especially in France, which did not cut the mustard; the miracle seems to be that Mussolini and Hitler succeeded. Here, Paxton’s call for greater contextualization is a good one, although I would have liked to see a bit more of an examination of the Green Shirts set in the context of the overall national failure of French fascism.
The failure of rural fascism, specifically of Dorgeres, is not simply a consequence of the robustness of rural institutions or even the fact that the government and the political parties tried to do what they could for the small farmer (although these factors are important). The failure here is the lack of a credible link, such as occurred in Germany and Italy, between rural and urban discontent. The early success of Nazism in rural areas, for example, stemmed from the ability of the Nazis to present themselves credibly as a mass party in the towns and regions around issues which bridged social differences such as the universal hatred of the Treaty of Versailles and economic conditions during the depression, and not solely from the Nazi’s appeal to separate interest groups. In response to Paxton’s comments about specific comparisons with Germany, generalizations are difficult because of the tremendous regional variation, which reflect cultural, religious, economic, and political differences. The role of agricultural elites in Schleswig-Holstein, for example, bore little resemblance to their role in Prussia. What Nazism did was build on the regional sensibilities through grass-roots activity to fill a need for a mass party which connected Germans to the nation.
Such glue was lacking in Dorgeres’ case, as it was for the entire French fascist movement. Not for lack of trying– the Faisceau, the Jeunesses patriotes, the Solidarite francaise, the Francistes, the Parti populaire francais, and the Parti social francais (PSF) were among the most notable of the fascist groups which sought to redraw politics through the creation of a mass, nationally based fascist party. Only the PSF succeeded, and its success was obscured by the creation of the Vichy government. All of the groups were too beholden to their core social constituencies and, for lack of a compellingly unifying theme, were unable to rise above their petty differences. They could not even agree who had the rights to the fascist salute. The inability to find common cause in turn enabled the persistence of the existing institutions–the departmental chambres d’agriculture, the rural notables, and even the Church–to remain authorities, despite the putative decadence that all institutions seemed to exhibit in the interwar period.
The fascist movements do not conform to a single template. There is no holy grail out there which will define fascism, largely because the movement itself does not have a root text, draws from too many sources, and has difficulty transcending the local and national for the universal. At best we can use fascism as a flexible heuristic rapier, rather than a dogmatic bludgeon, with which to attack aspects of the past. The idea of a continuum, or as Paxton calls it, a set of stages, addresses both the issue of diversity and commonality. In any event, it is an advance over the idea of a generic fascism, a fascist minimum, or a universal fascism.
Professor Paxton wishes that this forum had included an Italian and German historian, to give it a variety of perspectives. He is correct, of course, that the four of us work in closely related fields and that his book and our comments take up only a few of the questions raised by the Dorgeres movement.
Let me therefore suggest another perspective which would place Dorgeres in the historiography, not of fascism, but of rural protest. It is hard, in the marketplace harangues of the Green shirts, not to hear the echoes of jacqueries, ancient and modern. Paxton tells us, after all, that Dorgeres found his entree into peasant politics in the issues of taxes and social payments–just like Pierre Poujade, who burst onto the French political scene in 1953, leading a violent anti-tax action in his hometown of Saint-Cere. “Vive le roi sans taille” had been the slogan which captured the naive program of seventeenth-century peasant rebellions, all directed, as Robin Briggs notes, “against the rising burden of royal taxation”(Briggs, Early Modern France, 1560-1715[Oxford, 1977], p. 117). It would have been interesting to have the comments of Briggs, or P. M. Jones or Yves- Marie Berce on the Dorgerists.
The seemingly timeless struggle of peasants against more powerful interests also poses a general question: what sorts of politics are available to those who find themselves on the wrong side of dominant historical forces? This was an especially sharp problem for small producers in the twentieth century–artisans and boutiquiers, alongside peasants–whose interests often ran directly opposed to those, not only of les gros, but also of workers, consumers, urbanites. Paxton notes, for example, that Dorgeres was a “fervent corporatist” (p. 127). Corporatism, simply put, was an attempt to find some way around the Darwinian logic of market capitalism without surrendering to the logic of socialism. It became, in one form or another, one of the most popular economic nostrums of the first half of this century and a basic economic principle of most fascisms. Indeed, for many of those who were neither thugs nor anti-communist fanatics, corporatist ideas paved the road to fascism. Corporatist intellectuals could come by way of grand theory; petits proprietaires by way of “economic despair”.(I borrow the phrase from Robert Gellately, The Politics of Economic Despair: Shopkeepers and German Politics, 1890-1914 [London, 1974]).
As liberal, democratic, capitalist societies seized up in the 1930s, corporatist programs multiplied and became more popular than ever. Invariably they proclaimed their political neutrality and held out the promise of an economic system without class struggle. Not all Corporatisms, it must be said, were conservative in inspiration. The Belgian socialist Henri de Man sought to make corporatism the basis of a more equitable society. In France, the National Economic Council, a broadly corporatist institution, was largely the work of the French left.
In general, however, and Dorgerisme is a good example of this, corporatism’s conceptual flaws usually pulled it towards authoritarianism in practice. Politics without class struggle in a society with classes? A relatively free economic system where weaker interests prevail? Rubbish! Neither of these promises, which were the essence of corporatism’s appeal, were compatible with the maintenance of open, democratic politics. Thus any attempt to build corporatism inevitably involved lies and repression, as Vichy’s National Revolution proved. In the Dorgeres movement, the history of jacqueries joined the history of fascism in the defense of a lost cause.