What is Fascism?
Fascism (făsh`ĭzəm), is the totalitarian philosophy of government that glorifies the state and nation and assigns to the state control over every aspect of national life.
The name was first used by the party started by Benito Mussolini, who ruled Italy from 1922 until the Italian defeat in World War II. However, it has also been applied to similar ideologies in other countries and labelled National Socialism in both Germany and to the regime of Francisco Franco in Spain. The term is derived from the Latin term fasces.
Characteristics of Fascist Philosophy
Fascism, especially in its early stages, is obliged to be anti-theoretical and frankly opportunistic in order to appeal to many diverse groups. Nevertheless, a few key concepts are basic to it.
First and most important is the glorification of the state and the total subordination of the individual to it. The state is defined as an organic whole into which individuals must be absorbed for their own and the state’s benefit.
This ‘total state’ is absolute in its methods and unlimited by law in its control and direction of its citizens.
A second ruling concept of fascism is embodied in the theory of social Darwinism. The doctrine of survival of the fittest and the necessity of struggle for life is applied by fascists to the life of a nation-state.
Peaceful, complacent nations are seen as doomed to fall before more dynamic ones, making struggle and aggressive militarism a leading characteristic of the fascist state. Imperialism is the logical outcome of this dogma.
Another element of fascism is its elitism. Salvation from rule by the mob and the destruction of the existing social order can be effected only by an authoritarian leader who embodies the highest ideals of the nation.
This concept of the leader as hero or superman, borrowed in part from the romanticism of Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Carlyle and Richard Wagner is closely linked with fascism’s rejection of reason and intelligence and its emphasis on vision, creativeness, and ‘the will.’
The Fascist State
Fascism has found adherents in all countries. Its essentially vague and emotional nature facilitates the development of unique national varieties, whose leaders often indignantly deny that they are fascists at all.
In its dictatorial methods and in its use of brutal intimidation of the opposition by the militia and the secret police, fascism does not greatly distinguish itself from other despotic and totalitarian regimes.
There are particular similarities with the Communist regime in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. However, unlike Communism, fascism abhors the idea of a classless society and sees desirable order only in a state in which each class has its distinct place and function.
Representation by classes (i.e., capital, labor, farmers, and professionals) is substituted for representation by parties, and the corporative state is a part of fascist dogma.
Although Mussolini’s and Hitler’s governments tended to interfere considerably in economic life and to regulate its process, there can be no doubt that despite all restrictions imposed on them, the capitalist and landowning classes were protected by the fascist system, and many favored it as an obstacle to socialization.
On the other hand, the state adopted a paternalistic attitude toward labor, improving its conditions in some respects, reducing unemployment through large-scale public works and armament programs and controlling its leisure time through organized activities.
Many of these features were adopted by the Franco regime in Spain and by quasi-fascist dictators in Latin America (ie – Juan Perón) and elsewhere. A variation of fascism was the so-called clerico-fascist system set up in Austria under Engelbert Dollfuss.
This purported to be based on the social and economic doctrines enunciated by Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XI which, however, were never put into operation.
Origins of Fascism
While socialism (particularly Marxism) came into existence as a clearly formulated theory or program based on a specific interpretation of history, fascism introduced no systematic exposition of its ideology or purpose other than a negative reaction against socialist and democratic egalitarianism.
The growth of democratic ideology and popular participation in politics in the 19th century was terrifying to some conservative elements in European society, and fascism grew out of the attempt to counter it by forming mass parties based largely on the middle classes and the petty bourgeoisie, exploiting their fear of political domination by the lower classes.
Fore-runners of fascism, such as Georges Boulanger in France and Adolf Stöker and Karl Lueger in Germany and Austria, in their efforts to gain political power played on people’s fears of revolution with its subsequent chaos, anarchy, and general insecurity.
They appealed to nationalist sentiments and prejudices, exploited anti-Semitism and portrayed themselves as champions of law, order, Christian morality, and the sanctity of private property.
Emergence after World War I
The Russian Revolution (1917), the collapse of the Central Powers in 1918, and the disorders caused by Communist attempts to seize power in Germany, Italy, Hungary and other countries greatly strengthened fascism’s appeal to many sections of the European populace.
In Italy, particularly, social unrest was combined with nationalist dissatisfaction over the government’s failure to reap the promised fruits of victory after World War I. The action of Gabriele D’Annunzio in seizing Fiume (Rijeka) was one manifestation of the discontent existing in Italy.
Appealing to the masses and especially to the lower middle class through demagogic promises of order and social justice, the fascists could depend upon support, financial and otherwise, from vested interests, who could not muster such popularity themselves.
Governmental paralysis enabled Mussolini in 1922 to obtain the premiership by a show of force. As leader of his National Fascist party, he presented himself as the strong-armed savior of Italy from anarchy and Communism.
Borrowing from Russian Communism a system of party organization based on a strict hierarchy and cells, which became typical of fascism everywhere, he made use of an elite party militia—the Black Shirts—to crush opposition and to maintain his power.
In Germany at about the same time a fascist movement similar to that in Italy steadily gathered strength; it called itself the National Socialist German Workers’ party (Nazi party).
Its leader, Adolf Hitler, won support from a middle class ruined by inflation, from certain elements of the working class, especially the unemployed, and from discontented war veterans.
He also gained the backing of powerful financial interests, to whom he symbolized stability and order. However, it was not until 1933 that Hitler could carry through his plans for making Germany a fascist state and the National Socialists the sole legal party in the country.
The military aggression so inherent in fascist philosophy exploded in the Italian invasion (1935) of Ethiopia, the attack (1936)of the Spanish fascists (Falangists) on their republican government (see Spanish civil war) and Nazi Germany’s systematic aggression in Central and Eastern Europe, which finally led to World War II in 1939.
Fascism since World War II
The Italian Social Movement (MSI), a minor neo-fascist party, was formed in Italy in 1946. It won wider support when the pervasive corruption of the governing parties was exposed in the early 1990s, and it became a partner in the conservative government formed after the 1994 elections.
In 1995, however, the MSI dissolved itself as it was transformed into a new party headed by former MSI leader Gianfranco Fini and including the majority of former MSI members. Fini’s right-wing National Alliance rejected fascist ideology, including anti-Semitism, and embraced democracy as one of its principles and has participated in center-right governing coalitions.
In post-war West Germany, neo-fascism appeared in the form of the temporary growth of the nationalistic National Democratic Party in the mid-1960s. Following German reunification, neo-Nazi groups in the country gained increased prominence, with new members being drawn to the organization as a result of social upheaval and economic dislocation, and the nation experienced an increase in related violence, especially attacks on immigrants and foreigners.
Neo-Nazi groups also exist on a small scale in the United States, and right-wing nationalistic movements and parties in countries such as France, Russia,and some republics of the former Yugoslavia have political groups with elements of fascism.
For many of these parties,however, ethnic and racial animosity is often more significant than fascist philosophy.
Robert Paxton, a professor emeritus of social science at Columbia University in New York who is widely considered the father of fascism studies, defined fascism as ‘a form of political practice distinctive to the 20th century that arouses popular enthusiasm by sophisticated propaganda techniques for an anti-liberal, anti-socialist, violently exclusionary, expansionist nationalist agenda.’
Paxton, author of several books, including “The Anatomy of Fascism” (Vintage, 2005), said fascism is based more on feelings than philosophical ideas. In his 1988 essay “The Five Stages of Fascism,” published in 1998 in the Journal of Modern History, he defined seven feelings that act as “mobilizing passions” for fascist regimes. They are:
- The primacy of the group. Supporting the group feels more important than maintaining either individual or universal rights.
- Believing that one’s group is a victim. This justifies any behavior against the group’s enemies.
- The belief that individualism and liberalism enable dangerous decadence and have a negative effect on the group.
- A strong sense of community or brotherhood. This brotherhood’s “unity and purity are forged by common conviction, if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary.”
- Individual self-esteem is tied up in the grandeur of the group. Paxton called this an “enhanced sense of identity and belonging.”
- Extreme support of a “natural” leader, who is always male. This results in one man taking on the role of national savior.
- “The beauty of violence and of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success in a Darwinian struggle,” Paxton wrote. The idea of a naturally superior group or, especially in Hitler’s case, biological racism, fits into a fascist interpretation of Darwinism.
Once in power, ‘fascist dictatorships suppress individual liberties, imprison opponents, forbid strikes, authorize unlimited police power in the name of national unity and revival, and commit military aggression.’ Paxton wrote.