The term “fascist” gets thrown around a lot by people who have no actual clue what Fascism was about. I know what it was about because when I was about 11 or 12 I read Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of of the Third Reich and became fascinated by the question which has driven my study of politics and history for all of the fifty years since. Which is: how do we prevent the genocidal horrors of the Nazi regime from ever recurring?
In the process of trying to answer this question I have read deeply about Naziism, Italian Fascism, Francoite pseudo-Fascism, Marxism, Irrationalism, and several political tendencies related to these. I know their theory, I know their history, and I know what Fascists believed about themselves. Most of all I think I have a pretty firm grasp on how a revival of Fascism in the 21st century would look. And it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility, either…but if it happens, it’s not going to come from where most people currently throwing around the term “fascist” expect.
Hence, a field guide to spotting the wild Fascist. And avoiding false alarms.
Let’s start by clearing some terminological underbrush. I’m going to use the term “fascism” for a cluster of ideologies derived from Italian Fascism as it was invented by Gabriele D’Annunzio and then reinvented by Benito Mussolini. The most important derivative of Italian Fascism was German Naziism. I’ll capitalize “Fascism” when I’m speaking historically of how it developed rather than typologically as a cluster of correlated ideas and structural traits.
I’m not going to talk so much about some other movements and regimes historically connected to Fascism and sometimes confused with it, such Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Peronism in South America, or interwar Japanese militarism. In some cases these consciously borrowed fascist tropes, but not the core theory of fascism. They’re also less interesting because they’re not epidemiologically dangerous at this point in history – nobody has any reason to fear a revival of (for example) Saddamism.
On the other hand I will talk about Francisco Franco a bit. He’s useful because he borrowed just enough fascist tropes to confuse inattentive and sloppy thinkers into typing him as a Fascist without actually being one. Thus, contrasting his behavior with fascism is instructive.
So we’ll start with the roots of Italian Fascism. It originated as a kind of live-action role-playing game for disgruntled Italian WWI vets led by a charismatic war hero, aviator, and poet named Gabriele D’Annunzio. Compared to what it evolved into, early Italian fascism had a rather charming opera-bouffe quality about it – theoretical ideas that were incoherent to the point of surrealism, lots of prancing around in invented uniforms, and dosing of opponents with castor oil. The history of D’Annunzio’s Fascist microstate of Fiume makes amusing reading.
Then came Benito Mussolini, a man looking for a vehicle.
Mussolini was a revolutionary Socialist organizer influenced by the theories of Georges Sorel, who was responding to one of the early failures of Marxism. In Marxian “scientific socialism”, universal revolution was a process that would follow mechanically from the capitalist immiseration of the proletariat. But by the second decade of the new century it was becoming clear that most national proletariats were unwilling to play their appointed role in the theory and indeed tended to be among the most patriotic and nationalist elements of their societies. Class warfare as the engine of international socialism had failed, creating a doctrinal crisis in communist/socialist circles.
Sorel responded by writing a new theory of political motivation he called “irrationalism” which proposed that instead of fighting popular sentiments like patriotism and nationalist mythology, socialists and communists should embrace them as tools to build and perfect socialism. Mussolini was persuaded, broke with the Socialist Party, and went looking for a vehicle for a Sorelian revolution. He found it in D’Annunzio’s Fascists and, swiftly shunting D’Annunzio aside, became their leader.
I’ve covered this history in detail because it explodes one of the prevailing myths about Fascism – that it arose out of some fundamental opposition to Communism. In fact this was never true; Fascism was a Marxist heresy from the day Mussolini seized it, differing from Marxism not mainly in its aims but in the means by which they were to be achieved.
The defining doctrine of Fascism once D’Annunzio was out of the way was this quote by Mussolini: “Everything for the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” (There are a few variant translations from the original Italian.) Building directly on Leninist political economics, Benito Mussolini wrote a theoretical justification of the totalitarian state which paralleled Joseph Stalin’s less theorized but brutally-executed totalitarianization of the Soviet Union at around the same time.
The Fascist theory was of a unitary, totalizing state ruled by a leader acting as the embodiment of the will of the nation. No power centers in opposition to the embodied will can be tolerated; church, family, education, and civic institutions must all become organs of that will.
One way to tell if you’re dealing with an actual Fascist is whether your subject has that theory of state power. If he doesn’t, you might be dealing with (say) a garden variety conservative-militarist strongman like Admiral Horthy in Hungary. Rulers like that will kill you if you look like a political threat, but they’re not invested in totalitarianizing their entire society.
Occasionally you’ll get one of these like Francisco Franco who borrows fascist tropes as propaganda tools but keeps a tight rein on the actual Fascist elements in his power base (the Falange). Franco remained a conservative monarchist all his life and passed power to the Spanish royal family on his death.
This highlights one of the other big lies about Fascism; that it’s a “conservative” ideology. Not true. Franco, a true reactionary, wanted to preserve and if necessary resurrect the power relations of pre-Civil-War Spain. Actual Fascism aims at a fundamental transformation of society into a perfected state never seen before. All of its type examples were influenced by Nietzschean ideas about the transformation of Man into Superman; Fascist art glorified speed, power, technology, and futurism.
Another political species commonly and stupidly mistaken for a fascist is the conservative populist. My type example for this is Pierre Poujade. Not only do those like Poujade lack the fascist’s centralizing theory of power, their animating complaint is that power is too centralized – ruling elites have become arrogant and disconnected from the populace and it is time to call them to account, restoring the autonomy and pride of the forgotten people who hold up the system from below.
The Fascist theory of power would regard Poujade as a troublemaker to be squashed. It defines the system from above, naturally evolving quite rapidly into Führerprinzip, the cult of the absolute leader whose authority may not be questioned. One important consequence is that fascist strongmen like to create institutions parallel to the civil police and line military that are answerable directly and personally to the Maximum Leader. Of course the best known example is Hitler’s SS, but any well-developed fascism generates equivalents.
You can have a quite an effective totalitarianism without this; Stalin, for example, never bothered with an SS-equivalent. You can get similar developments under Communism; consider Mao’s Red Guards. And on the third hand, Franco copied that part of the formula without actually being a Fascist. Still – if you think you’ve spotted a fascist demagogue ramping up to takeover, one of the things to check is whether he’s trailing a thug army behind him ready to turn into a personal instrument of force. If he isn’t, you’re probably wrong.
Another thing that follows from the Fascist theory of power is hostility towards markets, free enterprise, and trade. Yes, yes, I know, you’ve heard all your life that fascists are or were tools of capitalist oligarchs, but this is another big lie. In reality about the last person you want to be is a “capitalist oligarch” in the way of one of Maximum Leader’s plans. Because even if he needs you to run your factories, you’re likely to find out all the ways utter ruthlessness can compel you. Threats to your family are one time-honored method. You can’t buy him, because has the power to take anything he really wants from you.
In fact, one of the reasons fascist regimes turn anti-Semitic so often is because Jews are identified with mercantile activity. Which in the Fascist view of things, is corrupting and disruptive of loyalty bonds that should be more important than wealth. Furthermore, Fascism inherited from its parent Marxism the whole critique about capitalism alienating workers from their production.
The political economics of fascism is always state-socialist, and explicitly so. This follows directly from the drive for centralization.
So now I’ll flip that around. If your candidate fascist is ideologically pro-free-market, false match. Even if he merely displays an affection for large scale corporate capitalism, that ain’t fascist. For the very direct reason that big corporations are a power center, or collection of power centers, competing with the unitary state. Fascists never tolerate that well.
Something else fascists never tolerate well is unregistered civilian firearms, or registered ones in the hands of anyone not signed up in one of the leader’s thug militias. A fascist looks at these and sees a civilian insurrection waiting to happen, and generally has a pretty keen sense of how quickly said civilian insurrection can end up with him hung up dead in the town square someplace like Giulino di Mezzegra,
Accordingly, one of the recurring themes in the consolidation of fascist power is escalating restrictions on civilian weapons ownership. “Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the supply of arms to the underdogs is a sine qua non for the overthrow of any sovereignty,” said Adolf Hitler.
The U.S.’s Second Amendment is to such creatures like sunlight to a vampire. If your candidate demagogue pushes in the opposite direction, taking an expansive view of firearms rights? Nope, neither Fascist nor more generically fascist.
And, of course, the thought police. Fascisms are even more hostile to free speech than they are to free markets. This shouldn’t even need explaining
* A centralizing theory of political power and legitimacy.
* State-socialist political economics.
* Anti-semitism, with the Jews identified as bloodsucking capitalists.
* Propaganda and programs aiming to fundamentally transform society into an idealized future state.
* Equivalents of the SA and SS, organs of coercion answering to the leader and the Party, not the law.
* Systematic suppression of competing political speech.
* Registration, suppression, and confiscation of civilian firearms.
You should actually expect to see almost all of these being pushed by any actual fascist demagogue, because they’re a mutually reinforcing package – the bones and sinews of totalitarianism – and these creatures know what they’re doing. Only Mussolini was really a pioneer; Hitler copied Mussolini’s playbook, and more recent fascists like Saddam Hussein consciously copied Hitler’s.
However, many people who think they know some history won’t identify most of these as Fascist. You’re likely to get particular pushback on the “state-socialist political economics”, though even a cursory look at the Fascist or Nazi party platforms will instantly confirm this.
This reflects what probably counts as the single most successful Soviet dezinformatisiya effort ever, the legend that fascism is diametrically opposed to socialism. In reality, most of the “totalitarianism” functional package is shared between Fascism and Communism. Partly through parallel invention and partly by diffusion; the Nazis even sent fact-finding missions to the USSR to learn how to run prison and extermination camps efficiently.
I’ll leave it to the reader to go through the list of diagnostic fascist traits and think about which ones apply to which of today’s political tendencies.
I think you’ll find it particularly instructive to plot the likelihood that political groups will fling the term “fascist” at their enemies with the extent to which they themselves have classically fascist traits. Do not expect these measurements to be inversely correlated.