Is This Fascism?

It’s very difficult to tell whether you’re living in a fascist state. But consult this chart for starters.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo via Corbis/Getty Images.

Excerpted from Fascism: A Very Short Introduction by Kevin Passmore. Published by Oxford University Press

This article supplements Episode 1 of Fascism, a Slate Academy series. To learn more and to enroll, visit Slate.com/fascism.

On March 23, 1919, only a few dozen men and a handful of women attended the meeting in the hall overlooking the Piazza San Sepolcro in Milan, hitherto remarkable only for its 11th-century church. Benito Mussolini had called the participants together to inaugurate the Fasci di Combattimento (Groups of Fighters), one of the many tiny veteran groups that used the fasci label. The last thing on their minds was the foundation of an ideology, let alone a theoretical definition.

Mussolini, then aged 35, was an ex-socialist and war veteran. This son of a small-town blacksmith had recently been cultivating a more upmarket image, shaving off his moustache and wearing collared shirts. Yet his only visible source of income was as editor of a struggling newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia (the Italian People), which was insufficient to maintain his wife and three children, his mistress, and his liking for fencing, dueling, and fast cars.

In 1919, Mussolini had left the Socialist Party because it opposed Italian intervention in the Great War, and he had joined syndicalists (revolutionary trade unionists), nationalists, and elements of the governing Liberals (who were conservative by modern standards) in the pro-war movement. During the war, Mussolini’s patriotic journalism had been useful to the government because of his supposed influence among workers.

Beyond the question of the war, so-called Interventionists had little in common. Some saw intervention as a way to provoke revolution, though of what sort was unclear. Others claimed that war would regenerate the bourgeoisie or provide popular support for the existing regime. Some simply wished to outmaneuver rivals in Parliament.

The term fasces potentially possessed the broad appeal that they needed. Literally, it meant a tightly bound bundle of rods, sometimes used as the handle for an axe. Its first political use, by Sicilian peasant socialists in the 1890s, lent the word an air of popular radicalism that comforted ex-leftists among the Interventionists. It simultaneously appealed to Liberals and nationalists because in ancient Rome it symbolized authority. By 1919, Interventionists monopolized use of the label fasci.

In his Piazza San Sepolcro speech, Mussolini avoided formulating a program. He merely endorsed that of a nationalist labor union, without agreeing to its specific points. What became known as the “1919 program” was drawn up some weeks later. It combined nationalism with republicanism, anticlericalism, women’s suffrage, and social reform, much of which Fascists would soon jettison.

Within two years, Fascism had become a mass movement, but it had not clarified its meaning. Its paramilitary formations attacked Socialist and Catholic organizations and Slavic minorities while condemning capitalism. Mussolini lambasted Roman political corruption, yet negotiated a deal with established politicians, thanks to which, on Oct. 22, 1922, he became prime minister at the head of a Fascist-Liberal coalition.

In 1926, Mussolini began to establish a full-scale dictatorship. He made programmatic statements while intellectuals such as Giovanni Gentile systematized Fascist ideas. The regime implemented practical policies. Fascism certainly did not lack ideology, but its nature was never certain. The regime changed with time and activists did not agree on issues from the role of women and trade unions in society to the relationship between party and state and the nature of a national literature.

Uncertainty about the meaning of fascism did not prevent it from winning plaudits outside Italy. Fascism was becoming one of the great political movements of the 20th century, and by the 1930s, many people would see the struggle between fascism and antifascism as the primary issue in domestic and international politics. Already in 1925 at least 45 groups in several countries called themselves fascist, encouraged to do so by the Italian regime’s efforts to spread its influence. Yet these movements were not simple copies. They were no more homogenous than the original; they emphasized some aspects of what they saw in Italy, and ignored or mistook others. Some movements that to our eyes look similar to Fascism rejected the label.

The rise of Nazism in Germany further complicated matters. Hitler had been among the many enthusiasts for Fascism, yet Nazism was as hard to define as Fascism and it included elements, such as radical anti-Semitism, that had featured much less strongly in Fascism. Hitler’s success somewhat eclipsed Mussolini’s international reputation; Fascism began to borrow from Nazism and foreign movements shifted their allegiance to the latter, emphasizing anti-Semitism and “national socialism.”

After 1945, fascism was discredited, but its legacy continued to structure the political landscape. Governments in Russia, Britain, and North America drew legitimacy from their role in defeating fascism while the French, Italian, and German regimes claimed descent from the Resistance.

What’s Fascism?

Fascism is no more heterogeneous than any other political movement. But it is more than usually bogged down in questions
of definition. We readily accept that socialism or liberalism can mean many different things in different circumstances, that they can overlap with other ideologies, and that activists can differ fundamentally on what their ideology means. The only thing that really distinguishes fascism from other concepts is its enormous negative moral charge. It is not hard to find people who regard labels like socialist and liberal positively. In the case of fascism, few will assume the label, and the very gravity of the charge makes it a temptingly effective accusation to stick on opponents. Politicians and journalists use definitions as weapons, and fascism is a very good one.

How can we make sense of an ideology that appeals to skinheads and intellectuals; preaches revolution while allying with conservatives; adopts a macho style yet attracts many women; calls for return to tradition yet is fascinated by technology; idealizes the people yet is contemptuous of mass society, and advocates both violence and order? Fascism, as Ortega y Gasset says, is always “A and not A.”

The conventional way to cut through these problems is to establish a precise definition—encapsulate the most important features of fascism and identify movements as fascist or not, even if they did not use the label themselves. It is deceptively simple to list the characteristics of fascism:

Column A lists terms that appear frequently in scholarly definitions and that fascists themselves might have recognized. At first sight, they are sufficiently uncontroversial that one might accuse anyone who today advocated three or more of them of displaying “fascist tendencies.” Yet serious examination reveals problems. Must a movement display all of these features to be fascist, or just some of them? If the answer is “some,” then which ones?

The individual parts of the definition are problematic too. For instance, those who called themselves fascists were not straightforwardly nationalist. Rather they wanted to exclude, imprison, or kill many people who were part of the nation. Mussolini sometimes invoked an international “universal fascism” while in occupied Europe collaborators aspired to a place in a German-dominated New Order. In Alsace, Nazi sympathizers advocated regionalism rather than nationalism. It might also seem obvious that fascists all wanted dictatorship and one-party rule, but there was much conflict between state and party in the Fascist and Nazi regimes. Even when fascists agreed on something, such as corporatism, they could not agree what that involved. The diversity of fascism is such that any definition soon encounters evidence that does not fit.

Given these difficulties, some argue that a successful definition would do more than merely list features of fascism. They advise us that some aspects are more fundamental than others are. That’s where the definitions in the right-hand column come in—scholarly definitions that the protagonists of fascism might not have used, and perhaps angrily rejected.

How Do Marxists Define Fascism?

Marxist approaches to fascism all emphasize its links with capitalism. The first influential definition was that of the Communist International in 1935, which stated that “Fascism in power is the open, terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary, the most chauvinistic and most imperialistic elements of finance capitalism.” The International claimed that as the proletariat’s revolutionary sentiment intensified, capitalists would use terror to defend their property.

The strength of the Marxist approach is to relate fascism to the social struggles of the early 20th century, and to understand fascism in social action rather than just in abstract ideas. It reveals the diverse material motives that attracted social groups to fascism, whether peasant farmers in the Po Valley or artisans in the Rhineland.

Marxists are right that many capitalists were delighted with fascists’ destruction of the left. Yet it is not saying much to claim that fascism serves the interests of capitalism, for capitalism is such a powerful force that it can prosper under any regime that does not actually destroy it.

The necessity of proving that fascism serves capitalism also causes Marxists to regard fascist territorial expansion and racism as secondary features of fascism. Some Marxists see these impulses as a cunning ploy to ensure that fascism’s petty bourgeois supporters blame ethnic minorities rather than capitalists for their problems. But even if we accept the plausible contention that fascists used racism to undermine workers’ class loyalties, it still stretches the point to argue for instance that capitalist defense required killing the mentally ill in Germany or Italianizing family names in South Tyrol. Perhaps fascists pursued these goals for reasons unrelated to the (supposed) logic of capitalism.

Is Fascism a Response to Rapid Cultural Change?

Borrowing from the eclectic sociology of Max Weber (1864–1920), Weberian theorists argue that the mass of the population becomes vulnerable to fascism when social change is particularly rapid, when traditional ways are eroded by “modernization” or by war or economic crisis. As the old ways of doing things are undermined, people who placed their faith in tradition become disoriented (technically speaking, they suffer from “anomie”). They turn to fascists, who promise to restore lost certainties.

To the victims of modernization, fascism provides a total explanation of their place in the world; it explains the causes of change, identifies those responsible (foreigners and Jews, for instance), and provides a blueprint for restoration of a pre-modern utopia, which is totalitarian in character. Loosely speaking, these ideas underlie Ernst Nolte’s contention that fascism is a reaction against modernity, what he called “resistance to transcendence.”

It is not wholly convincing, though, to regard fascism as “anti-modern,” for it contained many features that others would see as modern. Some scholars defend the Weberian approach by saying that fascism pursued traditional ends using modern means. Too easily, scholars become mired in debates about what is modern, which are as futile as those about who is truly fascist.

How Is Fascism Related to Totalitarianism?

In one definition, the American political scientist C.J. Friedrich characterized “totalitarianism” as “An elaborate ideology which covers all aspects of man’s existence and which contains a powerful chiliastic [messianic or religious] moment.”

Scholars of the totalitarianism model argue that fascism involved the revolutionary reconstruction of society in accordance with a utopian ideology, at a time when rapid change and crisis had encouraged people to seek a new way of making sense of the world. Utopianism always leads to terror. Since real people are far from perfectible, they must be forced to assume their places in Utopia.

In the 1970s, the concept of totalitarianism fell out of use. The Cold War had thawed, and research demonstrated that far from representing a “top-down” system of totalitarian control, Nazi and Fascist (and Communist) regimes were chaotic. However, in 1989, the collapse of communism revitalized totalitarian theory, for it once more became useful to identify the horrors of Stalinism with fascism. Meanwhile, the rise of postmodernism in Western universities revived scholars’ interest in totalitarian ideology, for some postmodernists regard any all-encompassing system of ideas—whether based on religion, class, nation, or race—as intrinsically oppressive, a view that converges neatly with totalitarian theory’s view that fascism attempts to create an ideal world according to absolute principles.

Totalitarianism theorists answer critics of earlier versions by arguing that totalitarianism is an aspiration, which in practice did not achieve its ideals. The reality of chaos in fascist regimes is therefore quite compatible with totalitarian intention. Nevertheless, one finds the familiar assumption that rapid change dissolves the traditional world and creates the desire for a new integrating ideology, which fascists provide. In a striking metaphor, Michael Burleigh suggests that the Nazis sought to rebuild German society as engineers rebuild a bridge. They could not demolish it, since that would disrupt traffic, and therefore they replaced each individual part, so that passengers wouldn’t notice.

Updated totalitarianism theory has three major strands. Roger Griffin sees fascism is a form of “populist ultranationalism” that aims to reconstruct the nation following a period of perceived crisis and decline.

For Emilio Gentile, fascism’s integrating ideology amounted to a secular religion. He argued that modernization caused the destruction of traditional religion, without undermining the mass’s desire to believe. Fascism meets their need through sacralization of the party, state, and leader.

Totalitarianist approaches have also been combined with another strand of the diverse postmodernist movement: philosopher Michel Foucault’s concept of “governmentality.” The techniques of rule developed by modern governments were allegedly so pervasive that they reached into all aspects of family, social, and bodily behavior. And paradoxically, since people wanted economic success, education, and health, they coveted the very things that oppressed them, and thus colluded in their own oppression. Fascism could easily be seen as an intensification of governmentality, made possible by the destruction of enemies.

The advantage of all of these theories is to take seriously fascist ideas and plans. No longer can we say, as scholars once did, that fascism has no ideology (even if this ideology was more contradictory than totalitarian theorists allow). We may also agree that fascism could involve a revolutionary project of sorts, that it had something in common with religious fundamentalism, and that it pursued its goals with a violence justified by the conviction that opponents were part of a demonic conspiracy.

The major problem with them is that they presume an undifferentiated and ultimately passive mass, integrated into fascism by ritual repetition of ideas and/or by technologies of rule. Totalitarian theory in particular is weak on why people join fascist movements. It confines itself to generalizations about anomie and the masses’ desire for belief, and so cannot explain why particular groups were more likely to join than others were.

We face the problem that people differed in their degrees of commitment to the movement. Some were just voters; some only read the party newspaper; some attended the odd meeting; some were fanatics. Many fascists also belonged to or sympathized with other parties. Moreover, people never denied themselves just by their allegiance to fascism. Those who belonged to fascist movements were never just fascists. They were also mothers, fathers, Catholics, atheists, workers, capitalists, and much more. However sophisticated our definition, it can never explain the history of an individual movement. For real people never acted simply as fascists, let alone according to our definitions.

Burleigh’s bridge metaphor is useful in that it suggests that ordinary people believed that fascism would repair the nation whilst leaving them to get on with their lives. But it is inadequate insofar as fascists endeavored to reconstruct the bridge according to a substantially modified blueprint, and the engineers quarreled not just about what sort of bridge it should be, but about where it should begin and end. Their project demanded the mobilization of enormous resources, shook the bridge to its foundations, and threatened to derail the rolling stock. Yet many passengers happily lent a hand and acclaimed the engineers. Passengers and engineers agreed, moreover, that other passengers were secretly plotting to blow up the bridge, and as trains passed over the increasingly shaky bridge, thugs were throwing fare-paying passengers into the ravine below, under the half-averted gaze of fellow travelers, who wondered whether the murderers’ uniforms were those of the usual guards.

Our inability to pin fascism down does not mean that we can’t say anything at all, or that it’s all just a matter of opinion. Skepticism toward definitions does not mean that we can do without them altogether. Each definition of fascism tells us something, and each of them is more compatible with the others than their advocates assume. But none can tell us everything—even if we combine them all. Indeed, perhaps the most important step in understanding fascism is to always remember that we can’t learn everything that there is to know about the movement by categorizing it.

Reprinted from Fascism: A Very Short Introduction by Kevin Passmore with permission from Oxford University Press. Copyright (c) 2014 by Oxford University Press.