Will the real Fascism please stand up?
Updated: Sep 28
Again this week, the line from The Princess Bride comes to mind: “You keep using this word, I don’t think it means what you think it means.” In this week’s case, we are referring to the often misused “Fascism” label.
For decades “Fascism” has been divorced from its historical definition, and in so doing, constructing a paradox that makes it’s usage meaningless except as a bland but emotional pejorative.
Without examining the actual systems that were Fascist, along with the philosophy as espoused by its leaders and promoters, it is impossible to use the term in any accurately meaningful context, especially when using the term “Anti Fascist” or “Antifa” sans an understanding of actual Fascism. Devoid of historical accuracy and definition, it becomes a potential tool to enact the very vices that some profess to try and avoid.
Therefore, in the interest of both historical accuracy as well as societal sanity, we will look at the actual doctrines of Fascism and what it meant.
HISTORICAL DEFINITION BECOMES ALTERED
George Orwell noted pointedly that the Fascism label had devolved over the years into a simplistic label that meant “something not desirable.” (1)
Fascism has a definition presented by the very founders and leaders of that political system, yet that is rarely used when calling something "Fascist". Almost all the lists of “What is Fascism” are not mentioning the actual definitions as the Italian government proclaimed or attempted to implement. Usually the lists are hybrids between Nazi Germany, and what the writers find “not desirable” in their contemporary political landscape.
Indeed, as Stanley Paine pointed out in his examination of Fascism; “When most theorists of generic Fascism refer to Fascism they seem to mean, in fact, National Socialism.” (2) Fascism was not National Socialism/Hitlerism, this is a false equivalency brought about by wartime propaganda as well as ignorance of Mussolini’s version of National Socialism he called “Fascism” vs. Hitler’s version of National Socialism he called “Nazism” or outside Germany “Hitlerism”. One critical difference; Fascism didn’t seek a race based “other” to vilify, and until 1938, Fascists frequently criticized Nazi racialism, among other items. Fascist doctrine was “cultural environmentalism, not racial environmentalism and did not include anti-Semitism.” (3) Yet many uninformed writers will place “racism” or “anti Semitism” under inaccurate “what is Fascism” lists.
I would add to Paine’s observation and note that the modern use of “Fascism” in public discourse is also influenced heavily by the old Soviet propaganda definition: ANY POLITICAL paradigm that was not the Russian specific brand of National Socialism/Communism was called “Fascism” by Soviet propagandists.
FDR, Churchill, even Stalin’s former compatriot in the Communist revolution, Trotsky, were all called "Fascists.” As the Soviet propagandists Tanin & Yohan put forward in their attempt spin the the word into a propaganda weapon promoting Russia’s brand of Socialism, “Fascism” was simply a stop-gap measure between Bourgeois Capitalism and Communism. “Fascism”, according to Stalin’s wordsmiths, was where the Bourgeois give in to half-hearted dictatorial and socialist mechanisms to retain their hold on power while forestalling a more massive Socialist/Communist revolution. (3) In other words, you could even be fellow Communist, but if you weren’t part of Stalin’s puppet governments, you were a “Fascist.” and simply one pit stop away from eventually becoming part of the Communist revolution in Stalin’s scheme. Later, Stalin’s propagandists would use the same logic to explain Hitler’s National Socialism as a pit stop in declining Capitalism headed towards Communism.
Stalin needed this explanation as Italian Fascism and later German Nazism was stealing Russian Communist allied groups “thunder” in gaining anti Democratic and anti Capitalist groups in Italy and Germany. The parties were competing for the same social-political space and Stalin needed a way to keep his version of Socialism relevant in the narrative. This would change during the war, but the “Fascism as a pit stop from Capitalism to Communism” description was promoted around the globe until then.
When WWII broke out, and more specifically, when Germany and Italy by extension broke their alliance with the USSR in June 1941, “Fascism” became a catchall phrase for any nation in the Axis. It was especially helpful to American propaganda which was looking for a jingoistic lexicon that would take the irony out of “War for Democracy” as that contrasted with being allied with the biggest dictatorship in Stalin’s Russia, and the colonial power of England. “Fascist” was a one size fits all label that separated the socialism of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, away from Americas wartime ally Soviet Russia. Unfortunately this wartime propaganda was never corrected after the war, and “Fascist” became incorrectly associated with Nazi, and even more ironically, Japan’s parliamentary democracy.
MUSSOLINI CREATES A NEW UNITED FRONT BY “EVOLVING” SOCIALISM
The formation of “Fascism” finds it’s genesis in Benito Mussolini. More accurately, Benito Amilcare Adrea Mussolini, named for Mexican and Anarcho-Socialist revolutionaries by his father, Allesandro Mussolini, a member of the First Communist Internationale with Marx and Engels. (4)
Mussolini was steeped from an early age in Socialist/Communist theory from his father and later studied under Angelica Balabanoff, a long term colleague of Lenin. Indeed, Lenin admired Mussolini and stated he was the “only true revolutionary” in Italy. Mussolini was instrumental in promoting and editing many socialist publications in pre-WWI Italy. His vehement anti-Christian rhetoric carried over into the formation of “Fascism” as a new secular religion and was fundamental to its need to be totalitarian to supplant the Catholic Church hold on social mechanisms and beliefs.
During the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Mussolini was caught up in a schism along with many other Socialist/Communist revolutionaries in Europe. Various Revolutionary groups were split over participation in the war, and Mussolini decided to follow the groups that believed that war was the better mechanism to promote the revolution and bring about the change that he envisioned. The war itself brought him into contact with soldiers that sympathized with his Socialist/Communist vision, increasingly being modified to a more national-based model and away from an international one.
After initially opposing the war, Mussolini ended up supporting, then joining it. The lessons of WWI brought a new means of organizing the revolution into his mind. Mussolini noted that military organizational structure, a focus on street violence, and the development and focus on a “youth movement” allowed for the implementation of Socialist/Communist systems far more efficiently than a loose coalition of like-minded old intellectual Socialists/Communists appealing to workers strikes. Militarism would now be incorporated into his Socialist/Communist revolution. The left-wing veterans would provide a powerful tool for his street action groups that inflicted violence and fear in order to short circuit the democratic process and force the party into power.
Democracy was to die by the fists of his Fasci di Combattimento or black shirt street thugs, that were, as Mussolini noted in 1920 “not tied to any doctrinal form except to Break the bones of the democrats of Il Mondo.”. His youth black shirts would use violence to short cut reason and debate, and propel the Socialist revolution. The cornerstone of “Fascism” was the Fasci di Combattimento who simply focused on violence against the democratic system, and installing fear to promote their party to power.
The violence also broke Democracy’s legitimacy, both in provoking heavy-handed responses that were used as post facto justification for riots, as well as by removing the ability of the government to protect the citizens, at least from the citizens' view. Only the Fascist party in power, the street narrative went, could reduce the violence. It was an old mob protection racket in political clothing.
But this protection racket was bought into by many otherwise non-violent Italians. The Fascist party bundled the Socialist social programs as a sugar coating to its street violence and provided the carrot to the stick, and false justification for street riots and political beatings.
The cornerstone of “Fascism” is street violence to overcome democratic process and law.
For Fascists; belief plus violence equaled the “truth,” and history could be re-written if enough street beatings were used. As Mussolini noted; “It is faith that moves mountains, not reason. Reason is a tool, but it can never be the active force of the Crowd.”
Photo: The arson of the Narodni dom, July 13, 1920 by Fascist/Socialist mobs. **
In addition, the works of Sorel, or Sorelianism, began to have more of an influence on Mussolini’s evolution of Socialism. During the First World War, Mussolini noted that soldiers and people under duress needed myths to identify with and form emotional-based narratives to carry them through the struggle. Intellectualism faded fast in the trenches, and in the political trenches of the street protests back in Italy, intellectualism would disappear as well, leaving only the myths to keep people dedicated and engaged in the revolution. If his new Socialist based revolution was to remove religion from the equation, he would need to supplant it with a new Fascist based mythos and history. The old Socialist revolutionaries focused on class and economics, and didn’t at the time create deep mythos to replace the religion, it simply tore down religion and focused people on economics. Mussolini knew to keep a heightened energy of the masses, he would need to augment traditional socialist focus with a more in depth myths. A new history, the promotion of futurism and a “new man”, as well as attacking and replacing previous cultural bedrocks was the answer Fascism came up with.
Mussolini combined his existing Socialist/Communist group/beliefs and added new allies into his Socialist coalition, creating a “United Front” but in Sorelian tradition, calling it “Fascist” by alluding to the ancient Roman symbol and supplanting traditional Catholic, Democratic, and Royal symbols of power with an imagined lineage to the Caesars and Rome.
The early manifesto and party platform focused on the end results versus ideological definitions. The party leadership chose to focus Fascism as more of a street action party, contrasting it with traditional Democratic parties in a parliamentary system. Emotional narrative and symbolism increasingly took precedent over ideological constructs in the direct drive to power. The culmination was the March on Rome, where a black shirt street block marched on Rome to assert a visual spectacle and threat of violence that ensured the position of the movement in governance, despite losing the elections. Democracy could be negated or at least subverted, by coordinated street action theatrics and violence. After a decade in power, Mussolini and Gentile reflected on what Fascism's totalitarian beliefs were based upon, and wrote more details about the party philosophy.
WHAT IS FASCISM: THE FOUNDERS OWN WORDS.
Perhaps surprisingly, for many readers, Fascism, like Communism, has a manifesto.
For those that have examined the Fascist evolution from the Internationale and later Italian Socialist movements, it would not be surprising to see a manifesto. Perhaps more surprisingly, the manifesto and later writings on the definitions of the Fascist movement written by the founders and promoters of Fascism are ignored by most historians and political commentators. One rarely discusses Communism without reference to Das Kapital, the Communist Manifesto, the Nazi party without references to Mein Kempf, and yet discussions of “Fascism” usually have no references the “Fascist Manifesto” and other seminal writings. Why?
The early writings and manifesto focused on the immediate goals of the party rather than the philosophy behind it. Some cornerstones of belief were promoted such as violent and direct action to generate mass support or at least suppress opposition and cut short and circumvent the Democratic Parliamentary process, a “will to power” of the time, and gradual incorporation of a new mythos designed to give a new reality and replace the traditional values of the rural, mostly Catholic Italian nation. Many progressive demands were made of the Italian government during the street violence period. Few writers acknowledge what the party platform actually was.
The demands of Fascism against Italian Democracy included the following:
Minimum wage laws.
Opposition to foreign imperialism.
Lowering the voting age to 18.
Voting rights extended to women.
Reducing or eliminating tenant farm landowners.
Removal of private and religious schools in favor of state-run schools.
Nationalization of military industries.
Confiscation of war profits.
End of the draft.
Mandatory councils of experts to replace elected officials determining public policy on education, industry, labor, and commerce.
*More on these in Italian here: https://youtu.be/J7ttMv7XMnw
Some historical denialists misquote the demands of Italian Fascism and state they were in opposition to Socialism, when in actuality they were in opposition to a competing Socialist party that was seen as pacifistic. A competing socialism that was not dynamic enough for the militant Mussolini. The policies of "Fascism" continued to be Socialist based throughout its 20 year rule of Italy.
The difference between classic liberalism and “Fascism” is that rather than leave these demands to the ballot box, Fascist “blackshirts” would use violence to force them sans a democratic process. This served not only to discredit the government, but place the credit for the changes into the party and NOT the people of the nation themselves. Democracy allows the people a chance through votes and representation to participate and therefore “own” the changes after debate and consideration, thereby being able to take credit and ownership of the changes. However, Fascism retains that decision and credit through violence and reserves it for the party and later when in power, by the government alone.
In 1932 Benito Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile decided to write a ten year retrospective on Fascism to define it after having it implemented in Italy. Reading it, one can see the Communist/Socialist base, infused with Sorelism’s focus on a central mythos to both unify and motivate various demographic groups.
The Doctrine of Fascism (1932) identifies the core element as primarily a “spiritual one” arising from opposition to “materialistic positivism of the 19th century.” and promoting an eternal struggle as a means not only of rejecting an easy materialistic life, but reducing individuality to subsume oneself in almost religious collectivism based upon struggle and belief that Fascism superseded both Capitalism and Communism.
“Fascism is therefore opposed to all individualistic abstractions based on eighteenth-century materialism. . . Anti-individualistic, the Fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State, which stands for the conscience and the universal. . . It is opposed to classical liberalism . . . Liberalism denied the State in the name of the individual: Fascism reasserts the rights of the State as expressing the real essence of the individual…the only liberty worth having, the liberty of the State and of the individual within the State. The Fascist conception of the State is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. (it is) inclusive of all values.”
As you can see, Fascist core belief in the nullification of individual rights in favor of the State representing or “owning” the citizens, is in diametrical opposition to classic Liberalism and Americanism.
The other central tenant in the Doctrine of Fascism is its focus on the need for a constant struggle. It was a new religion, designed primarily to replace Catholicism in Italy, but also to replace the ideals of classical liberalism. As such, it became a “totalitarian” system. Nothing in culture, intellectual imagination, politics, economics, etc. could exist outside of it. Everything was political, and everything subject to state controls.
“The conception is, therefore, a spiritual one, arising from the general reaction of the century against the materialistic positivism of the 19th century. . . No action is exempt from moral judgment: no activity can be despoiled of the value which a moral purpose confers on all things. Therefore life, as conceived of by the Fascist, is serious, austere, and religious; all its manifestations are poised in a world sustained by moral forces and subject to spiritual responsibilities. The Fascist disdains an “easy” life.”
Fascism was not the first to create a totalitarian system of government. That first goes to Russia during the Soviet period. However, Fascism was the first to clearly define totalitarianism as an objective of the State and make the government political system a substitute for what had traditionally been a religious prerogative.
“The Fascist conception of the State is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. . . the Fascist State. . . a unit inclusive of all values – interprets, develops, and potentiates the whole life of a people. No individuals or groups (political parties, cultural associations, economic unions, social classes,) outside the State.”
Checks and balances on state power over the individual were also rejected by Fascism.
“Its functions cannot, therefore, be limited to those of enforcing order and keeping the peace, as the liberal doctrine had it. It is no mere mechanical device for defining the sphere within which the individual may duly exercise his supposed rights. The Fascist State is an inwardly accepted standard and rule of conduct, a discipline of the whole person; it permeates the will no less than the intellect. It stands for a principle which becomes the central motive of man.”
“The keystone of the Fascist doctrine is its conception of the State, of its essence, its functions, and its aims. For Fascism the State is absolute, individuals and groups relative. Individuals and groups are admissible in so far as they come within the State."
“Fascism is definitely and absolutely opposed to the doctrines of liberalism, both in the political and the economic sphere. . . (the future belongs to) Activism: that is to say nationalism, futurism, Fascism. . . If liberalism spells individualism, Fascism spells government… It is not reactionary but revolutionary, for it anticipates the solution of certain universal problems which have been raised elsewhere.”
The Doctrine of Fascism goes into more depth as to the intellectual genesis of Fascism, from Socialism, Communism, French Revolutionary theory, and Sorelian myths. All hybridized into a system that sought to create a “new man” free from history and imbued as a cog in a new concept of an all-encompassing state that nullified the individual rights of man and replaced them with the State as the arbiter of morals, rights, and position.
Democracy was antithetical to Fascism. “Fascism is therefore opposed to that form of democracy which equates a nation to the majority, lowering it to the level of the largest number.” Inline with “Fascism’s” Marxist and Sorelian roots, history was to be ignored, and a new concept of a political formation of the nation was established with these new principles.
“. . . the will to power. . . It is not the nation which generates the State; that is an antiquated naturalistic concept which afforded a basis for 19th century publicity in favor of national governments. Rather it is the State which creates the nation, conferring volition and therefore real life on a people made aware of their moral unity. “
In other words, the political party, here “Fascism”, which is the State, defines the nation not based on history or the people of a nation forming the government. But the government or ruling party that creates the State and, therefore, the people. It is then the government that gives people their rights and identity.
This “Fascist” concept is antithetical to say the American experience, which saw the people forming the State, which was caretaker for individual rights granted by powers outside the State. In America, the history of the nation was clearly from the people first, based upon the historical lineage.
In Fascism, the people and history are ignored in deference to the State dictates. Fascism was clearly a Sorelian myths inserted to replace history to justify a minority ruling over the majority, Democracy undermined by party mythos; history be damned!
So it is clear that Fascism in both its actions and self-definition tended to be a modification on the Socialism/Communism states totalitarian model that sought to replace religion with its myths and reject Democracy, Individual Rights, History, as well as the goal of a peaceful society or even peace as an ideal condition. (5)
So to accurately describe “Fascism” based upon what it actually was, is quite easy to formulate, despite what writers of many easily debunked lists might claim otherwise.
Therefore “Fascism” is:
1. A one party socialist system.
2. Rejects individual liberties.
3. Believes the State grants rights to the individual.
4. The State controls all aspects of a persons life. Nothing exists outside the State.
5. Violence is a legitimate means to subvert democracy.
6. Militarization of society is efficient.
7. A youth movement promoting a “new man/woman”
8. Religion should be replaced with "Fascism".
9. History can be replaced with political based Sorelian myths. The State creates the Nation. Politics defines the past.
10. Society should be managed by councils of experts, not via Democratic process.
11. Struggle is constant, without struggle/conflict atrophy will set in.
12. Struggle can occur over any and all issues. Everything is political.
13. There is no Utopia. Struggle is perpetual, struggle must always be perpetual to keep society strong.
14. Opposition to Democracy and Capitalism.
15. Rejects material based, "easy" life.
Keep in mind that one or two of these sans the majority of items does not make “Fascism”. “Authoritarianism” has been confused with “Fascism”. They key combinations that need to be present at a minimum are: (a) Socialist based (b) Totalitarian. i.e. Nothing outside the state (c) Constant struggle and rejection of “Utopias” (d) Rejection of traditional culture and history and implementation of a Sorelian based State culture and history. (d) No individual liberties. (e) “Will to power” (f) Rejection of religion, the Party of the state becomes the religion. (g) Rejection of a material culture and easy life.
As can be seen, the examination of the actual beliefs of Fascism makes claims “anti Fascism” of some groups ironic. By seeking perpetual struggle through unsolvable positions, shunning peaceful settlements, rejection of democratic process in favor of violent direct action, ignoring of actual history in favor of Sorelian myths, and the view of the State as responsible for all aspects of society, both mental and physical, many so-called "anti-Fascists" would look more at home in a black shirt than they realize.
1. “Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’. The words Democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like Democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of régime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.” https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/politics-and-the-english-language/
2. Payne, Stanley. Fascism Comparison & Definition. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1980), p. 51. A more detailed examination to demonstrate that Fascism was in the ideological and political family tree of Socialism/Communism is warranted to overcome the decades of intentional misinformation and ignorant regurgitation that has occurred with regard to Fascism and Nazism or "Hitlerism", and Communism/Socialism.
3. Ibid., p 53.
3. Tanin, O & E Yohan. Militarism and Fascism in Japan. New York: International Publishers, 1934.
4. Benito Amilcare Adrea Mussolini: Benito was in honor of Benito Juarez, the Mexican Revolutionary, Amilcare was in honor of Amilcare Cipriani an Anarcho-Socialist, and Adrea was in honor of another Anarcho-Socialist, Andrea Costa. Mussolini’s childhood was steeped in Socialist/Communist/Marxist philosophy from his father, and later compatriots of Lenin and other European Communist leaders.
5. Excerpts from Mussolini, Benito and Giovanni Gentile. “The Doctrine of Fascism” Rome: 1932. Online edition available here.
** Photo from http://www.narodnidom.eu/en/la-mostra/13-luglio-1920-la-notte-dei-cristalli-di-trieste/