The word “fascism” is being tossed around a lot these days. Here in America, it has recently been employed by those in mortal fear of a Donald Trump presidential administration, to describe the latter’s political approach and ideology. In Europe, it is often used to describe—again, in an obviously negative light—the ascendant right-wing political parties that have made electoral gains on the continent over the past few years.
“Fascism” as a political theory is hard to explain. It is not at all like the American brands of conservatism or liberalism, which can usually be broken down into their component beliefs for easy classification of a politician, based upon his or her espoused views. Fascism is harder to nail down. To quote the eminent wordsmith Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
As always, at SOFREP, we are here to help you sort out your confusion. To do this, your author had to first sort out his own confusion—a time-consuming endeavor, rest assured—and dig out his dusty, cobweb-covered graduate school textbooks and research papers, which were buried in cardboard boxes, hidden deep in the recesses of his closets. Thank God for the occasional hoarding tendency.
Now that he is sufficiently refreshed on his admittedly limited knowledge of classical fascism, we are ready to explore the phenomenon, and its definition within the bounds of political science. What we will not be doing is taking a deep dive into its manifestation under Benito Mussolini, nor any other specific fascist, neo-fascist, or proto-fascist regime. Rather, we will examine fascism strictly as a category of thought, political practice, and ideology. Bear with me. I promise this will not be as boring as it sounds. Furthermore, in today’s political environment, we need to be briefed up on this school of thought. It is important.
First, it must be noted that academics argue—a lot—over the definition of fascism. There are different schools of thought, the great majority of which we are going to blissfully gloss over in a distillation process worthy of a fine bourbon. Instead, we shall break it down and look at fascism in the simplest terms we can get away with, just shy of this author receiving an angry phone call from his graduate school fascism professor, berating him for not paying closer attention in class.
Fascism is a revolutionary, ultra-nationalist movement that focuses on national “rebirth.” That is a one-sentence definition. Our word of the day is “palingenesis.” No, it does not signify the day Sarah Palin came onto the American political scene, although that would probably make for an interesting field of study. Rather, palingenesis is a concept of rebirth or re-creation. In the political context, it is often used to describe a fascist movement that focuses on raising the nation up from the depths of depression or political malaise. In other words, fascism emphasizes making the nation great again. It is a palingenetic movement.
Fascism also came to be strongly identified with vigorous opposition to both Marxism/communism and liberal democracy. It found both systems to be lacking. While academics argue over whether this should be a defining characteristic of fascism, it is nonetheless important enough in the development of the movement to address it here. There are many who will always associate fascism with anti-communism, given the partisans in the Second World War. The linkage is now set in stone for most common observers (of which this author is certainly one).
Long live the dear leader
The principle of strong, centralized leadership is one of the defining characteristics of the movement. The cult of the leader plays heavily into establishing a fascist regime’s legitimacy. One is hard-pressed to find a successful fascist movement that does not root itself in a charismatic, strong leader. Think of the Kim family of North Korea, for example.
There is no rigid pledge of loyalty to a particular party, though one may exist to support the leader, but rather, faith and loyalty are rooted in the leader. He symbolizes the country itself, and what is best for the nation. This is how fascism wraps its ultra-nationalist appeal around the supreme leader, bestowing upon him legitimacy and supremacy above all other institutions.
Mobilize the masses and commence the beat-downs
Additional characteristics, which are almost always in evident in a truly fascist movement, include the mass mobilization of followers and the embrace of war and violence. Violence in the name of the movement is often encouraged and employed. Fascist followers see the violence as a necessary reaction to the forces opposing the movement, and thus the country. They see their violent response as critical to insuring the success of the movement. The leader, furthermore, needs this violence to solidify his power and to intimidate opponents into submission and defeat.
This is a critical component to the success of the movement. The violence is often couched in terms of respect for and adherence to law and order. Those opposed to the movement are seen as rebellious traitors, and proponents of chaos and disorder. Sanctioning violence on behalf of the leader (and the movement) is thus seen as preserving order, securing the country, and fighting for its greatness.
Throw on your black shirts
A fascist movement almost always employs a “party militia.” This is a paramilitary arm that is dedicated, above all else, to the fascist leader. Since the leader identifies himself so closely with the country, the party militia is, on its face, dedicated to the country. In reality, its loyalty is to the leader. In Italy, these paramilitary forces were called “blackshirts” due to the color of their uniforms. They administered beat-downs throughout Italy to enforce the writ of il Duce, Benito Mussolini.
The fascist regime also employs propaganda to extoll the virtues of the movement and the nation. It espouses populism (calling itself a people’s movement), and some academics have described it as the “radicalism of the middle class” or the “extremism of the center.” A fascist leader harnesses the center’s desire for a strong state and for economic prosperity, and through the use of national myths, symbols, and beliefs, strives for total control of the state.
Fascism is always authoritarian, dictatorial, and at the extreme, totalitarian. The state (exemplified by the leader) is the authority over all others, and the good of the nation (and thus, the leader) trumps all else, including individual freedom. An essential element of the fascist leader’s successful accumulation of power is the backing of a large part of the citizenry, comprising multiple interests, such as the church, industry, and the middle class. The leader harnesses the desire amongst many segments of the population to “retake” the country, the desire to rectify its perceived loss of glory, and uses it to exert control over the state.
In the process, xenophobia (fear of the “other”) and anti-immigrant sentiment are often key components in emphasizing the national identity. The strong national identity requires creating enemies of “the other.” There must be a bad guy to demonize, to justify the struggle to reclaim the country.
Certain elites are also often put forward as the enemy of the people. Fascism is generally antagonistic to modernism and/or intellectualism. The “masses” rise up against the forces they see as corrupting the country (the “elites”), and they place their hopes and desires in the fascist leader, who professes to fight for them.
In this way, fascism can be seen as a cultural phenomenon in addition to being an economic and ideological one. It is an aspirational political cult. It is a political religion. The elites are threatening the country, and the masses are determined to win it back with the help of the leader and through violence, as required.
Economics are confusing
In economic terms, fascist movements adhere to a “corporatist” economic theory, which is one of the more complicated of its characteristics to grasp. In simple terms, it means that an economy does not function according to a free market (capitalism), but rather, various segments of society (agriculture, labor, industry, etc.) theoretically bargain with each other, and, through the bargaining process, decide on the best economic policies to enact.
In practice, it usually means that under a fascist regime, the supreme leader decides what is best for the economy. The leader is not driven by the tenets of free-market capitalism, nor socialism, nor any other economic system, but rather he makes choices based upon doing what he thinks is best for the country. He may seem to embrace free markets one day, while the next, he might be espousing socialist economic views.
This economic facet of fascism is the hardest to grasp and the most nebulous part of the ideology. Essentially, the government maintains tight control over the economy, and if the leader decides that imposing a tariff (tax) on steel coming in from another country helps the steel-makers in his own country, then he will levy that tax, even if it leads to more expensive steel.
If the leader thinks it is best to deny all jobs in the nation to immigrants to placate domestic workers, then that, too, is acceptable, even if it makes labor more expensive. As long as a policy is deemed necessary for the strength of the state and the preservation of the fascist leader, then it is acceptable and even desirable. Private property rights are essentially moot, and all segments of the economy are subject to the whim of the leader.
Now you know
The above components all come together within a country to make for a fascist movement unique to that state and to the times. The movements will be different from nation to nation, as they must be in order to be so rooted in the nationalist culture, and in the particular leadership of the movement. No fascist movement, from one country to the next, would be the same, though all would encompass some combination of the above traits.
So, there you have it in the proverbial nutshell. Now, when you hear commentators here and abroad comparing today’s political movements to those of the past, labelling them “fascist,” you will be able to judge for yourself whether or not they really are so. Make up your own minds, using the above criteria, and judge whether what you observe is truly fascist. You owe it to yourself as a responsible citizen to be informed on these things before you place your vote.
To read more on fascism, here are just two helpful studies. The first is a textbook and the second is a compilation of sources on fascism. Enjoy some light reading!
Stanley G. Payne, A History of Fascism, 1914-1945, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.
Roger Griffin (editor), Fascism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.