What is Fascism?
June 3, 2022
When Fascism came into power, most people were unprepared, both theoretically and practically. They were unable to believe that man could exhibit such propensities for evil, such lust for power, such disregard for the rights of the weak, or such yearning for submission. Only a few had been aware of the rumbling of the volcano preceding the outbreak.
The political right has always defied easy summation to a far greater extent than liberalism and socialism, the two great emancipatory doctrines that emerged from modernity and Enlightenment. This is in part a genetic issue. While liberalism and socialism were initially worked out as political and philosophical doctrines centered around universalistic principles, the political right began as a reaction attempting to defend the various ancien régimes of Europe and Latin America. This gave many of the early forms of conservatism and revanchism a startling diversity, as the forms of agitation and argument they developed were invariably stamped by the systems of power and hierarchy they sought to defend. But, more importantly, after the initial outrage and shock of the revolutions were absorbed, the political right displayed an astonishing capacity for evolution and even popular dynamism.
Firstly the political right learned, as Edmund Neill put it in his recent piece, Conservatism, that in order to successfully counter popular movements on the left it was insufficient to simply offer rote apologias for power and privilege. The most intelligent and creative reactionaries learned from the left, often developing “symbiotic opposites to progressive concepts in order to rebut them.” The arch-monarchist Joseph de Maistre, characterized as the intellectual godfather of fascism by Isaiah Berlin, was one of the first to describe monarchical power in populist terms. De Maistre described “monarchy” as “without contradiction, the form of government that gives the most distinction to the greatest number of persons” because ordinary people can participate in its splendor “as a portion of sovereignty.” In other words, the mass of people are invited to libidinally invest monarchy with an ideologically sublime quality in which they participate without enjoying significant political agency or power. This ideological move would have a long history on the political right, from the plebiscitary authoritarians of the nineteenth century through to the fascist demagogues of the twentieth (and twenty-first!).
Second, and most important of all, one saw the surprising emergence of the radical or far right. The germ of the far right can be found as far back as the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century when critics like De Maistre and Thomas Carlyle heaped contempt on conservative elites for their decadent inability to master the opposition. This often expressed itself as a deep discontent with the present and even the immediate past, which was seen as an archive of failure and decline. As Corey Robin expressed in his classic The Reactionary Mind:
...once the old regime is threatened or toppled, the conservative is forced to realize that it is human agency, the willed imposition of intellect and imagination upon the world, that generates and maintains inequality across time…From the revolution, the conservative develops a particular attitude toward political time, a belief in the power of men and women to shape history, to propel it forward or backwards; and by virtue of that belief, he comes to adopt the future as his preferred taste.
In its most extreme forms, this took shape as political movements that shared with moderate conservatives a belief in hierarchy and the danger of egalitarianism. But the far-right had little faith that conventional conservative elites were up to the task of confronting revolutionary liberalism and socialism and could even demand their replacement with a newer and more activist elite which alone could get the job done. This could even take on an anti-capitalist hue. By the late nineteenth century formidable intellectuals like Nietzsche were demanding that new kinds of “aristocratic radicals” confront the crass materialism of bourgeois society through bringing about rarefied and more noble forms of “great politics.” This would inevitably require spectacular forms of violence, which some on the far right even welcomed as a purifying force that could bring life back into existential focus.
As we will see the fascist movements of the mid-twentieth century would embody both of these characteristics; adopting and then inverting many left-wing tropes while initially directing contempt towards conventional conservatives. But they would do so in the name of the most militantly anti-egalitarian enterprise in human history, one that would leave millions dead and the moral architecture of Western civilization shattered.
The Emergence of Fascist Movements
In The Anatomy of Fascism Robert Paxton points out that fascism constituted the “major political innovation of the twentieth century and the source of much of its pain. The other major currents of modern Western political culture-conservatism, liberalism, socialism-all reached a mature form between the late eighteenth century and the mid-nineteenth century. Fascism, however, was still unimagined as late as the 1890s.” To the extent there had been precedents -the militantly systematic racism of the American Confederacy, the plebiscitary authoritarianism of Louis Napoleon, Bismarck’s willingness to appropriate the program of the German Social Democrats to undercut their mass appeal- no single figure or movement had yet put all the exact pieces together. And, indeed, had you asked anyone at the turn of the nineteenth century where fascist movements might emerge, they would almost certainly have directed your attention to France-still rocked by the anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus Affair and scarred by nationalist resentment at the outcome of the Franco-Prussian War, or perhaps Russia given its deeply reactionary history and taste for using violence against Jews and other minorities. Even the United States might not have been out of the question. After all, many of the race laws passed by Hitler and the Nazis through the 1930s were consciously modeled on the longstanding racist policies of the American South. Indeed, prior to the emergence of fascism, the United States arguably had “advanced” further than any other country in the world in developing a formally racist social system.
Instead, what the conservative historian Stanley Payne calls “generic fascism” emerged during the 1920s within Italy and Germany. One of the features that connected them in the medium term was being relatively new (and unstable) nation-states which had only unified in the mid-nineteenth century. This meant that both countries lacked the longstanding political structures; an immovably entrenched conservative elites, and vast and colonial empires which compared with their European neighbors Britain and France. The latter had been a major factor determining the entry of Italy and Germany into the First World War, which left a generation dead or militarized and many citizens deeply unhappy with the outcome. Though nominally a victor, many Italians felt their country had been cheated of its rightful share of the spoils. And Germany, of course, was a humiliated defeated power that had seen its own small colonial empire divided, its European territory contracted, and mass economic suffering imposed on the population. This created an ideal stew for revanchist resentment; especially amongst veterans of the Great War who felt their aristocratic leadership had promised much and delivered sawdust or ashes.
Another important catalyst for the emergence of fascism was the presence of powerful left-wing movements in both Italy and Germany. Much as the French Revolution had galvanized the political right in the 18th century, many feared the October Revolution heralded a new era of expropriation and class conflict. In post-war Italy the Socialist Party was very popular, winning 32 percent of the popular vote in the 1919 election. While it later factionalized, there was a real possibility that the left could launch a successful revolution in Italy, or simply gain power through sheer electoral popularity. When the initially minuscule National Fascist Party directed its attention to militantly confronting the left, it won enough support or at least toleration from conservative factions like the monarchy and Church to march on Rome and receive a grant of power in 1922.
In Germany, the situation was even direr. Many had expected a Bolshevik-style revolution as early as 1918. Even when that didn’t materialize plenty of people were concerned by the enduring popularity of the German Social Democratic and Communist parties. Between them, they consistently won mass support from workers, with the SPD even holding the reigns of power at various points during the Weimar era. This was unacceptable to many German conservatives, who longed for a return to the nationalist conservatism of the imperial era. When the Nazis saw their support spike during the Depression, the conservative Nationalist Party—initially wary of the NSDAPs populism and petty-bourgeois mannerisms—saw the Nazis as holding “out the possibility for the first time of a parliamentary majority that excluded the Left.” They formed a coalition that allowed Hitler to become chancellor, after which he quickly arrested his political enemies, starting with the SPD and Communists in 1933, before consolidating dictatorial powers after the death of Hindenburg in 1934.
Finally, it is important to discuss the most insidious features of German Nazism and Italian fascism—their militant racism and anti-Semitism. As Richard Evans points out in his Third Reich trilogy, these were central ideological convictions of the most radical Nazis. Often racism and anti-Semitism were combined with other features of Nazi doctrine, as when Hitler reproached the “Jewish doctrine of Marxism” in Mein Kampf for its rejection of the “aristocratic principle of Nature and [replacement} of the eternal privilege of power and strength by the mass of numbers and their dead weight.” Especially when seeking votes from the working class this could also take on a mildly anti-capitalist form, as when the Nazis railed against the materialist consumerism of bourgeois society and the control of Jewish capitalists. But, initially, at least, racism and anti-Semitism were perceived as bizarre idiosyncrasies or even an electoral liability for the Nazis, and many excused them by not putting much stock in it. It took a decade and eventually the Second World War to transition Germany (and eventually its erstwhile ally and eventual puppet Italy) into a power willing to commit genocide on a mass scale.
What is Fascism?
Despite, or perhaps because, of the intense connotations and evil associated with the word fascism is actually quite hard to define. Some follow Kevin Passmore in simply throwing up their hands and saying any and all definitions are too inadequate. Part of this is due to historical circumstances. The Fascist and Nazi parties were just that—political parties—which adapted themselves to mass society to achieve sufficiently high levels of support to form sometimes uneasy coalitions with conservative elites to govern Italy and Germany. This invariably meant making ideological compromises of the sort that irritate political philosophers and theorists.
Another factor is fascism’s irrationalism. While Paxton’s description of fascism as more an affair of the “gut” than the “head” is reductive and ignores how irrationalism can be given an intellectual gloss and even grandeur. It is undeniably the case that Fascists and Nazis are more comfortable ignoring or even affirming contradictions than liberals or Marxists. A good example would be their often-selective approach to modernity and mass society. Both the Fascists and Nazis were often disdainful of modernist materialism and egalitarianism, associating them with nihilism. And they had nothing but contempt for the chatter of genuine democracy.
But they were willing to not only accept but embrace modern technology and, indeed, even a kind of crude pseudo-scientific nationalism or racism which symbiotically replaced the Marxist class struggle with one between the nation or races. And both the Italian Fascists and Nazis rejected the style of governance preferred by both conservatives and many capitalists, which would have consisted of elitist or capitalist authoritarianism ruling over largely tranquil masses. Fascism and Nazism were distinctively twentieth-century movements in inviting and even demanding the masses-at least those of the “real” people-invest their identity in that of the leader and mobilize in support of his great politics. The fascist jurist Carl Schmitt even ruminated in Constitutional Theory that a fascist dictatorship might be more democratic than representative democracy, since in the former case the leader could seek to transcend the differences that divided society if the people came to completely identify their general will with his.
In my opinion the most precise, short definition of fascism is - an ultranationalist political ideology defined by a theory of national decline brought about by external and internal enemies which can only be overcome through the restorative triumph of an authoritarian political party in alliance with—or at least tolerated by—conventional conservative elites. This party will mobilize mass support to eliminate the enemies of fascism in the pursuit of grand political projects which will elevate the new fascist subject and society to heights inaccessible to those defined by decadent and materialist egalitarianism. Often these kinds of great politics will entail the spectacular use of violence, as Paxton explains, “without ethical or legal restraints” on the goals of “internal cleansing and external expansion.” This ability to act without constraints will usually be justified by an aesthetic philosophy that portrays the fascist leader and the “real” people as those entitled to the exercise of genuine agency and creativity, unlike nihilistic opponents who are fit only for subordination or destruction.
It is important not to underestimate the power of these kinds of doctrines. Fascism’s appeal was never in its coherence or morality, but, as Walter Benjamin put it, in its ability to be exciting and entertaining. More crucially fascism combined an intoxicating sense of an elitist belief in one’s innate superiority with resentment at undeserved victimization and marginalization by unworthy opponents. By doing so, it successfully mirrored the revolutionary’s anti-establishment appeal while channeling its energies towards counter-revolutionary aims; a restoration of the deserving to their positions of power while giving the masses a taste of real status compared to the untermenschlich.
Are There (Post)-Modern Fascists?
One of the major questions brought forward by this analysis is to what extent this is a contemporary problem. Until very recently, most commentators assumed that generic fascism had been so decisively discredited it had been relegated to a few fringe civil society groups and crypto-influence on the edges of far-right political parties like the French National Front and the Italian Social Movement. Since the 1940s a few idiosyncratic states like Peron’s Argentina consciously aped the style and mannerisms of figures like Mussolini, but they hardly posed anything like the globally existential threat of Nazi Germany. That is until very recently, when the surging support for far-right populist leaders touting xenophobic rhetoric and promising national restoration lead many of us to experience an anxious sense of déjà vu. A cottage industry of books like Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works and Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny sprung up which drew overt parallels between the rise of Trumpism and the decline of the Weimar Republic. Robert Paxton was initially hesitant to apply the label to Trump, but the attempted electoral fraud and January 6th riots convinced him otherwise. The leftist historian Enzo Traverso even coined the term “postfascism” to acknowledge that there are “difference between these new movements and their 1930s ancestors” while foregrounding that any historical sequence implying transformation must acknowledge that there has also been “continuity.”
On the surface, these new right-populist movements undoubtedly share many characteristics with fascism; albeit with a post-modern twist I’ve described elsewhere. They couple revanchist demands for national renewal with an antagonistic disdain for difference and the “other,” using these powerful affects generated to mobilize mass political support for strongman leaders who grandstand that they alone can fix the nation’s problems. This is accompanied by a well-known irrationalist indifference to “truth” and “falsity” in any normal sense, either excused by thin rhetorical maneuvers-consider Peter Thiel’s well-known apologia that Trump’s supporters take him “seriously” but not “literally”-or not addressed at all. Part of this flows from the longstanding far-right tendency to simultaneously apprehend reality as a plastic medium which can be aesthetically transformed through acts of will on the part of truly great men accompanied by a superficial kind of Machiavellian political “realism” which sees the maneuvering of what constitutes truth as a game of power. What unites these seemingly contradictory predilections together is the conviction that both the creative impulse of the far-right demagogue and his ability to apprehend the naked fact that power dictates truth to the masses flows from their superior strength and ability, which in turn grants them a right to exercise authority. The demagogue senses the latent fears in the masses and flames them, presenting anyone who doesn’t adopt the same paranoiac style as withdrawn from the harsh reality of the world. His ability to mobilize these according to his wishes then legitimates the creative exercise of authoritarian political power on behalf of grand projects of agonistic overcoming. This combination has allowed right-wing populists to ape fascist demagogues in simultaneously presenting themselves as grounded realists in touch with the blood and soil experiences of “ordinary” people and larger than life figures. Donald Trump’s presenting as a level headed populist while admitting that he uses “truthful hyperbole” to “play to people’s fantasies” because they “want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular” is indicative and would absolutely be familiar to Mussolini and others.
On the other hand, right-wing populists and post-modern conservatives thus far (mostly) lack one defining feature of generic fascism, which is a commitment to militaristic imperialism. Whether justified as an aspiration for lebensraum or a new Roman empire, this expansionist urge was intrinsic to both the initial ideology of fascism and the source of much of its prestige during the years of victory between 1936 and 1942. While contemporary right-wing populists haven’t been averse to localized or ongoing military action-whether one thinks of Trump’s perpetuation of the War on Terror or Modhi’s border skirmishes with Pakistan-we can be grateful it has nowhere achieved the scale or centrality that it had under fascism. The one possible exception to this is the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. Whether one thinks of Putin’s plutocratic authoritarianism as fascist or post-fascist it has been celebrated by many on the far right; including fascist apologists like Aleksandr Dugin. Thus far the outcome has been a disaster for all involved, which we can hope will chasten any future international interventionism by right populists.
Whatever one’s assessment, it is clear we on the left must confront the renewed appeal of the far-right and fascism. This makes it crucial that the left deny what is so central to the fascist message: its claims to radicalness and dynamism. Late in her life, Hannah Arendt came to the conclusion that she was wrong to initially label Nazism a kind of radical evil. This paid it the backhand compliment of being a real force of grandeur and menace. If, as Arendt said, fascism awakens us to the banality of evil, it is important to remind ourselves how determined fascists are to sleepwalk through existence. What one is chronically reminded of when confronting the fascist movements is how pathetically funny they are. How the supposedly grand fascist man compensates for a willed thoughtlessness and stupidity which can swallow any contradictions and lies through mechanical obedience and supplication. Or that their acts of supreme will and great projects inevitably wound-up being performances of self-immolation, where one struggles to summon humanistic pity for those whose primary legacy is defined by pitiless genocide. All this led fascism to its deserved spot in the sewage of history, and we can hope the far right – as a whole - will soon join it there.