Is there such a thing as fascism?

I am interested in the subject of fascism, and I have made some effort to educate myself about it, reading, in addition to some standard histories, a couple of political philosophy books on the phenomenon (see my reviews here and here), and a few essays by fascists like Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile in which they try to define their own movement.  I have come away still uncertain that there really is an ideology called “fascism”.  But how can this be, when we know there have been fascists and fascist parties?  However, just because one has a party doesn’t mean it has a coherent ideology behind it.  Consider Latin American parties organized around loyalty to a particular caudillo.  No one would imagine, for example, that “Chavismo” has a coherent theory of the good life.  It just means supporting Hugo Chavez.  Contrast this with Marxism, a fully-developed body of thought that would continue to exist even if it turned out that Karl Marx was a myth.  It makes perfect sense to ask about the Marxist conception of the good life, the Marxist interpretation of the Middle Ages, etc.  What about fascism, though?  How do we know that fascism isn’t just “Mussolinismo” and “Hitlerismo”?

The only way would be to identify a distinctly fascist political philosophy.  Ordinarily, this would be the job of fascists themselves, but they were exterminated too quickly.  What I have read of them identifies fascism generally with a rejection of individualism and materialism.  This fails to distinguish fascism from conservatism.  According to liberals, this is because there is no difference, but that seems implausible.  Fascists and reactionaries seemed to disagree on many things.  One was not a more moderate version of the other; they were both quite extreme, and obviously extremes of different things.  The Marxists try to explain fascism by identifying the class interests it served:  the bourgeoisie and capitalism, supposedly.  This would succeed in distinguishing fascists from reactionaries (the “feudal” party of the aristocracy and clergy) and socialists, but it would make it hard to distinguish fascism from liberalism.  Again, it is implausible that fascism and liberalism are not essentially distinct.

Nolte identifies fascism with a denial of transcendence, both of the conservative’s belief in God and of the liberal’s ethical universalism.  This definition has the undeniable virtue of making fascism conceptually distinct from the other major ideologies.  Interrogate a man about his beliefs, and you will be able to unambiguously identify him as a conservative, liberal, Marxist socialist, or fascist, even if he himself doesn’t realize that he belongs to this category.  Nolte’s definition is similar to the one offered by Michael Paterson-Seymour , who defines fascism as the conception of the state as absolute and not ordered to anything outside of it.  If I were forced to give a definition of fascism, I would probably choose something like Nolte and Paterson-Seymour’s schemes.  I would say that, for the liberal, nothing transcends the individual; for the fascist, the state transcends the individual, while nothing transcends the state; for the conservative there is Something that transcends both.  I would, however, feel a lot more comfortable with definitions of this sort if they came from an actual fascist, rather than an unsympathetic historian (as all modern historians would be–not that that’s a bad thing, except for this purpose) or from me (a blogger representing a competing ideology).  Michael PS has dug up some quotes confirming that Mussolini believed something like these propositions, although it is hard for us to know whether he understood them (and their centrality) as we do.

I fear that there’s a lot of projection in our definitions of fascism.  We have our beliefs, and then we define the fascists, our scapegoat figures, with the negation of these beliefs, rather than letting them define themselves in their own terms.  It’s a classic case of “othering”, that great sin the liberals are always accusing us reactionaries of.  Certainly, this was the case with the New Left and Frankfurt School definitions of fascism, which identified it with hierarchy and ingroup-outgroup consciousness, leading them to conclude (naturally) that everyone but them–including, it would seem, all past humanity–were fascists.  We conservatives have engaged in this sort of rhetoric ourselves, such as when Eric Von Keuhnelt-Leddihin identified fascism as an instance of Leftism, Leftism being defined more or less as anything he didn’t like.

None of this reassures me that fascism is a real, unambiguous ideology.  I would like to hear from my readers, though.  I know Reggie has spent a lot of time researching European illiberalism, and Justin has recently offered a sort of definition of Naziism in a comment.  What do you say?  What is the essence of fascism, or does it not have one?  What distinguishes it from other non-liberal creeds?

12 Responses

  1. Fascism is notoriously hard to define.

    I remember picking up a book from university about it a few years back, from what I can recall there were at least 2 key elements:

    fascism is bound up in some way with national mythology. It tells a story of a nation’s past greatness which continues to be recreated through contemporary flags, culture, songs, stories and posits that it is destiny for the nation to hold such greatness again.

    It is also bound up with miltarism, in that most fascist movements have been supported/ embraced/ pushed by the army- so there is a love of hierarchy, discipline and an extolling of military vitrues which the nation possesses .

  2. Hello, Bonald.

    I’m afraid that I’m not going to be very original here! In my view, fascism can be summed up as a form of anticommunist statist nationalism.

    Nationalism – this is frequently recognised in the literature as a, if not the, cardinal trait of fascism, and it is difficult to disagree with. In the case of Nazism, nation was elided with race through the concepts of the Volk and the Volksgemeinschaft.

    Statism – This is Mr Paterson-Seymour’s criterion, and again, it’s difficult to disagree with. Mussolini was candid about his statolatry (“tutto nello stato” and all that), as was Mosley in this country.

    Anticommunism – This was clearly a defining preoccupation of interwar fascism, and one of the things that fuelled the phenomenon.

    Roger Griffin coined the phrase “palingenetic ultranationalism” to describe fascism, and the palingenetic motif of national rebirth from decadance was central to fascism. However, it’s central to lots of other things too, as Griffin is aware, and it may be misleading to include it as a heuristic.

  3. I would also say that fascism is mostly bound in place and time to interwar Europe (with a few exceptions, like the greenshirts in Brazil and possibly the more totalitarian style of Arab nationalism). It was interwar Europe that produced the necessary combination of mass brutalisation, longing for national rebirth and obsession with the Bolshevik menace.

  4. Thanks.

  5. Hi Bonald. I write about fascism periodically over at Collapse: The Blog. I’m what would fall under the “right-Hegelians” in your taxonomy of conservatism so I naturally tend to look at all ideologies in terms of how well they rationally order society.

    I view fascism as an effort to adapt the social order to the industrial world — a largely ineffective effort but an effort nonetheless. Because industrialization had rendered useless the old, explicitly economic order of the West that had reigned since the time of the American Revolution, fascism attempted to replace that social order with an explicitly militaristic one. And it’s important that the military was chosen because it was the one field in which equality could be realized on noneconomic terms — on the basis of skill and ability rather than wealth or connections (as had largely been the case in Europe prior to that time).

    Peter Drucker, in “The End of Economic Man,” argued that fascism indeed was not coherent at all, but that this was a source of strength, rather than of weakness, in the minds of the people. It was precisely because it was irrational that people flocked to it; in a world that no longer appeared rational, people gave themselves over to faith in miracle-workers.

  6. That’s a good point about industrialization, Proph. I think that this attempt to come to terms with industrial society by way of organizing society as a nationalistic state comes through quite clearly in, for example, the early works of Ernst Jünger, such as Die totale Mobilmachung (1930) and Der Arbeiter (1932). From what I understand (since I haven’t read his later works), Jünger started to move away from this fascist position fairly soon after Der Arbeiter. Even in these earlier works, Jünger hesitates to accept new social developments too enthusiastically.

    The emphasis on military virtue and manliness is also an essential part of any discussion of fascism. All the goose-stepping and strutting was rather exaggerated, but this ostentatious masculinity came about as a reaction to the emasculating effects of bourgeois capitalism.

  7. Hello Proph,

    Nice to meet you. I like right-Hegelians–we have the same preoccupations. Your theory of fascism is intriguing and quite unlike any I’ve heard before. Most people feel that there is a fit between industrial capitalism and liberal democracy, but you say that there is a mismatch, which explains the attraction of fascism. Neofeudalists like me (and I suppose socialists would say the same thing) would like a readjustment of the social and economic spheres, but not necessarily on the basis of the current economic setup.

  8. Of course, there is always the view that fascism is too protean and incoherent to allow for a meaningful definition.

    I think it was Adorno who said that, whenever fascism was “A”, it was also “not A”. Hence it favoured order but relished violence, it loathed the Left but wanted to build a kind of “national socialism”, it idealised national history and traditions but loved modern technology and architecture, etc.

    I reviewed a popular introductory book on fascism a while ago, in which Kevin Passmore wrote the following:

    “Yet how can we make sense of an ideology that appeals to skinheads and intellectuals; denounces the bourgeoisie while forming alliances with conservatives; adopts a macho style yet attracts many women; calls for a return to tradition and is fascinated by technology; idealizes the people and is contemptuous of mass society; and preaches violence in the name of order?”

  9. In an article I believe in “Modern Age,” the late great Thomas Molnar (who lived under Fascism) described Fascist *literary aesthetics* in terms of negative (or did he say “dark”?) energy, i.e. emphatic rejection of the existing order (bourgeois liberalism, Marxist socialism, etc.) combined with a celebration of energy, drive, force. Dynamic negation. I suppose that one would have to distinguish here between fascism and anarchism, individualistic nihilism, and maybe some forms of syndicalism, as they all might partake in the same negative energy. Additionally, one would have to discern to what extent the literary aesthetic of Fascists reflects the reality of the ideology/movement at large.

  10. Hello Bonifacius,

    You’ve put your finger on the big problem with this definition–it doesn’t single out fascism in particular. It sounds a lot like the other “whatever I don’t like” definitions.

  11. Try the “Roots of the Right” series edited by George Steiner decades ago. I’m pretty sure they’re all out-of-print, but you can probably find used copies on the internet or in university libraries.

    The ones you want are:
    Italian Fascisms: from Pareto and Gentile
    Selected Writings of Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera
    The French Right: from de Maistre to Maurras

    To buttress these, also pick up Roger Griffin’s “Fascism” anthology, which covers National Socialism as well as some of the minor fascist movements.

    Part of the problem is that there was never a truly unified international Fascist movement, though some attempts were made, and even Italian Fascism embraced a certain “pragmatism” and went through different phases. People also forget that Fascist Italy originally opposed Nazi Germany. It was Mussolini and the Austrofascist Dolfuss who were the main forces preventing the Anschluss. The scholar Renzo De Felice has argued that the Nazi/Fascist alliance was not inevitable but was the result of diplomatic blundering on the part of the French and the British in response to the Italian invasion of Abyssinia.

    I think if someone were to piece together the thought of many of the thinkers who have been labeled fascist, proto-fascist or fellow-travelers there is an interesting ideology to be made there. For something that gets demonized as a philosophy of brutes, it sure attracted lots of impressive minds.

  12. That should read: “Italian Fascisms: from Pareto TO Gentile” but you probably would’ve figured that out.

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