Three Faces of Fascism

By Ernst Nolte, 1963

What is fascism really?  Sometimes one hears that fascism is organized hatred or irrationality, but saying this is to insult rather than to try to understand.  We also hear that fascism is one form of totalitarianism.  Perhaps, but if “totalitarian” is the genus, what is fascism’s specific difference?  I’m also suspicious of definitions like “fascism is an extreme form of X”, where X is nationalism, anti-communism, or some other such thing.  These would deny fascism any essence at all, and make it a mere matter of intensity.  I don’t buy this.  Is it credible, for example, that fascists are more anti-communist than Catholics or more patriotic than ancient Romans?

Historian-philosopher Ernst Nolte has written a book trying to figure out what fascism really is.  His technique is to look at what he regards as three definitely fascist movements—Action Francaise, Italian Fascism, and German National Socialism—and study their history and the writings of their leaders.  This seems to me to be the way to go.  Unfortunately, important figures like Mussolini failed to expound a definitive and self-consistent doctrine.  Therefore, the student of fascism must do some systematizing for them, and this raises the danger of constructing something different from what real fascists actually believed.

Nolte first characterizes fascism as revolutionary anti-communism, i.e. an anti-communist movement whose practices are in some ways modeled on the movement they’re opposing.  However, from the writings of Maurras and Hitler, he decides that this definition doesn’t capture the heart of the phenomenon.  Fascism, Nolte comes to believe, is a response to man’s possibility of transcendence.  By “transcendence”, Nolte means a man’s ability to mentally see past his own particular time, place, and community.  Transcendence can be either “theoretical” or “practical”.  Theoretical transcendence means fixing one’s mind on the absolute or the totality of things, i.e. metaphysics and religion.  Practical transcendence means breaking free of the obligations of particular communities and traditions, usually to embrace a universal/transcendental moral code such as Kant’s categorical imperative.  Bourgeois industrialism, liberalism, and socialism are forces for practical transcendence in the modern world.  However, this world movement has not gone without resistance.  Practical transcendence presents a danger to actually existing societies; it erodes their legitimacy by comparing them unfavorably with its own universal ideals.  Those who wish to defend their societies from such criticism have two options.  They can affirm theoretical transcendence but deny the practical kind.  These people are conservatives—they say that man is indeed ordered to God, but his moral duties are necessarily mediated by particular communities and traditions.  The more radical alternative is to deny both theoretical and practical transcendence.  This is the position of fascism.  Those who take this route regard transcendence as the hobby of sick and resentful minds; it is sowing hatred for the good things that actually exist in favor of illusions.  So, for example, Maurras saw his political thought as an outgrowth of his atheism, and he saw the revolutionaries’ zeal to destroy the actual France in the name of their abstractions as forms of “monotheism”.  Similarly, Mussolini and Hitler insisted that the state must be completely independent, i.e. outside the judgment of, any other body, from within or without.

I myself found the distinction between theoretical and practical transcendence to be the most intriguing part of the book.  How much does it really have to do with historical fascism, though?  Nolte provides sufficient evidence to prove that the above philosophy was a part of the thought of the fascist leaders.  I’m worried that he hasn’t demonstrated that it held as central a position in their minds as it does in his.  Perhaps Nolte would say that this doesn’t matter, since fascism has its own inner logic independent of how well its expositors understand it.  This is true, but I’m always wary of systemizations of bodies of thought produced by their enemies.  My other reservation is in regarding Action Francaise as a fascist, rather than a conservative monarchist, organization.  Nolte is probably right that Maurras himself was, at the deepest level, a proto-fascist.  However, the movement as a whole had, before the Vatican’s condemnation of 1926, a large number of Catholics who certainly had no problems with “theoretical transcendence”.  Perhaps we should see Action Francaise as a mixture of two anti-liberal groups which were separated in 1926, with one group evolving towards fascism and the other toward Christian Democracy.

3 Responses

  1. Thank you for an excellent site.

    May I suggest that, at the root of fascism is a particular concept of the nation? Although more or less adumbrated in the writings of 19th century philosophers (Fichte, Hegel, Bernhardi) and, especially, of jurists (Savigny, Ihring, Mommsen and, above all, Gierke), fascism alone adopted it as the underlying philosophy or justification of a political movement.

    According to this concept, the nation is more than the sum total of the individuals who compose it: it is a whole, as a living organism is a whole, with a personality of its own that both transcends and informs its members. It pervades their natures and expresses itself in their actions. They are no more separate and discrete individuals with ends and purposes of their own, than the heart or the liver can have ends or purposes, separate from those of the body to which it belongs. The individual finds his whole raison d’être in the nation’s service.

    Though seldom spelt out by fascist leaders, it is implicit in many well-know quotations: “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state” and “Fascism conceives of the state as an absolute, in comparison with which all individuals and groups are relative; only to be conceived of in their relation to the state” (Mussolini) and “The individual has no rights, apart from his function as part of the state” and “Man is only free in and through the whole; the whole can only be a sovereign state, which tolerates no discussion and no control” (Hitler). Again, Mussolini says, “The state has drawn into itself, even the economic activities of the nation, and, through the corporative social and educational institutions created by it, its influence reaches every aspect of the national life and includes, framed in their respective organizations, all the political, economic and spiritual forces of the nation.”

  2. Hello Michael,

    Thank you for the quotes, which I had not seen before. I think your position is similar to Nolte’s, except that you actually put it (I think) more clearly. Fascists certainly do attribute to the state a personality of its own; it is more than the sum of its constituents. Of course, it’s not only fascists who believe this. All corporists do, including the continental conservative tradition to which I adhere. You also point to a belief which seems to be distinct among fascists: that the state is absolute, that all its members are ordered exclusively to it, and that the state itself is ordered to no good higher than itself. I had not been sure if fascists really, consciously believed this or if it was just attributed to them, but your Mussolini quote has made up my mind. This is (I think) what Nolte meant when he said that fascism is defined by its denial of “transcendence”. Christians would call it idolatry. So I guess we’d say that fascism belongs to the genus of corporatism, with absolutism being its specific difference.

    Thank you for helping me understand fascism, and how it relates to other belief systems, better.

  3. C S Lewis put it in a nutshell, describing the Nazi philosophy as “pantheism, whittled down to suit barbarians.”

    Its origins are not in the conservative tradition, at all, but in the nationalist tradition of Romantic Liberalism, in which the nation (originally conceived as a linguistic group) is seen as clothing itself in suitable political forms, thus justifying the legitimacy of the Nation-State.

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