Everybody knows what fascism means, right? After all, our politicians and media members use the word constantly. Everybody you don’t like is a fascist. Everybody you do like is fighting fascism. But what exactly is fascism?
The one thing everybody seems to know is that fascism is like Hitler and this means the chief characteristic of fascism is the Holocaust. Therefore, by the transitive property: Everyone you don’t like is fascist; every fascist is Hitler; the most Hitler thing is the Holocaust. So, Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis or whomever the media say that day is probably going to commit a holocaust.
Invariably, the people in the media who use the word fascism use it to refer to a politician of the Right. But it turns out that fascism is Right-wing only when compared with outright communism. Fascism in Europe was a reactionary force. By American standards, fascism — which calls for unity of central authority and governmental control over private industry, among other agenda items — was far more Left-wing than Right-wing, which is why so many members of the American Left were originally quite warm toward Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.
To understand this, let’s look briefly at the history of fascism. Fascism is a very messy concept in that it crosses streams with a wide variety of other ideologies ranging from Marxism to religious integralism. So what are the common features of fascism?
First, fascism is characterized by a belief in the moral imperative of the centralized state. We can sense the roots of fascism going all the way back to Plato who called for a Philosopher King in a utopian state, although there are those who read Plato as esoteric in this call. We can sense fascist themes in Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778), who called for the dictatorship of the general will, a sort of miasmatic power emanating from the people but vested in a centralized authority, in which all people would feel themselves members. This is why Robespierre, the author of “The Reign of Terror,” cited Rousseau as divine. Georg Friedrich Hegel, (1770 – 1831), saw the power of the state as the apotheosis of mankind:
“The state consists in the march of God in the world.”
This means that fascism sees both economic and individual freedoms as antithetical to the good when they challenge the power of the state.
Second, fascism is characterized by a belief in nationalism or in its most virulent form racial hierarchy. We can see the roots of fascism in ancient Sparta, a militaristic dictatorship rooted in racial purity. With the death of biblical adherence to the notion of a universal humanity during the enlightenment, racial division became a deep part of Western thought.
Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) spoke about a hierarchy of races in his earlier work. He attempted to walk some of that back later in life. This sort of thought was exacerbated by Charles Darwin’s theory, which was misread to embrace scientific racism. Such scientific racism became a dominant philosophy throughout much of the progressive world, which is why both Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were advocates of eugenics.
Third, fascism is militaristic. It sees organization around military lines as a model for human existence and recommends action in the world as a response to existential nihilism.
There’s a reason Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) was beloved to fascists. He spoke of the “Ubermensch” who would be able to conquer through power of sheer will. Fascism suggests a sort of mystical spirit residing in the nation that must be fed through expansionism and militarization of life.
Historically, the most important fascist was actually not Hitler but Benito Mussolini. Mussolini was the first politician to truly channel the roiling forces of fascism into one movement. The word fascism comes from the word “fasces,” a bundle of rods grouped together to form a roman weapon. Fascism comes from Italy.
Mussolini was originally attracted to the work of Marx, which was not anti-fascist in any real way. Many of the predicates of fascism also worked quite well for Lenin and Stalin. But Mussolini eventually came to realize rejecting Marx could serve his own ends.
In the aftermath of World War I, Mussolini gained power by marching on Rome, with the acquiescence of the king, in order to supposedly save the state from Bolshevism. Mussolini’s philosophy was somewhat vague but it carried all the central tenets of fascism. In 1927, Mussolini laid out the “Doctrine” of Fascism.” He wrote:
“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…”
Mussolini wrote that fascism was a “spiritual attitude.” That spiritual attitude required outward expansion:
“The state is not only authority which governs and confers a legal form and spiritual value on individual wills, it is also Power which makes its will felt and respected beyond its own frontiers thus affording practical proof of the universal character of the decisions necessary to ensure its development. This implies organization and expansion potential if not actual.”
That expansion meant not just militarization, but gargantuan public works, massive expansion of the welfare state, corporatization of the private sector with the government leaving private industry intact, but essentially working hand-in-glove with it to control it and channel its resources in the direction sought by the fascists.
Private companies remaining in private hands, that’s the reason that we’re able to create innovative products right here in America that are recognized and used the world over. We know how incompetent the government is, imagine them actually controlling all private business. Things would look pretty bleak.
Glorification of the State and the great leader lay at the root of the Mussolini regime. Mussolini quickly gained worldwide credence and approval. Fascism spread throughout Europe. Hitler greatly admired Mussolini, of course, and Hitler’s original Beer Hall Putsch was supposed to mimic the success of Mussolini’s march on Rome.
Hitlerian fascism was significantly more totalitarian than Mussolini’s brand. The cult of the great leader reached its fruition in the Führer. Philosopher Martin Heidegger embodied the feelings of millions in 1933:
“The Führer himself and he alone is the German reality, present and future, and its law. Heil Hitler!”
Nazism, of course, took on racial eugenics in a far more significant way culminating in the Holocaust. And Nazism’s militarism ended in the catastrophe of World War II. Hitler was not the only fascist to follow Mussolini’s lead.
Fascist regimes took over in a variety of countries ranging from Hungary and Romania to Paraguay and eventually Iraq. Other states, ranging from Spain to Argentina, mimic many aspects of fascism, leading many to label them quasi-fascist.
Certain aspects of fascism, particularly in the economic realm could even be seen under FDR in the United States. FDR’s New Deal, complete with government resources directed at forcing economic conformity, controlled huge swaths of American life, with FDR aide Harry Hopkins openly suggesting,
“We are not afraid of exploring anything within the law and we have a lawyer who will declare anything you want to do to be legal.”
And this is why the term fascism is so attractive in political discourse. Everybody thinks of Brownshirts and small mustaches when they invoke fascism, but there are a lot of aspects of fascism that survive in a variety of forms.
Corporatism — government working hand-in-glove with industry — is a form of economic fascism. Racial hierarchies can be indicative of fascist thinking, particularly when combined with differential treatment under law. Militarism can be termed fascist, particularly when its resources are directed at domestic populations.
Few people will admit to being fascist today. It would be far more useful for everybody to simply critique policies with reference to history but without reference to the buzzword that poisons everyday discourse. We can have good and interesting conversations about the value of corporatism, for example, without invoking Hitler, we can talk about opposing the shortcomings of atomic individualism without invoking the Holocaust.
The truth is that nowadays the term fascism tends to be a slur rather than a predicate to a useful conversation. As it turns out, everybody you don’t like probably isn’t Hitler.