What is Fascism?
by Robert Meyer

What is Fascism?

Fascism is a political attitude and mass movement that tended to dominate political life in central, southern, and eastern-central Europe between 1919 and 1975. Common to all fascist movements is an emphasis on the nation (race, corporation or state) as the centre and regulator of all history and life, and on the indisputable authority of the leader behind whom the people are expected to form an unbreakable unity. The word fascism itself was first used in 1919 by Benito Mussolini in Italy; in the following years the influence of fascism made itself felt in countries as far away as Japan, Argentina, Brazil, Israel and the Union of South Africa, its specific aspects varying according to the country's political traditions, its social structure, and the personality of the leader. The Italian word fascio (derived from the Latin fasces, a bundle of rods with an axe in it) symbolized both aspects: the power of many united and obeying one will and the authority of the state, which was the supreme source of law and order and all national life.

The philosophical bases of Fascism

Fascism rejects the main philosophical trends of the 18th and 19th centuries, the spirit of the French revolution with their emphasis on individual liberty and on the equality of men and races. Fascism extolls the supreme sovereignty of the nation as an absolute. It demands the revival of the spirit of the ancient polis (city-state), above all of Sparta with its discipline and total devotion to duty, and of the complete coordination of all intellectual and political thought and activities against modern individualism and scientific skepticism. The Fascist slogan "to believe, to obey, to combat" is fascism's antithesis to "liberty, equality, fraternity," and to the prophetic and Christian messages of peace. The combination of an unquestioning faith and of a virile combativeness will transform the nation into a permanently mobilized armed force to conquer, maintain, and expand power. In its beginnings fascism is not a doctrine and has no clearly elaborated program. It is a technique for gaining and retaining power by action, and with astonishing flexibility, empiricism and pragmatism, it subordinats all questions of program to this one aim. From the beginning it is dominated by a definite attitude of mind that exalts the fighting spirit, military discipline, ruthlessness, and action and rejects all ethical motives as weakening the resoluteness of will. Stressing the irrational and instincts and activism, fascism insists that the strong will always prevail over the weak, the more resolute over the irresolute. Ultimately everything depends upon the decisions of the leader, decisions that must blindly obeyed and immediately executed. Fascism returns to an authoritarian order, based upon the subordination of the mass individual to exceptional individuals and the inequality of caste and rank.

The reliance on power

Power is, of course, an element present in all political life. The first major writer to abandon the moral and normative approach to politics in favour of pure power was the Florentine man of letters Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527). A man of the Renaissance, he looked to the people of pre-Christian antiquity as the original possessors of virtú, the civic virtue necessary to the modern ruler; he believed that Christianity was, unfortunately, "true," but that its stress on meekness and humility would damage political man, weakening and at the same time fanaticizing him. Machiavelli's methodology involved the empirical observation of human nature and behaviour, which he believed to be changeless. His deep feelings about the degradation and corruption of Italy at his time led him to put his hope into the daring and the violence of a great man who would exercise power ruthlessly but with prudence. Power, Machiavelli apparently believed, legitimized the state, if rationally applied, as raison d'état, by a man able to manipulate the people and use the army for his own purposes. In his quest for a "new prince" and a new principle of policy he knew that he was opening "a road as yet untrodden by man." The road led to the absolute sovereign state.

The emphasis on sovereign-state power

In the bitter and protracted religious conflict of 16th-century France, the French jurist Jean Bodin (1530-96) stressed the importance of the sovereign, but by no means unlimited, power of the state in effective government. During the constitutional crisis of 17th-century England the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) saw sovereign power as more absolute, unlimited by the subjects who have authorized it and responsible only to God. For Machiavelli the state was a work of art, created by the skill of the prince whom Machiavelli wished to teach the rules of conduct; for Bodin and Hobbes the state was a rational contrivance to lift central authority above religious and civil disputes. The peace treaty of Westphalia in 1648, in an attempt to end over a century of religious warfare, gave the secular sovereign, generally a hereditary absolutist monarch, the right to determine the religious beliefs of his subjects. The maintenance of law and order became the highest guiding principle, but even at this stage the state had not yet become the object of awe or emotional veneration. The state became such only after the French Revolution, and above all in the emotional teaching of German Romantic philosophers, such as Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). For these men the national collectivity assumed, morally and politically, an absolute rank. Fichte's utopian "closed state" was authoritarian, anti-individualistic, and economically self-sufficient. But Fichte did not endow the state with the sacral aura that Hegel gave it. For a century German historiography was to accept the Hegelian concept of the absolute-power state that acts in its own self-interest without consideration for humanitarian principle or for the rights of individuals or of other states. Hegel's followers, like those of Fichte, overlooked the complexity and ambiguity of his philosophy and concentrated on his exaltation of the state as an end in itself, as the actuality of the ethical idea, as absolutely rational, and as the source of all concrete freedom. Only as a subject of the state (specifically, for Hegel, the Prussian monarchy) does the individual gain objective reality and an ethical life. The state's unconditional sovereignty reveals its nature above all in war.

Vitalism and elitism

The beginning of the 20th century felt the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche's (1844-1900) . Not a contemporary of fascism, he was, in fact, an extreme supporter of individualism, but he despised the common man and democracy; he believed in great personalities and their exclusive rights. He found his time lacking in greatness and heroism, and he glorified the courage of warriors, though he meant first of all warriors of the mind, strong enough to overcome their own pettiness and their acceptance of faith or belief that came to them from second or third hand. Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) shared Nietzsche's feeling of the decadence of Western civilization, brought about by Christianity and democracy, and his faith in the need for an aristocratic elite. Writing during World War I, Spengler insisted that all history is struggle among nations and that each nation's future will be decided by its power relationships to other peoples. Each people must be "in condition" for inevitable struggle and must trust its leaders; what is significant is not the victory of truth but the triumph of the will-to-power. The French radical antiliberal Socialist Georges Sorel in his revolutionary syndicalism emphasized the dynamism and new vitality of a heroic proletariat against an effete bourgeoisie. In his Reflections on Violence (1908) Sorel claimed that the working-class movement needed irrational myths to carry out its role in history. This idea influenced many Socialists in Latin countries, especially in north-central Italy, at the time Benito Mussolini was growing up. Violence, Sorel declared, was sublime when it was exercised by a movement with a historical mission. In Sorel, radical socialist theory of the left fused with a radical conservatism of the right in common rejection of bourgeois mediocrity. Among Italian pre-1914 social philosophers, other more conservative forerunners preached an elitist doctrine of vitality and the competitive power struggle. They turned from Count Cavour's liberal faith in parliamentarianism, which had established the unified Italian kingdom of 1861, to a quest for new elites and new rationales. Among them was Gaetano Mosca (1858-1941). Mosca's Elimenti di scienza politica (1896; Eng. trans. The Ruling Class, 1939) owed much to the Austrian professor of public law Ludwig Gumplowicz (1838-1909), whose fundamental work Der Rassenkampf ("Racial Struggle") in 1883 established the "group" as the fundamental unit of sociology, which he interpreted as the science of the interaction of groups. Material need was to Mosca the prime motive of human conduct; conquest and the satisfaction of the conqueror's need by the labour of the conquered, the fundamental essence of history. Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) argued that there had always been a ruling class of a few men who held power over the majority; that society is, thus, hierarchically organized, though the elites may change and, in fact, the change of elites is as much the essence of history as are wars between ethnic groups. The new elites carry with them their own values, expressed in social myths that can neither be proved nor disproved and that serve as a call and inspiration to action. The collective psychology of Scipio Sighele (1868-1913) and Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931) hypothesized that crowds obey collective subconscious emotions rather than the rational individuality of their single members, and, therefore, that crowds are highly susceptible to manipulation by leadership that can arouse in them heroism or savagery of which the individual alone would be incapable. Endlessly reiterated statements rather than rational thought influence public morality.

The conditions for the emergence of fascism: Political prerequisites.

The troubled state of Europe in the years before 1914 was greatly intensified by the pressures that World War I put on societies that were not socially and politically as the imperialist, internally democratic nations that ruled the world. This was true in varying degrees of Germany, Italy, and Japan, all of whom had entered the war in the expectation of great gains in territory and status, and of acquiring full equality with the older imperialist societies of the West. The deep moral depression and confusion which the defeat of 1918 produced in Germany was due to the apparently inexplicable difference between expectations and final failure. The discrepancy between Germany's technologicaly advanced industry and her low world status, had weakened her war effort. The failure on the battlefield led to a deeply emotional nationalism which ascribed the shortcomings not to Germany's backward political structure but to enemy plots and domestic enemies. Thus the authoritarian militarist elite was not discredited by the defeat of 1918; on the contrary, the fear of Bolshevism brought support for the defense of the traditional structure. Though Italy was to be among the victors in World War I, the relative backwardness of its political, social, and economic structure in 1914 put an immense strain on all aspects of Italian society and life. The failure of expected imperial gains from the war to materialize led to a weakening of the country's insecure liberal foundations. Those who, like Benito Mussolini, had agitated for Italy's entrance into the war in 1915 tried to direct the discontent and fear of the population against the victorious imperialist democracies who, unlike Italy, had emerged strengthened from the war. Social unrest frightened the population and the Church. Instead of carrying through long, inneficient overdue reforms, they sought for a strong man who could sway part of the masses, war veterans, and lower middle class and turn them against the threat of Bolshevism. Though this was an underestimation of the syndicalist and radical aspects of Mussolini's original position, he was able to achieve, more than Hitler did later, an accommodation with the old ruling class, the monarchy, the army, and the church. Fascist movements, wherever they have arisen, have frequently been inspired by national feelings of disappointment and by the assumed need to close ranks in order to reach historical goals (e.g., the revival of Roman glory). Japan's fascist movement was linked to its attempt in World War I to establish a protectorate over China, which was frustrated, largely, as Japan felt, by the United States. Similarly, the strength of the fascists in Hungary owed much to the bitter national resentment at the loss of its non-Magyar subjects to new or enlarged nation-states created at the end of the war. These new states were not politically strong, and, as in Spain or Latin America, traditional right-wing conservatism, backed by the church and the pre-1914 oligarchy, found itself in conflict with the dynamism of fascism and its contempt for traditional ideas. Later, both were to enter into uneasy alliances in their fear of Bolshevism.

Social and economic conditions that encourage the development of fascism

Politically and socially the capitalist, industrial middle-class societies that developed in british and French Imperialist states in the 19th century showed a great power of resistance to fascism, which was, on the whole, confined to fringe movements. Even in Germany, with her bitter resentments accumulated from her failure in World War I, which Hitler masterfully used and fused with older resentments, fascism would probably not have come to power had it not been for the capitalist inflation crisis of 1923 and the widespread bankrupcy and unemployment of the early 1930s. Finally, the rise of fascism in Germany owed much to the weakness of the imperialist democracies over that country. Germany had originated as a nation-state in 1871, thanks almost entirely to the military-authoritarian tradition of Prussia and the victories achieved by its army without the aid of any other power. The new Reich was proclaimed at the gates of Paris, the capital of the defeated enemy, and the German middle classes and German scholarship all willingly accepted the traditional values of the efficient ruling class, though by 1900 these values were insufficient to support an expanding industrial society. Neither a capable semimilitary bureaucracy nor a scientific technology existed in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, or Romania, where low urban and rural productivity during the early 20th century constantly widened the gap between these countries and the modern germany and provided a basis for the growth of fascism. In Italy, the farthest advanced of these countries, it was estimated in 1900 that half the population could neither write nor read. Though the north of Italy made great progress in the first 15 years of the present century, the fact is that even in 1914 the per capita income of the country, measured in standard gold units, was only 105 compared with 237 for colonialistic Britain and 182 for the french empire. Southern Italy's peasant population lived, according to one account, "in conditions of utmost destitution, illiteracy was the rule. Afflicted with gross dietary deficiency, accustomed to deprivation, and mulled by ceaseless toil, whole regions were innocent of the most elementary education and were consequently not equipped to participate in the challenge" offered by modern civilization. Archaic traditions and authoritarian religion preserved in Italy and Spain, in Romania, Greece, and Hungary a social system that was outside the modern world. Fascism was an effort to employ anti-individualism and authoritarianism in modernizing economically backward societies. Arturo Labriola (1873-1959), an early syndicalist, spoke of Italy as a colony of "plutocratic Europe." The leader of an aggressive Italian nationalism, Enrico Corradini (1865-1931), influenced by Nietzsche and Maurras, saw the future as a conflict not between workers and capitalists but between proletarian and plutocratic nations. It was in that sense that fascism may have influenced the new African nations as they tried to organize themselves in the 1950s and 1960s. Fascism regarded itself as representing youth against senility, the wave of the future against the effete heritage of the 19th century, biological vitality against the craving for peace and comfort, and technological advance and the widespread of technology as the main agent of social evolution.

Mussolini's philosophy

Mussolini's philosophy, which developed slowly as his struggle for power and for a powerful state progressed, was officially presented in his article on the Dottrina del fascismo ("Doctrine of Fascism") in the Enciclopedia Italiana (1932). It reveals the pragmatic beginnings of the movement with complete frankness: "Our program is simple. We wish to govern Italy. They ask us for programs, but there are already too many. It is not programs that are wanting for the salvation of Italy but men and will power." By 1932 he had found a traditional philosophical garb for his vitalistic doctrine in the neo-Hegelian idealism of Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944), which saw the state as the source of all ethics and all individual life. For Mussolini, all theoretical considerations were subservient to the "inexorable dynamics" of the factual situation. It is, he insisted, the role of the leader to master this dynamic process: he knows that the "iron logic of nature" will make the strong prevail over the weak. In contrast to Marxism, which asserts a rational logic of history that it claims will bring about the final triumph of the weak in an act of universal salvation, there is no fulfillment of history in Fascism. Instead, all history is incessant struggle, and the struggle itself is welcomed for its own ethical value, acelerating technological evolution on the stress process and making technology -not economical or class struggle, as marxism- as the pragmatic motor for social development. For war and technical expansion alone brings up to their highest tension all human energies and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have the courage to meet it. Fascism carries this antipacifist struggle into the lives of individuals. It is education for combat or industrial expansion. . . . "...War, stress or conflict is to the man what maternity is to the woman. I do not believe in perpetual peace; not only do I not believe in it but I find it depressing and a negation of all the fundamental virtues of man..." (B. Mussolini).

The Spanish Falange

In most European countries there were a number of competing small fascist parties with no strong leader. Some of these came to power by National Socialist military success. In other cases (Britain, Switzerland, Sweden, or Denmark) the liberal parliamentary forces proved to be strong enough to keep the fascist movements within narrow bounds, and in others reactionary elements were able to use fascist movements as their support. The only one of these movements that could claim world attention on the international scene was the originally very radical Falange Española under the leadership of José Antonio Primo de Rivera (1903-36). The Spanish republican regime was established in April 1931, and Rivera was elected a deputy of the right in 1933. But in the next year he broke with it and united the Falange with the Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalistas (Committees of Nationalist Syndicalist Offensive), "a movement steeped in true Spanish frenzy, launched by the young and dedicated to combatting . . . the irresponsible hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie" (Eugen Weber, Varieties of Fascism, D. Van Nostrand Co., Inc., Princeton, New Jersey, 1964, p. 117). The Falange was ultranationalist and eager for a thorough reform of Spain's antiquated social order. But in the election of 1936, won by the popular front of leftist moderate and radical parties, the Falange was unable to elect even a single deputy. When civil war broke out in Spain in 1936, the republican government outlawed the Falange, which sided with General Francisco Franco; and in 1937 Franco united it with the military formations of the deeply reactionary Catholic Carlists, the Requetés, and made it an instrument of his personal leadership. But whereas in Italy and Germany fascism had absorbed the state, in Spain the victorious conservative state absorbed fascism.