Fascism is a hard ideology to define because nearly every modern government or political movement has been called ‘fascist’ by somebody. I contend that fascism was a political movement unique to the early 20th century, especially in Europe, because its worldview was shaped by events and philosophical ideas from the late 19th century until the interwar period. Some people have called states like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq ‘fascist’, but I believe that there is a big difference between authoritarian dictatorship and genuine fascism.
So how did fascism originally develop?
It grew out of a European intellectual movement which criticized the alienating effect that industrial society had on modern man, as well as late 19th century critiques of Liberalism and Positivism.
They believed that industrial society robbed men of their individuality; however, they wanted to assert it at the same time. These ideas were adopted by many young people, especially young, middle-class socialists, because they wanted to rebel against what they perceived as pointless and archaic bourgeois morality and conformity. This is why in the 1930s, fascism looked like it might actually take over Europe: it successfully harnessed people’s dissatisfaction with modern society and directed it into political channels.
Fascists were influenced by philosophers like Gustav Le Bon who wrote about the need for a strong leading figure to lead the masses against social ills. He believed that people were fundamentally irrational, and should embrace their irrationality. This was taken up by fascist ideologues who thought that their members’ irrationality should be harnessed by the leader and directed into political action, which was mostly comprised of beating up socialists, communists and trade unionists (or Zionists in the case of National Socialism).
Fascism’s insistence on embracing irrationality is one thing that makes it hard to comprehend; although Hitler and Mussolini wrote their respective handbooks about fascist beliefs, they ultimately rejected concrete doctrines and always acted in response to current events. This is why a lot of fascist rhetoric and actions seem to be contradictory.
The First World War gave fascism its mass base. Veterans across Europe felt alienated in civilian society after the war, which could not understand their experiences on the frontline. A lot of them wanted to return to an idealized comradeship and hierarchy of the front line, which fascist organizations like the SA and the Blackshirts offered. A lot of them didn’t actually care about the nuances of fascist ideology, they just felt like they didn’t belong in civilian society and needed order and comrades. Instead of a real enemy opposing army, fascism offered them a frontline against post-war society which was especially attractive in revisionist countries like Germany and Italy, where many wanted to destroy the existing Liberal order which they blamed for their countries’ humiliations.
Unlike socialists and communists, fascists wanted to cure modern society’s alienation through the creation of a hierarchal state made up of different social classes working together for the benefit of the nation.
This is called ‘corporatism’ and is fascism’s only real contribution to economic thought. The competing segments of industrial society would be united by the leader act entirely through the state, which incidentally would preserve existing capitalist hierarchies and strengthen them. Fascists were for a sort of inverted social-democracy which would give social services to its members but not to anyone else. In other words, you would have to be a Citizen.
If you were not a member of the nation or the Volksgemeinschaft – tough luck, and in reality should be deported. This is why many people participated in Fascist and Nazi organizations like the DAP or Hitler Youth; if you did not actively participate in the national or racial community, you were not a part of it and would be socially ostracized (or worse) and denied state benefits. They didn’t necessarily believe in fascist ideology, and many opposed it, but the fascist state required them to participate in it. To be one with the Nation.
“National Socialism” while getting rid of industrial alienation through the creation of a totalitarian society. Mussolini thought that by giving up your individuality to the totalitarian state, you could have your energies and efforts multiplied by its services. Paradoxically, by surrendering individuality, alienation would somehow disappear. In industrial societies, fascism was popular with the middle class because it offered a cultural and social revolution which would keep hierarchies and fortify them through corporatism. Unlike conservatism, fascism wanted a cultural revolution that would create a “New Fascist Man” who had no individuality separate from the collective. This is why it was appealing to the middle class; it let them vent their frustrations about modern society and be little revolutionaries while simultaneously protecting their property and position in the social hierarchy.
The emphasis on maintaining private property and hierarchy was what made fascists hate socialists and communists. Fascism marketed itself as the “Third Way” between Liberalism, which was responsible for alienation and the post-war Wilsonian order, and Socialism, which threatened to take bourgeois property in an economic revolution. Conservatives and fascists usually got along because they both hated the same things, but most conservatives failed to understand the revolutionary aspect of fascism and believed they could be controlled to curtail workers’ rights and revise the Paris Treaties, which didn’t really work out.
So Fascist is an “Old Word” like “Tyrannical”
It has lost its meaning. It cannot really be equated with Hitler (like National Socialism) as Hitler was elected, and he did not rule with an “Iron Fist”, but instead was popular. National Socialism was about people working as a collective, yes, but it was not meant to take away individual rights either. Everything was not to be owned by the State. The individual property was respected. The collective was a “mindset” of being proud of your people. Fascism does not fully apply. It cannot be exactly defined as the same as fascism of Mussolini for instance. Hitler and the National Socialists did not want war. Yet they were prepared (as a collective) for it if this was found to be necessary. It is a word with really no real meaning when applying it to either Hitler or the leadership of today. Fascism is compared to National Socialism as it may be regimented, and that you should have “Private Property” but that is as close to the two as you can really come. A useless word, meant for scorn, and as relative today as Tyrannical is.
Tyrannical was what the Elite called the British when they wanted to gain control of the Colonies and take that control away from the British. They made a big deal out of the unfair and unjust actions of King George, who in reality was nothing less than an embarrassment to the British Parliment. His unfair and unjust rules and actions were stopped by the Parliment, and King George was effectively sent to his room. Like a “bad little boy” that he was. Yet it was too late to stop the term “Tyrannical” from having meaning. The word had as much meaning (in reality) after the signing of the US Constitution as Fascist has after WWI.
Unlike Hitler Mussolini had made compromises with the monarchy and the Church (in 1929 he gave the Vatican the status of an independent state and allowed the two million-strong Catholic Action to continue to function). Mussolini also had to maneuver between, balance, and play-off several competing cliques inside his own movement. Regional fascist organizations were organized through powerful local bosses often linked to organized crime.
These structures and problems placed additional limits on his dictatorship which was authoritarian, but never totalitarian. Mussolini was a vicious thug – capable of setting gangs on unarmed political opponents, using poison gas on African villages and having prisoners of war shot – but he never had a vice-like grip over Italy in the way that the National Socialists had in Germany, being the most popular with the people, or used terror as the Stalinists and the Bolsheviks did in Russia. In particular, the fascists never had complete control of the state machine – the police, army and civil service remained, in the final analysis, in the hands of the old, pre-fascist ruling elite.
The German Nazis had had a much longer, harder road to power — and they ended up as a more coherent, consistent party. Aside from grandiose imperialist scheming, and repression at home which destroyed the opposition — especially working-class opposition – there was little consistency in Mussolini’s policy.