Fascism is a term used to describe authoritarian nationalist political ideologies or mass movements that are concerned with notions of cultural decline or decadence and seek to achieve a millenarian national rebirth by exalting the nation or race, and promoting cults of unity, strength and purity.
Fascists promote a type of national unity that is usually based on (but not limited to) ethnic, cultural, national, racial, and/or religious attributes. Various scholars attribute different characteristics to fascism, but the following elements are usually seen as among its integral parts: nationalism, militarism, anti-communism, totalitarianism, statism, dictatorship, economic planning (including corporatism and autarky), populism, collectivism, autocracy and opposition to classic political and economic liberalism.
Some authors reject broad usage of the term or exclude certain parties and regimes. Following the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II, there have been few self-proclaimed fascist groups and individuals. In contemporary political discourse, the term fascist is often used by adherents of some ideologies as a pejorative description of their opponents.
The Term ‘Fascism’
The term fascismo was coined by the Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and the Neo-Hegelian philosopher Giovanni Gentile. It is derived from the Italian word fascio, which means “bundle” or “union”, and from the Latin word fasces. The fasces, which consisted of a bundle of rods tied around an axe, were an ancient Roman symbol of the authority of the civic magistrates; they were carried by his Lictors and could be used for corporal and capital punishment at his command. Furthermore, the symbolism of the fasces suggested strength through unity: a single rod is easily broken, while the bundle is difficult to break. It is also strongly associated with the fascist militia fasci italiani di combattimento (“League of Combat”). Originally, the term “fascism” (fascismo) was used by the political movement that ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943 under the leadership of Benito Mussolini.
Definitions and Scope of the Word
Historians, political scientists, and other scholars have engaged in long and furious debates concerning the exact nature of fascism and its core tenets. Since the 1990s, there has been a growing move toward some rough consensus reflected in the work of Stanley Payne, Roger Eatwell, Roger Griffin, and Robert O. Paxton. According to most scholars of fascism, there are both left and right influences on fascism as a social movement, and fascism, especially once in power, has historically attacked communism, conservatism and parliamentary liberalism, attracting support primarily from the “far right” or “extreme right.” (See: Fascism and ideology).
Mussolini defined fascism as a collectivistic ideology in opposition to socialism, classical liberalism, democracy and individualism. He wrote in The Doctrine of Fascism:
Anti-individualistic, the fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only insofar as his interests coincide with those of the State, which stands for the conscience and the universal will of man as a historic entity…. The fascist conception of the State is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value…. Fascism is therefore opposed to that form of democracy which equates a nation to the majority, lowering it to the level of the largest number…. We are free to believe that this is the century of authority, a century tending to the ‘right’, a Fascist century. If the nineteenth century was the century of the individual we are free to believe that this is the ‘collective’ century, and therefore the century of the State.
Since Mussolini, there have been many conflicting definitions of the term fascism. Former Columbia University Professor Robert O. Paxton has written that:
Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
Paxton further defines fascism’s essence as:
…a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond reach of traditional solutions; 2. belief one’s group is the victim, justifying any action without legal or moral limits; 3. need for authority by a natural leader above the law, relying on the superiority of his instincts; 4. right of the chosen people to dominate others without legal or moral restraint; 5. fear of foreign ‘contamination.’ “
Stanley Payne’s Fascism: Comparison and Definition (1980) uses a lengthy itemized list of characteristics to identify fascism, including the creation of an authoritarian state; a regulated, state-integrated economic sector; fascist symbolism; anti-liberalism; anti-communism; anti-conservatism. He argues that common aim of all fascist movements was elimination of the autonomy or, in some cases, the existence of large-scale capitalism. Semiotician Umberto Eco in his popular essay “Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt” attempts to identify the characteristics of proto-fascism as the “cult of tradition,” rejection of modernism, cult of action for action’s sake, life is lived for struggle, fear of difference, rejection of disagreement, contempt for the weak, cult of masculinity and machismo, qualitative populism, appeal to a frustrated majority, obsession with a plot, illicitly wealthy enemies, education to become a hero, and speaking Newspeak. More recently, an emphasis has been placed upon the aspect of populist fascist rhetoric that argues for a “re-birth” of a conflated nation and ethnic people.<refGriffin, 1995, . Retrieved January 20, 2009.
Free market economists, principally those of the Austrian School, like Ludwig Von Mises argue that fascism is a form of socialist dictatorship similar to that of the Soviet Union.
Authoritarian and Totalitarian State
Although the broadest descriptions of fascism may include every authoritarian state that has ever existed, most theorists see important distinctions to be made. Fascism in Italy arose in the 1920s as a mixture of syndicalist notions with an anti-materialist theory of the state; the latter had already been linked to an extreme nationalism. Fascists accused parliamentary democracy of producing division and decline, and wished to renew the nation from decadence. They viewed the state as an organic entity in a positive light rather than as an institution designed to protect individual rights, or as one that should be held in check. Fascism universally dismissed the Marxist concept of “class struggle,” replacing it instead with the concept of “class collaboration.” Fascists embraced nationalism and mysticism, advancing ideals of strength and power.
Fascism is typified by totalitarian attempts to impose state control over all aspects of life: political, social, cultural, and economic, by way of a strong, single-party government for enacting laws and a strong, sometimes brutal militia or police force for enforcing them. Fascism exalts the nation, state, or group of people as superior to the individuals composing it. Fascism uses explicit populist rhetoric; calls for a heroic mass effort to restore past greatness; and demands loyalty to a single leader, leading to a cult of personality and unquestioned obedience to orders (Führerprinzip). Fascism is also considered to be a form of collectivism.
Fascio (plural: fasci) is an Italian word used in the late nineteenth century to refer to radical political groups of many different (and sometimes opposing) orientations. A number of nationalist fasci later evolved into the twentieth century movement known as fascism. Benito Mussolini claimed to have founded fascism, and Italian fascism (in Italian, fascismo) was the authoritarian political movement that ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943 under Mussolini’s leadership. Fascism in Italy combined elements of corporatism, totalitarianism, nationalism, militarism and anti-Communism. Fascism won support as an alternative to the unpopular liberalism of the time. It opposed communism, international socialism, and capitalism; international socialism did not accept nationalism while capitalism was blamed for allowing Italy being dominated economically by other world powers in the past. The Italian Fascists was promoted fascism as the patriotic “third way” to international socialism and capitalism. Corporatism was the economic policy of the Fascists which they claimed would bring together workers and businessmen into corporations where they would be required to negotiate wages.
Differences and Similarities between Italian Fascism and Nazism
Nazism differed from Italian fascism in its emphasis on race as the defining feature of its political and social policies. Though both ideologies denied the significance of the individual, Italian fascism saw the individual as subservient to the state, whereas Nazism saw the individual, as well as the state, as ultimately subservient to the race. Mussolini’s Fascism held that cultural factors existed to serve the state, and that it was not necessarily in the state’s interest to interfere in cultural aspects of society. The only purpose of government in Mussolini’s fascism was to uphold the state as supreme above all else, a concept which can be described as statolatry. Where fascism talked of state, Nazism spoke of the Volk and of the Volksgemeinschaft. 
The Nazi movement, at least in its overt ideology, spoke of class-based society as the enemy, and wanted to unify the racial element above established classes; however, the Italian fascist movement sought to preserve the class system and uphold it as the foundation of established and desirable culture. Nevertheless, the Italian fascists did not reject the concept of social mobility, and a central tenet of the fascist state was meritocracy. Yet, fascism also heavily based itself on corporatism, which was supposed to supersede class conflicts. Despite these differences, Kevin Passmore observes:
There are sufficient similarities between Fascism and Nazism to make it worthwhile applying the concept of fascism to both. In Italy and Germany a movement came to power that sought to create national unity through the repression of national enemies and the incorporation of all classes and both genders into a permanently mobilized nation.
Although the modern consensus sees Nazism as a type or offshoot of fascism, some scholars, such as Gilbert Allardyce and A.F.K. Organski, argue that Nazism is not fascism–either because the differences are too great, or because they believe fascism cannot be generic. A synthesis of these two opinions, states that German Nazism was a form of racially-oriented fascism, while Italian fascism was state-oriented.
All fascist movements advocate nationalism, especially ethnic nationalism and seek to integrate as many of their dominant nationality’s people and as much of their people’s territory into the state. Fascists support irredentism and expansionism to unite and expand the nation.
A key element of fascism is its endorsement of the leadership of a dictator over a country. The leader of the movement is often literally known as the “Leader” (Duce in Italian, Führer in German, Conductator in Romanian). Fascist leaders are not always heads of state but are always the head of government of the state, such as Benito Mussolini as Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Italy.
Fascists typically advocate a strong military that is capable of both defensive and offensive actions. In Germany and Italy under Hitler and Mussolini, enormous amounts of funding was dedicated to the military. In some fascist regimes, the fascist movement itself has a paramilitary wing which is included in the armed forces of the country, such as the SS in Germany and the MVSN in Italy, which are devoted directly and specifically to the fascist movement.
Fascism and Religion
According to a biographer of Mussolini, “Initially, fascism was fiercely anti-Catholic”—the Church serving as competitor for dominion of the people’s hearts. The attitude of fascism toward religion has run the spectrum from persecution, to denunciation to cooperation. Relations were close in the likes of the Belgian Rexists (which was eventually denounced by the Church), but in the Nazi and Fascist parties it ranged from tolerance to near total renunciation.
Mussolini, originally an atheist, published anti-Catholic writings and planned for the confiscation of Church property, but eventually moved to accommodation.  Hitler was born a Roman Catholic but renounced his faith at the age of 12 and largely used religious references to attract religious support to the Nazi political agenda. Mussolini largely endorsed the Roman Catholic Church for political legitimacy, as during the Lateran Treaty talks. Fascist officials engaged in bitter arguments with Vatican officials and put pressure on them to accept the terms that the regime deemed acceptable. In addition, many Fascists were anti-clerical in both private and public life. Hitler in public sought the support of both the Protestant and Roman Catholic religions in Germany, but in a far more muted manner than Mussolini’s support of Roman Catholicism. The Nazi party had decidedly pagan elements and there were quarters of Italian fascism which were quite anti-clerical, but religion did play a real part in the Ustasha in Croatia.
One position is that religion and fascism could never have a lasting connection because both are a “holistic weltanshauungen” claiming the whole of the person. Along these lines, Yale political scientist, Juan Linz and others have noted that secularization had created a void which could be filled by a total ideology, making totalitarianism possible, and Roger Griffin has characterized fascism as a type of anti-religious political religion. Such political religions vie with existing religions, and try, if possible, to replace or eradicate them. Hitler and the Nazi regime attempted to found their own version of Christianity called Positive Christianity which made major changes in its interpretation of the Bible which said that Jesus Christ was the son of God, but was not a Jew, and claimed that Christ despised Jews, and that the Jews were the ones solely responsible for Christ’s death.
In Mexico the fascist Red Shirts not only renounced religion but were vehemently atheist, killing priests; on one occasion they gunned down Catholics as they left Mass.
Although both Hitler and Mussolini were anticlerical, they both understood that it would be rash to begin a Kulturkampf prematurely. While such a clash might be inevitable they were put off while they dealt with other enemies.
Fascists opposed what they believe to be laissez-faire or quasi-laissez-faire economic policies dominant in the era prior to the Great Depression. People of many different political stripes blamed laissez-faire capitalism for the Great Depression, and fascists promoted their ideology as a “” between capitalism and Marxian socialism. Their policies manifested as a radical extension of government control over the economy without wholesale expropriation of the means of production. Fascist governments nationalized some key industries, managed their currencies and made some massive state investments. They also introduced price controls, wage controls and other types of economic planning measures. Fascist governments instituted state-regulated allocation of resources, especially in the financial and raw materials sectors.
Other than nationalization of certain industries, private property was allowed, but property rights and private initiative were contingent upon service to the state. For example, “an owner of agricultural land may be compelled to raise wheat instead of sheep and employ more labor than he would find profitable.” According to historian Tibor Ivan Berend, dirigisme was an inherent aspect of fascist economies. Mussolini’s Carta del Lavoro Labour Charter of 1927, promulgated by the Grand Council of Fascism, stated in article 7:
“The corporate State considers private initiative, in the field of production, as the most efficient and useful instrument of the Nation,” then goes on to say in article 9 that: “State intervention in economic production may take place only where private initiative is lacking or is insufficient, or when are at stakes the political interest of the State. This intervention may take the form of control, encouragement or direct management.”
Fascism also operated from a Social Darwinist view of human relations. Their aim was to promote “superior” individuals and weed out the weak. In economic practice, this meant promoting the interests of successful businessmen while destroying trade unions and other organizations of the working class. Historian Gaetano Salvemini argued in 1936 that fascism makes taxpayers responsible to private enterprise, because “the State pays for the blunders of private enterprise…. Profit is private and individual. Loss is public and social.”
Economic policy in the first few years of Italian fascism was largely liberal, with the Ministry of Finance controlled by the old liberal Alberto De Stefani. The government undertook a low-key laissez-faire program; the tax system was restructured (February 1925 law, June 23, 1927 decree-law, etc.), there were attempts to attract foreign investment and establish trade agreements, and efforts were made to balance the budget and cut subsidies. The 10 percent tax on capital invested in banking and industrial sectors was repealed, while the tax on directors and administrators of anonymous companies (SA) was cut down by half. All foreign capital was exonerated of taxes, while the luxury tax was also repealed. Mussolini also opposed municipalization of enterprises.
The April 19, 1923 law abandoned life insurance to private companies, repealing the 1912 law which had created a State Institute for insurances and which had envisioned to give a state monopoly ten years later. Furthermore, a November 23, 1922 decree suppressed the Commission on War Profits, while the 20 August 1923 law suppressed the inheritance tax inside the family circle.
There was a general emphasis on what has been called productivism–national economic growth as a means of social regeneration and wider assertion of national importance. Up until 1925, the country enjoyed modest growth but structural weaknesses increased inflation and the currency slowly fell (1922 L90 to £1, 1925 L145 to £1). In 1925 there was a great increase in speculation and short runs against the lira. The levels of capital movement became so great the government attempted to intervene. De Stefani was sacked, his program side-tracked, and the Fascist government became more involved in the economy in step with the increased security of their power.
In 1925, the Italian state abandoned its monopoly on telephones’ infrastructure, while the state production of matches was handed over to a private “Consortium of matches’ productors.” In some sectors, the state did intervene. Thus, following the deflation crisis which started in 1926, banks such as the Banca di Roma, the Banca di Napoli, or the Banca di Sicilia were assisted by the state.
Fascists were most vocal in their opposition to finance capitalism, interest charging, and profiteering. Some fascists, particularly Nazis, considered finance capitalism a “parasitic” “Jewish conspiracy”. Nevertheless, fascists also opposed Marxism and independent trade unions.
According to sociologist Stanislav Andreski, fascist economics “foreshadowed most of the fundamental features of the economic system of Western European countries today: the radical extension of government control over the economy without a wholesale expropriation of the capitalists but with a good dose of nationalization, price control, incomes policy, managed currency, massive state investment, attempts at overall planning (less effectual than the Fascist because of the weakness of authority).” Politics professor Stephen Haseler credits fascism with providing a model of economic planning for social democracy.
In Nazi economic planning, in place of ordinary profit incentive to guide the economy, investment was guided through regulation to accord to the needs of the State. The profit incentive for business owners was retained, though greatly modified through various profit-fixing schemes: “Fixing of profits, not their suppression, was the official policy of the Nazi party.” However the function of profit in automatically guiding allocation of investment and unconsciously directing the course of the economy was replaced with economic planning by Nazi government agencies.
The Russian Revolution inspired attempted revolutionary movements in Italy, with a wave of factory occupations. Most historians view fascism as a response to these developments, as a movement that both tried to appeal to the working class and divert them from Marxism. It also appealed to capitalists as a bulwark against Bolshevism. Italian fascism took power with the blessing of Italy’s king after years of leftist-led unrest led many conservatives to fear that a communist revolution was inevitable (Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci popularized the conception that fascism was the Capital’s response to the organized workers’ movement). Mussolini took power during the 1922 March on Rome.
Throughout Europe, numerous aristocrats, conservative intellectuals, capitalists and industrialists lent their support to fascist movements in their countries that emulated Italian Fascism. In Germany, numerous right-wing nationalist groups arose, particularly out of the post-war Freikorps used to crush both the Spartacist uprising and the Bavarian Soviet Republic.
With the worldwide Great Depression of the 1930s, liberalism and the liberal form of capitalism seemed doomed, and Communist and fascist movements swelled. These movements were bitterly opposed to each other and fought frequently, the most notable example of the conflict being the Spanish Civil War. This war became a proxy war between the fascist countries and their international supporters—who backed Francisco Franco—and the worldwide Communist movement, which was aided by the Soviet Union and which allied uneasily with anarchists—who backed the Popular Front.
Initially, the Soviet Union supported a coalition with the western powers against Nazi Germany and popular fronts in various countries against domestic fascism. This policy largely failed due to distrust shown by the western powers (especially Britain) towards the Soviet Union. The Munich Agreement between Germany, France and Britain heightened Soviet fears that the western powers endeavored to force them to bear the brunt of a war against Nazism. The lack of eagerness on the part of the British during diplomatic negotiations with the Soviets served to make the situation even worse. The Soviets changed their policy and negotiated a non-aggression pact known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939. Vyacheslav Molotov claims in his memoirs that the Soviets believed this agreement was necessary to buy them time to prepare for an expected war with Germany. Stalin expected the Germans not to attack until 1942, but the pact ended in 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. Fascism and communism reverted to being deadly enemies. The war, in the eyes of both sides, was a war between ideologies.
Even within socialist and communist circles, theoreticians debated the nature of fascism. Communist theoretician Rajani Palme Dutt crafted one view that stressed the crisis of capitalism. Leon Trotsky, an early leader in the Russian Revolution, believed that fascism occurs when “the workers’ organizations are annihilated; that the proletariat is reduced to an amorphous state; and that a system of administration is created which penetrates deeply into the masses and which serves to frustrate the independent crystallization of the proletariat.”
Fascism, Sexuality, and Gender Roles
Italian fascists viewed increasing the birthrate of Italy as a major goal of their regime, with Mussolini launching a program, called the ‘Battle For Births’, to almost double the country’s population. The exclusive role assigned to women within the State was to be mothers and not workers or soldiers; however, Mussolini did not practice what some of his supporters preached. From an early stage, he gave women high positions within Fascism.
According to Anson Rabinbach and Jessica Benjamin, “The crucial element of fascism is its explicit sexual language, what Theweleit calls ‘the conscious coding’ or the ‘over-explicitness of the fascist language of symbol.’ This fascist symbolization creates a particular kind of psychic economy which places sexuality in the service of destruction. According to this intellectual theory, despite its sexually-charged politics, fascism is an anti-eros, ‘the core of all fascist propaganda is a battle against everything that constitutes enjoyment and pleasure’… He shows that in this world of war the repudiation of one’s own body, of femininity, becomes a psychic compulsion which associates masculinity with hardness, destruction, and self-denial.”
Fascist as Epithet
The word fascist has become a slur throughout the political spectrum following World War II, and it has been uncommon for political groups to call themselves fascist. In contemporary political discourse, adherents of some political ideologies tend to associate fascism with their enemies, or define it as the opposite of their own views. In the strict sense of the word, Fascism covers movements before World War II, and later movements are described as Neo-fascist.
Some have argued that the term fascist has become hopelessly vague over the years and that it has become little more than a pejorative epithet. George Orwell, working as a journalist, wrote in 1944:
…the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else… almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’. Tribune (London) 
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- Parker, David (ed.). Revolutions and the Revolutionary Tradition in the West 1560-1991. London: Routledge, 2000.
- Paxton, Robert O. The Anatomy of Fascism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.
- Payne, Stanley. Fascism: Comparison and Definition. University of Wisconsin Press, 1980.
- Payne, Stanley G. A History of Fascism, 1914-45. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.
- Pollard, John F. The Vatican and Italian Fascism, 1929-32. Cambridge University Press, 2005.
- Postone, Moishe. “Anti-Semitism and National Socialism.” Germans and Jews Since the Holocaust: The Changing Situation in West Germany, ed. Anson Rabinbach and Jack Zipes. New York: Homes & Meier, 1986.
- Reich, Wilhelm. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970.
- Salvemini, Gaetano. Under the Axe of Fascism. Lyle Stuart, 1971.
- Sauer, Wolfgang. “National Socialism: totalitarianism or fascism?” 404-424, in The American Historical Review 73 (2) (December 1967).
- Schapiro, J. Salwyn. Liberalism and The Challenge of Fascism, Social Forces in England and France (1815-1870). New York: McGraw-Hill, 1949.
- Seldes, George. Sawdust Caesar: The Untold History of Mussolini and Fascism. New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1935.
- Sohn-Rethel, Alfred. Economy and Class Structure of German Fascism. London: CSE Bks, 1978.
- Sorel, Georges. Reflections on Violence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
- Sternhell, Zeev with Mario Sznajder and Maia Asheri. The Birth of Fascist Ideology, From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution, Trans. David Maisei. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.
- Theweleit, Klaus, Erica Carter, Anson Rabinbach, Chris Turner (Translator), Anson Rabinbach. Male Fantasies, Volume 2: Male Bodies—Psychoanalyzing the White Terror. (Theory and History of Literature, Volume 23.) University of Minnesota Press, 1989.
- Weber, Eugen. Varieties of Fascism: Doctrines of Revolution in the Twentieth Century. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1985. Contains chapters on fascist movements in different countries.
Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 03.26.2017, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.