In 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay called Politics and the English Language. In this essay, he stated "the word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies 'something not desirable.'" The fact that he felt the need to write this a year after the end of the most cataclysmic war in human history is pretty remarkable if for no other reason than the fact that most of Europe, Asia, North America, and North Africa should have been fairly well-acquainted with the meaning of "fascism" at that time. But the broader point he goes on to make in the essay is not so much about pedantry as it is about the importance of using clear language to avoid making what are essentially empty, vacuous statements that seem to say a lot but really mean nothing.
In the 70+ years that have elapsed since Orwell wrote his essay, the word "fascism" has indeed come to signify next to nothing. It's casually thrown around in political discourse in an extremely haphazard way that demeans the true victims of fascism in the previous century as well as the sacrifices made by those who ultimately defeated it on the field of battle. I don't think this is necessarily intentional; I think most people genuinely have no idea what "fascism" really means because it's become such an overused pejorative. So I'd like to give everyone an introduction into what this philosophy truly is and what it truly means and then I'll leave it to the reader to determine if they are applying it in the right way.
To understand what fascism is, you have to understand its origins. The fascist movement was of course started by the man who would later become the dictator of Italy during World War II, Benito Mussolini. The word itself is a reference to the fasces, which was basically an ancient Roman ceremonial weapon designed to show a figure's power. A fasces was an axe with rods bundled around it and it was held by a lictor, who was more or less a bodyguard for a Roman magistrate. The more lictors -- and therefore fasces -- a magistrate had around him, the more powerful he was understood to be. The fasces has endured to the present day as a symbol of authority and strength, and it was a potent (and easily recognizable) symbol for the movement that Mussolini wanted to create.
While Mussolini today is almost universally regarded as a figure of the extreme right wing, his early political career was spent on the left. He was a prominent and perhaps even leading figure in the Italian Socialist Party up until the first World War. World War I was a dilemma for the European left. Like all European wars up to that point, it was fought for reasons that had very little to do with the interests of the average person. So some archduke got killed in Bosnia, what does that have to do with the French peasant or the German student or the Russian farmer or the English factory worker? These were the people who would wind up fighting and dying in the coming war and it would benefit them in no conceivable way...or would it?
The main parties in the war would be France, the United Kingdom, and Russia on one side and Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire on the other. The latter three -- the Central Powers -- were the dynastic monarchies who controlled almost all of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe. They stubbornly resisted all attempts at reform and liberalizing their societies. They, along with Russia, had beaten back the revolutions that spread across Europe in 1848 and stymied the ambitions of the working class. The German ruling class of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in particular dominated Italians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Yugoslavs, and other groups unjustly. The old order had to go. Maybe the Great War would be their Ragnarok. Maybe the war made sense after all from a socialist perspective.
Or at least that was the argument that engulfed the Italian Socialist Party. Mussolini saw World War I as not just desirable but necessary and he thought that Italy should join England and France on their quest to destroy the Central Powers. He hated the Hohenzollern and Habsburg dynasties. He thought that the war was going to happen anyway, so why shouldn't Italy get in on it? Why should the Italians living under Habsburg domination not be reunited with the rest of the nation?
His position was not the majority position, however. The Party's official stance was opposition to the war, which Italy entered anyway. He was kicked out of the Party in 1914 for his contrarian views. He started his own rival party with the intention of gathering together leftists who supported and understood the necessity of the war to further their goals. He also came to believe that while international class solidarity was all well and good, the war proved that nationality was still a more potent symbol of identity, so why fight that? This organization was the forerunner of what would become the National Fascist Party.
As time went on, Mussolini drifted further away from the socialist mainstream. He disputed the idea of class struggle and found more value in class cooperation. Partly influenced by the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and the economist Vilfredo Pareto, he came to believe that the great proletarian masses would never be capable of spontaneously overthrowing an entrenched but decadent world order and they would have to be led to it by great figures. Toward the end of World War I, his party evolved into a paramilitary organization with broad support from those who did not feel at home with either the socialist labor movement or the mainstream conservative establishment. Mussolini's view of the war was also vindicated at its conclusion: the great continental empires lay in ruins. The German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire were all abolished, their royal dynasties were stripped of their powers, their lands were divided up, and their economies were destroyed.
Despite being on the winning side, however, Italy was not spared from the economic and social chaos that followed the First World War. As the only real alternative to the increasingly discredited mainstream political parties in Italy, the Fascist Party increased in size and popularity to the point that they were able to win seats in the Italian parliament in 1921. The following year, desirous of ever more power, Mussolini and about 30,000 supporters donned their black shirts -- the uniform of the Fascist party -- and marched on Rome, where they demanded from King Victor Emmanuel III the firing of the prime minister. The king acquiesced and named Mussolini as the prime minister and asked him to form a government. While arguably the march could have been put down, the king feared that doing so would start a civil war and he believed that the path of least resistance was the best option available to him.
Interestingly enough, the Fascist Party really had no political platform at this time. Its ideology, such as it was, was guided chiefly by Mussolini's disdain for socialism, Marxism, liberalism, conservatism, and capitalism. There was a strong current of irredentism, the belief that all lands traditionally inhabited by a particular national group should coalesce into one state, but this was not a new or even uncommon view. We know he believed in hierarchy and the Great Man theory, but so did a lot of people. What, really, was fascism?
It would take ten years from the time Mussolini came to power for the world to get an actual description of the ideology. Mussolini wrote la dottrina dell fascismo, the Doctrine of Fascism, for the 1932 edition of the Italian encyclopedia. It was co-authored by
the philosopher Giovanni Gentile, who served on the Grand Fascist Council. It's pretty easy to tell who wrote which parts; the first half of the article is written in the type of language that wouldn't seem out of place to anyone familiar with the overblown verbiage of German philosophy in the mid-to-late 19th century while the second half is written in a more conversational tone and refers to events that Mussolini either witnessed or participated in.
It is a starkly Hegelian and Platonic ideology. Fascism is somehow both contextual and eternal; it exists as a result of the historical circumstances up to that time, but it is a reflection of an abstract and immovable ideal of order. The physical manifestation of fascism in these terms then is the state. In fascism, there is no higher earthly concept than the state and nothing of any value can exist outside of or separate from it.
The role of the individual in the state is to be the best agent for it that one can possibly be. This can take multiple different forms, of course, but the clear statement is that life is -- and should be -- a struggle and that one only improves if one overcomes adversity. The best among us, then, will rise to the top because of their talent, energy, and hard work. But everyone has a moral obligation to the higher ideal that the state represents, so one must do everything in accordance with divine law.
At the same time, it's unrealistic to ever expect there to be some type of perfect society or perfect world and fascism therefore works within the framework of the limited physical world. Accordingly, while fascism rejects socialism and communism, it wants to address the iniquities that led to the ideologies of class struggle by subordinating financial/economic activity to the needs of the state within guilds.
Additionally, fascism explicitly rejects pacifism, Marxism, parliamentary democracy, egalitarianism, economic liberalism, and monarchies. Mussolini would refer to fascism as a "third way" between socialism and liberal capitalism, a term that is still in use today to describe alternatives to or hybrids of these systems.
So breaking it all down, what does this all actually mean? Well, for starters, there is a very pained and unsuccessful attempt to synthesize the ideas of idealism and pragmatism. The two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, but the grandiose talk about immanent ideals and higher states and on and on is immediately undermined by the acknowledgement that nothing is or ever can be perfect. It's hard to argue that pragmatic concerns shouldn't play a role in politics, but how far does this go in the fascist imagination? Nobody knows. Compare this to the ideology of Nazi Germany, which believed it was both possible and desirable to create a perfect world chiefly through exterminating undesirable peoples, pragmatics be damned. At its most basic level, then, fascism is irrational.
We recognize the word "irrational" as having a negative connotation today as meaning crazy, unreasonable, unbalanced, etc. In the past, though, it had a narrower meaning and represented an opposition to utilitarianism, dialectics, and logical inquiry as being the ultimate arbiters of whether something is morally or ethically correct/desirable. Fascism, like all philosophies of this type, is based on gut feelings, instinct, and tradition. It would be rational to conclude, for example, that based on all of the evidence acquired over the last 15+ years, 9/11 was not an inside job. But evidence only takes you so far and sometimes contradicts deeper truths; experience tells us that the United States government is a nefarious entity and it was completely within their capabilities to run a false flag terrorist attack to promote an agenda of war in the Middle East, therefore Bush did 9/11. Now maybe he only did it in the most abstract sense and this accusation can never be proven through any rational procedure, but damn it, he still did it and he needs to be held to account. None of this is to say that 9/11 truthers are necessarily fascists, mind you, just that both of their worldviews are irrational.
Moving forward, fascism posits that the state is the highest majesty on earth. While statism of this kind is typically talked about as a caricature of the modern left, the truth of the matter is that people of all political stripes hold this very basic belief. Left, right, up, and down, there are people who see the state as the be all and end all of existence. But what is the state for the purposes of fascism? Is it the country? Is it the government? Is it the people and organizations representing the state? Ultimately I think the third option is the closest to the truth. After all, the state is useless without someone around to exercise power in its name. In the same way that the Pope is God's vicegerent on earth, il Duce (the Leader) is the physical personification of the state's might. And at this point, fascism again devolves into an apparent contradiction. Fascism denies the utility or desirability of individualism except in so far as it serves the state, but by its very structure, fascism necessitates an ultimate, supreme individual. Il Duce should ideally be the embodiment of the state's will, but in reality, the opposite is the case: the state is the embodiment of il Duce's will. We see this most overtly today in places like North Korea, which in the future will probably be regarded as a hereditary absolutist monarchy rather than a communist dictatorship. But you can also see traces of fascist leadership principles in places like Russia. Vladimir Putin has been either the president or prime minister of Russia continuously since 1999. Regardless of his actual title, though, he is the ruler of the country and at this time there is no realistic plan or idea to address what happens when he inevitably leaves power either through death, voluntary resignation, or overthrow. Putin is a Tsar who exercises the absolute power of the Russian state without constraint and although he holds these positions through ostensibly democratic means to give himself an air of legitimacy, there is no serious doubt as to who would prevail in any Russian election with Putin's name on the ballot.
A common quote that has been floating around for years is a statement attributed to Mussolini that says "fascism is the merger of state and corporate power." The quote itself is likely specious, but it's got a kernel of truth at its core. Fascism's economic system is known as corporatism. Despite what the name implies to modern English speaker, corporatism isn't related to corporations...at least not our understanding of the term. The Italian word corporazione in this sense translates more accurately into "guild" and this is the sense in which Mussolini and Gentile meant it. As we've established, Mussolini was hostile toward socialism. It's clear, however, that he never fully rejected the socialist critique of capitalism. To Mussolini, guilds were the answer to the problem. Fascist guilds were trade unions, governmental agencies, and occupational groupings all rolled into one. Each guild would be comprised of the workers, the managers, the owners, and other parties relevant to each industry. They would receive direction, regulation, and mediation from the government. Corporatism was not a new economic system; it had a direct precursor in the short-lived proto-fascist Republic of Fiume after World War I and it was based largely on Roman Catholic economic teachings of the 19th century. Guilds of course have existed since antiquity.
So in theory, corporatism should serve as a balance between the interests of the workers and the companies they work for. In practice, however, Mussolini's corporatism was used as a way to stifle dissent and to direct Italy's economy with little regard for the workers or the owners. It was a totalitarian rendering of an idea that was revived in modern times to allocate more power to people who traditionally hadn't had very much. If, for example, all the people working in the shoe-making industry had a problem with safety conditions, they could bring it up to their guild's government representatives and try to get some resolution. Or if the owners of the companies making shoes felt that their workers were being intentionally unproductive because of made-up safety concerns, they could raise the issue. What wound up happening is that the government used the guilds to get both the workers and the owners to sit down, shut up, and keep making things that the state thought it needed. The goal of the system was to promote harmony between social classes while still maintaining the class system, which is evidently pretty easy to do when you force them all to be subservient in virtually every regard to a totalitarian government.
What begins to become obvious once you start looking at the Doctrine of Fascism in depth is that this ideology never really got over the fact that it was formed to oppose other ideologies as opposed to being a coherent worldview in its own right. Fascism arose when and where it did because mainstream political parties had lost both their appeal and their credibility. But this shouldn't be taken to mean that the vast majority of Italians (or Germans, or Austrians, or Spaniards, or Romanians, etc.) were crying out for fascism. In truth, there was certainly a vocal minority of people who wanted something resembling what would go on to be fascism, but really most people just wanted an alternative to the chaos and disorder of the previous few years. It's important to reiterate that Mussolini was not voted into office; he intimidated the king into naming him prime minister. In keeping with his belief that democratic processes could not be trusted, he pushed through radical alterations to Italian election laws in 1923 and again used violence and threats of violence to win 2/3 of the seats in the Italian parliament in the 1924 election; Italy would not have another general election until 1946.
Very few individuals or political parties today are willing to call themselves "fascists." However, it is not difficult to see the appeal of fascism as a guiding principle for people who desperately want power. The entire fascist political program is designed to empower one person to be able to act out his wishes through the organs of the state without the need for validation or ratification. That, ultimately, is the true doctrine of fascism.