time ago, wearied by the glut of silly articles, books, and people
describing this or that country, person or thing as "Fascist" , I
thought that persons of discernment could profit from a concise
definition of the term, based on the best recent scholarship on the
subject. So here it is, and much good to you.
/S/ Chuck Anesi, October 2008.
I. What is Fascism?
II. Avoiding Fascism
III. Fascist FAQ
I. What is
A. Scholarly Definitions of Fascism
The best definitions of
fascism come from the recent writings of scholars who have devoted
years to the study of fascist movements and have identified the key
attributes that distinguish fascism from simple authoritarianism.
1. Michael Mann
Michael Mann is an historical
sociologist and Professor of Sociology at UCLA.
In his book Fascists
(Cambridge University Press, 2004) he
provides the following definition:
“Fascism is the pursuit of a transcendent and cleansing nation-statism
through paramilitarism.” (Mann, op.
cit., p. 13)
Definition of terms:
· Transcendence: Belief that the state can
transcend social conflict and blend all social classes into a harmonious whole.
Belief in the power of political ideology to transcend human nature and produce
a better world.
· Cleansing (ethnic): Favoring one or more ethnic
or racial groups over others, either by granting special privileges or imposing
disabilities; deportation of ethnic minorities, or worse.
· Cleansing (political): Silencing the political
opposition so that the transcendent aims of fascism can be realized.
Restricting the freedom of speech, outlawing opposition parties, imprisoning
political opponents (or worse) and indoctrinating youth in fascist principles.
· Statism: Promoting a high degree of state
intervention in personal, social, or economic matters. Belief that the state
can accomplish anything.
· Nationalism:Traditional nationalism holds that the common good can best be realized through the inherent unity of a
population with distinct linguistic, physical, or cultural characteristics, and
its identification with a nation-state. This form of nationalism is benign, as the Swiss and Danes illustrate. Malignant nationalism holds that the nation possesses
special attributes that make it superior to other nations in most or all ways. This form is potentially dangerous, and became so in fascist states.
· Paramilitarism: "Grass roots",
populist squadrism aimed at coercing opponents and obtaining popular
approbation by acting as a supplementary police force.
2. Robert O. Paxton
Robert Paxton is an American
historian and emeritus professor of history at Columbia University.
In his book The Anatomy of Fascism
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2004) he develops the following definition:
“Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by
obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and
by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a massed-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 explansion.” (Paxton, op. cit., p. 218)
Bosworth is professor of history
at the University of Western Australia and has been a Visiting Fellow at Columbia, Cambridge, Oxford, and Trento
Universities. In his book Mussolini’s
Italy: Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship, 1915-1945 (Penguin Press, 2006)
he reviews the definitions of Mann and Paxton, with some approbation and some
criticism. Regarding Paxton he points out,
for example, that the Italian Fascist regime, once in power, left the court
system largely intact, provided a good measure of due process, never established
anything close to a gulag, and accommodated the church – hardly things that
indicate it was “without ethical or legal restraints”. Regarding
Mann, he disputes the notion that Italian Fascism “killed democracy” by
observing (rightly) that pre-Fascist Italy was not a democracy anyway,
and questions the importance of ideological “transcendence”. Bosworth avoids a succinct definition of Fascism
for reasons he himself summarizes as follows:
“…it might be argued that the quest for definition of fascism has
become absurdly laboured. Why opt for a long list of factors or paragraph of
rococo ornateness when Mussolini, on a number of occasions, informed people he
regarded as converted to his cause that Fascism was a simple matter? All that was needed was a single party, a dopolavoro [“after work”, a social
leisure time organization], and, he did not have to add, a Duce (with a Bocchini to repress dissent) and a will to exclude the
foe (somehow defined). To be still more
succinct, as Mussolini told Franco in October 1936, what the Spaniard should
aim at was a regime that was simultaneously ‘authoritarian’, ‘social’, and
‘popular’. That amalgam, the Duce advised, was the basis of universal
fascism.” (Bosworth, op. cit., p.
a. Elements deemed essential by all authors
All three authors agree that
statism, nationalism , unity, authoritarianism, and vigor are essential
elements of fascism.
b. Elements deemed non-essential by all authors
All three authors spend some time
discussing things commonly thought to characterize fascism but which do
not. They note that such things as
parades and street violence were common
features of mass movements at the time, and not distinctively fascist. They also note that the role of anti-Semitism
in the rise of fascist movements was
minor. In the Italian case, it played no
role at all in the early days. Jews, indeed, were disproportionately likely to be party members: it is estimated that
in the early 30's, 25% of adult Jews were Fascist party members, compared to about 10% for the entire adult population. And then of course there was Mussolini's Jewish mistress Margherita Sarfatti. In Germany, anti-Semitism was intentionally
downplayed by the Nazis during their ascendant phase because many voters found it offensive.
c. Areas of disagreement.
Bosworth is not wholly satisfied
with the definitions offered by Mann and Paxton, as previously noted. Mann differs from Paxton and Bosworth on
various points, two notable ones being:
leadership. Mann tends to assign
this attribute lesser weight because his analysis includes fascist movements
(in Romania, Hungary, Austria,
Spain, and Greece) where
charismatic leadership was not an essential element.
ii. Violence. Unlike Bosworth and Paxton, Mann is a
sociologist and takes a more thoughtful approach in analyzing the use of
violence in fascist movements. For Mann,
violence is something that states do to maintain order; they do it with
military and police forces, prisons, and the gallows. It is the use of paramilitary violence, not
violence per se, that Mann finds to be an essential attribute of ascendant fascism. Once fascists have control of the state, they
tend to enforce the state’s monopoly on violence and suppress the irregular violence of the squadristi (Black
Shirts, Brown Shirts, etc.). Mann has the
better of the argument here.
5. Synthesis and Extension: The Ultimate Definition of Fascism
After reviewing the works of
these and many other authors, together with sundry primary historical and sociological sources, I
think the following definition best captures the etiology and ontology of
“Fascism is a form of political and social behavior that arises when
the middle class, finding its hopes frustrated by economic instability coupled
with political polarization and deadlock, abandons traditional ideologies and
turns, with the approbation of police and military forces, to a poorly-defined
but emotionally appealing soteriology of national unity, immediate and direct
resolution of problems, and intolerance for dissent.” (Chuck Anesi, 2008)
a. Middle Class. In the United States,
the term “middle class” as used here includes the high prole, lower middle,
middle, and part of the upper middle classes.
Americans generally think themselves one class higher than they actually
are. To paraphrase Crane Brinton’s Anatomy of Revolution, the lower classes
have their peasant revolts, the upper classes have their palace coups, but the
middle classes make revolutions.
b. Economic Instability.
Economic instability played a prominent role in the rise of fascism
wherever it was successful, and was more
perilous to the middle classes than to the lower classes (who had little to
lose) or the upper classes (who were insulated from its effects). Demographic analyses of fascist party
membership (Mann, op. cit.) shows quite clearly that members were on the whole
younger and better educated than population means – precisely those who would
be most likely to have their opportunities blocked by economic instability.
c. Polarization and Deadlock.
In all cases where fascism was successful, its rise was preceded by a
period of political polarization and parliamentary deadlock. In Italy, forming a stable
parliamentary majority had proved impossible since 1919, and making Mussolini
Prime Minister in October 1922 offered a convenient way to break the
deadlock. The celebrated “March on Rome” could have been easily resisted by the government
(and in fact most fascists on their way to Rome were prevented from reaching it by
police forces), but it offered a handy excuse for Victor Emmanuel II to invite
Mussolini into the government. In Germany, it had
been impossible to form a parliamentary majority from March 1930 until Hitler’s
appointment as chancellor; Hindenburg had been ruling with emergency powers article
48 of the German constitution until the appointment of Hitler as chancellor in
January 1933 allowed formation of a conservative majority government. Ironically, the failure of leftists to compromise
and work with centrists was a major enabler for the rise of fascism in both Italy and Germany.
d. Abandonment of Traditional Ideologies. To paraphrase Thomas (not Michael) Mann,
World War I fired the mine beneath the Magic Mountain
of pre-war Europe when the Enlightenment
heritage of individual rights, progress, and equality collapsed into unprecedented
carnage. The war left the victors
exhausted and demoralized, the losers angry and resentful, and everyone
wondering what went wrong.
The victors applied a policy of
self-determination to reduce the level of ethnic strife by rationalizing borders
and creating homelands for the various “races” (speech and culture groups) of Europe. This
scheme failed to reduce tensions for four reasons. (1) regional heterogeneity made it impossible
to create ethnically pure states; (2) the desire to weaken the former Central
Powers led to violations of the policy -- placement of large German populations
in the new nations of Czechoslovakia and Poland, and large Hungarian
populations in Romania and Czechoslovakia; (3) the policy was at odds with the natural
desire of the victors for territorial booty, and failed to reward Italy with
any significant territorial gain (the South Tyrol not being significant in the
Italian view); and (4) the policy promoted aggressive nationalism.
The war was also followed by
sharp though brief economic recessions and, in some countries, by
Given all this, it is not hard to
see why many authors have seen World War I as the primary “cause” of
fascism. Enlightenment liberalism had
failed to prevent a huge blood bath, created a peace that nobody was happy
with, and wrecked the economy. New
ideas, many thought, were needed.
e. Approbation of Police and Military Forces. The police and military forces are
responsible for execising the state’s monopoly on violence to maintain order
and defend the state. They are highly
organized and skillful at what they do, and respect competence and
efficiency. They will not long respect a
government that is incompetent and inefficient.
Fascists did not “seize power”
through any credible threat of violence.
Once in office, they proceeded to consolidate and expand their power
through technically legal means.
f. Poorly-defined. Fascist ideology was vague and protean. This is a source of endless frustration to
those who expect to find a coherent definition of fascism in the the writings
of party “philosophers”. But it
reflects nothing more than fascism’s pragmatic approach to attaining its goals
and its unwillingness to be bound (like its predecessors) to failed dogmas. Like all popular movements, fascism tried to
encapsulate ideology in terse slogans – “Believe, Obey, Fight”, “Strength through joy”, “Work makes you free.”
g. Emotionally appealing. It
is commonly observed that fascism was more a matter of the gut than of the
head. Clearly those who joined fascist
parties often did so from shrewd self-interest, but the same could be said of
those who join any party. It was the
emotional appeal of fascism – the notion that through sheer hope and force of
will difficult and long-standing problems could easily be resolved – that set
it apart. Triumph of the Will. This idea
of course was not new and is still popular.
The New Age doctrine of “Manifesting” holds that ideas firmly held will
become reality. This doctrine appears in
many forms – e.g. “The Power of Positive Thinking”, “The Law of Attraction”, “Change
You can Believe in”. In its weak form it holds merely that positive
thinking is more likely to achieve a result than negative thinking. Generally this form is harmless and often
productive. In its strong form, it holds
that positive thinking will in fact produce the intended result. In this form it is indistinguishable from
h. Soteriology of national unity, immediate and direct resolution of
problems, and intolerance for dissent.
unity. This was a fixed core goal of
fascism. It held that social conflict
could be transcended through service to the nation-state as the embodiment of
the will of the people. With all
serving the same master, internal conflict would disappear and the people (with
certain out-groups excluded of course) would achieve their destiny.
ii. Immediate and
direct resolution of problems. This
is often confounded with violence.
Practically however it had more to do with cutting through red tape and
taking shortcuts. Sometimes this
involved squadrist violence, and sometimes it did not.
It is important to realize that excessive bureaucratization and
ineffective justice systems played a role in the rise of fascism. An example will be helpful.
sells wine to children. Fascist thugs
beat up shopkeeper.
sells wine to children. He has bribed
the police and nothing happens.
sells wine to children. He has bribed
the judge and his case is dismissed.
sells wine to children. The police
arrest him, and he is promptly fined and imprisoned.
sells wine to children. He is cited and
the case drags on for a year, ultimately disposed of with a plea to a lesser
charge or a deferred prosecution agreement.
A person interested in doing
substantial justice with proper safeguards for individual rights would choose scenario (d) as the most desirable. But if scenario (d) is not working, is
scenario (a) worse than the remaining choices?
At least with scenario (a) substantial justice is done. And these were the kinds of choices that
fascists had to make. Direct action did
achieve immediate results and contributed greatly to the popularity of fascism
in its ascendant stages.
iii. Intolerance for
dissent. It would be trivial to
observe that since the fascist model required individuals to serve the
nation-state as the embodiment of the popular will, and subordinate their
interests to it, dissent would be unthinkable for any true believer. A stronger reason for suppressing dissent can
be found in the emotional characteristics of fascism. Accepting that ideas firmly held become
reality, a dissenter imperiled the collective spell, and dissent was seen as a
species of malefic witchcraft.
Definitions of Fascism
Brief reference must be made to definitions of fascism offered in
popular works intended for the mass market, typically lists of attributes deemed to be
essential characteristics of fascism. Invariably
these lists include attributes often found in non-fascist states;
include attributes not found in all fascist states; and fail to
distinguish fascism from simple
authoritarianism, if indeed the authors even understand that
distinction. Examples of authors offering these trivial analyses include Naomi Wolf, Lawrence
Britt, Umberto Eco, and others. (I very much
like Umberto Eco’s fiction but don't think he put enough time into his analysis of fascism. Too close to it from the experiences of his childhood, perhaps.)
II. Avoiding Fascism
A. Maintain Order
Ensure that the people are secure in possession of their lives,
liberty, and property. Locke had this one right. And as Jefferson
observed, a government that does not ensure these things should be overthrown. Until
a government can ensure a high degree of public order it has no business doing
anything else. Pursuit of other objectives, however worthy, while public order is lacking will bring the
government into contempt and require the people to seek security from vigilante
and squadrist organizations. At that
point the government is seen as a useless hindrance and fascism is imminent.
Gandhi said that in his law practice he “strained every nerve to bring
about a compromise,” and that “The true function of a lawyer was to unite
parties riven asunder.” (Mohandas Gandhi, The Story of My
Experiments with Truth, ch. 14). Gandhi
saw compromise as a spiritual necessity.
The role of maximalism in the rise of fascism has been noted
previously. The failure of left, right,
and center to compromise and form coalitions weakened the governments of Italy,
Germany, Austria, and other countries, promoting
the rise of fascism.
Compromise requires intellectual honesty, a faculty often lacking on
the right and left. It is necessary for
the wise to broker compromises and “strain every nerve” to achieve them.
C. Remember that Law is Violence, and Use it Sparingly
commentators on fascism (Wolf, Britt, Eco et al.) fail to see that
fascists did most of their work using the state’s
monopoly on “legitimate” violence with nearly universal
popular approbation. This
included passing laws that controlled the most trivial aspects of human
behavior, backed up by the traditional apparatus of police, courts, and prisons. In many cases considerable procedural due
process existed, most notably in Italy, where the judicial machinery
was largely untouched. But
of course procedural due process and equal application of laws are useless if used to enforce unjust laws. Persons convicted under U.S. miscegnation laws (up to 1967, amazingly)
equally, white or black, and given due process, but nobody would argue that they received justice. People who babble about
the "rule of law" are often too stupid to appreciate this fact, foolishly thinking that current state of substantive law must be slavishy revered.
The point here is this: if you think you are better than a fascist
because you are passing laws to control people’s behavior in trivial and
oppressive ways, instead of beating people up, well, you are wrong. The fascists did exactly the same thing. In
fact, you are worse than a fascist, because you are too cowardly to do the
dirty work yourself, and want to leave it to the police and the courts. In sum: if you don't have a coherent basis for assessing whether a law is just or unjust -- which
practically nobody in any legislature in the United States does -- then best to do nothing.
So unless you would be willing personally to use physical violence to enforce a
law, knowing that you might be severely injured or killed while doing so, you
have no business making such a law, and will only bring contempt upon yourself
and the legislature if you do so.
III. Fascist FAQ
This section addresses various questions received in emails, usually from readers who have read amateur definitions of fascism.
B. Didn't Mussolini say Fascism was "rule by corporations"?
Yes, but he did not mean BUSINESS corporations, and he meant rule by means of corporations.
One means to achieving the fascist goal of transcendent unity
was corporatism. In Italian Fascism, this involved a vertical
reorganization of society into syndicates or "corporations" that
grouped people by their field of endeavor, rejecting horizontal
distinctions of management and labor. The initial organization,
following the Rocco Law of 1926, "established syndicates of industry,
agriculture, commerce, maritime and air transport, land and inland
waterway transit and banking, with intellectuals and artisans being
grouped in a seventh syndicate of their own." (Bosworth, op.cit., 226)
Mussolini referred to a "corporate state", he meant organizing
management and labor into syndicates under the thumb of the Duce.
This was rule by means of corporations -- an expedient but certainly not a defining
characteristic of fascism.
No more need be said of this. Wikipedia has a decent concise article on Corporatism that will clarify proper use of the term.
confusion is not new. I remember when I was an undergraduate many years ago a
student used the term "corporate state" in class, referring to some
vague idea of a state in which business corporations run the show, and
the professor, being an Oxford man, thought he was talking about
Fascist corporatism. The confusion was soon resolved. But we are likely to see more of this now that the American
education system has given up teaching history, philosophy, mathematics
and so forth in favor of diversity studies and post-modernist literary
C. Can fascism be defined as radical anti-communism?
guess, if you want to define Bolshevism as
"radical anti-capitalism". Seem like pretty impoverished
definitions to me.
D. Why is your style irregular in its capitalization of "fascism"?
When used in reference to Italian Fascism the word is a proper noun. Otherwise it is not.