[This essay first appeared on this blog on May 27th 2009]
Below is a fairly long essay. You may want to read it in installments.
There is also a Part 2 posted on this blog on June 1st 2009.
The aim of fascism as a political movement is to substitute for individual self-confidence based on skills and achievements uncritical trust in a leader or in an organization. Fascism as a form of government has no objective. Invariably, it ends either in misery or in a catastrophe.
The word “fascist” has been so overused – entirely by Left-leaning people, – that is has become an empty insult. I am guessing that most Americans alive today only know the term as a nasty epithet, perhaps with vague references to Italy’s Mussolini. This is too bad because fascism is a real socio-political phenomenon that took over a fair number of developed societies in the middle-part of the twentieth century. Fascism is also alive, under other names, in and out of power, in the semi-advanced but chronically stagnant societies of Latin America. I think that the fascist temptation is always, forever present in the background of modern societies, including democratic societies. (There are more discussions of contemporary fascism further down in this essay.)
I am addressing this brief description of fascism to my younger contemporaries, in the US and elsewhere, because fascism has become relevant to the current American situation. I am not trying to shout an alarm call as I would with a fast spreading forest fire, for example, just helping inform the curious and intelligent but justifiably ignorant as I always try to do on this blog.
Much has been written about two aspects of the best known fascist movements and regimes. First, there have been many books about the most visible leaders of the most visible fascisms, especially about Hitler and Mussolini. These works have focused on the personalities, the families and the psychological antecedents of those leaders and, to a lesser extent, on the leaders’ inner psychology while they were in power. Second,there have been a number of notable studies of the immediate followers that is, on the large numbers of ordinary people who joined explicitly fascist organizations, such as the infamous SS in Germany. There is current resurgence of interest in the long-lived Spanish brand of fascism, under Francisco Franco. (Franco achieved his dictatorship after a bloody civil war. Yet he governed Spain peacefully for more than thirty years.)
To my knowledge, it’s difficult to find much about the more passive supporters of fascist movements, the great bulk of them. This is an important question because the foremost fascist party in history, the Nazi Party, came to power through largely constitutional means. Many ordinary Germans who were probably nice people supported it. It’s difficult to think about it because of so many movies but initially, supporters of fascism are sweet-faced and pure-hearted. It seems to me many Hitler and Mussolini supporters were hoodwinked, in part because they were too lazy to think of the consequences of their choices.
To make a long story short, the Nazis won the largest number a vote in a regular election, assumed government power and proceeded to eliminate democratic rule. Nazism was brought to power by the naivety of some and by the passivity of others. Mussolini’s Fascist Party seized power with considerable popular support. The short-lived but devastating French version of fascism, was formulated and led by a general and war hero to whom the democratically elected representatives of the Republic handed power willingly.
The less known, less flamboyant, but much longer-lasting Portuguese brand of fascism was invented by a mild-mannered Professor of Economics. Although he was installed after a military coup, Salazar was for practical purposes, little opposed by Portuguese civil society for most of his rule. He led Portugal to the lowest economic rank in Europe, pretty much to Third World status. Similarly, fascist movements came to power mostly peacefully in Hungary and in Romania in the late thirties and early forties. After WWII, General Perón of Argentina implemented a successful fascist program with the assent of the broad mass of Argentineans. He was able to pull it off twice. He left the country in a shamble from which it has not recovered, thirty years later.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is a conventional fascist state installed originally by a broad mass movement. It has limited political representation. Economically, it conforms faithfully to the historical fascist experience of initial success followed by a continuous descent into poverty. This, in spite of massive oil revenues. Its apparatus of repression includes draconian laws, summary arrests, trials without protection for the accused, capital punishment for a broad range of non-homicidal offenses, and prison murders. It looks completely familiar though the repression is done in the name of religion.
So, let me correct a common mistake: Fascism is not a political ideology imposed by force from above. It’s a mass movement. It requires both mute consent from some and a high degree of enthusiasm from others.
All fascist regimes ended in blood and disaster or in whimpering economic disgrace because they showed themselves unable to provide more than the bare necessities of life. Given the dramatic ending of the more dramatic fascist regimes, again, such as Hitler’s and Mussolini, we tend to ignore this prosaic truth: Fascism is a recipe for prolonged poverty, at best. That’s when it does not end in total economic ruination as in Germany. The end of Spanish and of Portuguese fascism were negotiated affairs conducted under Army pressures. Spain’s and Portugal’s economies began taking off immediately after the transfers of power to democratically elected government that lacked any economic experience.
Fascist economic programs never work.
In power, fascist parties invariably attempt to concentrate the levers of the national economy in a few government hands. They do so either by nationalizing outright the means of production, or by forcing employers and employees into the same state-controlled organizations. Often, they cynically call these organizations “labor unions,” or “trade unions.” This mode of organizations is technically called “corporatism.” The word does not imply that corporations have power but the reverse: The government or its agents make the main decisions for corporations. Of course, corporatism is the complete negation of capitalism which requires all-around competition. That includes the competition of owners and controllers of capital with workers. All-around competition is inherently messy. It’s the converse of a well-trained army marching in lock-step, for example. Fascists hate disorderliness. They are fussy.
Technical note: Nationalization, the government take-over of a company owned by stockholders almost never requires a majority of the shares of ownership. Under current laws, in the US, the control of 15% of the shares is usually sufficient. Frequently, it takes much less than 15% ownership for a government to dictate a corporation’s policies. That’s because the stock is usually widely dispersed, with the largest stockholders owning a very small % of the total.
Fascists concentrate economic control in the name of orderliness.
Fascist governments and fascist movements detest capitalism.
A fascist movement always preaches national unity. Fascists begin by deploring unpleasant partisanship. In the name of national unity, fascist parties seek to weaken open discussion. They use words such as “bi-partisan,” and “overcoming our differences,” repeatedly and until they appear to describe what is obviously desirable. The American practice of democratic governance, by contrast, is based explicitly on confrontations followed by negotiations, one issue at a time, between often-changing coalitions.
When it comes to power, the fascist party abolishes competing political parties. It may do so by absorbing them or by persecuting them and murdering their members. The same fascist government often practices both forms of elimination. Thus, the powerful German Communist Party pre-1933, ended up partly in Nazi concentration camps, partly in the Nazi SS guard.
Fascist politics require the elimination of competing voices.
Fascist movements are often headed by providential leader, one who presents himself a a savior from a grave crisis, real or imagined ( real or imagined, and sometimes made up). The best known fascist leaders such as Hitler, Mussolini, and Perón, have also been charismatic. This is not absolutely necessary, providential is enough. Salazar of Portugal, a rotund, short man, was as lacking in charisma as anyone. Franco was downright sinister, even to many of his followers. Yet, personal charisma certainly helps a fascist leader achieve power. It helps his credulous followers suspend their sense of criticality.
Fascists profit by the unchecked veneration of leadership and they cultivate it.
Fascist movement are usually not content to suppress dissent. They demand the sincere submission of individual wills to the benefit of a greater collective good. That’s because only inner submissions guarantees a long, unchallenged rule in spite of increasingly bad living conditions. The fascist movement imposes this demand first on movement followers and then, on all citizens.
Fascism places the collective (real or not) much ahead of the individual.
The muzzling of the press, serves both to eliminate the voicing of dissent and to achieve the submission of individual wills. A society with no press though is not the most desirable goal of a fascist government. Fascism seeks to whip up mass enthusiasm. So, the best situation is one where the press speaks in a unified voice in support of the fascist party, or of its leader. What is true of the press narrowly defined, is true of other mass media as well. Thus, Hitler, actively encouraged the development of a German cinema entirely to its devotion. So did the French fascist regime between 1940 and 1942 (with active German Nazi help, by the way.) Enthusiasm helps ordinary people bear burdens and it helps them suppress their pangs of conscience when they witness immoral actions.
Fascism requires the uncritical enthusiasm of many to achieve power, and more so to keep it because of the progressive impoverishment it causes, and also to gain toleration for its bad actions.
In some important historical cases, there is not much muzzling to be done because much the bulk of the mainstream media is already supporting the providential leader, before he comes to power. That was the case in Germany in and, to a lesser extent in Italy. Mussolini himself was a journalist, presumably with ability to manipulate the press rather than suppress it. Having the movie industry endorsing unconditionally a fascist leader would prove invaluable in a contemporary society because of the superior ability of movies to engage the whole person’s emotions along with his intellect. Also, it’s likely today that many more people watch movies than read newspapers. This is especially true of the young.
The intelligentsia, the educated class, or a large fraction of it, invariably plays a role in the ascent or legitimation of fascist ideas. Martin Heidegger, then and later, an important German scholar philosopher, became an active Nazi directly upon Hitler’s accession to power. In the case I know second best, that of France, foremost novelists, such as Drieu la Rochelle, and Louis Ferdinand Céline, were early and ardent supporters of fascism. Marcel Déat, a noted philosophy professor with the best academic credentials turned politician, was one of the most effective collaborators in the Nazi occupation of France. (It’s also true that many more French intellectuals supported the totalitarianism of the Left, instead. So?)
Fascism gains intellectual respectability from the endorsement of conventional luminaries.
Given their insistence on national unity, fascist movements must appear respectable to the political center, the main abode of respectability. The great American sociologist Martin Seymour Lipset famously called fascism, “the extremism of the (political) Center.” Hence, fascists cannot afford to suppress opposition openly by illegal means. Once they are in power, they change the laws so that anything they wish, including the mass murder of the mentally ill and later, the attempted destruction of all Gypsies and all Jews within their reach, is made legal. Before they reach power however, they must appear civilized to avoid unnecessarily alarming ordinary middle-class citizens. In order to pursue both ends, fascist movement employ goons, organized extremists toughs whose actions they are able to condemn when expedient.
Fascist movement commonly employ goon associates to wreck democratic elections by putting unbearable pressure on electoral organs designed for a civil transfer of power. In a normal democracy, it usually takes a small percentage of the votes cast to win an election. Thus, pressure tactics are often successful. Fascist movement sometimes sacrifice their goon wing once they are in power. Hence, Hitler liquidated his strong-arm SA guard in 1934. that is, after he had gained the chancellorship (more or less the presidency), when they had outlived their usefulness as a tool of street terror. Hitler may have had only a hundred or so SA leaders assassinated. The bulk of the SA rank and file learned to stay down. Many were incorporated into the other and rival strong-arm branch of the Nazi movement, the SS.
Fascists use extra-legal methods to gain political power, in addition to legal methods.
Fascist regimes are never conservative. They are revolutionary or radical reformists with an agenda of social justice. These words mean always and everywhere, “equalization.” There is some confusion in history books on this issue for several reasons. First, the head of Spanish fascism, General Franco had a Catholic agenda that looks culturally conservative on the surface. In fact, Franco tried to restore his own archaic version of Catholicism in a country where religious practice had gone down to near-zero levels among the men. Thus, Franco was not trying to conserve anything but to go back to a largely illusory, invented past.
An other source of confusion in that in several European countries and most dramatically, in Germany, big business circles eventually did lend their support to fascists governments. Two reasons for this. First big business leaders were then afraid of a Communism which had not yet demonstrated its incompetence as a solution to anything except the good life. (More below on the relationship between fascism and Communism.) Second, the owners and/or managers of large business enterprises are often natural collectivists. They tend to abhor real, unfettered competition and to prize workplace discipline. Fascist regimes protected them from the one and provided the other to perfection.
I believe that liberal scholars in the West have deliberately fostered the confusion, the idea that conservatism and fascism are two positions on the same axis. I don’t have the space to develop the basis of my belief here. Yet it’s a critical belief I developed during thirty years around liberal and left-wing scholars. Fascists and big business leaders love neatness above all. They detest the give-and-take and the tumultuous competition of the market.
It goes without saying that once they are well established, fascist governments attract the usual conscience-less opportunists, in addition to several breeds of fanatics and sadists. We know roughly what kind of personalities are attracted by the potential to exercise unchecked power. More interesting is the question of what kinds of people tend to become passive followers of fascist movements before they assume power or, in the early stages of their being in power. The question is important again because fascism is not imposed from above. Rather, it comes to be the government through the acquiescence of masses of people no-one would call, “fascist.”
It seems to me that at the basis of this acquiescence lies a combination of dispositional attributes. The first such attribute is probably a tendency to become alarmed, to live in the expectation of frequent or impending disasters. Such inclination will cause some people to throw up their arms from impotence and to search for a radical solution. This makes sense: If the real situation is extraordinarily threatening, the hope that the usual, ordinary solutions will work may vanish. This attitude historically led to an abandonment of institutionally valid politics, such a majority vote, or respect for legality in general, and for individual liberties in particular. Second, since fascism is an impatient recourse to authoritarian solutions, it’s often a psychological return to childhood. (Almost all children are impatient. ) Under a perceived serious threat, some people will pull harder while others will revert to the days when, in their own personal experience, Mom or Dad made things right. Third, backers of fascism tend to be naive. This is difficult to comprehend because their naivety is often accompanied, in every other respect, by normal intelligence. The naivety I refer to operates as if a corner of their brain shut itself off from regular, adult reality checks. I suspect the part of the brain that becomes activated then is the same that makes us love fairy tales, and fiction in general. Fourth, and neither least nor last, followers of fascism are almost always burning with a sense of justice. Their requirement for justice is impatient (see above) and of the simplistic, kindergarten variety: Jimmy got two apples; I have to have two apples also, and Charlie must have two; otherwise, it’s not fair!
In summary:Fascism abhors the idea of the individual will of ordinary citizens. In this, it is the complete moral opposite of classical conservatism which recognizes only the individual. Fascism’s main achievement everywhere and in every epoch, is to make ordinary people poor, dependent and afraid. Fascism is not imposed by force. It wins through the support of the uncritically enthusiastic
This is just and introduction. It’s easy to find good material to read on fascism. Or, you might just decide finally to read the great short book you pretended to have read in high school but never did: George Orwell’s “1984.”
Next: The relationship between historical fascism and communism. (Hint: Same damn thing!)