What Is Fascism in History?
The word fascism
derives from the Italian word fascio
and refers to a political group (such as the political group led by Giuseppe Garibaldi during the times of Italian unification). Fascism also refers visually and historically to a Roman imperial symbol of authority. Its birthplace as a modern political movement was northern Italy, the year of its birth was 1919, and its founder was Benito Mussolini. Thus, fascism
as a term as well as a political movement originated in the Italian peninsula. Its ideological origins, however, predated its name. Because its antidemocratic realities were global and existed under different national names, its effects were both national and transnational. Knowing that fascism was born as a global ideological contestation of the pre–World War I liberal order before its explicit emergence as a movement is central to any understanding of fascism. The ideology of radical nationalism that made it possible was part of a larger intellectual reaction to the Enlightenment,1
a tradition that was both European and “non-European.” Ideologically, fascism was conceived as a reaction to the progressive revolutions
of the long nineteenth century (from the French revolution of 1789 to the American and Latin American revolutions of 1776 and the 1810s, respectively, to the Paris commune of 1871 and the Cuban War of independence that started in 1895). Fascism represented a counter-revolutionary attack against political and economic equality, tolerance, and freedom.
Rooted in the ideology of the anti-Enlightenment, fascism was not only a reaction against liberal politics and a rejection of democracy. Fascism did not oppose the market economy, for example, and often put forward a corporatist organization intended to promote the accumulation of capital. Equally important, fascism was a philosophy of political action that ascribed absolute value to violence in the political realm. This ascription was boosted by one radical outcome of the Enlightenment: Soviet communism. The triumph of Bolshevism in 1917 was both opposed and emulated on a global scale. By presenting themselves as the opposite of communists, fascists took advantage of this widespread rejection and fear of social revolution while also incorporating some of its dimensions.
A new age of total war, rather than the Soviet experiment, is what ultimately provided the context of fascism. In fact, fascist ideology first emerged in the trenches of World War I. As the Italian historian Angelo Ventrone argues, the war provided a “reservoir” for fascist ideology.2
This war ideal, and its related notion of the militarization of politics, transcended European borders and circulated in places such as India, Iraq, and Peru. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini openly stated that war constituted their most meaningful personal experiences, and after World War I, these two former soldiers found violence and warfare to be political elements of the first order. When this ideology of violence fused with extreme right-wing nationalism,
imperialism, and non-Marxist antiparliamentarian leftist tendencies of revolutionary syndicalism, fascism as we know it today crystallized.
The moment of fascist crystallization was not exclusively Italian or European. In Argentina, former socialist intellectuals like the poet Leopoldo Lugones soon understood the political implications of this fusion. Fascism permutated in different national contexts. As General Eoin O’Duffy, the leader of the Irish Blueshirts argued, the recent history of Italian fascism had a “striking similarity” to the Irish situation but “This is not to say that Ireland can be rescued only by Fascism, but we would be fools were we to shut our eyes to the fact that behind fascism in Italy, and responsible for its phenomenal success, is the same spirit which is now making the Blueshirt movement the biggest political movement that Ireland has ever known.”3
The Argentine fascists admired the Irish Blueshirts, but they saw them as part of their kin, not as models to copy. Sharing the same spirit did not mean imitation; as the Portuguese fascist João Ameal maintained, Italian fascism as it existed in Italy could not be reproduced outside the country. Portuguese fascism could not be a “sterile copy.” Fascism was rooted in each nation but was related in transnational revolutionary ways: “It is not the case that it is a reproduction. It is about equivalence. The Italians did their revolution of order. We are starting ours.”4
Like Lugones and Ameal, the Brazilian fascist Miguel Reale saw fascism as the expression of a universal transnational ideology of the extreme right: “After the Great War, in Brazil as in China, in India as in France, there is no place for a nationalism without socialism. In other words, there is no place for nationalism lacking the elements of profound social revolution.” Like their transnational partners, Brazilian fascists believed they represented “a
powerful renewal” of the practices of “individual and collective life.” Reale claimed that “the revolution” was no longer done in the name of a class: “The revolution is the sacred right of the nation, of the totality of its productive forces.” Similarly, Spanish fascists assumed fascist movements existed in countries as far from each other as China, Chile, Japan, Argentina, or Germany because fascism was an agglomeration of right-wing “nationalist” movements. This cluster of fascism was going to “save” each country by constituting “a true new international of civilization against barbarism.” Fascism represented a new foundation for the world, “a civilization of unity, universality and authority.”5
At the end of the war, young Adolf Hitler, a disenfranchised war hero, began to give political expression to his basic violent tendencies. And he did it in the new trenches of modern mass politics.6
Hitler first adopted, and then shaped, the ideology of a small German party of the extreme right, soon to be called National Socialism. Hitler early on recognized his debt to the thought and practice of Mussolini, but both leaders shared a more extended belief that the world as they knew it was in crisis. Above all Hitler felt illuminated by Mussolini’s road to power. The epochal dimension of the fact that fascism had become a regime cannot be more stressed. As the prominent historian of Nazism Richard Evans argues, “Hitler looked admiringly to Mussolini as an example to follow.”7
Hitler and Mussolini, shared fierce anticommunist and antiliberal stances that were widely disseminated among global counter-revolutionaries at the time. This antidemocratic modernism combined modern politics with technological innovation, aesthetic ideas, and a discourse of war.
The modernity of fascism has preoccupied major thinkers over the course of the last century. Whereas Sigmund Freud saw fascism as the return of the repressed—namely, the mythical
reformulation of death and violence as a source of political power—Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their Dialectic of the Enlightenment
presented fascism as modernity’s worst outcome.8
Although I agree overall with their arguments, they are nonetheless limited to European developments. Grasping the global and transnational dimensions of fascism requires an understanding of its history, first as it is formulated on the national level, and second, as that manifestation of fascism relates to intellectual exchanges across the Atlantic Ocean and beyond.
Like Marxism and liberalism, fascism was a global phenomenon that assumed many national variations and political interpretations. Also like them, fascism never had a closed ideological apparatus. Its ideas changed over time and only now, with the benefit of hindsight, is it possible to conceive of its major ideological patterns. Most fascists perceived fascism as a new political ideology in the making. It was radically opposed to traditional democratic politics, what they disdained as western “electoralism.”9
Its creator, Benito Mussolini, argued that only decadent and old-fashioned ideologies had a closed body of knowledge. For Mussolini, ideas were useful when they had a practical value, that is, when they confirmed his own confused intuitions about social regeneration and the rebirth of nations, the leading role of men like himself in guiding the people, politics as an art, and more generally his noted antihumanitarianism. In short, for the creator of fascism, ideas were useful when they legitimized short-term political goals.10
Mussolini was a strategist who believed political needs should determine theoretical formations. Many historians have concluded that this belief made Mussolini a kind of antitheorist and that fascist theory was not important to the movement. For these historians, fascist theory is simply not significant.11
sure, Mussolini at some moments of his career had antitheoretical biases, but all the political needs that shaped Mussolini’s strategic view of fascism were informed by a set of unarticulated thoughts and aims. His ideas about power, violence, the internal enemy, and empire, and his own expectation of being the virile, messianic leader of his people, drove Mussolini’s political practice over the years. These ideas were abstract enough to inform his political priorities, and practical enough to be considered by transnational fascist politicians, who often wanted to avoid conceptual complications. Antonio Gramsci, an astute antifascist Italian observer and theorist, preferred to stress the “concretism” of Mussolini as a defining characteristic of the fascist leader and, perhaps, of fascist ideology at large.12
Mussolini’s concretism was related to the idea of the primacy of politics over “rigid dogmatic formulas.” With some wishful thinking, Mussolini himself argued that “theological” or “metaphysical” discussions were foreign to his movement. Fascism was not dogma but a “special mentality.” In typical anti-intellectual terms, Mussolini usually merged his concretism—namely the fascist preference for violent “immediate action”—with a simplistic understanding of reality. Early on, Mussolini posed his “heretic” realism against the “prophecies” of liberalism, socialism, and communism. In other words, Mussolini defended the “reactionary,” “aristocratic,” and yet “antitraditional” character of fascism by juxtaposing it with the “orgy of the revolution of words.”13
Fascism was essentially modern. Nevertheless, it was a “reactionary” form of modernism.14
Acting against emancipation in order to create a new totalitarian modernity, fascism saw itself as a child of the present and even as a “primitive” dimension of the future. Past causes, past theoretical formations, and even past experiences were not as important to Mussolini as present political
“action.” However, present strategies could for him only be manifest acts of a significant whole, a set of meaningful formations that constituted the basis from which political strategies could emerge.
The search for a symbiosis between this common ground from which fascist practices emanated, and various theoretical justifications for these strategies, constituted the most dynamic element of fascist ideology, and also revealed its most obvious limits to full canonization. At the end of the day, the creation of a fascist canonical corpus was an endless task for fascists. They tried to combine various short-term strategies with a long-standing basic preconception of the world. The fascist synthesis was based on this impossible transition from the politics of daily life to dogma. Fascist interpreters across the world had to articulate the often-tense relationship between fascist practice (strategy) and ideal (theory). These ideas about the divine, race, the people, empire, and a mythical past were constantly adapted to the particularities of the very different realities of East and Southeast Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America. In India and the Middle East, fascist ideas served the purpose of rethinking an authoritarian variant of postcolonialism, whereas in Japan they were used to rethink the modernity of the empire. In Republican, postcolonial Latin America, fascism often presented itself as having continuities with the prerepublican Spanish empire, but also as the primary way of putting forward an authoritarian form of anti-imperialism. In all these places, as elsewhere with fascism, aesthetics were a key dimension of its politics.
Yet fascist theory was not only about aesthetics. In this regard, although it is important to pay attention to antifascist conceptions of fascism, my emphasis does not rely much on Walter Benjamin’s aesthetic notion of fascism. For Benjamin, “The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political
As historian Robert Paxton argues, Benjamin clearly saw that war was the most extreme aesthetic experience of fascism. The fascist leader wanted to elevate the people into “a higher realm of politics that they would experience sensually.” This substitution of “reasoned debate” with the intimacy of shared sensorial experiences substantially altered contemporary politics.16
To be sure, fascist aesthetics played a central role in how fascism showed itself to the world, but fascism as a political ideology could not be exclusively encompassed by aesthetics. Fascism needed to balance its static ideal of the perfect world with a deeper articulation of its political ideas that could account for and justify a constantly changing strategy. Ultimately, fascist practice was not related to mundane day-to-day politics, or to aesthetics, but rather was focused on a set of political rituals and spectacles aimed at objectifying fascist theory and grounding it in lived experiences. These practices presented fascism as something that could be seen and involved active participation and contact with others, turning ideas into reality.17
Fascist theory never became an articulated system of belief. It was always a changing set of tropes and ideas. In this sense, Mussolini considered fascism to be unique “within the forest of ‘isms.’ ” He personally disliked systems of belief because he considered them to be by definition dysfunctional. If economics or art were elements that the Duce deemed irrelevant to a person of his stature, he considered fascist ideology or fascist theory to be subordinated to practice and thereby capable of worldly adaptation. But behind or above adaptation there was something more grandiose: the definition of fascism as an epochal turning point, a mythical and sacred revolution of the nation, the leader, and the people. Indeed, despite his contempt for theory, Mussolini believed in the existence of high theory—the master
narrative that represented immediate intuitions about the world—namely, a belief in the primacy of fascist basic meaning over the external word. Intentional, self-affirmative violent meaning was thereby the hardcore attribute of fasci...