Historicizing Fascism, Part 1: Definitions

The word “fascist” has been used as an epithet rather casually in the last two years, especially in commentary on US politics. In the hope of bringing clarity to this slippery term, Erstwhile editor Graeme Pente sat down with Dr. Mike Ortiz (Ph.D., CU Boulder, 2017), whose dissertation focused on global anti-fascism in the interwar period, and Alex Langer (Ph.D. candidate, CU Boulder), whose dissertation examines US relations with Italy during the Cold War. Due to the length of the conversation, the transcript has been divided into three parts of approximately equal length with an eye to thematic cohesion. The first part attempts to define fascism, the second explores the phenomenon’s origins, and the third examines fascism in the period from 1945 to the present. You can listen to the full audio here. The transcripts have been edited for clarity and length.


Graeme Pente: What is fascism, in as concise a definition as you can offer?

Alex Langer: I would start off by saying that’s hard to do because fascism begins as a movement without a doctrine at all. In Italy, Benito Mussolini was fairly open about how fascism was just “not the other things.” And fascism, as we use it, doesn’t have a good definition. Italian fascism is not Spanish fascism is not Nazism is not Portuguese fascism.

Pente: Are there common threads then? To develop it as a historical movement or phenomenon, have historians zeroed in on some elements that all the iterations of fascism hold in common?

Mike Ortiz: It depends on who you ask. The historiography in the past ten years has moved away from defining a “fascist minimum,” or the minimum qualities or characteristics necessary to be considered fascist. One of the greatest obstacles to defining it is that we tend only to think of Italy and Germany, but there were so many more movements. And there’s a real disjunction between fascism as a movement and fascism in power. As a movement, fascists get to remain ideologically pure because they’re outside of power and they’re able to criticize governments and remain somewhat coherent (despite how incoherent their ideology often is), but once they’re in power, they must compromise. This leads to a lot of tensions and power struggles and chaos.

This being said, in my fascism class, I use the sociologist Michael Mann’s definition from his 2004 book Fascists. He has four elements for fascism-as-movement. The first is Organic Nationalism: a radicalized nationalism that considers the nation as a living organism. It can be purified or contaminated. Obviously, under Nazi Germany, this takes on racial connotations, whereas in Italy–

Langer: It’s a late development. When Mussolini defines the doctrine of fascism ten years after taking power in 1922, he has this idea of the “holistic nation”—the cult of the nation. It’s not his idea at all but the philosopher Giovanni Gentile’s, and it emerges in Italy out of a desire to go back to Ancient Rome, a rebirth of Imperial Rome. It may not be as sophisticated an idea as the organic nation, but obviously the nationalism is present.

Pente: And this nationalist nostalgia is a key element—a sense of having fallen from a mythic Golden Age.

Ortiz: Right, an imagined past revivified, past glories, etc. The second element in Mann’s schema is Radical Statism: because the nation is organic, it needs to be able to be purified. But parliamentary democracies are inefficient, corrupt, and slow, so you need an empowered government that is both agile and somehow in tune with what the nation is looking for. This is where the Führerprinzip, the leadership principle, comes in.

Langer: The leader is a representative of the people through their utmost will. And the leader is uniquely qualified to interpret the will of the people in a way that party democracy cannot do.

Ortiz: And it gets back to that phrase that is said in every country, that is sort of a relic of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: “if only Mussolini knew… if only Hitler knew… if only the king knew… all these issues would be solved.” People could get frustrated with the party but the leader, as a semi-divine character, becomes immune. If only he knew, he’d fix it.

The third point from Mann’s definition is that fascists aim to transcend class conflict, which is the issue of the day, especially in postwar Europe. They promise they can fix that. Of course, they just mute it through repression.

The fourth element is Paramilitarism: this is critical in helping define fascism because violence animated fascist movements. But it wasn’t top-down so much as bottom-up. Fascists worshipped paramilitary power, using groups of demobilized veterans and plain thugs. They envisioned this violence welling up popularly from below. This is a very useful concept for distinguishing fascist movements from bargain-bin militarist movements. Fascism is people exerting their power by marching in the streets. It’s bottom-up, popular. In Spain, by contrast, it tends to be imposed, top-down—Francisco Franco and the army imposing fascism on the rest of the country.

fascists mann

The cover of sociologist Michael Mann’s Fascists (2004), which contains his schema of the four elements of fascism.

Pente: There is sort of a natural element of popular buy-in.

Ortiz: Yeah. It doesn’t even have to be numbers, necessarily, so much as it has to be the passion and fervor of its adherents. You want your followers to be so amped up and ready to commit violence, to tap into this popular frustration. The numbers in Italy and in Germany were never that substantial. In the south of Italy, I think there was almost no support for the fascists; it was all the center and north.

Pente: Then once these movements seize power, there’s naturally a sort of “Francoization,” of top-down imposition on the rest of the country.

Ortiz: Somewhat. I always push back on this idea because it gives collaborators and compromisers a way out. Alex, you would know more about this than me, but in the Italian case, you have all these conservative elements who claim to be fascism’s first victims rather than collaborators that worked with Mussolini and the regime.

Langer: Right, and that leads to what Mike was saying: fascism as a revolutionary idea can be pure. When fascism takes power, however, it brings in a lot of conservative elements, a lot of middle-class elements. A lot of capitalist elements quickly join onto it. In Italy’s case, it was a willingness to collaborate out of a belief that Mussolini’s was a less radical revolution than what the socialists or the communists wanted. So even though Mussolini’s fascism emerged out of socialism—he was the editor of the socialist newspaper in Italy for a time—it quickly becomes the better alternative to a Left revolution.

Going back to Mann’s four points, I would add “inherited traditionalism”: the idea that there was a truth, a thing in the past that was true and we just need to get back to it, which I think leads to fascism’s aversion to reason and to intellectualism and to critical thinking. Obviously, fascism didn’t create traditionalism, but it’s in the Nazi desire for a sort of paganism, it’s in the close alliance of the Catholic Church both in Spain and in Italy to some degree and in that rejection of intellectuals on the basis that we don’t need to learn anything new. It also helps to avoid the fact that fascism is inherently contradictory. It doesn’t stand up to critical thinking.

The other thing about the popular uprising: the idea of violence for violence’s sake is the key part of early Italian fascism. The struggle is what matters; the doctrine will come later. Pacifism allows the enemy to enter.

Ortiz: And that violence is defensive in nature. Fascists claim to be defending traditional, conservative values. That’s the mistake that many conservatives and politicians made, thinking that the violence would end once these enemies were gone, in both the German and the Italian cases. But violence animates fascism. As soon as some enemies are gone, they’re going to keep looking.

Langer: Fascism desires and needs violence in its very nature. They’re going to fight until the enemies are gone. But then if the enemies are gone, there’s a peaceful future in which fascism is no longer needed. So the enemies can never be gone. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of violence.

Pente: Is that to say that there is in fascist ideology, such as we can pin it down, an idea that the violence will no longer be needed at some point? That there is a violent period but that they will reach a glorious utopia at the end of violence? Or is this wishful thinking on the part of their conservative allies?

Langer: Mussolini and Gentile at some point argue that there would be, but they never reached that point. The fascists were in power in Italy for over twenty years with not a lot of open opposition, but the violence continued.

Pente: There’s a way in which violence naturally gets turned outwards anyway, right?

Ortiz: As soon as the Hitler regime came to power, they were going to go to war. It’s sort of inevitable. One aspect you touched on that’s important is this idea that fascists were obsessed with the idea of a permanent revolution or a second revolution after they seize power. This gets back to your other question: we tend to see fascist leaders as being on a pedestal, immune to any criticism. Historian Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism (2004) points out that fascist regimes existed in a perpetual tug-of-war. It’s not just this unbending, unyielding leader. He’s fighting in these tug-of-wars with the party, his paramilitary, the actual military, the state apparatus, bureaucrats, the civil apparatus—it’s all these negotiations. This was especially the case for Mussolini, whose government was much more inclusive—he just took on all that chaos and it led to a very bureaucratically inefficient regime, whereas Hitler’s response was to try to dominate it as much as possible. And with the Matteotti Affair, Mussolini’s Black Shirts literally marched into his office and said, “you need to do something about this or we will.” It’s not that he’s immune to this pressure. His paramilitary forced his hand.

Pente: The leader projects infallibility but is not infallible by any means. I remember that from reading about the Third Reich as an undergrad, the way that Hitler’s kind of riding the tiger or this wave, and he’s got his different competing factions under him.

Ortiz: Right. That’s why the German historian Hans Mommsen called him a weak dictator. I don’t necessarily think that’s true, but if you go to the structural arguments behind it: Hitler would give an order and it would get interpreted like a game of Telephone across three different administrations and it would just be up to the person below him to deliver that order however they interpreted it.

Layout 1

The cover of Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism (2004), which suggests fascism’s state of perpetual tug-of-war.

Pente: We touched on this a little bit, but what is the class composition of a fascist movement or what was it, historically speaking? It seems there’s some reticence to create a model.

Langer: By 1932, Italian fascism rejects class as a basic concept. It rejects socialism and the idea that class matters. But it obviously begins as a socialist movement that integrates populism and then ultimately turns against that idea. It emerges out of similar anti-capitalist, anti-liberal ideas. But by ’32, there’s this idea that the people are one, and you can’t have class conflict in this nativist populism where the people as one express their beliefs through the leader.

Pente: The Italian movement isn’t an electoral movement at any point.

Langer: No, I don’t think the fascists gain any votes in 1921. Mussolini’s invited for the famous March on Rome. The king invites him to come form a government to avoid violence, thinking that if he leaves Mussolini out, the Communists will eventually take over.

Ortiz: Fear of the Left weighed heavily.

Langer: That’s what allows Mussolini to walk unopposed into Rome, to form a government, and then to eventually get rid of the legislature.

Pente: I’m thinking in the German case, isn’t it the petty bourgeoisie who is the backbone? These small shopkeepers, clerks, and artisans?

Ortiz: That’s always been the argument. It’s a very Marxist interpretation of fascism and approach to history. All the scholarship coming out in the last twenty years, though, describes it as very much a cross-class movement.

Pente: So they’re drawing disaffected elements from each of these classes.

Ortiz: In Germany, for example, a lot of the Marxist parties appeared to have lost their revolutionary spark. They were much more resigned to gradualist improvements. And then you have this movement that initially has a significant amount of socialist elements in it. National Socialism has a land reform project. They had provisions for welfare. All these things that seem somewhat attractive but also married to this hyper-nationalism.

Pente: And they’re a workers’ party by name.

Ortiz: Yeah, so there was an attraction there for a lot of workers.

Langer: In the Italian case, Mussolini, in his early years, was a socialist who was not against intervention. That was the big issue against the communists and socialists in 1918 and 1919—the sense that they were against international war, against Italy entering WWI, but they weren’t against class war at home. So then this argument develops that the socialists are the reason Italy lost its nationalist zeal, which undermined the war effort. Mussolini joins in with these violent rural movements. Italy is not an industrialized nation by most accounts, not a nation with a lot of opportunities. And then the movement becomes slowly positioned against both parliamentary democracy and Marxism as a kind of ideal middle way.

Ortiz: It is important to mention that while fascism was cross-class, a good chunk of its supporters were these petite bourgeois. People who felt this imagined—or, in some cases, real—threat of a revolution from the Left.

Pente: And from the people below them.

Ortiz: And they’re the ones to really turn and embrace fascism.

Pente: There is, for these people, a real fear of dispossession. And so, along these same lines, under fascism—or fascism-in-power—what’s the relationship between the state and corporate power?

Ortiz: Corporatism.

Langer: One of the interesting things about Italian fascism is how not totalitarian it could often be. Mussolini set up hundreds of working groups and the bureaucracy was incredible, but in many cases it was state capitalism—state-directed capitalism—with very little disruption of that fact. Which probably helped him stay in power for as long as he did.

Ortiz: Yeah, it’s essentially Big Government partnering with Big Business. In Germany, your Krupps and your armament industries experience huge profit growths because the fascists essentially grant them monopolies. And there’s no worker agitation because class conflict is suppressed. Any type of unions are replaced with fascist unions, which happens in both countries, and they’re unions in name only.

Pente: Most of the union leadership has been imprisoned or killed.

Ortiz: Yeah, exactly. So there’s no avenue for dissent or protest in any way. You’re subjected to long hours and hard work. Now in Germany, most people were probably happy to have a job and get a decent wage. That helped class conflict. But for the most part, it’s a weird partnership between the state and business. And again, this is part of the compromises that fascist movements make between in theory and in power. In theory, they’re criticizing big business and saying “we need to stop these monopolies.” And that’s one of the reasons Hitler gains power: he turns to saying that he is willing to work with big business. The Strasser brothers are purged in the Night of the Long Knives (1934) because they’re in the left wing of the Nazi Party and they oppose certain aspects of working with big business.

Pente: And these industries are already closely aligned with the state, right? So Hitler’s movement must accommodate them? Don’t the industrialists, out of their own hubris, think they can control his movement?

Ortiz: Yes, though I would say it’s less even about controlling as it is about going along with their own self-interest. I think it’s about profits, protecting private property, and keeping the threat from the Left at arm’s length.


Mussolini in shirt and tie for a propaganda photo following the March on Rome (1922). During the actual march, Mussolini remained in his office for fear that the military would arrest or open fire on his Black Shirts; in that event, he had plans to flee to Switzerland. The author extends his thanks to Mike Ortiz for this clarification.

Pente: We’ve touched on this, but is there anything more you want to say about the relationship between fascism and capitalism? The movements tend to be anti-capitalist and in power they tend to accommodate capitalism?

Langer: The novelist Umberto Eco, who wrote “Ur-Fascism” (1995), argues that the screeds against capitalism are really screeds against the Enlightenment, just disguised. It’s a way for the fascists to attack democracy because of how closely the two are linked: “We’ll get rid of democracy and then we’ll direct capitalism in a way that will help.”

Pente: There’s a way in which they’re thinking that they can bring order to the anarchic spirit of competitive capitalism? That they can better direct the resources that capitalism produces from the commanding heights of the state?

Ortiz: When you analyze fascism from the Left, it very much appears as this last gasp of capitalism—hyper-capitalist, hyper-imperialist, grabbing whatever resources are left before this worldwide revolution begins. There’s something to that argument. Capitalism at its highest level in the sense that all the money is flowing into these big businesses and government. Once you get into the war as well, all the resources are flowing back into the center, into Berlin, and you get material deprivation across Europe. Capitalism is such a nebulous concept: three classes, private property, and free markets. Is that it?

Pente: Well, for Marx, the key element is the wage relation.

Ortiz: Well, that too. I don’t know that we need to think of this tie there, that capitalism has been mobilized. I don’t want to draw a straight line between fascism and capitalism.

Langer: I think that to understand fascism, you can’t just get it from a Marxist reading because there’s so much going into fascism that it doesn’t necessarily need capitalism—ideas of nationhood, the rejection of liberal democracy, are ideas that have been around in some form since before capitalism.

Pente: This is almost exclusively a political movement or phenomenon—

Langer: And cultural.

Pente: It doesn’t really have an economic side to it.

Ortiz: No. I think that’s where fascist opportunism is probably most laid bare. Both Mussolini and Hitler had been decrying big business but were so willing to work with big-time capitalists once they gained power. That speaks to how quickly they could just toss aside whatever economic principles they might have had.

Langer: Mussolini was the editor of the socialist paper of record in Italy during WWI. And he leaves because they’re not committed to nationalism. Within three or four years (depending on how you count it), he is in charge in Rome and has cast off pretty much all of his socialist leanings in favor of fascism.

Pente: And fascism as a term comes out of the Italian context.

Langer: Yes. “Fasci” is the bundle of rods. It comes from the rod and axe that were carried in front of ancient Roman politicians, denoting that they had the power of life and punishment.

Ortiz: If I’m recalling correctly, it was first used in the 1890s by Sicilian peasants. The fasces are universal in some sense—it’s actually in the House of Representatives in the United States.

Langer: And Abraham Lincoln has his hand on fasces in the Lincoln Memorial. They’re a universal symbol of the state’s power to kill and punish. A reminder that the state has a monopoly on violence.

lincoln memorial

The statue in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. The fasces (bundles of rods) stand upright on either side of Lincoln’s seated form. The fasci represent the state’s power over life, death, and punishment.

Pente: And then the term is just sort of applied haphazardly to similar movements?

Langer: It starts under Mussolini as Fasci Italiani di combattimento, the Italian fasci of combat.

Ortiz: And the ‘ism’ is to give it the credence of a movement. Mussolini didn’t want to make it a party because by definition political parties exclude or alienate certain elements of society.

Pente: And fascists aim to transcend political parties.

Langer: This gets back to the original question of definitions, which we shied away from. There’s the other question of whether fascism is totalitarian in nature. Italian fascism wasn’t particularly totalitarian. There wasn’t a Ministry for Culture, for example, like there was in Nazi Germany.

Ortiz: I would push back on that. I wouldn’t say that it was necessarily as totalitarian as we think in Germany. I think the term totalitarian was politically motivated and used in the Cold War context to try to associate America’s old enemy, the Nazis, with America’s current enemy, the Soviets. So I think the Americans were looking for some kind of ideological precept to unite the Nazis and the Soviets. They came up with these regimes that in addition to trying to control your public behavior sought to control your private behavior. In both cases, historical studies suggest this was not necessarily true. The Gestapo is not nearly as ubiquitous as we tend to imagine. They weren’t able to condition citizens as much as we think. About 95% of the German population at the time was considered Aryan or at least Aryan-related or part of the chosen, part of this “German nation.’” So there wasn’t really a need for the Gestapo to police internal thoughts because people were constantly being told “you’re great, you’re wonderful.” It’s easy to buy into that. They’re not necessarily this ever-present apparatus that’s trying to police in the way that we traditionally think about them. It’s a similar case with the Soviet Union.

Pente: There’s a way in which ideology does more of the heavy lifting than brute coercion.

—End of Part One—

Read Part Two here: https://erstwhileblog.com/2018/02/21/fascism-2-origins/


6 thoughts on “Historicizing Fascism, Part 1: Definitions

  1. Pingback: Historicizing Fascism, Part 3: The Present | Erstwhile: A History Blog

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  4. This really is fascinating and informative. The proper grown-up version of stuff I vaguely studied at school, and then some. But something rather surprising struck me when reading your precis of Mann, and this thought kept returning with various things you said later (how fascists often stress the need for further revolution after taking power, the willingness to ally with “capitalism”)… the Communist Party of China is essentially fascist. It fits all four of Mann’s characteristics, with the present exeption of number four (a significant paramilitary force exists [the “People’s Armed Police” or 武警] but is currently very disciplined; however, plenty of thuggish violence from below has been encouraged during the CCP’s tenure), and plenty of the subsequent observations, too. Parsing the subtleties and complexities of the CCP’s shifting rhetoric, self-presentation and actual grip on power, hearts and minds is of course a vast topic that a tiny comment cannot do justice to, but it was striking just how my observation of it resonated with what you describe here. And not just the ruling party — plenty of online sentiment, here, too.

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