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Definitions of Fascism
Fascism is a political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition. Michael Mann, the author of Fascists, says fascists embrace the nation-state. Racial homogeneity is the basis of the nation where the people rule and such rule may entail the violent exclusion of minority ethnic groups up to ethnic cleansing or genocide. More powerful modern states accompany fascism as they become governed by authoritarian regimes than cleanse minorities and opponents from the nation. The violent purification of the fascist state comes from above and below. Radical paramilitary movements or citizen armies serve their fascist nations. Sources of power that make fascism possible are ideological, economic, military, and political. Fascism, says Mann, is the pursuit of a transcendent and cleansing nation-statism through paramilitarism.
Author George L. Mosse found fascism in the specious ideal of popular sovereignty as expressed by the Enlightenment philosopher Rousseau whereby the leader expressed the “general will” of the people and manifested a new secular religion, that is, social control over the masses through official ceremonies. festivals, and imagery. Totalitarianism began in the modern era with the French Revolution. Rousseau’s “general will” was an exaltation of the people bent by the Jacobins into a dictatorship in which the people worshiped themselves through public festivals and symbols, “the goddess of reason.”
The Development of Fascist Ideology
After 1900, revolutionary syndicalists began deviating from more orthodox Marxists. Georges Sorel, Mussolini’s mentor, wrote Reflexions sur la violence, 1904-10, which provides an alternate view of morality and history. Morality does not automatically ensue from the unfolding of history, rather it is won in conflict through individual and collective effort. Virtue results from mortal challenge, won by groups in fatal contention. Collective virtue is the consequence of the spontaneous acceptance of a set of principles by the members of a community, living in peril, led by heroes in epic battle against decadence and moral cowardice. Sorel inhabits a Manichaean world in which the forces of light find themselves forever in mortal combat with those of darkness.
Fascism made common cause with the most radical youth movement of the period: F. T. Marinetti’s Futurism, which provided a special political style that could be employed only by a political elite knowledgeable about the non-rationality of mass man. A self-selected cadre of professional revolutionaries had the historic responsibility for a hierarchically organized mass movement. Classical Marxism seemed unable to provide a competent explanation for the failure of the proletariat to discharge its revolutionary obligation. Both Georges Sorel and Roberto Michels were termed “revolutionary Marxists” and insisted Marxism needed supplementation with more adequate assessments of human motivation and organization if the problems of the non-revolutionary proletariat and, ultimately the influence of nationalism on the political mobilization of men were to be satisfactorily managed. “Italian radicalism,” according to A. J. Gregor was the new revision or modification of the Marxist movement in Italy. The new idea was the influence of non-rational stimuli to render the proletariat non-revolutionary.
Gregor maintains that the substance of Fascist thought derives from relatively specific sociological and philosophical traditions largely in response to Marx and Engels during the last quarter of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, described as “the anti-individualist sociological tradition” popular in antebellum Italy. Mussolini insisted, along with Wilfredo Pareto, Michels, and Sorel, that revolution involved both the calculation of the material interests of men and classes and the invocation of sentiment as well. Mussolini read Le Bon’s Psychology of Crowds and was enormously impressed. Le Bon and Pareto sought to explain mass behavior with mass mobilization as a central concern.
By 1904, Mussolini was addressing himself to a proletariat elite, a conscious and aggressive minority that was to serve as a vanguard of the revolution. Mussolini, Pareto, and Michels were convinced that revolutions are initiated by vanguard elites, elites that serve to mobilize the sentiments of the masses in the service of the revolution. Mussolini, by exploiting the sentiments of solidarity, marshaled individuals into “communities of consanguinity, territory, economic interest, and intellectual affinity” to become the motive force of change. Thus, individual men are mobilized to bring about revolution. Pareto’s Socialist Systems, including his ‘theory of elites’ seems to have been a core source. Mussolini came to believe men were animated by a moral articulated by directive elites and accepted by passive majorities. The elite minority of men were gifted with the capacity to mobilize the ‘torpid consciousness’ of the majority to respond to their true interests. Socialists were enjoined to constitute themselves a vigilant and combative vanguard, in order to compel the masses never to lose sight of their true goals.
Roberto Michels wrote in Cooperation, “modern economic man exists only insofar as he is a member of an aggregate,” a conviction which Mussolini insisted “demolished that individualism which has been now reduced to a theory entertained only by literateurs on holiday.” A sustained recognition is necessary so that one moral order must intransigently oppose another. Sorel emphasized animating myths to motivate the masses. Historic myths are those symbolic and linguistic artifacts that elites use to lead responsive masses by reshaping political and social commitments. Myths serve to define the moral universe in which men, individually and collectively must operate. Men function as moral agents, members of an association with solidarity, an in-group, as opposed to an out-group. The ultimate test and measure of group cohesion is the readiness to suffer and employ violence.
In November 1912, the Marxist unity of the world’s workers was affirmed at the Congress of 2nd International in Basel, Switzerland. The Congress solemnly declared: “workers consider a crime to shoot each other for the increase of profits of capitalists, dynasties’ ambitions or for the glory of secret diplomacy agreements.” This unanimously adopted manifesto called for the proletariat to gather all efforts to avert a bloody war, but it failed.
World War I
The actual manifestation of fascism as a political movement and/or party resulted from its surpassing parliamentary democracy in mobilizing the masses in the crises during and after World War I. World War I debunked idealizations about an international brotherhood of workingmen united against the depredations of an international capitalist cabal. The two most urgent problems Marx and Engels left to their heirs were: (1) the matter of the non-revolutionary proletariat; (2) the entire issue of nationalism and its role in the revolutionary mobilization of men. Both problems were unanticipated or unresolved in the well-standardized theoretical system developed by Marx. The men who were to become Fascist ideologues, Mussolini and others, responded specifically to these problems. Influenced by syndicalists, Mussolini interpreted mass mobilization and organization as extending beyond rational economic concerns.
As World War I began, they defended the imperialist policies of their own bourgeois governments. In the early days of WWI, in August 1914, Mussolini claimed the Second International of socialists had failed in the face of the crisis. European Marxists had opted to defend their respective bourgeois nations against the bourgeois of other nations. The socialists of the International were bereft of a uniform and specifically doctrinal response. By and large, each nation’s socialist political organization tended to support its respective government. None of the major socialist organizations chose to martyr their own country on the altar of Marxist principles. The orthodox Marxist position was for the international proletariat to unite against the bourgeois nations wanting to use laborers as cannon fodder in their imperialist wars. Instead, masses of men caught war fervor. The parliamentary contingent of Germany’s Social Democratic Party voted, almost to the man, for the Kaiser’s war credits. The German proletariat volunteered for war service. The Socialist Party of Italy took an official stand of absolute neutrality. The war was a brigand’s war, one between capitalists, therefore the proletariat would not shed Italian blood for the capitalist class. Nevertheless, the impact of national loyalties caused European socialism to disintegrate. Socialists from France, Germany, and Russia volunteered for military service. Radical syndicalists in Italy decided to serve their nation in war. On Oct. 5, 1914, they issued the Manifesto del Fascio Rivoluzionario d’Azione internazionale to demand their nation’s entry into the War. Initially an orthodox internationalist, Mussolini gradually changed his mind, concluding that the socialists who refused to recognize the reality of the problem of national sentiment were “blind and dogmatic”. His call for a reassessment of the party’s position on the war led to his expulsion from the party. By November 1914 Mussolini addressed the Socialist Party, noting their failure to examine national problems. The Socialist International never effectively occupied itself with such issues and consequently died. The nation, Mussolini realized, represents a stage of human development yet to be transcended. The most resolute and active men were animated by national rather than class sentiments. War taught revolutionaries that an international class could hardly serve as the primary object of loyalty for men. The “international working class” was simply too large, shapeless, and meaningless a community with which men could identify. The power of the new ideology, Fascism, was intimately connected to the comparable lack of power of revolutionary socialism, i.e., Marxism.
Interventionalism, the participation in World War I in deference to one’s nationality, provided the watershed for all the currents that were ultimately to coalesce in the political form of Fascism. Fascists baptized national syndicalism, a synthesis anticipated by Michels, Sorel, and Corradini. Italy as a whole was an exploited community. Just as socialists had insisted the workers had been exploited, Italy was exploited by plutocratic nations that used every bourgeois device to deny the nation its equitable share of the world’s resources.
Postwar Origins of Fascism in Germany
Postwar civil unrest in Germany resulted in Bavaria’s creation of two briefly existing socialist states, the People’s State of Bavaria and the Bavarian Soviet Republic, from November 1918 to May 1919. These states were denigrated as “Red Bavaria, fomenting in the Bavarian people a hatred of left-wing rule. They saw the period in which these two states existed as one of privation, shortages, censorship, impediments to freedom, chaos, and disorder. These feelings were then constantly to be reinforced by right-wing propaganda not only in Bavaria but throughout the Reich, where “Red Bavaria” was held up as an object lesson in the horrors of Socialism and Communism. In this way, the radical right was able to provoke and feed the fears of the peasants and the middle class. The separate strands of Bavarian right-wing extremism found a common enemy in despising the Left, and Bavaria became profoundly “reactionary, anti-Republican, and counter-revolutionary.” Here we have the basis of Germany’s Fascism or National Socialism of Adolf Hitler who came to power in 1933. The bad blood between Germany’s Communist Party and Social Democratic Party allowed the Nazi Party to grow and ultimately take power. The Communists blamed Social Democrats as betrayers of the international socialist revolution while the Social Democrats saw the Communists as subordinate to Russia’s Bolsheviks. Only a parliamentary coalition of the KPD and SPD could have prevented the Nazis from coming to power. Even at the height of their influence in the Reichstag, they would not have had enough delegates to resist such a coalition. Clearly, the splitting of Marxists by the nationalist impetus of World War I created a new oppositional polarity for Fascism to take root. The new Fascists had answers that the “old socialists” did not.
Fascists by Michael Mann
Masses and Man: Nationalist and Fascist Perceptions of Reality by George L. Mosse
The Fascist Persuasion In Radical Politics by A. James Gregor
Fascism, Totalitarianism, and Political Religion by Roger Griffin
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.