Some 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?
A. Scholarly DefinitionsII. Avoiding Fascism
III. Fascist FAQ
B. Didn't Mussolini say Fascism was "rule by corporations"?
C. Can fascism be defined as radical anti-communism?
D. Why is your style irregular in its capitalization 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:
· 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: Belief in the inherent unity of a population with distinct linguistic, physical, or cultural characteristics and its identification with a nation-state. Belief that the nation possesses special attributes that make it superior to other nations in some or all ways.
· Paramilitarism: "Grass roots", populist squadrism aimed at coercing opponents and obtaining popular approbation by acting as a supplementary police force.
Robert Paxton is an American
historian and emeritus professor of history at
Bosworth is professor of history
All three authors agree that statism, nationalism , unity, authoritarianism, and vigor are essential elements of fascism.
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, and indeed many Jews were party members. And then of course there was Mussolini's Jewish mistress Margherita Sarfatti. In
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
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.
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.
a. Middle Class. In the
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.
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.
(a) Shopkeeper sells wine to children. Fascist thugs beat up shopkeeper.
(b) Shopkeeper sells wine to children. He has bribed the police and nothing happens.
(c) Shopkeeper sells wine to children. He has bribed the judge and his case is dismissed.
(d) Shopkeeper sells wine to children. The police arrest him, and he is promptly fined and imprisoned.
(e) Shopkeeper 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.
Brief reference must be made to definitions of fascism offered in
popular works intended for the mass market.
These “definitions” are typically lists of attributes deemed to be
essential characteristics of fascism. Invariably
these lists contain attributes that are often found in non-fascist states, and the
authors fail to distinguish fascism from simple
authoritarianism, if indeed they even understand that distinction. Examples of authors offering these trivial analyses include Naomi Wolf,
Ensure that the people are secure in possession of their lives,
liberty, and property. Locke had this one right. And as
The major impediment to maintaining public order in the
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.
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
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.
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. This of course is one reason the U.S. House and Senate are held in such low esteem – they are seen, with some accuracy, as a collection of ignorant, cowardly windbags hiding behind the state’s monopoly on violence. (This may seem harsh, but no reasonable person viewing the Congress of the United States in 2009 could possibly disagree with it.)
This section addresses various questions received in emails, usually from readers who have read amateur definitions of fascism.
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)
Thus, when 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 usage of the term.
This 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 criticism.
I guess, if you want to define Bolshevism as "radical anti-capitalism". Seem like pretty impoverished definitions to me.
When used in reference to Italian Fascism the word is a proper noun. Otherwise it is not.