The Ultimate Definition

Dear Reader,

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?
II. Avoiding Fascism
III. Fascist FAQ

I.  What is Fascism?

A. Scholarly Definitions 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:  

 “Fascism is the pursuit of a transcendent and cleansing nation-statism through paramilitarism.”  (Mann, op. cit., p. 13)

 Definition of terms:

·        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:Traditional nationalism holds that the common good can best be realized through the inherent unity of a population with distinct linguistic, physical, or cultural characteristics, and its identification with a nation-state. This form of nationalism is benign, as the Swiss and Danes illustrate. Malignant nationalism holds that the nation possesses special attributes that make it superior to other nations in most or all ways. This form is potentially dangerous, and became so in fascist states.

·        Paramilitarism: "Grass roots", populist squadrism aimed at coercing opponents and obtaining popular approbation by acting as a supplementary police force.

 2.      Robert O. Paxton

Robert Paxton is an American historian and emeritus professor of history at Columbia University.  In his book The Anatomy of Fascism (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004) he develops the following definition:

 “Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a massed-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external explansion.”  (Paxton, op. cit., p. 218)

 3.      R.J.B. Bosworth

Bosworth is professor of history at the University of Western Australia and has been a Visiting Fellow at Columbia, Cambridge, Oxford, and Trento Universities.  In his book Mussolini’s Italy: Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship, 1915-1945 (Penguin Press, 2006) he reviews the definitions of Mann and Paxton, with some approbation and some criticism.  Regarding Paxton he points out, for example, that the Italian Fascist regime, once in power, left the court system largely intact, provided a good measure of due process, never established anything close to a gulag, and accommodated the church – hardly things that indicate it was “without ethical or legal restraints”.   Regarding Mann, he disputes the notion that Italian Fascism “killed democracy” by observing (rightly) that pre-Fascist Italy was not a democracy anyway, and questions the importance of ideological “transcendence”.  Bosworth avoids a succinct definition of Fascism for reasons he himself summarizes as follows:

 “…it might be argued that the quest for definition of fascism has become absurdly laboured. Why opt for a long list of factors or paragraph of rococo ornateness when Mussolini, on a number of occasions, informed people he regarded as converted to his cause that Fascism was a simple matter?  All that was needed was a single party, a dopolavoro [“after work”, a social leisure time organization], and, he did not have to add, a Duce (with a Bocchini to repress dissent) and a will to exclude the foe (somehow defined).  To be still more succinct, as Mussolini told Franco in October 1936, what the Spaniard should aim at was a regime that was simultaneously ‘authoritarian’, ‘social’, and ‘popular’.  That amalgam, the Duce advised, was the basis of universal fascism.”  (Bosworth, op. cit., p. 564.)

 4.      Conflation

 a. Elements deemed essential by all authors

All three authors agree that statism, nationalism , unity, authoritarianism, and vigor are essential elements of fascism. 

 b. Elements deemed non-essential by all authors

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. Jews, indeed, were disproportionately likely to be party members: it is estimated that in the early 30's, 25% of adult Jews were Fascist party members, compared to about 10% for the entire adult population.  And then of course there was Mussolini's Jewish mistress Margherita Sarfatti.   In Germany, anti-Semitism was intentionally downplayed by the Nazis during their ascendant phase because many voters found it offensive.  

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:

                                               i.            Charismatic leadership.  Mann tends to assign this attribute lesser weight because his analysis includes fascist movements (in Romania, Hungary, Austria, Spain, and Greece) where charismatic leadership was not an essential element. 

                                             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. 

5.      Synthesis and Extension: The Ultimate Definition  of Fascism

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.   

 “Fascism is a form of political and social behavior that arises when the middle class, finding its hopes frustrated by economic instability coupled with political polarization and deadlock, abandons traditional ideologies and turns, with the approbation of police and military forces, to a poorly-defined but emotionally appealing soteriology of national unity, immediate and direct resolution of problems, and intolerance for dissent.” (Chuck Anesi, 2008)

 Cause and Effect Diagram for European Fascism

a. Middle Class.  In the United States, the term “middle class” as used here includes the high prole, lower middle, middle, and part of the upper middle classes.  Americans generally think themselves one class higher than they actually are.  To paraphrase Crane Brinton’s Anatomy of Revolution, the lower classes have their peasant revolts, the upper classes have their palace coups, but the middle classes make revolutions.   

 b. Economic Instability.   Economic instability played a prominent role in the rise of fascism wherever it was successful,  and was more perilous to the middle classes than to the lower classes (who had little to lose) or the upper classes (who were insulated from its effects).  Demographic analyses of fascist party membership (Mann, op. cit.) shows quite clearly that members were on the whole younger and better educated than population means – precisely those who would be most likely to have their opportunities blocked by economic instability.

 c. Polarization and Deadlock.  In all cases where fascism was successful, its rise was preceded by a period of political polarization and parliamentary deadlock.  In Italy, forming a stable parliamentary majority had proved impossible since 1919, and making Mussolini Prime Minister in October 1922 offered a convenient way to break the deadlock.  The celebrated “March on Rome” could have been easily resisted by the government (and in fact most fascists on their way to Rome were prevented from reaching it by police forces), but it offered a handy excuse for Victor Emmanuel II to invite Mussolini into the government.   In Germany, it had been impossible to form a parliamentary majority from March 1930 until Hitler’s appointment as chancellor; Hindenburg had been ruling with emergency powers article 48 of the German constitution until the appointment of Hitler as chancellor in January 1933 allowed formation of a conservative majority government.    Ironically, the failure of leftists to compromise and work with centrists was a major enabler for the rise of fascism in both Italy and Germany.

 d. Abandonment of Traditional Ideologies.  To paraphrase Thomas (not Michael) Mann, World War I  fired the mine beneath the Magic Mountain of pre-war Europe when the Enlightenment heritage of individual rights, progress, and equality collapsed into unprecedented carnage.  The war left the victors exhausted and demoralized, the losers angry and resentful, and everyone wondering what went wrong. 

 The victors applied a policy of self-determination to reduce the level of ethnic strife by rationalizing borders and creating homelands for the various “races” (speech and culture groups) of Europe.  This scheme failed to reduce tensions for four reasons.  (1) regional heterogeneity made it impossible to create ethnically pure states; (2) the desire to weaken the former Central Powers led to violations of the policy -- placement of large German populations in the new nations of Czechoslovakia and Poland, and large Hungarian populations in Romania and Czechoslovakia; (3) the policy was at odds with the natural desire of the victors for territorial booty, and failed to reward Italy with any significant territorial gain (the South Tyrol not being significant in the Italian view); and (4) the policy promoted aggressive nationalism. 

 The war was also followed by sharp though brief economic recessions and, in some countries, by hyperinflation.

 Given all this, it is not hard to see why many authors have seen World War I as the primary “cause” of fascism.  Enlightenment liberalism had failed to prevent a huge blood bath, created a peace that nobody was happy with, and wrecked the economy.  New ideas, many thought, were needed. 

 e. Approbation of Police and Military Forces.  The police and military forces are responsible for execising the state’s monopoly on violence to maintain order and defend the state.  They are highly organized and skillful at what they do, and respect competence and efficiency.  They will not long respect a government that is incompetent and inefficient.  

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. 

 f. Poorly-defined.   Fascist ideology was vague and protean.  This is a source of endless frustration to those who expect to find a coherent definition of fascism in the the writings of party “philosophers”.   But it reflects nothing more than fascism’s pragmatic approach to attaining its goals and its unwillingness to be bound (like its predecessors) to failed dogmas.  Like all popular movements, fascism tried to encapsulate ideology in terse slogans – “Believe, Obey, Fight”,  “Strength through joy”, “Work makes you free.”   

 g. Emotionally appealing.  It is commonly observed that fascism was more a matter of the gut than of the head.  Clearly those who joined fascist parties often did so from shrewd self-interest, but the same could be said of those who join any party.  It was the emotional appeal of fascism – the notion that through sheer hope and force of will difficult and long-standing problems could easily be resolved – that set it apart.   Triumph of the Will. This idea of course was not new and is still popular.  The New Age doctrine of “Manifesting” holds that ideas firmly held will become reality.  This doctrine appears in many forms – e.g. “The Power of Positive Thinking”, “The Law of Attraction”, “Change You can Believe in”.   In its weak form it holds merely that positive thinking is more likely to achieve a result than negative thinking.  Generally this form is harmless and often productive.  In its strong form, it holds that positive thinking will in fact produce the intended result.  In this form it is indistinguishable from magic.

 h. Soteriology of national unity, immediate and direct resolution of problems, and intolerance for dissent. 

 i.                   National unity.  This was a fixed core goal of fascism.  It held that social conflict could be transcended through service to the nation-state as the embodiment of the will of the people.   With all serving the same master, internal conflict would disappear and the people (with certain out-groups excluded of course) would achieve their destiny. 

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.    


B. Amateur Definitions of Fascism

Brief reference must be made to definitions of fascism offered in popular works intended for the mass market,    typically lists of attributes deemed to be essential characteristics of fascism.  Invariably these lists include attributes often found in non-fascist states; include attributes not found in all fascist states; and fail to distinguish fascism from simple authoritarianism, if indeed the authors even understand that distinction.  Examples of authors offering these trivial analyses include Naomi Wolf, Lawrence Britt, Umberto Eco, and others.  (I very much like Umberto Eco’s fiction but don't think he put enough time into his analysis of fascism. Too close to it from the experiences of his childhood, perhaps.)

II. Avoiding Fascism

A. Maintain Order

Ensure that the people are secure in possession of their lives, liberty, and property.   Locke had this one right.  And as Jefferson observed, a government that does not ensure these things should be overthrown.  Until a government can ensure a high degree of public order it has no business doing anything else.  Pursuit of other objectives, however worthy,  while public order is lacking will bring the government into contempt and require the people to seek security from vigilante and squadrist organizations.  At that point the government is seen as a useless hindrance and fascism is imminent.

B. Compromise

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.


C. Remember that Law is Violence, and Use it Sparingly

Amateur 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 Italy, where the judicial machinery was largely untouched.   But of course procedural due process and equal application of laws are useless if used to enforce unjust laws. Persons convicted under U.S. miscegnation laws (up to 1967, amazingly) were treated equally, white or black, and given due process, but nobody would argue that they received justice. People who babble about the "rule of law" are often too stupid to appreciate this fact, foolishly thinking that current state of substantive law must be slavishy revered.

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. In sum: if you don't have a coherent basis for assessing whether a law is just or unjust -- which practically nobody in any legislature in the United States does -- then best to do nothing. 

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.   

 III. Fascist FAQ

A. Scope 

This section addresses various questions received in emails, usually from readers who have read amateur definitions of fascism.

 B. Didn't Mussolini  say  Fascism was "rule by corporations"?

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 use 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.

C. Can fascism be defined as radical anti-communism?

I  guess,  if  you want to define  Bolshevism as "radical anti-capitalism".   Seem like pretty impoverished definitions to me.

D. Why is your style irregular in its capitalization of "fascism"?

When used in reference to Italian Fascism the word is a proper noun.  Otherwise it is not.   

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