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Mussolini invented the name fascism for the regime he inaugurated in Italy after World War I. Hitler subsequently adopted it for his Nazi movement, and similar militaristic and reform movements in other countries are often called fascist, too. A core fascist idea was that national interests ought to override everything else; and that war or preparation for war was essential for national survival.
What is fascism? That is a question that has been debated since its appearance in the turbulent years following World War I. Defining what fascism is and, just as importantly, what it is not is crucial not only for understanding movements that appeared in the twentieth century, but also those that may arise in the twenty-first.
It is a common mistake to label any tyrannical, or seemingly tyrannical, political entity or individual as fascist. This applies both to premodern dictatorships and to more recent military dictatorships, which, while they may be authoritarian and oppressive, are not fascist. For while the few fascist movements that actually achieved power, such as in Italy and Germany, have been more or less tyrannical, most of the world’s tyrants have not been fascists, for they do not adhere to the core beliefs of the true fascists, such as a strident antiliberalism, anticonservatism, and especially anticommunism.
A more difficult delineation can be made between fascist movements and authoritarian regimes. The concern of authoritarians is to create a strong and stable nation and they usually do not alter society in any appreciable way. While these governments may espouse some tenets of fascism, such as anticommunism, they generally leave traditional elite structures—powerful regional families, church officials, military leaders, and entrenched economic cartels—in place. Authoritarian governments rule over a largely passive or, perhaps more correctly, pacified populace, but they do not try to reshape those masses into instruments of radical social change. True fascist movements on the other hand attempt to energize and mobilize the masses in an effort to restructure and refashion society along specific ideological lines. The historian Robert O. Paxton (2004) has argued, and this is sure to be contested, that Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, and Peron’s Argentina, while ruling in an authoritarian manner, never envisioned nor attempted to create a new order, a world radically transformed through “redemptive violence.”
The Emergence of Fascism
The word “fascism” is rooted in the Latin fascis (“bundle,”) and the fasces, an ax girdled by a bundle of rods that was carried before the magistrates in ancient Rome. The fasces symbolized both unity and authority as achieved through the absolute rule of law. Benito Mussolini (1883–1945), an Italian socialist turned rabid nationalist by World War I, employed the term fascismo to express the sentiments of those who united in support for the Italian war effort and subsequently rejected those socialists and communists who, as internationalists, opposed it. Mussolini eventually formed a movement he termed the Fasci di Combattimento (Combat Group), to promote what was variously termed national syndicalism, national corporatism, or national socialism (a term that was bandied about Europe after World War I and used most notably by the German National Socialist or Nazi movement).
This “Third Way,” as many supporters called the path of fascism, hoped to combine the passionate nationalism of traditional conservative elites (while at the same time rejecting aristocratic hierarchies in favor of a meritocracy founded on strong male leadership) with a socialism based not on class conflict, but on a cooperation of classes that would result not only in more equitable economic distribution, but in a more unified and powerful nation. The fascists hoped to create a new order, a transformed world that eliminated or at least ameliorated what they saw as negative aspects of modernity, such as capitalism and its attendant consumerism (understood as wanton materialism), feminism (understood as an unnatural rejection of male supremacy), liberalism, and especially communism (understood as leading to an equally unnatural social leveling that allowed mediocrity to rise to the heights of power). This rejection of the “corrupting” influences of modernity led many Christian clerics to support various fascist movements around Europe (Feldman 2008). Since Mussolini’s fascist movement was the first to achieve power and notoriety, the term fascism was quickly picked up by, or attached to, a number of similarly focused groups that emerged in the following decades throughout Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa, and elsewhere.
Fascism as a Response to Modernization
The fascist rejection of prominent aspects of the modern world led some contemporaries and later scholars to see the movement as a reactionary rejection of modernity. Consequently opponents argued that fascism was an antimodern triumph of barbarity and irrationality—little more than nihilism empowered. But such a view is at best only partially accurate. A closer look at the interrelationship of fascism, modernization, and modernity is warranted.
Modernization is a process of rapid change rooted originally in the Industrial Revolution. The many changes wrought by industrialization radically altered traditional political, social, and economic structures and patterns of behavior. For instance, urbanization and the resultant migrations of people from rural areas to cities changed patterns of work, which in turned changed traditional familial and gender relationships, often experienced against a backdrop of shockingly new cultural forms in art, music, and literature. All this change, often occurring rapidly, generated a strikingly new culture that was a tenuous fusion of remaining elements of the traditional preindustrial culture and the new industrial world. It is this fused culture that we call modernity.
While modernization originally began in western Europe and the United States, the process quickly began occurring in other parts of the world, first generated by Western imperialism, but later through indigenous efforts to modernize traditional political, social, and especially economic structures. Although modernization as a process is fairly uniform, the traditional cultures around the world that have been and are being affected are myriad. Therefore the modernity that results from the fusion of traditional preindustrial and industrial societies will be different each place modernization occurs. It is best then to speak of multiple and culturally varied expressions of modernity.
Fascism is most likely to arise in those places where the delicate negotiation between traditional and modern elements breaks down. In other words, fascism tends to emerge where modernity fails. The fascist rejection of elements of modernity, such as unchecked capitalism, liberalism, communism, and feminism, is more than simply antimodernism. Indeed most fascist movements embraced modern technology, such as radio, film, amplified sound, planes, and automobiles, as a means not simply to return the nation to its preindustrial culture, but to transform the new industrial world into something different. Fascists are not simply rejecting modernity, but attempting to create an alternate modernity (Griffin 2007).
Core Myths and Mobilizing Passions
Recent scholarship has taken a closer look at how the fascists interpreted the modernity they lived in, and how they envisioned the alternate modernity they hoped to create. The historian Roger Griffin (in The Nature of Facism 1993) and Paxton (2004), while disagreeing on many issues, both see important similarities in what they term respectively the core myths or mobilizing passions of the fascists. These central beliefs impelled the creation of the movements, shaped their development, and mobilized the masses that supported them.
The fascists believed that the modernity they lived in was decadent and degenerate. It was in a state of extreme crisis approaching apocalyptic proportions. The nation, in fact the world, had reached a historic turning point, a time of apocalypse or salvation. The degenerative forces of modernization were often associated with what was variously termed Westernization or Americanization (meaning materialism or consumerism, female liberation, indecent art and music) and, in the case of Nazism, localized primarily in the imaginary machinations of the Jews. Cleansing the nation of those degenerating forces would lead to a rebirth of the nation and indeed, a regeneration of the world. The fascists saw themselves as a chosen elite under the command of a leader to whom they were attached with near messianic devotion (Kallis 2008). The leader and the led believed they had a mission to purify modernity, often through violence that was conceived as a redemptive. The nation resurrected and the world saved, the fascists hoped to usher in a new age, an alternate modernity that would combine desired aspects of an often mythologized glorious preindustrial culture with elements of the industrial world that were desired (such as the energy of the accelerated pace of urban life, which, if properly channeled, could transform the industrial masses from a chaotic horde into a unified, mobilized, and redirected community). The fascist conception of rebirth therefore is as future-oriented as it is backward-looking, combining the myth of the golden age with the myth of the emerging new age.
The Italian scholar Emilio Gentile (1996) called this use of myth a “sacralization of politics,” and argues that fascism is a form of political religion. However, it can be counterargued that fascism also includes a secularization of millennialism, as the core myth detailed above is clearly apocalyptic, millennial, and messianic. This is certainly the case with Nazism, a movement that was interpreted by its followers as being a spiritual response to a spiritual crisis of apocalyptic proportions. They believed their leader was sent by God to save not only Germany, but also the world (Redles 2005). Millennialism itself is but one possible response to rapid and radical change brought on by any number of converging catalysts, the forces of modernization being but one. Seen in this light fascism may be a modern variant of millennialism, secularized in some cases, still sacred in others. Most likely it is a fusion of both the secular and the sacred, since fascism, like the modernity it responds to, is a hybridized phenomenon.
The Future of Fascism
When communism fell in the late 1980s, many Eastern European countries were challenged by sudden entry into free market economies, loss of welfare safety nets, and the rapid influx of Western and especially American culture. All this rapid change was accompanied by an increase in organized crime and a proliferation of prostitution and even sexual slavery. Not surprisingly, the 1990s and the dawn of the new century have seen the appearance of fascist or at least neofascist movements in former Soviet bloc countries like Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Slovenia and in the Balkans, as well as in the Soviet successor states Russia and Ukraine (Fenner 2004).
Western Europe, however, has not been immune from neofascist or populist movements, as socialist welfare systems struggle under an aging population and increased use of immigrant labor that has generated intense resentment amongst indigenous workforces. Moreover, one can argue that the shift from industrial to postindustrial economies creates a new variation of modernity, as societies create a new cultural fusion of former industrial society with the emerging new postindustrial culture. Where this new modernity struggles to develop, fascist-oriented movements may continue to arise.
The United States, while it has never seen a single fascist movement with broad populace support, has had numerous right-wing movements that overlapped with fascism in both ideology and practice, such as the Aryan Nations of Christ and even the Ku Klux Klan (Berlet 2000). Many of these movements have had a strong evangelical Christian core, interpreting modern America as culturally decadent and morally bankrupt, and further believing that the country is both the seat of the coming New Jerusalem and a battleground with those liberal forces they believe are threatening apocalypse. The millennial core shared with fascism is clearly there, as is the rejection of modernity and the desire to create an alternate Christian modernity, a new America cleansed of ungodly materialism, liberalism, and Hollywood degeneracy. Most scholars believe, however, that a profound political crisis, unlike any seen in U.S. history, would be necessary to take such Christian fascism from the margins to the mainstream.
The failed modernity that has occurred in much of the Middle East (western Asia) and Indonesia, and the subsequent rise of radical Islamic militancy, has led some to interpret events like the Iranian revolution of 1979, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, and the rise of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization as forms of Islamic fascism. Contrary to traditional fascist movements, Islamic fascists hope to resurrect, not a strong, unified nation, but a purified multinational caliphate. However, unlike actual historical caliphates, which were often models of pluralism and religious tolerance, the new Islamic fascists hope to cleanse their countries of all degenerate influences. Like earlier fascists, the degenerate forces of modernity are usually associated with the West in general, the United States in particular, and quite often projected upon the Jews of Israel. The Islamic fascists also share with other fascists an overly militarized culture that favors male dominance as being both natural and divinely inspired. The emphasis on the control or protection of women is rooted less in Islamic religion than it is in a rejection of the so-called corrupting influences of modernity. Women therefore become pawns in a game between an imagined coming purified caliphate and the corrupt modern world. Much more research, however, needs to be done to ascertain if movements such as those that arose in Afghanistan or Iran are truly a form of clerical fascism, or simply religious tyrannies that share with fascism a rejection of modernity and employ a similar symbolic vocabulary.
If we see in fascism one possible response to the rapid and radical change brought on by modernization, and if we further see modernization as an ongoing and never-ending process, then we can expect fascist movements to continue to arise. Fascism then, unfortunately, may still have a future.
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