What Is Fascism?
A century of attempts to define and whitewash Fascism
Are you confused about the meaning of Fascism? If so, you're not alone. Benito Mussolini, the creator of Fascism, famously did not define it until 1932. With Nazis once again making news in America and a neo-Fascist as Italian head of state, I thought it was a good time to offer you an excerpt of an essay I wrote for a German publication on how the meaning of Fascism has changed over a century. I hope you find it useful.
“Everyone is sure they know what Fascism is,” writes Robert Paxton in his 2004 work The Anatomy of Fascism. Paxton gives perhaps the most comprehensive definition I have found, collapsing into one very long sentence many traits of Fascism:
“Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-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 expansion.”
The Jan. 6 coup attempt changed Paxton's mind about whether Donald Trump and Trumpism can be called Fascist. That brought Paxton into line with scholars such as Jason Stanley, who deems Fascism “a political method” that can appear anytime, anywhere, if conditions are right. This line of thought risks emptying the term of its historical specificity but is essential for understanding our new authoritarian age and the risks we face in America today.
The Fascist Years (1922-1945)
“Does Fascism aim at restoring the State, or subverting it?” Mussolini teased his followers before the 1922 March on Rome that brought him to power, playing on his movement’s ideological ambiguity.
Fascism, as a word, has its roots in the Latin term fasces, or bundle. In the late 19th century, groups of Sicilian peasants rising up against their landlords were known as the fasci Siciliani. This radical tradition found an echo in the fasci di combattimento, or Fascist combat leagues, that Mussolini founded in 1919.
In creating Fascism, Mussolini, a former leftist revolutionary, confused many by "bundling" things that were supposed to be opposite: nationalism and imperialism with socialist elements.
Mussolini's paradoxical definition of Fascism as a "revolution of reaction" is perhaps the most accurate. Fascism aims at radical change brought about by violence and backed up by law to shut down political and social emancipation and take away rights. Soon nothing much beyond rhetoric remained of Mussolini’s leftist past, and indeed leftists were the first and most consistently persecuted targets of Fascism. This pleased his powerful conservative backers, as did his prompt privatization of the insurance and other industries.
Fascism spawned anti-Fascism, and the Communist International’s early 1930s definition of Fascism as “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinist and most imperialist elements of finance capital” captured the logic of expansion and plunder that led Italian Fascism and Nazism into war (while ignoring Communism’s own repression). By the time it was defeated in 1945, Fascism had become synonymous with racism, imperialism, and genocide.
The Cold War (1945-1990)
The new geopolitical climate of the Cold War influenced the use of the Fascist label. The Spanish dictator Francisco Franco is a good example. He was a Fascist ally of Mussolini and Hitler who during the Civil War deployed colonial warfare techniques against Spanish leftists. By 1940, 250,000 Spaniards were dead, 300,000 in exile, and 600,000 prisoners in concentration camps.
Franco stayed out of World War Two, and soon became an American Cold War client, which made it necessary to clean up his Fascist reputation. With assistance from American lobbyists and PR firms like McCann Erickson, Franco was rebranded as a “soft authoritarian.” No matter that he made Spain a haven for Fascists who had to flee their democratizing countries, as I recount in Strongmen. The war criminals and terrorists he financed and refused to extradite (he harbored over 1,000 Nazis) knew he was “one of them.”
The Cold War also favored the "totalitarian" paradigm for analyzing dictatorship. German émigré scholars like Hannah Arendt saw Stalinism, not Italian Fascism, as Nazism’s kindred spirit. Arendt was one of many who downgraded Mussolini’s regime to “semi-totalitarian” status. Over time, this failure to take Il Duce seriously eased the path to the rehabilitation of Fascism, allowing Italy to become a laboratory of far-right politics once again.
The New Authoritarian Age (1990-present)
When Communism fell in Europe and the Cold War ended, it created the conditions for the rise of a new right. In 1994, Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right government brought Italy’s neo-Fascist party (rebaptized as the National Alliance, or AN) to power for the first time in Europe since 1945. That meant Fascism had to be redefined.
To appeal to a mainstream public, AN head Gianfranco Fini wore business suits, shunned fascist salutes, and made Mussolini into a Churchill-like figure: “the greatest statesman of the 20th century.” Berlusconi helped out by claiming in 2003 that “Mussolini never killed anyone, he sent people into confinement to have vacations,” referring to Fascist prisons on islands like Ponza where torture had been practiced.
Cleansed of its violence, Fascism could now become “post-Fascism,” as Fini called it—just another form of patriotic and conservative politics. This is a line that neo-Fascist Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is now using to whitewash her extremist-filled government.
That’s why we must call Fascism out today where we see it. Knowing its history makes that easier. Tim Snyder makes a convincing case that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is engaged in a genocidal war against Ukraine, can be considered a Fascist, and that we should not "limit our fears of fascism to a certain image of Hitler and the Holocaust."
In fact, Fascism operates differently today, which is why its definition is in flux once more. As in Viktor Orban's Hungary, right-wing one-party states have given way to "electoral autocracies" in which elections continue but threat and detentions, voter suppression, and domestication of the media produce the results the leader needs to stay in office.
Orban’s name for his governance, “illiberal democracy,” is his way of escaping the Fascist label. Yet there are profound continuities between the policies and platforms of leaders like Orban and those of historic Fascists, from personality cults to racist demographic policies designed to protect "White Christian civilization,” to antisemitism and persecution of LGBTQ populations.
As I observed in a recent Lucid essay, Trump has long kept the Fascist flame burning in America. He started his 2016 campaign by retweeting a racist meme from the Nazi outlet The Daily Stormer (the publication of Andrew Anglin, whose Twitter account has just been restored by Elon Musk).
Trump brought Mussolini admirer and far-right operative Steve Bannon into the White House to launch his own “revolution of reaction.” In 2017 his administration gave Holocaust deniers a big gift: a Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that made no mention of Jews.
The GOP politicians who now feign outrage at Trump's association with Nazis such as Nick Fuentes had no problem with his mainstreaming of extremism, perhaps because some of them are extremists themselves (Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene have appeared with Fuentes).
It’s time to accept that the GOP, which was complicit with Trump's Jan. 6 attempted authoritarian takeover, has become a party that furthers Fascist values and practices. That means the hate crimes that have skyrocketed in America since 2016 will likely continue to expand.
However we define Fascism, remembering that its essence is violence is more important than ever.
Mussolini quotes from Mussolini, “Stato, anti-Stato, e fascismo,” Gerarchia, June 25, 1922; Gianfranco Fini, interview with Alberto Statera, “Il migliore resta Mussolini,” La Stampa, April 1, 1994.
This essay is adapted from the English version of “Faschismus,” in Sprach Gewalt: Missbrauchte Wörter und andere politische Kampfbegriffe, ed. David Ranan (Bonn: Dietz Verlag, 2021), 233-245.
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