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Fascism - The Diversity Of Individual Fascisms

national fascist modernism

We now turn to the second aspect of fascism that impinges on the history of ideas, its ideological constituents. A central premise behind the definition applied in this article is that fascism is to be treated on a par with the other major political "isms" of the modern age, such as liberalism and socialism, as an ideology in its own right with its own agenda for creating the ideal society. A corollary of this is that it can be conceived for analytic purposes as a cluster of core ("ineliminable") ideological components, which we have identified here with just two components: the conception of the people as an organic organism, and a palingenetic concept of history that envisages national decay giving way imminently or eventually to a process of regeneration and renewal. This core can become associated in particular times and places with many varied and even conflicting secondary ("adjacent" or "peripheral") concepts, with the result that fascism is externalized itself in a wide range of specific manifestations shaped by particular conjunctures of historical forces.

Another implication of this approach is that it is futile to search for the sources of generic fascism in the work of a particular thinker, such as Georges Sorel's thesis of the primacy of myth, Ernst Haeckel's organicism, Vilfredo Pareto's theory of the circulation of elites, Friedrich Nietzsche's calls for a new breed of superman, or Oswald Spengler's scheme of the decline and "Caesarist" renewal of the West, however much they may have influenced individual ideologues or movements. For the same reason it is fallacious to see all forms of fascism drawing on the same currents of thought or driven by the same process, such as Social Darwinism, eugenics, corporatism, Marxist revisionism, modernization, or antimodernity, let alone to attribute it to generic forces such as "irrationalism," "capitalism," or "moral decline," which have minimal heuristic value as explanatory concepts.

In fact, one of fascism's outstanding traits is its eclecticism, the propensity of its numerous individual variants to accommodate or synthesize ideological components from a wide range of sources taken from any part of the left-right spectrum. Italian Fascism, for example, merged elements of right-wing politics (nationalism, imperialism, authoritarianism) with left-wing syndicalist claims of creating social justice and abolishing class conflict, and the cult of the Roman past with elements of the Futurist cult of hypermodernity. It also attracted a number of former Marxists in Italy and Germany, hosted left-wing and right-wing variants of corporatist theory, and accommodated currents of philosophical idealism and technocratic modernism; clerical Fascism and neopaganism; cultural racism (which treated patriotic Italian Jews as full members of the re-born Italy, although a more "biological" current eventually led to the adoption of anti-Semitic race laws); and the full spectrum of aesthetics from neoclassicism to futurism, from anti-cosmopolitan ruralism to international modernism. Even Nazism was far from homogeneous ideologically, embracing ruralist and technocratic visions of the new order, varying degrees of paganism and accommodation with Christianity, several varieties of racism, an anticapitalist ("Strasserite") current, and even a strand of promodernist aesthetics. Fascism's animus against communism and the degenerative impact of liberalism on the organic national community nevertheless makes it sensible to locate fascism within the tradition of right-wing politics rather than simply "beyond" left and right (as it sometimes claims to be).

Fascism can also manifest itself in a variety of organizational forms. It does not necessarily take the form of a properly constituted movement, let alone a full-fledged party-political movement, and has only twice formed a regime. This is why attempts to elaborate or extend the fascist minimum identified here (for example, by adding such elements as para-militarism, the leader principle, corporatism, or territorial expansionism) severely restrict its heuristic value.


Once we move from the synoptic panorama of the whole fascist epoch to consider individual fascisms in close-up, the heterogeneity of their fascist ideology emphasized here soon becomes apparent. The sense of national identity promoted by Italian Fascism, for example, was originally little more than an antiliberal version of heightened patriotism, which attempted to present the current generation as heirs of the same genius that had created the Roman Empire, the Roman Catholic Church, and the artistic and scientific Renaissance. Partly because of the powerful presence of organized Christianity in social life, "modern" biological or eugenic concepts of racial purity were relegated to a subordinate position, even if they were implicit in the demographic campaign and in the laws against miscegenation introduced in the wake of the colonization of Ethiopia. Certainly an Italian equivalent of the Nazi "euthanasia" campaign to cleanse the national community of its "hereditarily ill" was unthinkable, and though a current of anti-Semitism existed in Fascism independently of Nazism, when anti-Semitic race and citizenship laws were eventually introduced in 1938 declaring the Italians to be of Aryan stock they were widely experienced as both un-Italian and un-Fascist.

Long before coming to power, Nazism was notorious for disseminating a vision of the national community based on a concept of race that included cultural, Social Darwinian, and eugenic components. As a result, decadence was considered at least partly the product of racial decay, which in turn meant that the nation had to be purged of both ideological and physical enemies before it could be reborn. It followed from the same racial concept of the nation that its boundaries "naturally" extended to cover the whole geopolitical area in which ethnic Germans constituted a majority, and ensured that the Third Reich's plans for territorial conquest were based on a hierarchical conception of racial superiority and inferiority familiar from European imperialism overseas, but never applied before to peoples in mainland Europe.

If the abortive fascist movements are taken into account, yet more permutations of the nationalist myth come into view. The Romanian Iron Guard was viscerally anti-Semitic, elaborated its own myth of Romanian racial purity, and planned to set up an anthropological institute to build up a database on the variegated racial makeup of those living on Romanian soil. Yet its outstanding feature was its stress on the importance of Romanian Orthodox Christianity as an indicator of national and cultural identity. Other fascisms that, in contrast to the overtly neopagan Fascism and Nazism, incorporated local versions of Christianity into their concept of national belonging were the Spanish Falange, the Finnish Isänmaallinen Kansanliike (Patriotic People's Movement), and the Afrikaner Ossewabrandwag.

A different permutation of fascist racial myth again is exhibited by the ABI (the Brazilian Integralist Action), whose membership grew to 200,000 before it was outlawed by Getúlio Vargas's parafascist military regime. This highly original permutation of fascism attributed the national genius and potential for rebirth not to any one of the many ethnic groups that make up modern Brazil, but to its unique blend of peoples and cultures, a concept that precluded the pursuit of racial purity through eugenic or exterminatory policies. This avenue was also barred by the powerful presence of Catholicism in Brazil's social and political culture, though it is significant that the ABI developed an elaborate form of "political religion" for its meetings and rallies. It is also consistent with the ABI's essentially pagan conception of renewal that its leader, Plìnio Salgado, published his philosophy of history according to which his movement was leading Brazilians into the "fourth era of humanity."


Although Marxists have always seen fascism as driven by a crisis of the capitalist economic system and the rise of socialism, and some non-Marxist experts identify interwar fascism with corporatism, the truth is predictably more complex. The relationship between fascism and finance capital, big business, or the bourgeoisie is far from straightforward, and there were currents within Nazism and Fascism that were anticapitalist to the extent that they took seriously the idea of a "national socialism." Contemporary fascism contains currents that are, at least on paper, extremely hostile to (Jewish, U.S., globalizing, corporate) capitalism, notably the New Right, Third Positionism, and National Bolshevism, and some prominent "Strasserite" Third Positionists, striving to develop a stance beyond both capitalism and communism, currently use fascist as a pejorative term for national revolutionaries not prepared to reject capitalism.

As for corporatism, only Italian Fascism attempted to install a corporatist state, which failed in practice to fulfill the ideals of any of the rival theories of corporatism that jostled for position under Mussolini. These included a "left-wing" syndicalist current, an authoritarian nationalist strand, and a version promoted by Catholics encouraged to do so by the Catholic Church, which saw in corporatism a way of mitigating the evils of unbridled materialism and individualism. However, such was the appeal of a "third way" between laissez-faire capitalism and the Soviet planned economy that the British Union of Fascists adopted the theory of the corporatist state, and a number of interwar fascisms (e.g., in Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Brazil, and Chile) advocated a fusion of nationalism with the power of organized labor, whether it was termed "national syndicalism" or "national socialism." It should also be pointed out that the parafascist states (both Catholic countries) of Salazar and Franco retained corporatist elements in their economic systems well into the postwar period, and during the 1940s these achieved some degree of success, though at the cost of organized labor, which was forced to forfeit much of its political and economic power.

On the other hand, Nazi Germany rejected the idea of the corporatist state except in the sphere of cultural production. Nevertheless, in tune with the spirit of the age, which favored the strong state and the planned economy, the Third Reich ruthlessly applied the principle of the primacy of politics over economics that legitimized unlimited state intervention in the running of the economy. It should be added that the British strand of one of the most consistently anticapitalist forms of postwar fascism, namely Third Positionism, attempted in the 1990s to resuscitate one of the interwar "alternative" economic theories, namely distributionism, but with no prospect of practical application to date, and that many contemporary fascisms are influenced by radical Green critiques of the unsustainability of the global economy.


Fascism's relationship with modern culture is even more resistant to generalizations than its economics. One of the more unusual features of Brazil's AIB was that its ideology grew out of currents of Latin American cultural theory developed by an intelligentsia influenced by European modernism and the "revolt against positivism." In this it had parallels with Italian Fascism, which hosted a number of currents of modernism, notably futurism, whose artists believed that the innovative dynamic or conceptual dimension of their style expressed the energy that was creating the New Italy. At the same time it was possible for the experimental, anarchic, taboo-breaking thrust of modernism to be seen as embodiments of the very decadence that it was fascism's mission to banish from modern life. As a result, fascism also attracted support from those who looked to a revitalized neoclassicism, vernacular, or ruralist art to create the iconic statements of healthy values that were to be an integral part of the reborn nation. Under Mussolini both interpretations of modernism coexisted and a rich variety of aesthetics resulted. Rather than promote an official Fascist style, the regime was content to be associated with creativity under all its aspects, a principle known as "hegemonic pluralism."

In stark contrast to Brazil and Italy, in 1935 Nazi Germany launched a campaign to purge Germany of modernism, henceforth officially declared the expression of cultural and biological degeneracy. Yet even here a campaign had been fought to have expressionism classified as Aryan, and a number of artists with highly modernist temperaments, notably Gottfried Benn and Ernst Jünger, were initially attracted to the regime. The diverse subject matter of some Nazi painting, which included motorway bridges, sporting events, factories, bombing raids, and battle scenes, also underlines the need to avoid simplistic generalizations about the antimodernity of fascism or the longing to return to the idylls of peasant existence allegedly at the heart of Nazi art. It is also significant that the Nazis paid even more attention to encouraging a "healthy" national cinema industry than the Italian Fascists, hardly the sign of a compulsive anti-modernity. While some films under both regimes were overtly propagandistic, the majority were made without direct state interference and dealt with the emotional and social comedies and dramas of modern Italian and German existence against the backcloth of the new order. By endorsing the values, normalcy, and modernity of fascist society they bear witness to the way the power of the film to create an aesthetic illusion of wholeness was seamlessly adapted to the new societies, thereby contributing to the routinization of the fascist revolution in the experience of "ordinary" Italians and Germans.


The architecture of the two regimes reflected their different relationships to modernism. Despite a marked tendency toward monumentalism and the increasing use of neoclassicism for many civic buildings by the late 1930s, Fascist architects worked in a number of styles, some of them deeply indebted to the international modernism of the day. Its protagonists saw the bold use of steel and glass as reflecting the future-oriented, hypermodern dynamic of the New Italy, its urge to throw off the dead weight of tradition. This was unthinkable in Nazi Germany, where the Bauhaus was considered the symbol of "cultural Bolshevism," and the prescribed style for civic buildings was a Spartan neoclassicism whose symmetry, lack of ornament, and gargantuan proportions supposedly evoked the "purity" and heroic "will to construct" of the Aryan.

However, the Third Reich's retention of elements of modernism for such projects as bridges, factories, high-density holiday accommodation, and power stations, as well as the fact that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe tendered an unashamedly modernist design for the Dresden Bank before leaving Nazi Germany for the United States, invites a more complex reaction to its state architecture than simply dismissing it as philistine reaction. Rather, its neoclassicism is to be seen as the expression of the aesthetic correlation to the eugenics and "racial hygiene" applied in social and demographic policy. The austere, lifeless pseudoclassical buildings and sculptures whose aesthetics it determined betoken not a nostalgia for a bygone age, but the belief in the ongoing rebirth of the German people from the quagmire of Weimar decadence. They embody in permanent plastic form the presence of "eternal values."

The anthropological revolution.

When considering individual spheres of art it is important to bear in mind that art for fascists was no longer to be a separate sphere of human endeavor remote from the mainstream of political and social life in the same category as leisure or sport and prey to the forces of commercialization. For the cultural theorists of Fascism, Nazism, the British Union of Fascists, the Falange, the Iron Guard, or the AIB, whatever their stance on modernism, realism, or the celebration of rural life, art was meant to express the uncorrupted soul of the people, and made manifest the health or decadence of the entire culture. They assumed that just as the chaos and commercialism of modern art reflected the current decadence of the West, so the regenerated nation would spontaneously produce an artistic renaissance. This would come about once artists were no longer concerned with "self-expression," innovation, or experimentation; their reunion with their people and nation naturally ensured that each sculpture, film, novel, musical composition, or building expressed the values of the new age.

Art was only one of the spheres of social activity that were supposed to contribute to this ethos of palingenesis. Schools, universities, youth and leisure organizations, mass rallies, news-reels, newspapers, sporting events, national holidays, local festivals, the organization of work, business, and industry, in fact any context in which the public sphere impinged on the private became sites for the further integration of the individual into the national community. In this sense the deepest level of the fascist revolution was not political or military, but cultural. As long as fascism remained a genuinely charismatic force in Italy and Germany it was not a revolution simply imposed on society, but was fed by the spontaneous enthusiasm of many thousands of creative individuals who wanted to contribute to the transformation. This interpretation is fully consistent with recent theories of totalitarianism that place an emphasis on its bid to bring about an anthropological revolution, and on seeing the political religion that it institutes not as an exercise in collective brainwashing but as a means to transform society's political and moral culture.

This attempted anthropological revolution had particular implications for women. True to the spirit of an age that had recently experienced World War I, the interwar fascist image of the new man embraced elements of the archetypal warrior and knight, and the celebration of militarism, war, and the new order was pervaded by values that would now be recognized as male chauvinist. The corollary of this was that fascism was hostile to feminism as a force that destroyed the "natural" roles dictated by biology, and both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany introduced legislation to remove women from the workplace, criminalize abortion, encourage big families, and glorify motherhood and domestic functions as the true vocation of women. The demographic campaign in both countries was backed up by antenatal, maternity, and childcare services that anticipated some of the best practice of the modern welfare state.

However, it is erroneous to dismiss such measures as proof of fascism's reactionary bid to turn the clock back to traditional family values. The creation of mass organizations for women of all ages and social categories, including auxiliary units for those drawn to life in the armed services, were symptomatic of an attempt to free the female population from the constraints of domesticity and motivate it into playing an active, if subordinate, role within the new national community on a par with the Soviet mobilization of women. A physically and morally healthy motherhood was celebrated as a key element in the triumph over decadence and the regeneration of the nation. A "new woman" would arise to assist the "new man" in his heroic revolutionary task. It might also be pointed out that the stereotype of women destined to breed new members of the national community is no more degrading than the stereotype that declared the destiny of men lay in their readiness to kill and be sacrificed for the sake of the new order.

A far more terrible fate than that which befell female members of the Nazi national community awaited the millions of those, male and female, adult and children, who were excluded from it on grounds of hereditary illness, asocial behavior, or membership of an inferior race, and thus were subjected to sterilization, enslavement, torture, experimentation, or extermination. It was in the fanatical persecution and mass elimination of "life unworthy of life" and "subhumans" by the Third Reich under the cover of World War II that fascism's archaic palingenetic logic of "cathartic destruction" reveals its most chilling potential for impacting on modern history.

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