“Fascist!” To be called a fascist is to have one of the worst derogatory epithets hurled at you. It invokes brown shirted thugs, swastikas, racism, demagoguery, and of course—the Nazis. The usage of the word, sadly, has lost all culpable meaning because it is merely hurled at opponents who “don’t play by the rules” established by governments, laws, and international organizations. If someone offends you, and disagrees with you, the easiest counter is to simply scream “fascist!”
Why specters, plural? Because there are many variations of fascism, past and present. The ghosts of fascism are often invoked, very poorly, at the same time, which only adds to confusion as to what “fascism” is and isn’t. In the forthcoming pages of this series of posts, we shall look at the anatomy and specters of fascism, the new faces it has acquired, and the historical lineage of fascism: its philosophical roots, ideas, and historical tradition, and hopefully dispense with all the hysterical and illiterate and ignorant uses of the term. Across Europe, and even in America, the allegation from moderates, centrists, liberals, progressives, socialists, and even conservatives, is that fascism is on the rise (primarily in the Western World).
First, is it true that some movements that have gained much strength and notoriety following the 2008 Recession are fascist? Absolutely. However, not all the usual suspects can be, or shouldn’t be, qualified as fascist.
THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF FASCISM
Prior to the rise of Mussolini and Hitler, fascism was not a codified philosophy or ideology. Mussolini gave fascism its name, “fascismo”, or bundle of sticks. The implication is something analogous to strength in unity as a corporate body.
Fascism as a philosophy also doesn’t necessarily exist in the same manner as nationalism, liberalism, Marxism, or socialism—all of which are well defined with codified bodies of works outlining their thought. Fascism was a spontaneous movement with deep historicst roots, taking on different meanings (and implications) depending on the country where the movement was emerging, or in power. Unlike various other schools of philosophy, fascism has no grand architect—no Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, or Karl Marx (though certain theorists and philosophers are attached as sort of intellectual gurus whom we shall explore in a bit). That said fascism is generally accepted as being a radicalized version of nationalism and having its intellectual origins in the Romantic Movement of the nineteenth century. But there are notable figures associated with fascist, or proto-fascist, philosophy.
Romanticism, for its part, is a broad movement (and general philosophy) that spans the so-called “left-right” spectrum. For instance, postmodernism and relativism, philosophies not generally associated with the political right, are rooted in Romanticism. As is socialism. So too is our modern understanding of nationalism. Out of the broad tent that was Romanticism, fascism also emerged.
The general themes of Romanticism can be summed up as promoting a view of historical decline rather than historical progress, with increasing concern over the nature of decline. Likewise, Romanticism could be seen as illiberal, even anti-liberal, but some schools of Romanticism also found home with liberalism. To be more precise, Romanticism rebelled against Enlightenment liberalism in particular: industrialization, capitalization, the view of history as a progress narrative, notions of universal humanity, and urbanization were the main culprits of decline in romantic eyes.
Romanticism was the first of the great counterrevolutions to the Enlightenment. Romanticism was relativistic and particularist and rebelled from all pre-reflective notions of hierarchy, order, and the status-quo (at least the hierarchy, order, and status-quo of liberalism). Yet, Romanticism also promoted the ideas of organic unity rather than individual autonomy or spontaneity (ideas popular in the Enlightenment). This makes fascism’s relationship with Romanticism tenuous at first glance. But a certain disposition within fascism, which grew out of Romanticism, helps to explain the fascist re-contextualization of hierarchy and order—which is otherwise absent in the dreams of postmodernists and socialists who were influenced by romantic thought. (Whereas postmodern romantics seek to tear down, fascists not only sought to tear down, but to restore, which was major theme among more conservative romantics.)
Romanticism’s themes about the past, glorious epochs, and tales of heroism, produced a renewed interest in classicism and classical paganism (as well as traditionalist forms of Christianity, especially in Catholicism). The combining of romanticism and classicism helped pave the historicist disposition of fascism. Mixing into this bowl of romanticism and classicism a healthy dose of nationalism—and political (and military) defeats which produced a mentality of victimhood that made romanticist themes about a glorious past more tenable—fascism eventually emerged. Romanticism had a certain obsession with the “cult of the hero.” The heroes of mythology, the heroes of history, even the heroes of the present – it aligned itself with the “Great Man” view of history in which the Hand of Fate, from time to time, reached out and extended her hand to life up “great men” who would advance the revolutionary World Historical Spirit.
For the Romantics, modern civilization was cold, sterile, and mechanistic. Through urbanization, cosmopolitanism, and capitalism, the roots or organic society were shattered. This new modernity told a great lie—“history as progress,” leading one away from primitivism toward civilization. The Romantics argued the exact opposite; modernity was leading us away from our civilizational roots. Modernity was destroying the fabric upon which civilization had come into being, and flourished. Modernity, in some sense, was making us decadent, weak, and less than human. It was turning us into the “man machines” of Julian de Offray de La Mettrie. Or the Laputans in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. A more modern depiction would be the society in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
Charles Maurras (1868-1952) was an important figure in the foundations of fascism—although he himself may or may not, necessarily be considered a fascist. (There remains debate whether he was a nationalist conservative or counterrevolutionary turned fascist during its epochal rise.) Maurras was a major leader for the group Action Française, which manifested it ideas around Maurras’s theory of integral nationalism.
For Maurras, integral nationalism was not only the nationalism after national independence had been achieved, but the nationalism of history, culture, and heritage that stretches back for generations—even centuries. Integral nationalism seeks to safeguard what has already been established, further the interest of the national collective, and finds it safeguard in a strong military (able to defend the nation, or expand the nation). Integral nationalism juxtaposes itself against Risorgimento nationalism, a nationalism that seeks self-determination (national independence) for liberal ends—i.e. the establishment of some form of democratic or republican state.
Maurras’s idea of an integral nationalism with a deep heritage, or Bodenständigkeit (“deep roots” per Heidegger), was necessarily exclusive. Peoples who were not part of the longstanding heritage of the national majority were outcasts, or worse, they are potentially parasitic to the heritage, culture, and well-being of the national collective. (Maurras aligned himself with the anti-Dreyfus bloc during the Dreyfus Affair and was a leading French anti-Semite who promoted State anti-Semitism.) What made Maurras’s philosophy palpable in France however, was the defeat (or humiliation) of the French during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871).
The Franco-Prussian War, moreover than World War I, sparked the engine for fascism. The French defeat signaled the end of the Second Empire, the end of aristocratic privilege, the (re)establishment of a multiparty republic, the eventual separation of Church and State, and the promotion of a multicultural and multi-ideological France. It also established a grand Germany, powerful and united: destined to take its place among the great powers of Europe. All of this was troubling for Maurras, an anti-republican and pro-monarchist nationalist. The Third Republic was deeply fragile, weak, and extended to the collective will a fragile and weak mentality that sapped the espirit de corps of the French community.
The loss of not only the imperial government, but also Alsace-Lorraine, was deeply problematic for France. This region was considered part of Metropolitan France, but it was occupied by a foreign peoples. Humiliation set in.
General Georges Ernest Boulanger, a French general and “Caesar,” was highly popular among the French working class heading to the 1889 election. He was popularly known as “General Revanche,” or revenge, for his militant stance towards Germany and wish to re-take Alsace-Lorraine. Boulanger achieved a mass mobilization of the working-class to support his run during the legislative election. His popularity was so powerful, and his connection with royalists, Catholic traditionalists, and the military was considered so popular, that the French Assembly barred him from actually standing for a seat. The republican assembly arrested him in the “Boulanger Affair,” fearing that he might overthrow the republic. He committed suicide in 1891. (Boulanger did have interest in overturning the republic, but wanted to do so legitimately through a popular election.)
The circumstances and lineage of fascism, in the story of a defeated France post-1871, mixed the broader re-interest in past culture and classicism, provide an important leg for understanding fascism. First, we see a revived interest in the past—whatever that may actually mean—with the intent of revivifying certain aspects of the past which are seen as “golden” or “pure.” Second, there is an emphasis on the collective, manifesting itself in organic unity and purity. Third, fascism has a victimhood disposition—a belief that they have (the community) been wronged and humiliated by nefarious powers. Fourth, nationalism serves to bind the first three principles hitherto stated together—nationalism “rediscovers” the past, serves the foundation for organic unity and purity, and attempts to redress the wrongs righted onto the national collective. Fifth, fascism seeks the overturning of liberal political systems. Thus, fascism – among other political traditions – is anti-liberal. Sixth, fascism is a populare movement, or populist in its orientation. (I should maintain here that not all right-wing populist movements are fascist as certain other outlets always seem to claim.) Lastly, and most importantly, fascism was undergirded by a deep sense of historicism – especially the zeitgeist (spirit of the times) – and its historicism was deeply progressivist and utopian in nature. (Sorry “progressives,” you have no idea what progressivism entails in philosophy and you don’t have a monopoly on making progressivism in something benign or detaching it from its philosophical roots and conceptions.)
Unlike liberalism or Marxism, however, fascism does not have a formalized doctrine. Fascism varied from country to country, building upon the history (and mythology) of specific nations. Fascism in Spain had different goals than fascism in Italy, which had different goals than fascism in Germany, which had different goals than fascism in France, Central Europe, and elsewhere.
At the same time, fascism emerged in the aftermath of disaster. Contrary to philosophically illiterate writers and speakers claiming a link between conservatism and fascism, fascists – by their own admission – acknowledged fascism’s spirit was revolutionary. It was born of revolution for revolution – fascism offered a path into the revolutionary future. This required the mass mobilization of society (nationalization) for perpetual struggle. In this manner fascism also fit with the progressivist ideologies that emerged in the aftermath of the First World War and Industrial Revolution, though it is not – contrary to certain “American conservative” ignoramuses who shall not be named – at all linked to Marxism, socialism, or liberalism. Fascism was busy reading the “revealing hand of history” and trying to understand what it all meant, it simply arrived at different conclusions that Marxism and liberalism had.
Furthermore, fascism is still part of the Enlightenment tradition: the tradition of progress, historicism, utopia, and technological advancement and revolution. The problem with labelling fascism “reactionary” (with reactionary meaning something analogous to pure opposition to “progress”) is that it does not do justice to fascism’s historical fascination and embodiment of Enlightenment ideals that it saw no problem with: the idea of History as unfolding to a utopia – or unfolding to allow man to take his place in nature (we’ll revisit this in Part IV when we examine the works of Arnold Gehlen), the belief in a utopian ideal to be manifested in the world, its belief that technology could help achieve the remaking of society (an idea which historian Jeffrey Herf has called “reactionary modernism” or reactionary progressivism), and its revolutionary spirit by understanding the trials and tribulations of industrialization, capitalization, and total war as revealing the hand of History that history was itself revolutionary and nothing more than that. As most philosophers and historians who actually study fascism know, the irony with fascism (and what made it so potent for a few decades) was that it blended aspects of Romanticism with the Enlightenment. Fascism was as much part of the Enlightenment as it was a rejection of other aspects of Enlightenment thought (in particular, it rejected the politics of Enlightenment liberalism while finding certain other aspects of the broader Enlightenment acceptable).
In Part II we will explore the links between Romanticism and fascism further, looking at the ideas of mass society – whether it is good or bad – the writings of Johann Gottfried von Herder and Johann Fichte, and their relationship as progenitors of fascism (rightly or wrongly), and the ideas of French orientalist Arthur Gobineau. Thus our study of fascism we will examine the ideas of myth, mythology, anthropology, and how this all coalesced around mythopoetic anthropology and culture studies which helped produce the spirit of the volksgeist (people’s spirit).