“Fascist!” To be called a fascist in today’s world is one of the worst slurs that can be thrown at an individual. Don’t like what they have to say politically? Call the person a fascist. Don’t like the political party they belong to. Call the person a fascist. Fascism is a deep and intellectual philosophical tradition that deserves proper study—and it does in intellectual circles though the media hardly ever cares about any deep thought or accurate reporting. Likewise, there are some—like Dinesh D’Souza and the Fox News crowd—who try to associate fascism with the political Left. In any case, fascism is nothing more than a buzz word to slander one’s opponent with to bypass any serious consideration of the other’s points.
Fascism is a modern philosophy. While proto-fascist thought might be found in some late 19th century thinkers like Arthur Gobineau and Charles Maurras, fascism as a codified philosophical system emerged in the 20th century interwar period after World War I. Giovanni Gentile can be regarded as the great synthesizer of fascist thought, along with elements in his German contemporaries: Carl Schmitt and Arnold Gehlen. But this post isn’t going to delve into the philosophical and anthropological outlooks of these men, rather, it is going to provide a basic and factual synopsis of fascist thought—since fascist thought can be measured in time and space as there is a body of literature that is generally regarded as embodying the core fascist ethos.
There are several preliminary historical facts that also need to be understood prior to any attempt to understand fascism. The roots of fascism were laid during an exciting and chaotic intellectual time: The late nineteenth century. Fascism took from the late nineteenth century intellectual climate three new, at that time “progressive,” cornerstones to undergird its thought. Fascism embraced the “discovery of History”—the idea that there was a telos to History and that History revealed her secrets to man and that man could come to know what the “meaning of History’ was about. Second was fascism’s enthusiastic embrace of Darwinian and biological evolution and science. Third was fascism’s embrace of nationalist anthropology which was not explicitly racial as we think of that term today: i.e. “White” or “Black.”
Was fascism a “leftwing” movement? No. Fascism was an enemy of leftwing politics. Furthermore, one should not conflate fascism with Nazism (though Nazism, despite the term “socialist” being in its name, was also not fascist). In this post I highlighted the more philosophical acceptance of the Left-Right paradigm as being split between metaphysical egalitarians (the Left) and metaphysical hierarchists (the Right). Fascism fell squarely in the right political tradition in its defense of hierarchy, strict distinctions, and particularity. Additionally, fascism was, in reality, a soft authoritarian system of political governance. Businesses, corporate leaders, and after the various Concordats signed with the Catholic Church, religious orders and institutions, generally had a fair degree of control and influence in society. There was some state planning, but never at the degree of the Soviet Union or the “Commanding Heights” theory of economic development that emerged in Developing unaligned countries after the Second World War. The assertion that fascism sought totalizing state control over every aspect of public and private life is demonstrably false; fascism sought, and consummated, very limited state control over public and private life—instead promoting preferences to be manifested in public and private life through state-sponsored policy.
Fascism also billed itself as a defender of civilization against the nihilistic hedonism and atomism of liberalism, and the destructive revolutionary fervor of socialism and communism. Fascism, as such, presented itself as a defender of order, tradition, family values, and hierarchy against those forces which threatened it: individualization, atomization, revolution, first wave feminism, egalitarianism, and economic collectivism. Unless one takes their marching orders from Prager University or Fox News, fascism was not a movement of the Left.
But in this fascism is not unique in its defense of order, tradition, the primacy of the family unit to civilization, and hierarchy. To claim that just because one defends the aforementioned is a fascist is intellectually dishonest. What makes fascism distinct from conservatism, monarchism, traditionalist Catholicism, or a more broadly Aristotelian or Ciceronian outlook? It would be the three features of 19th century thought I described before.
Fascism is a philosophy moved by the historical imagination. Historicism means two things. One meaning is the study of historical epochs. The other meaning, tied to the first, is the study of all preceding historical epochs to see their feature and attempt to understand how they have impacted the present. Thus, historicism—in the Hegelian tradition—is the attempt to understand the “grand meaning of history” (if there is such a thing). Fascists declared a grand meaning of history which was tied to their understanding of biological evolution and science.
According to fascism, history moved in cycles: life to death. The meaning of existence was the struggle for life—adapted from Darwin. Fascism’s embrace of the heroic—especially “heroic struggle”—was the fascist understanding that history was the Darwinian playground of the cyclical movement of birth, life, decline, and death. But fascism was unique in understanding how to avoid this decline into death. Enter fascism’s appropriation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy. Fascism was the heroic struggle against death not because the struggle against death gave one’s life meaning, but because the struggle against death could be broken. This was the intellectual impetus for the fascist “revolutionary” guard.
Fascism, in understanding the natural rise-decline cycles of life, applied this to society and civilization as a whole. The onslaught of materialistic hedonism was the tell-tale sign of the decline of a civilization towards its rendezvous with death. The purpose of the fascist guard was it would seize power during this period of decline and rejuvenate society with grand meaning and purpose—hence the strong use of imagery and symbols in fascist movements to inspire sacrifice, community, and meaning: Embracing the worldview that there is more than yourself.
Enter the nation. The nation, in fascist thought, was the culmination of historical evolution. The “germ of the nation” was implanted into the dust of the earth at the beginning of time and would slowly evolve to a communitarian whole. The nation would emerge on the world scene with other nations and nations struggled for life just as any individual biological organism does. As some organisms die, others adapt and thrive. The same goes for nations. Some nations decline and die, other nations struggle for more life.
This is why fascism was obsessed with the idea of “national rebirth.” As nations enter into the state of decline, the task of the fascist was to know the “moment of history” they were in and struggle against death and usher in an age of new (and greater) life. This was always the heroic struggle invoked in ancient myths: The Hero who fought for the survival of his tribe or nation against the odds so as to allow others to live. The fascist, thus, was the Nietzschean Superman not because he was necessarily intrinsically superior to other men, but because the fascist understood the historical moment he lived in and understood the meaning of history which allowed him to act to bring life to his people. This was the greatest purpose a man could fulfill: To help his nation—the sacred germ or seed of life—continue its struggle for life forever and ever.
A fourth element to fascism is also one of the main identifying features of fascist thought. This is the transformative power of violence or the cult of violence. Violence is man’s basic nature and all life advances in violent, dialectical, struggle with other lifeforms. Therefore, man’s “progress” comes through violence. The “savage laws of nature” are exactly that: Savage. Violence is not only transformative it is liberative. Embracing the violent impulse is what frees man and his erotic element (which is intrinsically violent).
Mixed into this unique and deeply Hegelian and historicist philosophical disposition was the acceptance of many traditional values and concerns as already stated. What separates the conservative from the fascist is that the conservative does not hold to a philosophy of history, where conservatives see history as cyclical it is nothing more than the natural life cycles that, in of themselves, do not reveal any meaning as fascism claimed to have discovered. To the fascist history is the exciting, and tragic, struggle for life. To fight against death and die is a noble death. To fight against death and overcome it is heroic victory. To be blind to the struggle against death and simply accept it is pitiful and worth scorning. These are the victims of history to use Hegel’s language, or the “last men” to use Nietzsche’s language, wherein the mass herd of atomized individuals (the irony in being a liberated individual identical with others thus becoming a herd of mass men in a cave) are blind to the reality of history and the meaning of history (and thus the meaning of life) and therefore slid into death not with a bang but a whimper that no one hears.
Fascism—unlike liberalism and conservatism, philosophies that make claims to nature (which is why liberalism and conservatism are dialectical opposites)—is a philosophy of historical outlook more than it is a philosophy of nature (in this respect it is the dialectical opposite to Marxist-Communism which explains why Fascism was more anti-communist than any other philosophy). Moreover, most of the people who are called “fascist” are not fascist. But that doesn’t stop people from ignorantly assigning the label—which is a deep, codified, and identifiable philosophical system and outlook—to people who clearly are not fascist.