Fascism and Elite Theories

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Elite Theories: Summary

Analysts of fascism have used the term "generic fascism" to describe the components of fascism which may be seen as common to all variants of fascism. All fascists adopt a pessimistic view of human nature and generic fascism might be seen as containing the interconnected elements of nationalism, social Darwinism, elitism, totalitarianism, corporatism and allegedly socialism [although it is also argued conversely that fascism is anti-liberal , anti-socialist and anti-conservative.]. Racism and anti-Semitism are excluded from the definition of generic fascism on the grounds that they apply far more to Nazism than to other forms of fascism. Within the overall ideology of generic fascism considerable emphasis  is given to the issue of  elitism.

In both Italian Fascist and German Nazi ideologies national political systems are to be dominated by a charismatic political leader surrounded by subordinate members of the political elite while the masses are to play an essentially subservient role obeying the political leader without question rather than using their own judgement in relation to political questions. The fascists' preferred relationships between the leader[s] and the masses derive partly from the fascists' pessimistic perception of human nature and partly from the fascist criticism of both liberalism and socialism.

Thus fascists argue that the inevitable differences in talents and abilities between the leaders and the masses are primarily genetically determined such that whereas the leader or leaders have deep political insight which enables them alone to recognise a country's national interest, the masses have limited intellectual qualities  and can easily be swayed by propagandistic appeals to their irrational emotions , all of which means that political decisions must be taken by the leaders alone. Furthermore it was argued in relation to Hitler [and, to a lesser extent, Mussolini] that these were leaders who came from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds, fought in the First World War and engaged actively in political struggle to overcome their opponents so that in social Darwinist terms they had demonstrated their fitness to lead

Fascist ideologists adapted and distorted some of the ideas of the philosopher Nietzsche and the political scientists Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca to provide support for their beliefs in the importance of elite leadership. Nietzsche [1844- 1900] believed that human behaviour was heavily influenced by instinct and will rather than by rational thought, that there were significant biologically determined differences in talents and abilities between the so-called Ubermenschen [or supermen] and the rest of humanity and that the Ubermenschen must act in accordance with their will to power if they are to maximise their full human potential even if this results in the exploitation of others. Meanwhile the rest of humanity or the "herd" as Nietzsche often called them could contribute little  to the organisation of society which should be dominated by the Ubermenschen [that is: by elites.] Nietzsche's philosophical ideas could apparently be used therefore to undermine support for Enlightenment liberalism and for socialism and to provide support for fascism. However the famous historian Richard Evans has pointed out that before 1914 Nietzsche's ideas were often interpreted as "a call for the individual to be freed from the conventional restrictions of his time" and that "his most famous concepts - the will to power and the Ubermensch were intended to apply on to thought and ideas, not to politics and action." Furthermore Nietzsche was not a German nationalist; he was not anti-Semitic; he supported rather than opposed racial intermarriage all of which suggests that Nietzsche would certainly not have supported extremely dangerous leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini or the policies which they implemented.

The classical elite theorists Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca agued that whereas liberal and socialist analyses of societies were ideological and therefore based upon faith and belief rather than the scientific collection and analysis of empirical data, they themselves had discovered the fundamental scientific law that all societies, even those which appear to be democratic are  ruled by small political elites which therefore rule over the "masses" in societies. Pareto distinguished between a small political elite which ruled over society as a result of its superior personal qualities and/or superior organisational skills and the mass of society which was made up of large numbers of unintelligent , irrational, apathetic and poorly organised individuals who could be easily manipulated by political propaganda carefully used by the political elite. In this respect we can see connections between elite theories  and Sorel's emphasis on the importance of political myths and Le Bon's ideas on the irrationality of crowds as factors influencing mass behaviour. It is clear also that Pareto rejected completely the optimistic Marxist view of the revolutionary potential of the proletariat: for Pareto the working class was itself incapable of organising socialist revolution and any allegedly "socialist" revolution would result only in the rise to power of a new elite which would rule in its own interests rather than in the interests of the working class which it claimed disingenuously to represent. For Pareto real socialism was impossible while elite rule was inevitable.

Pareto believed  that historical change involved the replacement of one elite by another elite, a process which Pareto called "the circulation of elites". In this process Pareto distinguished between political elites dominated by "foxes" who ruled primarily by manipulation and propaganda and "lions" who were prepared to use force to achieve and retain political power. As he became increasingly disillusioned with Italy's liberal political elite[ which he would have described as foxes] he was apparently to some extent drawn to the idea of a government dominated by "lions" and to support for Mussolini and the early fascist movement. Mussolini appointed Pareto a senator in 1923 [shortly before his death] but the historian James Joll argues that if he had lived longer Pareto would soon have criticised "the emptiness of Mussolini's political ideas.

The elite theories of Gaetano Mosca had much in common with those of Pareto. However Mosca gave greater emphasis than did Pareto to the role of superior organisation rather than superior personal qualities as the main source of elite political power but he was equally critical of the masses' potential and also critical of Marxism and, initially of liberal democracy. However he also emphasised the important functions within society of the middle classes which he came to regard as the lower stratum of the political elite. This led him to support a version of multi-party politics in which, however, he would have preferred the suffrage to have remained restricted to the upper and middle classes although he also believed that there was no practical possibility of  a return to such a restricted suffrage. Clearly Mosca espoused liberal-conservative rather than fascist political views and he spoke out bravely and strongly against Mussolini in 1925.

Thus although the ideas of Nietzsche and Pareto were used in support of fascism this was achieved only via a distortion of their views while the views of Mosca had even les in common with fascism. The socialist Roberto Michels became disillusioned with what he saw as the elitism of even socialist parties and this led him to support national syndicalism and the early socialist strands of fascist ideology. However he too became disillusioned with fascism as it moved ideologically to the right.

Since fascists believed that the powers of the leader should be virtually unrestricted this meant also that they would reject radical socialist ideology and principles of liberal democracy. They argued that in Italy liberal democratic politicians were responsible for the limited economic development of the country and its failure to establish a foreign empire which would confer great power status and in Germany that liberal democratic politicians had been responsible for defeat in the 1st World War and for the economic and political instability of the 1920s and early 1930s. Fascists argued also that liberals had overstated the rationality of human behaviour and particularly the behaviour of the masses; that parliamentary controls over the Executive served only to restrict necessary Executive freedom of manouevre; that competing parties and pressure groups exacerbated social conflict at the expense of national unity as did the criticisms of the independent mass media; and that elections were unnecessary because the leaders knew best. Clearly the fascist support for elitism was closely linked to the other main elements of their ideology.