Fascism, Struggle and Totalitarianism

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Fascism, Struggle and Totalitarianism


Fascism and Struggle


Charles Darwin [1809-1882] had argued that the survival of some animal species but not others could be explained by their relative abilities to adapt to their environments such that adaptable species would survive and unadaptable species would gradually become extinct.


The UK liberal theorist Herbert Spencer [1820-1903] adapted Darwin’s theory to generate his own theory of Social Darwinism in which he claimed that human life amounts to a competitive struggle in which long term human progress depends crucially on the survival of the fittest who should be encourage to reproduce whereas weaker individuals ideally should be discouraged from passing on their various defects to future generations. For Spencer the implications were that social welfare expenditures on the weak and disadvantaged were counter-productive because they would only impede long-term human progress so that his views can be seen to represent a classical liberal critique of the expansion of the state which was proposed by social liberals from the late C19th onwards.


Social Darwinist theory was also used as a justification of the substantial patterns of economic inequalities which existed in the UK in the late C19th on the grounds that they merely reflected differences in talent and ability and were the outcome of a natural competitive struggle which would accelerate human progress. Furthermore the theory could be combined with racist theories to justify imperialism via the claims that international human progress was most likely if the allegedly superior white races were permitted to dominate the other races of the world or, more sympathetically, to share with them the benefits of white culture while nevertheless  exploiting their natural resources. [The scientific inaccuracy and moral bankruptcy of racist theories has been discussed elsewhere.]


In Fascist ideology the Social Darwinist emphasis on competitive struggle was taken to alarming extremes. Firstly Hitler argued that the superior Aryan race was engaged in a life or death competitive struggle with its greatest enemy, the Jews, who were presented as greedy exploitative capitalists or as Bolshevik Communists or more generally as the embodiment of human wickedness. Whereas Spencer had proposed limitation of welfare expenditures on the disadvantaged, Hitler eventually permitted the enforced legal sterilisation or secret murder of thousands of people deemed unsuitable for reproduction and the increasing discrimination against the Jews leading to the eventual death of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. The Italian Fascist regime was also increasingly anti-Semitic but on nowhere near the same scale as the Nazis. Also in order to secure the dominance of Nazism and Italian Fascism a fundamental, uncompromising, violent struggle against all potential opponents would be necessary: against the communists especially but also against more moderate socialists and against liberals and in the case of Nazism the purity of the Aryan race was to be protected via the enforced legal sterilisation or secret murder of thousands of people deemed unsuitable for reproduction.


Secondly Fascists saw international political relationships among states as essentially based upon a competitive struggle in which each state was aiming to pursue its own national interest. This explained, for example, why the British and the French had expanded their own empires and why the USA intervened in the political and economic affairs of Latin American countries. It followed that the German and Italian states should aim first to increase their domestic economic efficiency and social cohesion and then engage firstly in diplomatic negotiation and then in the expansionary military struggle of war to advance their national interests. It would be necessary to create a “new Fascist man: strong, fit, nationalistic and obedient and only warfare would enable German and Italian men to recover the heroism shown in past German and Italian history. Thus as Mussolini put it “Warfare is for men what childbirth is for women.”


We should note that although the Nazis believed in the primacy of struggle against the Jewish race and that both the Nazis and the Italian Fascists believed that the pursuit of the national interest would lead ultimately to war, they also claimed to reject the Marxist notion of class struggle and socialist revolution. Thus whereas Marxists claimed that  the inequalities of capitalism would eventually intensify the class struggle between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat and lead to socialist  revolution Fascists argued that class struggle weakened the nation and thereby undermined the national interest.


Instead the fascists claimed that capitalists and workers should unite in a corporate state involving the regulation of the capitalist economy to provide meaningful social reforms to improve workers’ conditions. It has been claimed therefore that the Fascist corporatist state would result in the ending of class conflict and class struggle and the development of a so-called Third Way intermediate between capitalism and communism.


In practice under Fascism socialist political parties and trade unions were outlawed; thousands of socialists were murdered and thousands more imprisoned and few meaningful social reforms were forthcoming as Fascist regimes found it necessary to cooperate with conservative and capitalist in order to secure power and to remain in power.


All ideologies offer perspectives on human nature. Supporters of liberalism, conservatism and social democracy all agree that human beings are to some extent competitive and that human competition can result in human progress for example via increase in economic efficiency but that cooperation should also be encouraged. Radical socialists, communists and some [but not all] anarchists] argue that in favourable circumstances human beings can live cooperatively rather than in competition with each other. It is in fascist ideology that the emphasis on competition and struggle has been taken to extremes and with awful consequences.xxx but a sentence on Lenin Stalin and the effects of class struggle in USSR?


Fascism and Totalitarianism


In everyday usage the term ”totalitarianism” is often used loosely to describe an extremely dictatorial, undemocratic regime but in political theory the term has attracted controversy as  a result of its usage in the Cold War era  to describe the apparent similarities between “Fascist dictatorships”  and “Communist dictatorships” and to compare them unfavourably with liberal democratic regimes. Critics of this usage of the concept pointed to the differences between fascist and communist ideology and practice and noted also that liberal democratic regimes might be characterised by “soft euphoric totalitarianism” as Herbert Marcuse expressed it.


In any case in the ideology of fascism the term “totalitarianism” is used in an entirely positive sense to suggest that the concentration of power in the state dominated by a powerful charismatic leader will result in a form of “totalitarian democracy” which is actually superior to liberal democracy.

Fascists oppose liberal democracy partly because they reject the liberal version of individualism and partly because they argue that the activities of traditional liberal democratic political institutions such as parliaments, independent pressure groups and competing political parties are counterproductive.


Liberals believe that human beings are rational and that they should therefore have maximum possible individual liberty to determine their own behaviour so that they do not interfere with the liberty of others. Liberals also see limited states as necessary to resolve individual conflicts of interests and to maintain social order on which the exercise of individual liberty depends. They believe also that the existence of free elections, competing political parties and pressure groups help to provide for the effective representation of citizens’ interests and that the power of the state can be and should be restricted via the separation of powers, the rule of law and the existence of free and independent mass media.


Fascists reject these liberal arguments. Their negative view of human nature leads them to believe that the mass of people are irrational, emotional and easily swayed by self-interest so that they can contribute little to political decision making and that they must be persuaded or forced to give up their own narrow and misguided self-interest and to act instead in accordance with the national interest which alone can lead to national regeneration.


Furthermore the fascists argue that distinctive political parties of left and right and independent pressure groups such as trade unions and business pressure groups serve only to intensify social class divisions rather than to promote national unity while parliamentary political parties have been responsible for drift and indecision in the crisis situation of the immediate post First World War period.


The Fascist solution to what they see as the limitations and weaknesses of liberalism and liberal democracy is the introduction of a totalitarian system of government. The key principles of fascist style totalitarianism may be listed as follows. [It will then be necessary to assess the extent to which the Italian Fascist and Nazi German regimes could in practice be described as totalitarian.]


  1. The political system is dominated by a single fascist political party, which in turn is under the control of a single party leader, possibly surrounded by a small leadership clique. Fascists are strong supporters of elite theory in which it is argued that only the leader [perhaps with his closest supporters] has the political skills and courage necessary to determine the national interest and to devise and implement the political strategy necessary to promote the national interest. Opposition to the views of the leader, from whatever sources will only undermine national unity. The interests of the citizens will be best served not by their pursuit of their own narrow, misguided self –interest but by strict obedience to the wishes of the leader.



  1. ii) The party disseminates a powerful fascist political ideology.

iii) Opposition to the fascist regime within the society as a whole is severely restricted.

  1. a) No opposition political parties are allowed to exist. Although parliaments may continue to exist they will only voice the opinions of the single fascist party .Competitive elections will no longer exist although there may be plebiscites designed to register approval of the fascist regime
  2. b) The judicial system is also controlled by the party so that citizens cannot be protected in the courts.
  3. c) Trade unions and other pressure groups are either prohibited or lose their independence via their integration into corporate state mechanisms dominated by the fascist government.
  4. d) The Fascist government will aim to control the mass media, the education system and the Church.
  5. e) Freedom of speech and association are heavily restricted and dissidents would risk severe punishment or death in prisons or concentration camps.

The Italian Fascist attitudes to the state may be seen in the following quotations:


Mussolini: “The fascist conception of the state is all embracing: outside the state no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have any value. Thus understood Fascism is totalitarian”.


Giovanni Gentile [one of Mussolini’s key intellectual supporters]; “Everything for the state: nothing against the state: nothing outside the state.”


Fascists argue nevertheless that this totalitarian form of government would be preferable in every respect to liberal democracy because it would end the unnecessary division associated with liberal democracy and instead create help to create the national unity which is essential to the promotion of the national interest.



Italian Fascism, German Nazism and Totalitarianism in Practice


The theory of totalitarianism was a much more prominent element of Italian Fascist ideology than of German Nazi ideology but in practice both regimes introduced a range of policies designed to impel their political systems toward totalitarianism.


However is often suggested that in practice the German Nazi regime was actually more totalitarian than the Italian Fascist regime.

Mussolini’s Italian Fascist party contained important regional leaders whom Mussolini often found difficult to control.

He never gained full control over the armed forces.

The Italian Catholic Church remained relatively powerful and more so than in Germany

The King remained in office and although weak might in principle have had some moderating influence on Mussolini.

The scope and activity of the Italian fascist secret police was smaller than in Germany.

Political opponents were killed, tortured and imprisoned without cause in Italy but not to the same extent as in Germany.

The Italian treatment of the Jews was discriminatory but far, far less so than in Germany.

Even in the late 1930s although Mussolini did control the mass media very carefully he also believed that limited press freedom might be desirable as a means of creating a favourable impression abroad. This would end once the alliance with Hitler was formed and war seemed increasingly likely.








In any case the concept of totalitarianism has attracted several criticisms and we must use it with care.

  1. a) One party states claim that they can be democratic because in election, the voters can choose between different candidates of the same party which do have significantly different political opinions.
  2. b) It is also claimed that in liberal democracies, different parties exist to represent the interests of private property and of labour respectively. If all property is owned by the State, cannot one party represent the society as a whole?
  3. c) There can be no doubt that Stalin's USSR, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were vicious, repressive regimes, but they were also significantly different, so that it might not be justified to use the same term to apply to all of them.
  4. d) In this respect, it has been claimed that 'totalitarianism' is essentially a Cold-War concept, used as part of the ideological defence of liberal democracy. The tactic of describing Fascism, Nazism and Soviet Communism as different variants of the same form of government has neglected the important ideological differences between them and aimed to weaken the essentially rationalist Marxist critique of capitalism through association with Stalinist terror and Fascist and Nazi appeal to unreason.
  5. e) Thus although you may choose to disagree with Marxist theories they are not based on assumptions that individuals have the capacity to decide their actions rationally rather than that they are driven to a large extent on emotion and self-interest rather than reason so that all important decisions should be left to the supreme leader.
  6. f) Marxists provide an analysis of capitalism entirely different from that provided by fascists. It is based upon the inevitability of class conflict under capitalism rather than on the possibility of ending class conflict via the introduction of the corporate state.
  7. g) Marxists have argued for the abolition of capitalism and the common ownership of the means of production. In practice the “end of communism” in the former USSR is leading to the return of private enterprise but Marxists still support the common ownership of the means of production.
  8. g) Marxist socialists claim to be anti-racist in every respect and to believe in international solidarity. German Nazis were anti-Semitic and anti-Slavic. Apart from the Jews the greatest enemies of German Nazis and Italian fascists were Marxists signaling the ideological differences between their views.
  9. f) Marxist socialists are in principle internationalists rather than driven by extreme ultra-nationalism although in practice in the post-war period the Marxist leaders of the USSR and of China also seemed in several respects to be driven by their perceptions of their own national interest rather than by international solidarity.
  10. g) In the 1960's, the radical theorist Herbert Marcuse strikingly argued that liberal democratic regimes exhibit their own form of 'soft euphoric totalitarianism' in which the possibilities of fundamental, liberating social change are nipped in the bud by a combination of the capitalist socialisation process and the provision of a range of consumer goods and leisure opportunities which nevertheless have progressively de-humanised our culture. It may be, however, that this is not an accurate use of the term, for watching a series of mind-numbing TV programmes appears infinitely preferable to life in one of Stalin's labour camps.


I hope that you will find these notes useful.