The Nature of Fascist Ideology
Fascist ideology originated from a series of criticisms of the core values of the Enlightenment in which it was suggested that Enlightenment thinkers had overstated the importance of individual rationality as the main determinant of individual behaviour and that in fact individual behaviour was influenced more by emotion and will than by the rational intellect.
This led fascists to adopt a negative attitude to human nature : they made a sharp distinction between the positive qualities of the members of the political elite and particular the political leader who had the capacity for political rule and the masses whose own capacities were limited but who could easily be persuaded via propaganda to accept elite rule without question. Ultimately the fascists hoped for the creation of a “New Fascist Man” who would be strong and aggressive but at the same time dedicated to the national interest as interpreted by the supreme leader to whom all citizens would be totally obedient. Meanwhile “New Fascist Women” were to focus on the production of healthy children who would eventually swell the armed forces.
In opposing Enlightenment rationalism fascists also opposed all of the political values associated with the Enlightenment such as support for liberal democratic political institutions, the rule of law, civil rights and liberal internationalism. Instead the fascists aimed to create a powerful centralised state dominated by strong leaders: fascists parties would exist but opposition parties would be outlawed; pressure groups would not act independently but would be incorporated into a so-called corporate state based upon the organic unity of the nation and the mass media would be strictly controlled.
This corporate state could be presented as representing a so-called Third Way intermediate between communism and capitalism rejecting both unregulated laissez faire and revolutionary socialism and superficially at least similar to reformist socialism although in practice fascists’ main enemies included moderate socialists as well as communists and their social policies in practice did little to improve working class conditions.
The fascist state could also be analysed in terms of the concept of totalitarianism. As described by the Italian fascists the totalitarian state was preferable to the liberal democratic state because it encouraged national unity rather than the social division and individual self –interest promoted by competing political parties and pressure groups. However totalitarianism is a complicated concept which must be used with care.
Expansionary nationalism was also a core element of fascist ideology. Only the political elite could interpret the national interest accurately and the national interest demanded that individual self- interest and class division should be replaced by national unity which would create the conditions for economic improvement and also prepare the nation for eventual wars by which both Germany and Italy would be able to conquer other nations as a means of increasing their territories. Rather than seeing international politics as based upon willingness to make compromises in order to create international political harmony fascists saw international struggle based on the willingness to go to war as the means by which nations could increase their international political power. Roger Griffin has emphasised the importance of palingenetic ultra-nationalism as one of the central myths of fascist ideology. [This is discussed elsewhere in your notes]
It should be noted also that the Nazis especially used ideas of anti-Semitic racism in an attempt to promote the unity of the German race and in particular in an attempt to encourage members of the working class to see themselves as valued members of the German race and nation rather than as disadvantaged members of that nation. This, the fascists hoped, would help to reduce class conflict and to foster national unity. However it was seen by socialists as a strategy designed to deflect the attention of the working class from the role of capitalism as a source of their exploitation and thereby to weaken their support for socialism as a means of helping the fascists to power.
As has been mentioned, several elements of fascist ideology originated in the critical reactions against Enlightenment rationalism but it is noteworthy also that the ideology of fascism was likely to appear attractive especially in the social and political conditions which existed in Italy and Germany in the aftermath of the First World War.
- Germany had experienced military defeat and in the Versailles Treaty had lost territory, was saddled with expensive war reparations and was obliged to accept responsibility for starting the war.
- Italy had fought in alliance with France, the UK and Russia but gained little territory as a result of the Treaty of Versailles.
- The Russian Revolution had occurred in 1917 and there were fears that communist revolution was possible also in Italy and Germany. The fascist opposition to communism increased their popularity with opponents of capitalism especially among the Bourgeoisie who gradually came to believe that only the fascists could defend the capitalist system against communist revolution.
- In any case support for the institutions of liberal democracy was not especially strong among some sections of the upper and middle classes.
- There were serious economic difficulties for both countries immediately after the war and these were blamed partly on the weaknesses of the liberal democratic political systems operative in Italy and Germany. What was necessary, it was increasingly claimed, was strong leadership.
- In Germany the economic situation did improve gradually during the 1920s but the Great Crash of 1929 forced the USA and Western Europe into serious economic depression which helped to explain the increased electoral support for Hitler’s Nazi party in the early 1930s.
The above section of these notes should help you to write an introduction to any question on fascist ideology. Depending on the question title you may then need more detailed information on particular aspects of fascism. This information is provided in the other documents on Fascism where we have covered the following issues:
The Enlightenment and the origins of fascist ideology
Fascism and expansionary ultra-nationalism
Fascism, capitalism and socialism
Fascism and elite theories
Fascism, totalitarianism, racialism and struggle will be covered in the final document ….which is not finished but I can make plans to email it to you in the next 2-3 days.
There are also a few points in your revision notes which I have not mentioned here…page 6 on leadership could be added at the end of my section on Elite theory and pages 7-9 could be combined with my notes on Totalitarianism when I email them. I have insufficient time to cover differences between Italian fascism and Nazism or the roles of tradition and modernity within fascism or relationships with conservatism or neo-fascism. Look these up in the text books….it will not take long.
It may well be true that the theorists of the Enlightenment did overestimate the role of rationality in the determination of individual behaviour. The emotional life may be central to human happiness; we may be influenced by our unconscious as well as our conscious minds; we may be susceptible to influence by charismatic politicians and nationalist sentiments can be shown to be still extremely powerful in some parts of the world.
Furthermore it is possible that liberal individualism does generate a rather self- interested outlook and that in principle a corporatist state based upon class collaboration is a viable political prospect.
However in the ideology of fascism these ideas were combined, twisted, perverted and abused by unscrupulous dictatorial leaders [heavily influenced also by the sickness of anti-Semitic and anti-Slav racism in the German case] who used their control of the state to pursue ultra-nationalistic and racist policies in a way which led to the slaughter of millions of innocent people. Yet we must also recognise that if the dangers of fascism had been recognised earlier this slaughter could have been avoided. That is the lesson from history.