Introducing Fascism

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Introducing Fascism


The word “fascism” derives from the Italian “fasces” which was a bundle of rods with a protruding axe carried before magistrates during the times of the Roman Republic to symbolise their authority as well as the importance of strength through unity. It is associated also with the word “fascio” [plural “fasci”] which referred to small often left-wing political groupings which existed in Italy in the late C19th and early C20th. On March 23rd 1919 a small meeting in Milan attended by Mussolini led to the formation of a “fascio di combattimento” which along with the more significant growth of fascism in the towns of rural northern Italy in 1920 and 1921 would lead to the formation a coalition government dominated by Mussolini and the fascists in 1922. However it is no simple matter to clarify the meaning of the ideology of fascism.


In everyday political discussion the words “fascism” and “fascist” are often used almost unthinkingly to describe ones opponents especially if one believes that they are acting in authoritarian and possibly violent ways. The terms are more likely to be applied to those on the political Right than those on the political Left [despite the ideological associations of fascism with both Left and Right] although exceptions to this usage can easily be found.


Thus while PM Thatcher was once described as a “stocking footed fascist”, communists in the 1930s once described social democrats as “social fascists” and  in more recent times the term “fascist” has sometimes been applied to the sorts of “politically correct” views that many liberals find perfectly acceptable. As evidence of the use of “fascism” as a catch-all term of political abuse Professor Richard Griffiths notes that “From differing points of view the IRA, the RUC, Robert Mugabe, Mrs Thatcher, Slobodan Milosevic, President Clinton, the Daily Telegraph, Sir Winston Churchill, General de Gaulle, the Tate Modern, Opus Dei, Old Labour, New Labour… and even the Pope have all at one time or another been described as “fascist”


However Professor Griffiths notes also that fascism is a word that is far too important to apply indiscriminately because “it is a word which, in the history of the C20th, is intimately connected with some of the most terrible events which have ever taken place, events which still cast their shadow over us today.” If we are to understand these events we need a careful understanding of the meaning of fascism.


Professor M. Blinkhorn has pointed out in his study “Fascism and the Right in Europe in Europe 1919- 1945 [2000] that although “pre-fascist” ideas developed especially in the late C19th, the development of broader political authoritarianism in Europe is associated with the interwar period 1919- 1939 such that whereas in 1920 all of the countries of Europe other than the communist USSR could be described as liberal democracies [ although the extent of liberal democracy in Hungary was limited] by the Summer of 1939 Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, the dismembered Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Albania and Greece were “all subject to one form or another of right wing authoritarianism.


However once the extent of European right wing authoritarianism is noted other important issues are raised.

  • We must attempt to describe the key characteristics of fascism and to distinguish between fascism and other forms of right wing authoritarianism.
  • We must attempt to decide whether both Italian Fascism and German Nazism are variants of “generic fascism” or whether Nazism is better to be regarded as a separate political ideology especially because of its egregious commitments to racist and anti- Semitic ideas.
  • Although fascism is associated especially with Europe 1919- 1945 we must note that regimes developed elsewhere such as in Japan and Argentina which shared some of the characteristics of fascism and that in the post Second World War period political parties such as the French National Front and the British National Party have developed which have been described as in some respects fascist or neo-fascist.
  • With regard to the key characteristics of fascism we must distinguish between fascist ideology, fascist movements and fascist regimes. Thus even if we can establish the core elements of fascist ideology, we may find that there are major disputes within actual fascist movements as to the relative importance of different elements which may also change over time and furthermore, once fascist movements actually form fascist regimes or governments [which occurred only in the cases of Italian Fascism and German Nazism] they may face a range of political constraints which force them to reduce their commitment to their original fascist ideology



Bearing in mind these issues we may begin the analysis of fascist ideology by the consideration of some brief definitions of fascism which certainly high-light important elements of fascist ideology. Thus Professor Griffiths offers the following short definitions:

  • Fascism is definable as an ideology with a specific “positive” utopian vision of the ideal state of society.
  • Fascism is a synthesis of organic nationalism and anti-Marxist socialism.
  • Fascism is a combination of mass revolutionary strategies with reactionary ideologies compounded of virulent ultra-nationalism, exaltation of irrationality, illegality, violence and fanatical anti-communism.


Andrew Heywood similarly provides several well known short definitions of fascism.

  • Fascism is a “resistance to transcendence”. [Ernst Nolte 1965]
  • Fascism looks to construct “the total charismatic community” [A J Gregor 1969]
  • Fascism constitutes “palingenetic ultranationalism”. [Roger Griffin1993]
  • Fascism is “ a holistic-national radical Third Way” [Roger Eatwell 1996]


Nevertheless the limitations of such brief definitions are accepted and Andrew Heywood concludes that, “While each of these undoubtedly highlights an important feature of fascism it is difficult to accept that any single sentence formula can sum up a phenomenon as resolutely shapeless as fascist ideology. Perhaps the best we can do is to identify a collection of themes that when taken together constitute fascism’s structural core. The most significant of these include the following: anti-rationalism, struggle, leadership and elitism, socialism and ultranationalism”. Perhaps so but there are also other important aspects of fascist ideology to be considered as Andrew Heywood recognises in the rest of his chapter.   I propose to use the following list as already outlined in the section two of the Fascist Checklist. Some comparisons will also be made with similar checklists provided by Professor Blinkhorn and by Professor Stanley Payne in “A History of Fascism 1914-1945” [1995]


  • Fascism and human nature: rationalism, irrationalism and the Enlightenment
  • Fascist criticism of existing societies
  • Anti-liberalism, anti-conservatism and anti- radical socialism.
  • Ultra-nationalism, colonialism, imperialism, racialism and anti-Semitism
  • Elite Theories
  • Social struggle, violence and war
  • Fascism, mass mobilisation and radical social change
  • National reconstruction and the “new fascist man”
  • Fascism and Totalitarianism
  • Corporatism and the Third Way
  • Fascism, modernity and tradition


Fascism and Human Nature


Human beings differ in important respects: in terms of their gender, ethnicity, age, social class membership, physical and mental qualities and so on but when we refer to the concept of human nature we mean “the essential and immutable [i.e. unchangeable] character of all human beings.” Andrew Heywood has suggested that there are three major disputes about human nature. What is the relative importance of heredity and the environment in the determination of human behaviour? Are human beings primarily rational or are they to a considerable extent guided by irrational emotions and passions? And are they naturally competitive and motivated by narrow individual self-interest or primarily cooperative, altruistic and motivated by community spirit?