Origins of Fascist Ideology

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Origins of Fascist Ideology: Part Two: Elite Theories and Nationalism


  • The Classical Elite Theorists: Vilfredo Pareto [1848-1923], Gaetano Mosca [1858-1941] and Robert Michels[1876-1936]

Fascist ideologists distorted some of the philosopher Nietzsche’s ideas to provide support for the leadership principle which is an important core element of fascist ideology and they also distorted the social scientific Elite Theories of Vilfredo Pareto [1848-1923], Gaetano Mosca [1858-1941] and Robert Michels [1876-1936] to similar effect. Here will be provided a brief outline of the main general principles of elite theories followed by a little more detailed information on each of the three versions of what are now known as classical elite theories.

Elite theories: general principles

  1. All societies throughout history contain a small political elite which rules and the large remaining mass of the population which is ruled.
  2. Elite theorists claim that all liberal and socialist analyses of societies were ideological and based upon faith or belief rather than scientific and based upon the collection and analysis of relevant evidence. Liberals and socialists might like to believe in the advantages of liberal representative government or egalitarian socialism but they had done absolutely nothing to prove scientifically that such advantages actually existed or might exist in the future.
  3. Instead the elite theorists claimed that they alone had developed theories which were based not on ideology but upon the social scientific analysis of past and present societies which enabled them to state with certainty the social scientific law that all societies, even those which appear to be democratic are actually ruled by a small political elite.
  4. This political elite might establish its dominance through wealth [as in the Marxist theory] but also through military force, religious leadership, bureaucratic position or superior personal qualities. The importance of personal qualities tended to be emphasized more by Pareto than by Mosca and Michels.
  5. One in power the political elite could retain its power by means of superior organizational skills available to small groups which would enable it easily to prevent the masses from gaining political power.
  6. However human history could be seen as an ongoing process involving the so-called circulation of elites whereby one elite gradually replaced another.
  7. All classical elite theorists had a negative, pessimistic view of the masses. Thus, for example John Morrow summarises the position as follows:” In democratic societies the organizational or psychological characteristics allow members of the elite to manipulate a supposedly all powerful mass made up of a large and diverse number of unimaginative, poorly organized and not clearly directed individuals.” [History of Political Thought: A Thematic Introduction: John Morrow 2005]
  8. Both Pareto and Mosca criticized strongly Marxist theories for their general non- scientificity and for their misguided understanding of the working class. According to Pareto and Mosca the working class lacked the interest, initiative and organization to promote socialist revolution and any alleged future socialist revolution would necessarily be organized by a new socialist elite which, if successful would rule in its own interests rather than in the interests of the working class which it disingenuously claimed to represent. Real socialism was impossible: elite rule was inevitable.
  9. Pareto, Mosca and Michels were also critical of the working of Italian liberal democracy under conditions of universal suffrage as will be shown below in the section son the individual theorists.


Vilfredo Pareto [1848-1923]

  1. Pareto argued that in every area of social life there are groups of individuals who are the most talented and successful in their chosen activities which collectively could be described as elites and so there are elite doctors, accountants, athletes and so on.
  2. There also exists governing elite whose individual members are involved in political decision making. Pareto concentrates his attention on the governing elite.
  3. Governing elites attempt to retain their powers by some combination of force and persuasion which in Pareto’s view is often based upon ideological distortion and outright fraud.
  4. This next point is a little trick. I have lifted it directly from “Political Elites” [Geraint Parry 1969]. Pareto argues that human instinct plays an important role in determining human behaviour and in this context he distinguishes between Class 1 residues and Class 2 residues and Parry develops this point as follows:” Class 1 residues reflect the instinct of combinations…the impulse to put together ideas by the use of imagination. Arts, ideologies and political coalitions and manoeuvrings would all stem from this active, inventive instinct. Class 2 residues reflect the instinct for the persistence of aggregates…the tendency to consolidate positions once they are established. Class 2 residues are manifestations of instincts for permanence, stability and order. They appear in appeals for solidarity, order, discipline, property or family.”
  5. Pareto then argues that elites may be dominated by foxes that are influenced primarily by Class 1 residues and favour rule via political manipulation and propaganda or by lions that are influenced primarily by Class 2 residues and are prepared if necessary to use force to achieve and retain political power. It is also possible that particular governing elite may contain a mixture of foxes and lions although Pareto considered this to be unlikely.
  6. It is certainly true that in the late c19th and early C20th Pareto became increasingly dissatisfied with the political manoeuvring of Italy’s liberal political elite [who he would have described as foxes] and that he became drawn to the idea of a government dominated by “lions”.
  7. According to Parry in the lions’ style of government “the pursuit of consensus is abandoned in favour of the use of force. Opposition may be ruthlessly suppressed. Public order rather than private satisfaction becomes a chief end of government. Such elites are far from lacking in ideals, however….Pareto, contemptuous as he was of what he believed to be the corruption, sterile manoeuvrings and political cowardice of the continental democracies of his day, rejoiced in the use of violence by the men of action; the Caesars and the Mussolini’s. He wastes no sympathy on the victims who are merely indices of the courage and strength of the men of decision who are “ridding the country of a baneful animal pest.”
  8. Mussolini claimed to have attended Pareto’s lectures at the University of Lausanne in his youth and also appointed him a senator in 1923 shortly before his death. However the historian James Joll states that if Pareto had lived longer he would surely have become a vociferous critic of Mussolini’s regime “It was perhaps well for Pareto’s relations with the Italian government that he did not live long enough to turn the scorn of his icy intellect on to the bombast and emptiness of Mussolini’s political ideas and to observe in European Fascism the typical development he had observed in previous regimes relying chiefly on physical force which “ tended to degenerate into government by armed mobs.”.


Gaetano Mosca [1858-1941]

Despite Gaetano Mosca’s claims to scientific objectivity his complex theories reflected his liberal conservative beliefs. He was, however, certainly no supporter of Italian Fascism. Here are some of the key elements of Mosca’ theories.

  1. Mosca sees elite rule as inevitable as is indicated in the following famous quotation: “In all societies two classes of people appear…a class that rules and a class that is ruled. The first class is always the less numerous, performs all political functions, monopolises power and enjoys all the advantages that power brings whereas the second, the most numerous class, is directed and controlled by the first.” It is important to note with regard to this quotation that the term “ruling class” is Mosca’s term for the “political elite.”
  2. Mosca was consistently critical of Marxism and in his early career also very critical of liberal democracy arguing that voters could choose only between candidates selected by the political party bosses who were therefore at the inner core of the political elite. This meant that no man of principle would stand for political office and that representatives would instead be of mediocre quality.
  3. However Mosca also distinguished between different strata of the political elite: between upper elite and a lower elite of professionals without whom the upper elite cannot govern effectively. He often associated this lower stratum of the political elite with the professional middle classes. Furthermore the upper elite would be able to preserve its powers especially if it recruited the most talented members of the lower elite whereas if it remained too socially exclusive it would gradually weaken and be replaced.
  4. This emphasis on the importance of the middle class, professional lower elite made Mosca increasingly sympathetic to liberal democracy which would increase opportunities for political participation of the middle classes and he argued also that the ruling class [i.e. the political elite.] might also be divided among two or more political parties competing for the votes of the electorate.
  5. However he also retained his very pessimistic view of the masses and believed that the granting of universal suffrage had been a terrible mistake since the masses could easily be manipulated by demagogic political leaders. Instead he would have preferred the suffrage to have remained restricted to the upper and middle classes although he believed also 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 strongly and bravely against Mussolini in 1925.
  • Robert Michels [1876-1936]

Robert Michels was a friend and colleague of Gaetano Mosca and became a radical but increasingly disillusioned member of the German Social Democratic Party. In his study “Political Parties [1911] he combined the broad concepts of Elite theory with detailed empirical research on social democratic political parties in general and on the German Social Democratic Party in particular to propound his so-called “Iron Law of Oligarchy” : “Who says organization says oligarchy.”

According to Michels although the German Social Democratic Party still claimed to support socialist objectives and to allow significant influence for party members in party policy making it was in practice an organization dominated by its own self-interested, careerist and therefore leaders with little real interest in the concerns of  often more radical party members.

Geraint Parry [Political Elites: 1969] explains as follows “mass control conflicts with efficiency and is replaced by professional direction both in policy making and technical administration. The result of this technical indispensability of leadership is that control of the party passes into the hands of the leading politicians and its bureaucracy.” Furthermore since the party can form a government only via electoral success an electoral strategy must be developed which attracts not only the committed voters but also many voters whoa re not fully committed to socialist principles.

As a result the powers of electorally attractive party leaders, party political strategists and parliamentary representatives [who can claim mass popular electoral support] all increase while critics of the party leadership can be undermined by accusations that their criticisms undermine the electorally necessary image of party unity.

Geraint Parry points out also that Michels had a rather pessimistic view of the masses’ likely interest in political issues. “For Michels apathy goes with technical incompetence in political matters. Political knowledge has to be organized to be effective and in Michels’ description the majority is too apathetic to organize itself. Such men have, he believes a psychological need for guidance. They are glad to have others take on political responsibilities. Even revolutionary agitation has to be undertaken by a small minority on their behalf. Such apathy, submissiveness and deference provide ideal conditions for the few with the interest and organizational ability to lead.”

Michels’ belief that all parliamentary socialist parties were inevitably dominated by moderate leadership elite led him to support revolutionary syndicalism but also subsequently to support national syndicalism and fascism.

Marx, Lenin and Elite Theory.

[Most of this is taken directly from an internet site. It is intended to show that elite theory is not associated only with the eventual rise of fascism.]

Although Marxist theory focuses primarily on the class conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat which is to lead to the revolutionary abolition of capitalism we can also see elitist ideas within Marxist and Leninist theory. “Marx accepted the necessity of a "dictatorship of the proletariat" after the Communists had taken power in order to suppress those who would attempt to restore their privileged position in the old society.

  1. I. Lenin, who led the first communist movement to actually win state power, did so on the basis of his theory that only an small disciplined party of professional revolutionaries, controlled by a small theoretically sophisticated political elite organized as a central committee, could be efficient enough to win power from the capitalists. According to Lenin the working classes on their would only reach a “trade union consciousness” of the injustice of their low wages and poor working conditions without realizing the necessity of socialist revolution if fundamental improvements were to be achieved..

Nevertheless Marx argued that once socialism had been established in conditions of affluence, coercion would no longer be necessary and everyone could share in the administration of common affairs thereby suggesting a much more optimistic view of human nature which would reach its full potential under socialism and Lenin supported this long term outlook.

However the precise details of the transitions from capitalism to socialism and from socialism to communism were s never specified and the history of the Soviet Union after the Communist Party took power certainly provided ammunition for the argument that a revolution which intended to abolish elites would simply replace one elite with another.”