The Origins of Fascist Ideology
The Italian Fascists and German National Socialists came to power initially as partners in coalition governments in 1922 and 1933 respectively while in the UK Oswald Mosley formed the British Union of Fascists in 1932 and other right wing authoritarian regimes developed elsewhere in Europe. In the course of the 1920s and 1930s opposition to fascism developed especially among communists and left social democrats but among centrists and conservatives there was often some initial support for fascist movements and regimes because of their apparently effective economic strategies for dealing with economic recession and because they were seen as decidedly preferable to the communist revolutionary alternative. Then came the era of appeasement when the UK and French governments accepted German expansionism in Europe as a price worth paying for the avoidance of all out European war although the dangers of appeasement were certainly increasingly recognised, for example by Winston Churchill and his supporters.
During and after the Second World War it was argued by many opponents of fascism that since fascist regimes had been responsible for the outbreak of war and for the resultant millions of deaths including the genocidal murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust the ideology of these regimes must itself be essentially irrational.
It was pointed out that the ideologists of fascism had been much influenced by a variety of theories developed during the late C19th and early C20th which had called into question the basic principles of Enlightenment thought based upon individual rationality, human rights and political liberalism. However according to critics of fascist ideology the fascists had also intentionally simplified and misinterpreted these critiques of Enlightenment thought so that they appeared as justifications for fascism that their originators in most cases certainly would not have accepted.
Enlightenment thinkers had also supported a liberal variant of nationalism based upon the rights of the people of every nation to control their own affairs but the fascist variant of nationalism has been described as an expansionary ultra-nationalism which incorporated elements of Social Darwinism [and in the Nazi case also elements of racism and anti-Semitism] which would lead inevitably to extreme violence and war
Furthermore although the ideology of socialism is clearly based upon international solidarity rather than nationalism the fascists claimed that the readiness of socialists to support entry into the 1st World War in defence of their perceived national interests rather than to support neutrality based upon international class solidarity indicated that their ideology which amounted to a fusion between Right and Left, between nationalism and socialism provided a more realistic alternative to orthodox socialism because, in their view, working class interests could be advanced only via national unity based around corporatist-type economic arrangements. However despite this apparent synthesis fascists remained implacably and violently opposed to revolutionary Marxist socialism, an opposition which the Marxists certainly reciprocated
Several writers have been dismissive of fascist ideology on the grounds that it is unacceptably critical of Enlightenment thinking; that it is based upon intentional misrepresentation of otherwise credible theories; that it seeks to provide an unrealistic synthesis of right and left ideologies, of nationalism and socialism; that there has been an enormous gulf between fascist ideology and the actual activities of fascist movements and regimes; and that under fascism ideology has been used far more for propagandistic purposes than to offer a framework for rational political debate. Thus, for example, Andrew Heywood quotes Professor Hugh Trevor Roper to the effect that fascism is “an ill sorted hodgepodge of ideas” while according to Andrew Vincent, “fascism sometimes occupies a middle ground somewhere between rational political ideology on the one hand and opportunistic adventurism on the other.” However Andrew Vincent continues, “Fascism is profoundly eclectic and occasionally bizarre. Many of its statements appear as simple minded, vague rhetoric and propaganda. Yet should we always expect consistency and high levels of analysis from an ideology? In other words is there always such a hard and fast distinction to be drawn between ideology and propaganda? Ideology can appear in many guises from the simple to the most complex. We should not disregard something because it is bizarre, simplistic, eclectic or propagandist in intent,”
Hence it might be argued that as an ideology Fascism contains a mixture of rational and irrational elements all of which should be studied carefully. Further in his study Fascism Roger Eatwell has emphasised that the rationality some elements of fascism should not be understated and that if fascist ideology is to be understood it cannot be dismissed summarily as irrational.
In this respect it is necessary firstly to distinguish between ideologies, movements and regimes and to note that most theorists continue to accept the basic rationality of socialism, liberalism and conservatism despite the horrors of the actual Stalinist regime or the continued existence of mass national and international poverty in a world dominated by liberal and conservative ideologies. Secondly it is pointed out that in several respects the critiques of the Enlightenment conception of human rationality were themselves entirely rational criticisms of an excessive, invalid assumption of human rationality within Enlightenment thought; and thirdly theories of elitism, corporatism and totalitarianism are based on reasoned social scientific enquiry even if the actual political and economic organisation of Italian Fascist and German Nazi regimes departed from principles of rational organisation.
Several of these points are emphasised in Roger Eatwell’s study as shown in the following quotations. “Fascism seems devoid of an intellectual pedigree; little more than a rag bag of authoritarian and nationalist slogans….but “in truth fascism is an ideology just like the others.” Also, “there is a sense in which fascist movements and regimes departed significantly from their ideological roots. Although the fascist style of thought involved clear dangers it did not necessarily lead to brutal dictatorship and genocidal practice [in the same way that Marxism did not necessarily lead to Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Terror though flaws in Marxist ideology posed similar dangers”] Roger Eatwell then notes the limitations of short definitions of fascist ideology but then provides his own definition of fascist ideology as “a form of thought which preaches the need for social rebirth in order to forge a holistic national Third Way.” Clearly elements of rationality are implied by this definition of fascist ideology.
Bearing in mind the above introductory points let us now investigate in more detail the history of fascist ideology beginning with a consideration of the Enlightenment and the criticisms of it which helped to form the part of the basis of fascist ideology.
The Enlightenment is used to refer to the chronological period from approximately the 1740s to the 1780s which ushered in major changes in European scientific, social and political thought. The main principles of Enlightenment thinking are summarised below.
- Enlightenment thought drew upon the ideas of C16th and C17th natural scientists who had shown that natural scientific methods of observation, experimentation and rational analysis could provide demonstrably valid explanations of natural phenomena which undermined traditional and religious explanation. Scientific advances would also provide the basis for technological developments which could radically improve economic welfare and living standards
- As a result of these developments individuals themselves came to be perceived not as relatively powerless, passive creatures constrained by the dictates of religion, tradition and environmental circumstance over which they had little control but as active rational beings who could take control over their own lives.
- Enlightenment social theorists began to argue similarly that natural scientific methods might be adapted to rationally analyse entire societies so as to discover social laws which determined their development and propose social reforms which would result in more effective social organisation.
- Enlightenment political theorists accelerated the development of political liberalism which had begun in the C17th particularly in the theories of the English political theorist John Locke and their ideas helped also to create a climate of political opinion which contributed to the American revolutionary wars and subsequent declaration of American independence [1775-1783] and to the French Revolution of 1789. It must nevertheless be emphasised that most Enlightenment thinkers espoused moderate liberal views: they did not support universal suffrage or the more radical phase of the French Revolution from 1792-1794.
- Insofar as Enlightenment thinkers supported political liberalism this meant a belief that since individuals were rational they should also be free to make their own decisions subject only to the condition that they should not harm others which in turn implied that although a limited state was necessary to provide for social order it should not be allowed to restrict the negative freedom of the individual from excessive state control.
- Furthermore there should be significant modifications to the organisation of the state itself. Enlightenment thinkers did not necessarily oppose monarchies but such monarchies should be benevolent rather than despotic and they could no longer claim their legitimacy from the doctrine of the divine right of kings [or queens].
- The powers of elected parliaments should be increased relative to the powers of the monarchy while the relative powers of Executive, Legislature and Judiciary should be organised on the basis of the separation of powers which would restrict the growth of centralised power.
- Enlightenment liberals supported laissez faire as the economic system most likely to promote rising living standards combined with individual freedom in economic affairs and they also supported typical liberal freedoms such as freedom of the press, of association and of religious belief. However they neither believed that parliaments should be elected by neither universal suffrage nor that government should intervene to provide social welfare for the disadvantaged. They were moderate liberals but not democrats and not socialists.
This Enlightenment emphasis on individual rationality and freedom and political liberalism was soon criticised by conservatives such as Edmund Burke who argued that traditional values and institutions embodied the distilled wisdom of past generations and that they should continue to provide the main guide lines for the behaviour whose freedoms should be restricted because they were far less rational than liberals assumed as had become abundantly clear when the French Revolution descended into what Burke and others described as social chaos after 1792.
Furthermore within the Romantic Movement it was argued that the Enlightenment emphasis on science ,rationality, calculation and economic success had promoted an excessively materialistic outlook on life in which it was assumed that happiness derived primarily from one’s material possessions all of which distracted attention from the passions and emotions as more important determinants of individual happiness or misery and from the benefits of the simple traditional life relative to the new rational civilisation much prized by most but not all[Jean Jacques Rousseau was an exception to the rule] Enlightenment theorists.
It has been argued that the origins of fascist ideology may be traced back especially to a range of theories developed in the late c19th and early C20th which rejected important elements of Enlightenment thinking opposing n Enlightenment conceptions of human nature based upon human rationality,, Enlightenment support for political and economic liberalism and Enlightenment support for liberal internationalism. Before considering some of these theories let us first investigate in general terms fascist views of human nature.
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. Are human beings primarily rational or are they to a considerable extent guided by irrational emotions and passions? Are they naturally competitive and motivated by narrow individual self-interest or primarily cooperative, altruistic and motivated by community spirit? And what is the relative importance of heredity and the environment in the determination of human behaviour?
In relation to these disputes it would be argued in fascist ideology that individuals are influenced far more by irrational emotions and drives and far less by conscious rational thought than is suggested in liberal, socialist and conservative ideology [although conservatives too originally argued that liberals had overstated the extent of human rationality.] Fascists claim also that individuals are essentially competitive rather than collaborative and that both individuals and nations are locked in a social Darwinist struggle for the survival of the fittest which justifies the use of violence against domestic political opponents and war in order to achieve foreign policy goals. Indeed many fascists argued that individuals could reach their full potential only through actual physical involvement in violent struggle against domestic and international opponents.
Fascists believe that there are inevitable genetically determined differences in talents and abilities between the fascist elite and the remainder or mass of society meaning that only the fascist elite can understand the real interests of the nation as a whole [which therefore justifies elite rule] and that the masses must be and can be easily manipulated by appeals to mass unreason and emotion [which explains the fascist use of political propaganda involving mass demonstrations, demagogic oratory and symbols of national unity and regeneration.
This fascist view of human nature has been influenced heavily by fascist interpretations of the elite theorists Pareto, Mosca and Michels all of whom argued that members of the political elite possessed superior personal qualities and/or organisational skills not available to the so-called masses. For example Geraint Parry [Political Elites 1969] summarizes Michels’ description of the masses as follows, “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.” Fascists argued further that the masses might feel themselves to be in need of strong leadership particularly in difficult economic times for example during the 1920s and 1930s when fascist movements came to power in Italy and Germany. [Elite theories will be considered in more detail in the second part of this topic.]
Whereas in contemporary liberal, socialist and conservative ideology there is an emphasis on the universal similarities of the entire human race it is emphasised in German national socialist ideology that although there are natural differences in talents and abilities between the elite and the mass within the German Aryan race this race is nevertheless superior to all other races and in particular to the Jewish race. Italian fascist ideology was not originally especially anti-Semitic but it increasingly became so as a result of the strengthening political alliance with Nazi Germany. In both Nazi and Italian fascist ideology the overall supremacy of the white race was automatically assumed but we must remember also that both anti-Semitism and white supremacism were also widespread throughout Europe, Russia and the USA in the 1920s and 1930s.
Fascist ideologists oppose liberalism partly because it is assumed to foster a self-interested individualism which inhibits the development of national unity. However in the case of Italian fascism it is argued that the development of the strong totalitarian state based upon elite leadership and corporatist economics can lead to the emergence of the “new fascist man” for whom the most important instructions were contained in slogans such as “Believe: Fight: Obey:” all of which implies that the social and political environment can have some effects on human behaviour although given the alleged biological limitations of the masses the “new fascist man” will not be required or expected to think for himself while women are to focus especially on their biological roles as bearers of the new generation of fascist children.
In the national socialist ideology the same political factors were combined with egregious laws prohibiting mixed race marriages and programmes of involuntary sterilisation and euthanasia in order to promote Aryan racial purity. Of course even the concept of race is now considered to be scientifically invalid and racial prejudice and discrimination has been outlawed in many states of the world.
Theoretical Precursors of Fascism.
The core principles of Enlightenment thinking were undermined in several respects by the theories of Gustave Le Bon, Georges Sorel and Friedrich Nietzsche.
- Gustave Le Bon [1841-1931]
Gustave Le Bon has been described as a pessimistic conservative critic of both democracy and socialism and in his major work “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind  “he aimed to analyse the impact of the crowd on individual behaviour. “Crowds” were defined very broadly: they certainly included mass rallies and demonstrations but people could also be seen as part of a crowd when they were sitting alone reading a mass circulation newspaper. Le Bon argued that although individuals might behave rationally in most aspects of their private lives they could easily be influenced as members of crowds to participate in destructive violent activities [such as general strikes or even revolutions] which would undermine the conservative social and political order which Le Bon supported.
According to Le Bon by the late C19th there was an increasing danger of such crowd activity but there was at least a chance that it might be prevented if the leaders of the political elite could channel the activities of the crowd in a more constructive direction. However to be effective in this respect the political leader would have to recognise that crowds are essentially irrational.
Thus as Noel O’Sullivan states in his study “Fascism  “, “The great leader is one who appreciates intuitively that “crowds do not reason; that they accept or reject ideas as a whole; that they tolerate neither discussion nor contradiction” and….that crowds suitably influenced are ready to sacrifice themselves for the ideal for which they have been inspired. He is the man, above all, who can organise the crowd politically by calling up its soul, not the voice of reason or material interest but that formidable force known as faith which renders a man the absolute slave to his dream. In order to impart this faith to the masses, however, Le Bon stresses that the great leader must himself be possessed by it as were the Luthers, the Savonarolas and the leaders of the French Revolution. Le Bon also provides advice for the manipulative political leader: his/her message should be simple, clear, unqualified and endlessly repeated.
Although Le Bon hoped that conservative leaders would be able to head this advice and that the less than perfect processes of liberal democracy might at least act as a safety valve reducing the chances of dangerous crowd behaviour his advice certainly helped to provide the basis for subsequent fascist political strategy although, as mentioned, he was certainly no fascist himself.
- Georges Sorel [1847- 1922]
The French syndicalist Georges Sorel [1847-1922] was originally a socialist but he also rejected as unrealistic both the evolutionary, parliamentary reformist route to socialism and the Marxist theory of historical materialism which suggested that socialist revolution would occur inevitably but only when the final economic crisis of capitalism demonstrated that the capitalist system was no longer viable.
Instead Sorel developed theories based upon revolutionary syndicalism whereby political activists would work for socialist revolution within their trade unions [or syndicates] which after the revolution would provide the economic basis for the new socialist society.
Sorel believed that individuals were motivated partly by reason but also by emotional, irrational drives and passions and it was necessary to appeal to both the rational and irrational sides of human nature because cold logic alone would never spur people to revolutionary direct action which would inevitably involve violence which Sorel justified as necessary to advance the revolution and “purge and transform the corrupt old order” as the historian James Joll has expressed it.
Furthermore Sorel believed that individuals were more likely to participate directly in revolutionary activity if they could be persuaded to believe in important “myth” most notably the “myth” that the general strike would lead to the collapse of capitalism. For Sorel this “myth” was not necessarily a falsehood because if sufficient numbers acted on the basis of the “myth” it could become a reality although Sorel did admit that it would not necessarily do so.
Increasingly following the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 Sorel came to believe that nationalist sentiments were more powerful than sentiments of international working class solidarity and that individuals’ behaviour could be much influenced by nationalist myths of national regeneration. He came to believe also that private property should continue to exist in future socialist societies and that workers’ living standards could best be improved via increased overall national production rather than via the redistribution of a smaller given national output.
In effect these views suggested that Sorel was making an intellectual transition from revolutionary socialist syndicalism to a form of national syndicalism in which the whole nation was to be seen as one great national syndicat. Many of Sorrel’s Italian supporters participated in the small fascist groups which were founded between 1914-1919 and also subsequently attended the meeting of the so-called Fasci di Combattimento [March 23rd 1919] which in some respects signalled the real beginnings of Italian Fascism. [However it is unlikely that Sorel would have supported the later developments and many Italian syndicalists left the fascist movement once it began to move significantly to the Right.]
- Friedrich Nietzsche [1844-1900]
The theories of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche [1844-1900] incorporated several criticisms of Enlightenment thinking which were later distorted and manipulated in order to provide spurious intellectual support for fascist ideology. Thus Nietzsche believed that human behaviour was heavily influenced by instinct and will rather than by rational thought and that individuals could develop their full human potential only by acting in accordance with their instinctive and self-interested “will to power”.
Nietzsche believed also that there were very significant biologically determined differences in talents and abilities between 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 political organisation of society which should be dominated by elites.
These ideas clearly contradict the principles of Christian morality and the ideologies of liberalism and socialism all of which suggested that all people should take pity on and assist those in difficult circumstances. However Nietzsche considered that Christianity was a “slave religion” which the disadvantaged majority used to provoke pity for the weak at the expense of the freedom of the strong, a viewpoint which was incorporated also into liberal and socialist ideologies each of which [according to Nietzsche] helped to explain the increasing materialism and decadence of western nations.
Nietzsche’ philosophical ideas could apparently therefore be used to undermine support for Enlightenment liberalism and to provide support for fascism but it has also been noted that Nietzsche’s ideas suffered serious distortion at the hands of his sister, her anti-Semitic husband [Bernhard Foster] and fascist ideologists in general. For example the highly respected 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/her time” and that “his most famous concepts- the will to power and the Superman were intended to apply only to thought and ideas, not to politics and action.”
Furthermore Nietzsche was not a German nationalist; he did not oppose racial intermarriage; he was not anti-Semitic; he would have opposed the mindless violence of fascism; and his vision of the dominant superman whether applied only to philosophy or to politics also did not remotely suggest that he would have supported extremely dangerous leaders such as Mussolini and Hitler or the policies which they implemented.