Are you confused about the meaning of Fascism? If so, you're not alone. Benito Mussolini, the creator of Fascism, famously did not define it until 1932. With Nazis once again making news in America and a neo-Fascist as Italian head of state, I thought it was a good time to offer you an excerpt of an essay I wrote for a German publication on how the meaning of Fascism has changed over a century. I hope you find it useful.
“Everyone is sure they know what Fascism is,” writes Robert Paxton in his 2004 work The Anatomy of Fascism. Paxton gives perhaps the most comprehensive definition I have found, collapsing into one very long sentence many traits of Fascism:
“Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
The Jan. 6 coup attempt changed Paxton's mind about whether Donald Trump and Trumpism can be called Fascist. That brought Paxton into line with scholars such as Jason Stanley, who deems Fascism “a political method” that can appear anytime, anywhere, if conditions are right. This line of thought risks emptying the term of its historical specificity but is essential for understanding our new authoritarian age and the risks we face in America today.
The Fascist Years (1922-1945)
“Does Fascism aim at restoring the State, or subverting it?” Mussolini teased his followers before the 1922 March on Rome that brought him to power, playing on his movement’s ideological ambiguity.
Fascism, as a word, has its roots in the Latin term fasces, or bundle. In the late 19th century, groups of Sicilian peasants rising up against their landlords were known as the fasci Siciliani. This radical tradition found an echo in the fasci di combattimento, or Fascist combat leagues, that Mussolini founded in 1919.
In creating Fascism, Mussolini, a former leftist revolutionary, confused many by "bundling" things that were supposed to be opposite: nationalism and imperialism with socialist elements.
Mussolini's paradoxical definition of Fascism as a "revolution of reaction" is perhaps the most accurate. Fascism aims at radical change brought about by violence and backed up by law to shut down political and social emancipation and take away rights. Soon nothing much beyond rhetoric remained of Mussolini’s leftist past, and indeed leftists were the first and most consistently persecuted targets of Fascism. This pleased his powerful conservative backers, as did his prompt privatization of the insurance and other industries.