Fascism as political phenomenon
It is very difficult to identify characteristics that might justify a classification of fascism either as a uniform political phenomenon or as a consistent and coherent body of theoretical or ideological outlooks.
As a political phenomenon, fascism can only be categorized in very general terms. It comprised a loose family of political movements, widespread in interwar Europe, in which broad-based parties, supported by an ultra-nationalist ideology, utilized both the majoritarian framework of parliamentary democracies and instruments of extra-parliamentary mobilization to replace elected governments with a system of highly coercive and often violent rule by single-party executives. The most important examples of fascist parties in interwar Europe were the PNF in Italy and the NSDAP in Germany, both of which emerged in the aftermath of World War I and were originally sustained by semi-demobilized military units. Other fascist parties were the group of parties known as the Falange in Spain, the British Union of Fascists, the Arrow Cross Party (Hungary), and the Iron Guard (Rumania). The PNF, led by Mussolini, assumed power in 1922, without ever having obtained a strong electoral base. It was eased into government by compliant elite-actors in the state executive, who were unable to construct a workable coalition between parties in parliament and viewed fascist collaboration in government as a cure for rising industrial insurrection and extra-parliamentary violence. The NSDAP, led by Hitler, assumed power in early 1933. The NSDAP had far greater numerical support than the PNF, and it entered government in face of stronger opposition from embedded elites than had been the case in Italy. However, it too obtained access to government through the ultimate collusion of established conservative factions. Fascist parties were normally organized around one powerful leader: for example, Mussolini in Italy, Hitler in Germany, and Franco in Spain (although it is highly questionable whether Franco’s regime was truly fascist). Once established in power, fascist parties either suspended or demolished the institutions of liberal democracy: i.e. elected legislatures, independent judiciaries, and formal constitutions. They opted instead for a governmental system based in unaccountable prerogative rule, conducted by party leadership, in which the directive or quasi-dictatorial force of the fascist party was checked neither by countervailing powers nor by catalogues of general rights, and in which the party executive fused functions normally divided in liberal states between legislatures and executives. In most cases, fascist parties imposed strict censorship on the media, and they ensured that activities in civil society and in the economy were subject to repressive control. In addition to clearly fascist states such as Italy and Germany, a number of other inter-war European states were governed by authoritarian parties that possessed pronounced similarities with fascist movements, often combining fascist elements and Roman Catholic principles of order. Examples of this were Portugal under Salazar and Austria under Dollfuss and Schuschnigg, both of which are often categorized as belonging to the ‘clerico-fascist’ group of regimes.
By far the most important cause of the proliferation of fascist parties and movements was World War I. On one hand, this was due to the fact that the war modified the legal structure of European states. The war created a situation in which the liberal legal order of European nation states was eroded both through the frequent use of prerogative laws by increasingly authoritarian war-time cabinets and through the growing consolidation of semi-constitutional corporate arrangements, in which originally private actors (unions, syndicates and representatives of industrial management) were integrated into the juridical fabric of the state periphery and provided vital assistance in the maintenance of social order and the co-ordination of the war effort. In both these respects, the war dramatically changed the legal system of European states, and the general fusion of prerogative legislation and corporate constitutional formation established primary precedents for the later governmental systems characterized as fascist. On the other hand, this was due to the fact that the war dramatically inflamed nationalistic sentiments in most European populations. The war promoted a highly incubated nationalism, fuelled by military adversity, which, especially in recently unified societies such as Italy and Germany, stimulated ultra-exclusivist experiences of social affiliation and xenophobic euphoria. In addition to this, moreover, in most European societies the aftermath of the war was characterized by extremely high levels of social violence, induced both by industrial disputes spilling over from the war and by the fact that many military units refused fully to disarm after armistice and were often recruited for civilian causes (usually, but not invariably, on the extreme right). This meant that after 1918 many civil and economic conflicts were conducted, outside regular procedural channels, in a climate of intense militarization, most political parties and many social factions retained paramilitary support, and many states hardly maintained a monopoly of political power. In sum, the years 1914-18 saw a weakening of the legal apparatus of early-democratic European states, an extended use of emergency legislation, a rapid incorporation of industrial conflicts in the state periphery, a rise of volatile nationalism, and an incomplete process of post-armistice demobilization: in conjunction, these factors created preconditions for chronically unstable democratic government after 1918, and they had the result that authoritarian parties, able to mobilize brutalized constituencies, could easily profit from weak institutions to gain access to political power. Throughout Europe, the only larger democracies that survived the longer aftermath of the war were those with a strongly unified institutional structure, a relatively embedded tradition of democratic integration, and a relatively successful history of accommodating and pacifying labour conflicts. The existence of a strong liberal bloc, open to and able to assimilate the moderate factions of the labour movement was, after 1918, a vital precondition of democratic stability and of institutional resilience against sabotage by fascist parties.1
In addition to World War I, a further factor that contributed vitally to the growth of fascist parties was the series of devastating economic crises in the early 1920s and 1930s. The appeal of fascist doctrine was intensified by the fact that fascist parties promised solutions (usually involving the forcible conscription of industrial workers) for the high levels of unemployment and bankruptcy caused by these crises. Fascist parties tended initially to campaign on a collectivist platform, offering assurance of security to social groups vulnerable to rapid economic transformation (normally members of the lower middle class, inhabitants of rural areas, and members of the working class not closely aligned to the trade unions). At the same time, however, fascism was vitriolic in its hatred of Marxism, and it attracted middle-class voters by feeding on widespread anxiety about the collapse of capitalism, the threat of Bolshevik revolution, and – above all – the growth of Communist parties stimulated by economic trauma. At the centre of the fascism’s mobilizing power was the fact that it claimed to offer protection from the unconstrained free market whilst preserving capitalism as the dominant system of production. This meant that fascist parties could open up unusual cross-class fissures, bridging normally incompatible socio-economic groups, and they could produce new and destabilizing political alignments to weaken established parties and unsettle more conventional coalitions.
Despite these broadly congruent features, however, there were a number of very salient distinctions between major fascist parties and major fascist states. In Italy, for example, the political system pioneered by Mussolini developed as a hybrid state, which deviated in only partial fashion from more familiar models of liberal and conservative state construction. At one level, Mussolini’s state, established after the material suspension of the parliamentary constitution in the years 1922-25, preserved the elemental structure of a liberal-democratic political order. This regime was founded through a process in which Mussolini, acting as personal party-leader and eventual dictator, colonized and reinforced the classical state executive, and in which he adapted existing administrative units and ministerial offices of the state to suit the directives of his party. However, Mussolini intentionally consolidated his regime by obstructing a complete fusion of the fascist party and the state, and he strengthened his hold on power by strategically upholding the residual edifice of the state constructed during the liberal era: this enabled him to impose discipline on riotous factions in his own party and to consolidate his personal authority over both state and party at the same time. The executive apparatus of Mussolini’s state in fact revolved around the primary institutions of the late-liberal Italian state: it was supported by the monarchy, the army, and the governmental ministries, which were partly and irregularly fused with the leadership elite of the PNF. At a different level, however, in Mussolini’s regime many functions of governance and regulation were detached from clearly public office holders, and many executive and other governmental responsibilities were assigned to private actors, semi-public corporations and privileged personal/clientelistic groups. The detached executive of Mussolini’s party state was stablilized through society by a balanced aggregate of commissioners, industrial technocrats, local prefects and administrators, and federal secretaries, who expansively dilated the societal presence of the state by devolving power to prominent semi-private and regional elites. The political system created by Mussolini in the mid 1920s, in short, was constructed as a model of governance marked at once by the consolidation of a powerful independent personal executive, making extensive use of prerogative legislation, and, simultaneously, by the re-distribution of public offices amongst powerful private societal actors and organizations. In this system, the executive relied on power-sharing arrangements with sympathetic societal groups, and it used prerogative instruments both to stabilize these arrangements and to guarantee privileges for these groups. As a result, Mussolini’s system was marked by low levels of state density, relatively weak state control of society, especially in more remote regions of the country, and high incorporation of private actors in governmental functions. Nonetheless, it retained a strong executive structure, dualistically separated out from the private agreements supporting state power, and it reflected an authoritarian reconstruction of more classical patterns of state design.
The fascist state established in Germany after 1933 assumed a rather different structure. In fascist Germany, the demolition of the classical institutions of the state was far more complete, and the remnants of classical lineaments of statehood were much weaker than was the case in Italy. After a short period of government, the National Socialists conducted a dramatic overhaul of the internal structure of the state that had been created through the course of the Weimar Republic (1919-33). In particular, after 1933, Hitler began comprehensively to dismantle the conventional apparatus of the state administration by fusing offices of state with the personal offices of the governing party and by at once replicating, multiplying and conflating the centres of formal and informal power through society. Like the Italo-fascist state, the National Socialists also relied extensively on private or corporate actors in society to give effective support to their regime and, under the coordinating supervision of the party, private bodies were routinely co-opted to conduct functions of governance. Unlike the fascist regime in Italy, however, the regime constructed by the National Socialists was a political order in which the political party began comprehensively to absorb the existing executive system, to dissolve the conventional administrative integrity of the state, and to transfer power formerly concentrated in ministries of state into divisions of the NSDAP. Hitler’s regime had the crucial distinction from other fascist governments that it used a highly orchestrated mass-party to annex the state, it substantially abolished the existing institutional fabric of statehood, and it forced departments of the state to interlock with offices contained within or established by the NSDAP itself. In consequence, if Italian fascism was in essence a residually statist movement, originating in traditions of semi-republican Bonapartism, National Socialism was an anti-statist movement, which promoted a wholesale absorption of governmental power into private and personalistically structured organizations.
On these grounds, it difficult to see fascist regimes as possessing anything but the most basic common features. The two most prominent fascist states were clearly marked by very significant distinctions in institutional design, especially in the relation between party and state and in the extent of their destruction of liberal/democratic institutions. In Italy, the state proved stronger than the party; in Germany, the party proved stronger than the state. Nonetheless, perhaps the most striking common feature of fascist government lay in the fact that, although diversely proclaimed by their architects as total states, all fascist regimes emerged through the process of their construction as very weak institutional orders, and they sustained their penetration with society through a murky and very diffuse amalgam of private and public authority. It is widely documented, in fact, that Mussolini’s regime was supported by an extensive semi-private bureaucratic order, and that the early fascist period in Italy was marked by a rapid growth of public corporations and associations, which were recruited by the PNF to administer spheres of intersection between the state and the economy. Similarly, Hitler’s regime was based in a selective re-privatization of political power, and it obtained support for the party executive by entrusting the enforcement of power to a diffuse array of private and social actors. The tendency towards authoritarian state construction by means of a selective re-privatization or societalization of public authority was also a prominent feature of fascist and quasi-fascist governance in Spain, Portugal and Austria. At a fundamental institutional level, therefore, fascist governance might be defined as a system of party-led authoritarianism, flanked by a far-reaching allocation of public responsibilities to sources of private power, in which the fascist party, diversely fusing public and private office, acted to shore up systemic support through society both by guaranteeing particular social privileges and utilizing erratic instruments of violence.
Fascism as ideological phenomenon
Analysis of the ideological foundations of fascism is afflicted by similar problems of definition and categorization. In their most prominent theoretical and ideological orientations, for example, the major fascist parties were dramatically divergent, and some of the most volatile political questions of interwar Europe were addressed in entirely different fashion by different fascist parties and regimes. For instance, it is widely assumed that fascism intensified the mood of fervent nationalism resulting from World War I, and fascism is often defined, intrinsically, as an ethnically discriminatory or ‘racist’ movement. Nonetheless, although the National Socialists in Germany formed a viciously anti-Semitic and ultimately genocidal movement, neither Italian fascism nor Spanish Franquism were marked by levels of ‘racism’ discernibly higher than those of their rival parties in the democratic bloc or in European states that did not convert to fascism. Mussolini only passed ‘racial’ laws after 1935, by which time his policies were strongly influenced by Hitler. Franco’s Spain was often seen as offering relatively safe passage for Jews trying to escape to the USA from Central Europe and Vichy France. Analogously, the question of religion assumed highly variable status in the world-views of different fascist parties. Although popular in Lutheran areas and supported by many Lutheran pastors, National Socialism was deeply anti-Christian, and it promoted a nationalist faith movement and a national church designed to eradicate Christianity from German society. Mussolini’s brand of fascism was originally passionately secularist, although after 1929 it entered an uneasy truce with the Vatican. In contrast, Franco’s military-led semi-fascist political system was integrally supported by the Spanish Episcopate, and until the early 1960s Catholicism was a primary ideological support for the Franquist regime. Most importantly, for reasons discussed above, Italian and German fascism were also irreconcilably divided in their conception of the state. Owing in part to the fact that the PNF was a composite party fusing elements of older nationalist groups with fascist paramilitaries, Italian fascism tended to declare sympathy for principles of strong statehood, and it defined the state executive as a spiritual force, acting as the coordinating centre of national society. The ideology of German National Socialism, in contrast, was marked by a strong anti-statist dimension. Although some theorists of the NSDAP were keen to align German fascism to Italo-fascism and to examine Hitler’s party as a subordinate component in a formal state structure,2 the political orthodoxy that emerged through the 1930s rejected as un-Germanic the principle that the state possessed an abstracted distinction against the rest of society, and it argued that the NSDAP, acting as the immediate organ of the national will, should assume total directive force in society. Underlying the National Socialist outlook was the view that the party-state should be perceived, not as a transcendent institution, but as an organ of law ‘formed in national comradeship’ and applying laws as the community’s own laws.3
The definition of fascist ideology is further complicated by the fact that in some matters single fascist parties changed rapidly in the course of their formation, and they retained a very heterogenous ideological character. For instance, both the PNF and the NSDAP originally drafted manifestos that were clearly hostile to free-market capitalism, and they favoured more collectivist or syndicalist patterns of industrial organization. This was especially pronounced in Italy, where the attack on the political ethics of liberalism was initially flanked by a comprehensive rejection of economic individualism.4 In fact, it is often still debated whether fascist parties should be classified as belonging to the family of left-wing or right-wing parties. Ultimately, however, flexibility in economic doctrine acted as a necessary component of fascism, and fascist parties drew distinct benefit from the fact that they lacked a solid ideological core in questions of political economy and distribution. In most European countries after 1918 the anti-capitalist vote was already captured by entrenched socialist and communist parties, which meant that, as late-comers on the political scene, fascist parties were soon forced to modify their anti-capitalist stance in order to recruit support from other sectors: notably amongst the middle classes and even (albeit to a debatable degree) amongst business elites, who were alarmed by the rise of the far left and the power of the trade-union movement. In consequence, fascist parties evolved an economic ideology designed to promote a catch-all effect, and their eclectic ideological design in economic policies was fundamental for their success. Eventually, although neither the German nor the Italian fascist party endorsed capitalism in entirely unregulated form and neither party left processes of capitalist investment and accumulation unmodified, both ultimately implemented policies that were favourable to leading capitalist entrepreneurs, and they in fact intensified capitalist principles within an authoritarian social order. Theorists of the NSDAP, in particular, managed to promote a model of ‘the total economic state’, which sanctioned a high degree of autonomy in economic exchanges and specifically preserved a clear distinction between ‘ownership and non-ownership’.5 Although the classical Marxist account of fascism as a movement strategically promoted by business elites is (at the very least) disputable, fascist regimes learned to adopt a compliant attitude towards big business and heavy-industrial actors, and large-scale capitalist concerns were amongst the primary beneficiaries of fascism.
Even in its most basic conceptual principles, in sum, fascism did not contain a standard set of positions, and it was not reducible to a clear ideological model. Tellingly, Mussolini proclaimed that fascism ought to be viewed, not as a consistent or fully articulated theoretical stance, but primarily as a mode of spiritual action. In the Manifesto of Fascist Intellectuals, drafted by Giovanni Gentile in 1925, fascism was portrayed as containing ‘an austere conception of life, a religious seriousness, which does not distinguish theory from practice or saying from doing, and does not depict magnificent ideals to locate them outside this world’. Ideological vagueness and recurrent self-redefinition, in other words, were essential aspects of fascism. Despite this, nonetheless, within very broad contours, it is possible to discern some general characteristic features, which make it possible construct an ideal-typical fascist ideological outlook.
In the first instance, fascism can be seen as a broad aggregate of doctrinal attitudes that rejected the core principles and political institutional forms arising from the Enlightenment, and which converged around a deep hostility to the intellectual preconditions of liberalism. On this point, caution is of the essence: Herbert Marcuse observed as early as 1934 that fascism was always selective in its rejection of liberalism, and it reproduced, in authoritarian reconstruction, many aspects of liberal economic doctrine.6 However, at least rhetorically, fascist parties tended to react against the belief in subjective and economic atomism, and they dismissed the (supposedly) liberal assumption that the economy was a sphere of human practice that was relatively exempt from political control. As corollary, fascist ideologues also rejected the belief in singular subjective rights as invariable elements of legitimate social order, and they denied that particular socio-economic agents should be defined as primary units, from whose singular and unchanging needs the conditions of legitimate governance could be deduced. Fascist parties routinely opposed the rights-based political and constitutional doctrines resulting from the liberalism of the Enlightenment, and they insisted on the status of collective actors as sources of political order, normally arguing that rights needed to be obtained through group affiliation: i.e. through membership in syndicates, parties, or national associations. The inherent ius-natural claim of liberalism that the person qua person is the invariable source of the legal norms forming legitimate power was thus dismissed by fascism. This static normative conception was replaced by an outlook that saw legal norms supporting government as actively, volitionally and collectively produced. Often this involved the further claim that rights were historically formed institutions, and that no uniform pattern of rights could be projected across different national-historical horizons. In this respect, fascism marked the culminating moment in the long history of hostility to the natural-law principles of the Enlightenment, which had supported most reactionary positions in Europe from the French Revolution to the World War I, and it drew the diffuse mass of anti-Enlightenment perspectives into one relatively convergent and ordered set of reactionary principles.
Second, this anti-atomistic disposition in fascist theory was often linked to strongly anti-capitalist attitudes. As discussed, most fascist parties and states experimented with collectivist techniques for administering the economy. In Italy, the economy was subject to quasi-corporate regulation through legislation of 1927. In Germany, corporate legislation was introduced in 1933. After 1938, the Spanish economy under Franco was also, albeit half-heartedly, organized in official syndicates. Central to these pieces of legislation was the view that the liberal legal order, premised on the inclusion of persons in the political system as singular proprietary rights holders was not sufficient to produce legitimacy for a state presiding over a society in the antagonistically pluralized conditions of mass-democracy. In order fully to legitimize itself, the state, for the fascist theorist, was required to integrate all members of society in all their social functions, and it could only obtain solidity by founding itself in the total will of all members of society, reflecting at once both the political and the material demands of citizens. This reflected the fascist view that the liberal state was of necessity a weak and weakly integrative state, founded in flimsy juridical constructions of its normative foundations, and, in the final analysis, it was unable to exercise authoritatively legitimized power across a materially divided and pluralistic society. The Italian fascists, most notably, denounced the traditional liberal concept that the state could obtain legitimacy as a static ‘juridical personality’. As an alternative, they argued that the state acquired legitimacy as a total volitional personality or a ‘dynamic reality’ of historical inclusion and active/voluntaristic formation, in which all particular social agents were integrated as a result of their membership in syndicates and corporations.7 In this respect, the ideas of state legitimacy prevalent in the earlier history of European fascism drew extensively on post-Marxist syndicalism, and they replicated some classical-Marxist views regarding the impossibility of state legitimacy constructed through pure or neutral legal norms. In many cases, moreover, fascist syndicalists saw syndical organization and intense nationalism as necessarily correlated, and they argued that syndicates, if unified by potent experiences of national cohesion, could act both to consolidate the material status of the workforce and to reinforce the inner political order of the nation-state. The advocacy of national syndicalism became explicit in the programmes of the Italian National Association (a conservative forerunner of the PNF) at the outbreak of World War I. However, this theoretical combination soon migrated across the spectrum, and it began to attract adherents, notably Mussolini, originally attached (however idiosyncratically) to political Marxism. A fusion of nationalism and syndicalism was thus a key general component of earlier fascist outlooks. In this dimension, fascist theory also borrowed deeply from the writings of Georges Sorel on syndicalism and political experience. It is in fact striking that, although fascist parties gained power in Italy and Germany, the most important elements of the formative basis for fascist doctrine were first articulated in the political margins of the Third Republic of France. In particular, syndicalism, Bonapartism and integral nationalism were all established (although peripheral) components of the ideological landscape of the Third Republic: all these elements played a role in the eventual composition of fascism.
Third, on these grounds, fascist parties also strongly opposed the duality of state and society posited by classical liberal theorists. They viewed the (allegedly) liberal assumption that state and society could be split apart into relatively indifferent spheres of exchange as symptomatic of an outlook only capable of creating fragile models of statehood. In addition to this, prominent fascist theorists also argued that the separation of state and society meant that liberalism was only able to offer deeply curtailed or truncated constructions of human freedom, and the liberal perception of freedom as a set of personal practices existing outside the state and withdrawn from political encroachment reflected the inability of liberalism to comprehend substantial or total experiences of human freedom. Against this (purported) feature of liberalism, fascist theorists often saw themselves as supplying a corrective to the weak ideals of freedom in liberalism, and they even viewed fascism as offering a constructive reorientation for liberal political theory, centred around the state. Gentile, for example, argued that fascism needed to be seen as an ideology fulfilling liberal aspirations of freedom by anti-liberal means, and he explained that the weakness of liberal freedom was due to the fact that the state was conceived as the limit on freedom: freedom, he suggested, was authentically realized, not against or outside, but within and through the historically formed state. Gentile asserted that the ‘authority of the state and the freedom of citizens form an unbreakable circle, in which authority presupposes freedom and vice versa. Liberty is only in the state, and the state is authority.’ He added to this the claim that: ‘Fascism does not oppose liberalism as a system of authority opposes a system of liberty, but rather as a system of true and concrete liberty opposes a system of abstract and false liberty.’8 Through a rather crudely historicist reconstruction of Hegel, therefore, some earlier fascist intellectuals proposed a model of statehood, in which the state was seen to concentrate and elaborate principles of freedom only imperfectly realized in more atomized or individualistic areas of human exchange. Fascist Hegelianism was expressed most influentially by Gentile, but it was also represented in Germany, notably by Julius Binder and Karl Larenz.
Fourth, this rejection of the distinction between state and society meant that most political theories associated with fascism were unified by a strongly anti-parliamentary perspective, and most fascist theories rejected parliamentary democracy as a political system giving expression to the false freedoms and weak patterns of statehood inherent in liberal ethics. The critique of parliamentary democracy in the fascist theoretical milieu is most strongly associated with Carl Schmitt, the most prominent intellectual fellow traveller of the National Socialists in the earlier part of their regime. Schmitt’s views on parliamentary democracy were outlined in a series of short, polemical, and often contradictory, books published in the period 1920-33, and they stand out as surely the most important theoretical corpus expressing a fascist (or, more accurately, pre-fascist) outlook. At the centre of Schmitt’s critique of rule by parliament is the view that parliamentary democracy necessarily creates weak states: it constructs and legitimizes state power by balancing aggregates of rival partial interests, by piecing together an ad hoc and fragile consensus between particular parties in order to introduce policies on single issues, and by relying (irresponsibly) on highly precarious and self-interested inter-factional compromises on questions of the most pressing national concern.9 Moreover, proponents of parliamentary democracy speciously assume that a system of liberal legal norms will have adequate force to unify the divergent interests incorporated in the state, and they place highly misguided faith in the power of law per se to reconcile deep-lying societal antagonisms.10 At best, Schmitt argued, the parliamentary-democratic state assumes legitimacy through a technical or polycratic fusion of interests; at worst, it creates an endemically unstable political system, able neither to impose reliable directives across society nor to secure reserves of legitimacy to authorize its central position in society. In fact, if democracy is defined as a pattern of rule in which the popular will is expressed through the state, parliamentary democracy, for Schmitt, directly impedes the formation of democracy: parliamentary democracy is a political system in which the state executive obtains legitimacy by reaching into society and brokering compromises between distinct bargaining partners (political parties), and in so doing it fractures and dismembers the uniform popular will that democracy presupposes for its legitimacy. Parliamentary democracy is thus, for Schmitt, a contradiction in terms: government can be conducted by parliament or by a democratic will, but not by both at the same time. Owing to its weakly constructed or insufficiently political foundations, moreover, Schmitt argued that the parliamentary-democratic state is highly vulnerable to internal or external sabotage, and it cannot establish a governmental order able enduringly to bind together the disparate and polarized constituencies of a mass-society or to protect the state and its subjects against powerfully mobilized interest groups (including those expressing the momentary interests of these subjects themselves). Indeed, Schmitt concluded that under some circumstances dictatorial government might possess greater claim to democratic legitimacy than a simple parliamentary/representative apparatus.11 In this, it needs to be noted that Schmitt’s primary enthusiasm was, not for sovereign dictatorship, but for commissarial dictatorship: for a political system in which executive authority was given to a dictator, not permanently, but for a stipulated period of office. Nonetheless, Schmitt’s argument that the original concept of democracy – government by the will of the people – might be better fulfilled by a dictator than by a democratically elected parliamentary party exercised far-reaching influence in the formation of German fascism. In particular, Schmitt’s theory provided a theoretical blueprint for the use of emergency laws to authorize the transfer of power from legislature to executive in the last years of the Weimar Republic (1930-3). Subsequently, Schmitt also tailored this theory to legitimize Hitler’s assumption of power. This view of democracy, however, was not unique to German fascism. It was also widely articulated in Italy, where after 1922 it was commonly claimed that modern states were centred on a structural fusion between legislature and executive, and that dictatorship should be placed on a structural continuum with mass-democratic governance. Alfredo Rocco, Mussolini’s Minister of Justice, described the democratic legislature as a ‘chamber for registering laws’, which was necessarily subordinate to a powerful personal executive.12
Fifth, this hostility to parliamentary democracy normally coalesced with theories supporting elite leadership as a utensil for mass-mobilization. In this respect, fascist theory drew on a store of positions already well established in the canon of late-liberal political theory. For example, it has been widely observed that Schmitt’s sympathy for personalistic executive democracy was decisively shaped by the influence of liberal doctrines of late-imperial Germany: especially by the theories of Max Weber and Friedrich Naumann, who examined semi-suspended elite leadership as a vital corrective to the integrative weakness of mass-democracy. In addition to this, however, fascist theories habitually bolstered their accounts of elite power by proposing doctrines of irrational or symbolic motivation, which associated the virtue of leadership elites with their capacity for generating strong and cohesive social motivations through strong affectual appeals. In fascism, therefore, the theory of elite leadership was widely tied to a doctrine of irrational collectivism and charismatic integration. This was itself derived in part from Weber, whose theory of social motivations implicitly expressed a non-rational concept of political obedience. This approach was also indebted to Vilfredo Pareto, who intensified the suggestive irrationalism of Weber’s sociology by analyzing the political system of mass-democracy as a set of institutions sustained by an endless circulation of irrationally legitimized elites. Moreover, this aspect of fascism was also influenced by earlier essays in crowd psychology, in particular by the works of Gustav le Bon. However, it was Sorel again who influenced fascist thinking most decisively in this respect. Sorel’s argument, expressed in Reflections on Violence (1908), that human action is primarily shaped by symbolic or mythical forms and that in the most vital processes of political formation rationally transparent motives are suspended assumed a central position in ideologies of leadership and mass-obedience promoted by fascist movements.13
Sixth, underlying the account of elite rule in fascist theory was a distinct theory of politics, which insisted on the status of the political as an irreducibly conflictual dimension of human society. At one level, this was reflected in fascist critiques of parliamentary democracy. Schmitt, for example, argued that parliamentary democracy was based in an illusory metaphysical system of liberalism, which falsely assumed that all society was oriented towards quasi-natural pacification and that government observing certain neutral legal rules could automatically assume harmonious recognition and legitimacy.14 This liberal belief in the naturalness of social harmony, Schmitt claimed, was deeply at odds with the acutely controversial and antagonistic reality of modern mass-democracy, in which the monopoly of power presupposed, not neutral legal order and natural reconciliation, but the constant exercise of a conflictual and hegemonically oriented – i.e. political – will. On Schmitt’s account, only actors recognizing violence, not pacification, as the basis of order could remotely expect to claim legitimacy or to monopolize the means of coercion. This view was not unique to German fascism. Its origins can be traced to the reconfiguration of liberal theory under the influence of Weber, who proposed a theory of political conflict to rival Marx’s theory of social conflict as the dominant explanatory paradigm in the social sciences. Moreover, Italo-fascist ideology also routinely defined politics as a category of struggle, and the notion that political action involved both violent adversity and intractable obedience was central both to the popular imagery and the formal strategies of early fascist campaigns in Italy.
Seventh, the construction of politics as centred on violence linked vitally with theories of imperialism in fascist ideology, and the fusion of the politics of violence with a creed of imperial expansionism formed perhaps the most decisive aspect of fascist thinking. This conceptual fusion had its origins in World War I, when pre-fascist theorists, including Mussolini himself, began, under the influence of Sorel, to propose a highly idiosyncratic re-reading of Marxist conflict theory. Although accepting the Marxist belief in the universality of conflict, this Sorelian revision of Marx defined not conflict between classes, but conflict between nations as the primary dimension of modern society and the primary source of human agency. Notably, in Italy this had the result that, unusually, the radical syndicalist left showed particular enthusiasm for intervention in the war, and the war stimulated the rise of a strand of aggressive post-Marxist anti-liberal nationalism, which fused a generalized model of social conflict with an ultra-nationalist stance concerning geo-politics and personal affiliation as principles of social and political mobilization. The ability of Mussolini and his theoretical followers to use Sorelian motifs to detach the conflictual analysis of society from the Marxist concept of class and to transform socio-economic conflict theory into a doctrine that defined the primary human goal as national (not class-based) unity was, arguably, the core ingredient in the emergence of fascist thought, and this construction of the nation as a unit of vital conflict resonated across all subsequent lines of fascist theory and practice. On one hand, this concept had implications for the external politics of fascism. This concept possessed a strong appeal in nations (including Germany, Italy and Spain) that had played a marginal role in the era of high imperialism in Europe after 1870, and it promoted models of national integrity with discernible attraction in societies that had been disadvantaged in the imperial race. Such ideas were actively invoked to justify fascist attempts at imperial expansion in the 1930s, and they supported a tendency towards accelerated industrial/technological developmentalism, which was common to all major fascist states.15 Notably, Italy, Germany and Spain under fascism all invoked the myth of lost empires to legitimize their policies. Equally importantly, however, this concept also had vital resonance in the domestic politics of fascism. It created a template through which fascist parties could propose themselves as embracing a habitus of revolutionary pathos and radically transformative actionism whilst in fact pursuing more typically reactionary policies of national consolidation and systemic stabilization. In other words, the reconstruction of the Marxist doctrine of class conflict as a theory of national conflict enabled fascist parties to espouse a theory of revolution that focused exclusively on the alteration of the political system and did not involve far-reaching social or economic transformation. Fascism in fact might be observed, in essence, as a doctrine of anti-revolutionary revolutionism, and the emergence of this outlook was made possible by the nationalist reconstruction of Marxist political theory which emerged through the World War I.
On balance, in sum, European fascism contained a series of often contradictory political attitudes. Unusually for a political doctrine that exercised wide practical influence and had a profound impact on objective political institutions, it cannot be defined as a consistent set of principles. In general, however, fascism was a theoretical outlook with the following features: it reflected a deep (although partial) hostility to liberalism and atomistic principles of liberal political order; it insisted on the nation (often defined through military adversity) as a source of political motivation, affiliation and identity; it was sympathetic to dictatorship as a source of strong statehood; it advocated strongly emotive processes of subjective political integration; it declared an (albeit equivocal) scepticism about capitalism as the dominant mode of production. Moreover, each fascist movement selectively borrowed elements of Marxist social theory and Marxist anti-parliamentarism, and they linked these principles to an ultra-nationalist and pseudo-revolutionary commitment to violently authoritarian governance, usually designed for the specific preservation of existing economic conditions.
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