Fitting Fascism into Historical Political Taxonomy

When prompted to define the nominal concept of his essay, the “Temporary Autonomous Zone”, Hakim Bey deflected the responsibility by saying “I circle around the subject, firing off exploratory beams.”[1] Although this tactic might be as much an admission of scholarly negligence as an explanation, it leads to an interesting attitude about political taxonomy. Bey questions whether it is the duty of the writer to fit an irrational (or anti-rational) concept into a rigid rubric.

While I take Bey’s point, I also feel that some studies demand at least a flexible definition to work off of, regardless of whether or not this framework will necessarily be superseded. The term “fascism”, for example, has been a problematic political category for historians dealing with twentieth-century European history. Because of the emotional weight of the concept, it has the unfortunate status of being over-defined, made useless in comparative analysis, equivocal. In response, I suggest that to accurately represent the ideological core of fascism, we must first analyze the conceptual clusters which constitute the ideology of historical fascism. In this essay I will take on the immodest task of offering a new definition: fascism is a dynamic national-populist movement, characterized by a negation of the present.

Fascism was dynamic in that it followed a trajectory from the left to the right of the political spectrum. Initially, it was formulated in France and Italy as a modern, socialist, and nationalist theory on the left. The clearest emblem of this is the Italian “Fascist Program” penned by Emilio Gentile. The first fascists were radicals drawn from the nationalists, conservatives, and futurists. But eventually, due to the exigencies of accruing power, the movement began to serve conservative middle class interests, shifting to the right. Historian Stanley Payne identifies this trend as the differentiation between fascist movements and regimes. He sees the establishment of a fascist regime as requiring the cooperation of the middle class. Fascisms which never developed beyond the movement form, however, were free to espouse more  revolutionary theories. Unfortunately, Payne’s distinction neglects the history of fascist movements which did not progress past the movement stage yet did dissociate themselves from the left. George Valois’s fluctuating relationship with his own Faisceau Party demonstrates that it was not the development of a regime that moved fascism to the right, but merely the eventual ascendancy of conservative middle class interests within the movement. Still, this dynamism was by and large a defining feature of fascism internationally.

We can identify other examples of the trajectory of fascism from left to right. Ernst Nolte’s “six point fascist minimum”, which is a useful framework to compare fascist regimes, contains at least two items which run directly contrary to the party program of the Italian Fascist Movement. While later fascists did stress the leadership principle, Article 3 of the program calls for the “election of magistrates independently of executive power.” As another historical example, the NSDAP of the 1920s also permitted the election of local party leaders, a policy that was abolished as the party transitioned into a regime from a movement.

A second key conceptual cluster of historical fascism is the conjunction of nationalism and populism. This can also accurately be described as “integral nationalism,” or “blood and soil nationalism.” To fascists, the nation is treated as the fundamental unit of life. This “organic view of society” was actually a socialist element that was incorporated into fascist theory. Yet it is worth noting that its application was qualitatively different in these two ideologies. For socialists and communists, society is organic in the sense that what one person does will affect everyone else – all are connected, but for fascists the organic society is something that in itself can express a will, and be healthy or unhealthy. The latter view dominated after the “mutilated defeat” of Italy after the first world war. Italy’s loss of the war created an atmosphere in which people felt their whole society to be threatened. Without all of their territories, both real and imagined, the nation was crippled. Both right-wing conservatives and patriotic leftists (known as “left interventionists”) capitalized on this frustrated Italian nationalism. Conditions appeared favorable to rightist extremism. Yet by the end of the war not a single fascist was elected into parliament.

Indeed, there was a general victory of the left in Europe. However, fascists in Italy cast this as a threat to middle-class interests. They used populist rhetoric (once the tool of the socialist left) to sway popular opinion to right, allowing them to assume control of the government in 1922. Moreover, we can see evidence of this reactionary nationalist-populism affecting other areas of Europe. Three years prior, an articulation of this phenomenon toppled Bela Kun’s communist republic in Hungary. That administration was in power for no more than a few months before a middle-class backlash unseated them.

Another aspect of nationalist-populism was the delineation of who was not “of the people,” a process in which the middle class reacts against a minority class of the population. Historically this step disguised itself in forms like antisemitism, homophobia, and racial identity. In countries where there was a preexisting antisemitic sentiment, fascism appropriated that bias to appeal to the middle class. For instance, in Hungary the success of Jewish professionals coupled with the large proportion of Jews in the population was a source of resentment for the Hungarian middle class. This accounts for the proliferation of antisemitic fascist and semi-fascist movements in the country. To reinforce this point, during the high tide of the Dreyfuss riots in France, the majority of those arrested were from the lower middle class.

Unlike archaic antisemitism, the modern form that certain fascist movements adopted was socially and racially motivated; it became a qualitatively different idea. In the late 19th century, antisemitism primarily affected nationalist populists, who perceived Jews as competitors. Later, Jews were made representative of big-capital conspiracies. They were seen as corrupt and morally impure and also symbolic of anti-national or anti-patriotic sympathies. Adolf Hitler expanded on this modern antisemitism, declaring that Jews represented modernity, capitalism, and corruption. To him, socialists also signified modern decadence, but their philosophy was seen as more of a denigration of preexisting morality than the Jews’ was, since theoretically Jews were incapable of having superior moral values. One of the differences between National Socialism and Fascism comes from the fact that to the Italians antisemitism was basically a non-issue until it was pressured upon them by the Nazis.

Defining fascism as “radicalism of the center,” as Seymour Lipset has done, is one of the more useful assumptions to work off of.[2] This explanation can account for the mass appeal of fascist theory and practice to the middle classes. It also justifies the importance of populism to fascist theory despite its seemingly contradictory doctrine of führerprinzip. Because Italian and German fascism rode to power on the back of the middle class insecurities, fascist leaders were obliged to act on this class’s interests. Fascist movements relied on the reactionary power of this ambitious but not economically stable sector, and thus pandered to their populist prejudices against “inauthentic” parts of the national body. In turn, fascism became their vanguard. The middle class made the perfect foundation for an movement whose power was based in scapegoating. Though, we must note that the object of exclusion was inconsistent over distance. Antisemitism, which was a significant emotional factor for French, German, and Hungarian fascists, was not very important to fascist movements in Spain and Italy.

The third conceptual cluster that defines fascism is the negation of the present. Again, there is variety in fascism’s negation: it can either look to the future as with Fascist modernism, or to the imagined past as with the Nazi myth of Aryan purity. Fascism’s negations developed in reaction the dominant ideologies of the day: conservatism, liberalism, feminism, Marxism, democracy, and capitalism. The 19th century was a period of great social freedom in Europe. Many nations realized universal male enfranchisement, encouraging mass political involvement. This would be challenged in the 20th century by two major trends in social politics, nationalism and state-socialism, both stressing group coherence rather than individual liberty. Synthesizing these two trends, fascism became one of the most forceful interpretations of preeminent mass society.[3]

Especially in Germany, which granted all males the vote as early as 1871, fascist parties exploited the weaknesses of mass democracy to gain power. Along with Italy, Germany was one of the most liberal nations in Europe at the time, simultaneously they were also the primary arenas for fascist development. During the inter-war years, their climate of economic insecurity and national resentment was conducive to authoritarian movements both on the left and the right. While I would suggest that fascism could only have taken power under these circumstances and that, moreover, these conditions shaped fascist theory and practice, this is not a general explanation of the fascist phenomenon; it will not account for the failure of leftists like the Spartacists in Germany, the communists in Italy, or Bela Kun’s republic. The fascists were able to defeat these socialist groups because they could monopolize nationalist sentiment against any form of liberal or social democracy. To define fascism, we must appreciate its assault on liberal democracy.

Finally, the variations of fascism point to one common theme, the origin of its dynamic national-populist negation: fascism was fundamentally opportunistic. It was a movement whose ideology was made to fit the exigencies of early twenty-century European politics. As Hitler said, “others create the best advertisement for us.”[4] The Nazi party’s strategy was to appeal to a blind nationalism that reacted to a climate of crisis. If the threat to national security was absent, fascist parties like the Nazis would create a perceived threat. Their success was therefore based on playing to the fears of the German populace. Although the NSDAP showed contempt for the Weimar constitution and the electoral system in general, it could not have come to power without it. This is evidenced by the fact that in 1929, Hitler felt compelled to cooperate with other national parties who called for a plebiscite.

Regardless of the commonalities shared by fascist movements, the effort to define the generic form of fascism must confront the possibility raised by Gilbert Allardyce and others that the designation might be neither useful nor desirable. Especially if, as I have argued, fascism was essentially the expression of political opportunism. This dilemma rests on two further points: the observation that the different fascist movements were too heterogeneous, even among themselves, to form a coherent ideology and the caution that forcing fascist movements into a rubric might obscure their study more than it would clarify. Ultimately, fascism must be defined so that it can be dealt with rationally, though the definition must also be qualified when necessary. The taxonomy of fascism must occasionally compromise itself to brevity but the complexity of the issue must always be appreciated.




Bey, Hakim. Temporary Autonomous Zone. New York: Autonomedia Press, 2003.

Payne, Stanley. A History of Fascism, 1914-1945. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.

Sax, Benjamin. Inside Hitler’s Germany: A Documentary History of Life in the Third Reich. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing, 1991.

[1]   Hakim Bey, Temporary Autonomous Zone (New York: Autonomedia Press, 2003), 93.

[2]   S. M. Lipset, “Fascism – Left, Right, and Center,” in Political Man (New York, 1960), in Payne, 445.

[3]   The other manifestation of authoritarian mass society is in state communism, especially under Stalin.

[4]   Sax, 69.

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