What Is Fascism?

United States Congress (photographer unknown)

I am going to talk about fascism as a diagnostic category and I won’t waste much time easing into the topic, though there are a few things I want to say before I give the definition. I want to dive into this because most descriptions I see of fascism, including Umberto Eco’s famous Ur-Fascism, focus primarily on the expressions and effects of fascism and not on what the core ideology is. When we only target the symptoms, we leave the source of the disease untouched. I don’t think fascism is evil just because it kills people and it destroys any true sense of community or solidarity, I think it is evil because it motivates those things and it can do nothing except motivate those things. Simply looking at the symptoms prevents us from grappling with why it motivates these things in the first place.

When I say I’m speaking about fascism as a diagnostic category, I mean that as being opposed to an affected ideology, that is to say, ideology in the colloquial sense. If I call someone “fascist”, I’m not speaking diagnostically. I’m speaking very much of the fascism found in Ur-Fascism. If I call myself a “socialist” or a “communist” it’s pretty much the same: it means more than what a strict definition could convey. Here, though, I want to speak in strict definitions and precise language. In that sense, our affected idea of fascism is actually three different ideas: authoritarianism, totalitarianism, and integralism.

I will define authoritarianism here as the theory that government has authority of its own right and that the will of the government should be supreme over the wills of society. This position is the same as garden-variety conservatism and includes monarchism and other ideologies which are considered reactionary. What they are reacting to is, of course, the input of those they view as having no right to demand things of the government. It is important to understand that any of these ideologies (when speaking diagnostically) should always first be self-applied, which is to say, a movement should be considered authoritarian only if it expresses an ideology which prioritizes the rights of government over society.

This self-application rule is important because we have to accept that we can never make an unbiased judgment. I am not accusing conservatives of wanting to be authoritarians, I am describing their goals — to entrench the existing hierarchies in society — as what they are, which is pro-authority. In the United States, the Soviet Union is frequently described as authoritarian because of outside views of Soviet government control. However, the Soviet Union was not established to entrench any order over the people but of the people, and even if you may describe their regimes as invasive or oppressive, their ideology was not one of authoritarianism. For states which were run by fascist parties in the 20th century, despite claiming to be at the head of smashing the old order, their ideology was always one of placing the state-as-idea over the society, subsuming all wills in the society under that of the state. Even if we accept their claim that they did want to remove the old leaders in their countries, their goals remained diagnostically authoritarian.

I define totalitarianism as the theory that the state (or party) should be synonymous with society. Again, many situations which are casually described as totalitarian can be better described as repressive one-party states in a diagnostic sense. The aim of totalitarianism, as opposed to that of collectivism, is the total identification of personal goals with state goals for all people. Collectivism wishes to gather people in order to better serve all people, while totalitarianism wishes to make sure state subjects certain that their interests are exactly the same as the state’s. Again, while the term totalitarian has been applied to governments like that of China, it is not one which they would likely self-apply. On the other hand, fascist governments such as Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy did describe themselves using those terms. They believed that the worth of humans was not in them as people but as appendages of the state.

The final aspect of colloquial fascism is integralism[1]I would like to note the term integralism, as it does have an established meaning which differs from what I’ve just said. Historically, “integralism” refers to the idea that the … Continue reading, which I define as the theory that heretofore informal relationships and social transactions should all be managed by the state. If there was anything truly new about fascism, I believe this concept was it. Integralism is the idea that state institutions should be all-pervasive, that all people and all groups would be appendages of the state. This is not just one-party control of government. This is the state consuming everyday life.

These three pieces of fascism are different primarily due to the scope each idea encompasses. Authoritarianism is a theory about who should have authority in society and what the limits of that authority are. Totalitarianism is about the emotional relationship between society and the person. Integralism, as differentiated from these two, is a theory about how the government should organize society.

A fascist government will be different than for instance a repressive socialist government or a monarchist government because the fascist government encourages a technocratic discipline in service of values which pre-existed it in the society. Though the rigid social control of the Cultural Revolution may be compared to society in a fascist state, its purpose was not to entrench old leaders and old customs. Fascism’s technocratic methods differentiate it from monarchism. What fascism attempts to do is not to overturn the state for something new, but to overturn the weakening less-formal methods of control and replace them with modernized and explicit methods such as bureaucracy and employer/employee relationships. This is why fascism is perfectly amenable to existing networks of social aristocracy or blood nobility: as long as these networks can be replicated in terms of offices and responsibilities, they meet no resistance.

One of the major confusions that opponents of socialism or left-wing politics invent is the idea that fascism is somehow an extreme left ideology. By their own description, rightists are authoritarian, and by their own description, leftists are societalist[2]I separate “societalist” as a category from “socialist” as a political tendency just to make it clear that I’m not speaking about a specific ideology. A socialist … Continue reading; rightists prioritize the rights of authority, leftists prioritize the rights of society. Colloquially, it is difficult to prove that a group which calls itself “National Socialist” is not actually socialist, because the colloquial definitions of what a socialist is can vary between people. To speak diagnostically, however, it’s impossible to describe fascism as a left-wing ideology. You can describe Soviet Russia or Communist China as repressive, but any repression was done in service of the people. You can describe nazis as promoting social programs, but any such programs were developed in service of the state.

In my view, calling Euro-American capitalists “fascists” is diagnostically incorrect, even though I will still also call them fascists. At present, Americans in particular ascribe to totalitarianism (which we call “patriotism”) and authoritarianism, but not yet to integralism. There is certainly a strong fascist movement in America, but in general, media-mainstream America is still more comfortable with progress than with replicating an imagined older self; this is not to say that America is actually making much progress, but instead that the prevailing ideology is that we are now in the best version of our society that we have ever had and we do not require any special fascistic discipline.

What, ultimately, makes a fascist what they are? I have to stress again that these categories are just that: categories, not philosophies. To say that someone is a totalitarian(ist?) is not to say that they believe in a Grand Theory of Totalitarianism, it is to say that their professed beliefs and goals put their beliefs in the category of totalitarian thought. To call someone a fascist in a diagnostic sense is not to say that one does or doesn’t engage in a specific practice. Instead, identifying someone’s thought as fascist is to identify that their stated ideas operate on the logic of authoritarianism, totalitarianism, and integralism.

No one made Hitler say things like “To us, the state and race are one.” Similar sentiments cannot be found from Stalin or Mao. This is, ultimately, the reason we call Hitler and his kind fascists: not because we want to insult them, but because that is the label they build for themselves. It is only coincidence that the label that fits them best is also the most demonized political philosophy in history.

As a final observation, it is interesting that the supposed evils of communism primarily demonize it not for its own aims but its pretended closeness with fascism.

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1 I would like to note the term integralism, as it does have an established meaning which differs from what I’ve just said. Historically, “integralism” refers to the idea that the Catholic Church should be integrated with the modern nation-state. Importantly, this historical definition differs from mine because the former is specifically stating which ideology should be integrated with the state. My definition is simply a broader application of that idea. However, if it is helpful, the term integralism can be replaced with something like “core fascism”, which was in fact my original term for this.
2 I separate “societalist” as a category from “socialist” as a political tendency just to make it clear that I’m not speaking about a specific ideology. A socialist outlook is almost definitionally societalist but the reverse is not necessarily true.

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