Commentary Magazine

Fascism-The Second Coming

What is fascism, and have we seen the last of it?

On the precise character of fascism there is no agreement to this day. One might define it as a mass movement, headed by a leader whose command is absolute, which later turns into a state party, strictly hierarchical and elitist, ruling through terror and propaganda and the monopoly of political power, on the basis of an anti-liberal, anti-democratic, rabidly nationalistic and militaristic spirit and an ideology compounded of conservative-reactionary and radical, quasi-socialist elements. Yet no two fascisms have been quite alike; some have combined religious-mystical elements, while others, by contrast, have been sharply anti-clerical. At times racism has been a central factor, in other cases it has been marginal or nonexistent. Some fascist movements are barely distinguishable from old-fashioned right-wing parties, others are radical in doctrine and practice. If one takes Nazi Germany as the norm, then Italy under Mussolini was just a half-way house and Spain and Portugal were not fascist at all. If, on the other hand, Italy serves as the yardstick, Nazi Germany was an aberration, its excesses and radicalism typically German rather than fascist.

As for the historical role of fascism, the debate over this continues with undiminished vigor. According to one school of thought, fascism developed in Europe as a result of the crisis of the liberal system in the 1920′s and 30′s; it was a specifically European phenomenon; and it came to an end with the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. This idea, that the fascist era came to an end in 1945, is, however, not accepted by orthodox Marxists, who regard fascism as the agent of monopoly capitalism: as long as capitalism exists there is a latent danger of a fascist revival. And Marxists are not alone in maintaining that we have not seen the last of fascism. Others, interpreting it as an agent not of capitalism but of modernization, and observing that modernization, especially outside Europe, is accompanied by a great deal of violence and even systematic terror, have reached the conclusion that the potential for fascism is greater in the underdeveloped societies than anywhere else in the world.

The notion of fascism as the product of a crisis of European civilization was first advanced in the 1920′s and came in several variants. Liberals regarded fascism as a revolt against “Europe,” meaning the tradition of the Enlightenment and the idealism of the French Revolution. Believing Christians saw it as one of the manifestations of the loss of religious faith and, like the liberals, but for different reasons, as a relapse into neo-barbarism. Rauschning, himself a former Nazi, pointed to the essentially nihilistic substance of fascism; the particular doctrine was of little consequence, he said, the exercise of total power all-important. Elitist critics saw fascism as part of the 20th-century revolt of the masses, while others explained it as a modern version of Caesarism or Bonapartism. Some historians stressed the paramount importance of the personality of the leader: in this view, had it not been for Mussolini or Hitler, the parties they led would never have come to power.

It has been the fashion lately to dismiss these early attempts at interpreting European fascism as of purely historical interest, a little primitive, if not altogether outdated. But they all contain a grain of truth, and they compare not unfavorably with postwar interpretations, except perhaps for the fact that more recent theorists have been aware that fascism is too complex a phenomenon to be explained, as earlier theories tried to do, by reference to a single cause.

In many ways the most consistent early theory of fascism is the one originally propounded by the Thirteenth Plenum of the Communist International in 1933, that fascism is the “openly terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, chauvinist, and imperialist elements of finance capital.” In the world of Communist ideology, where fascism is not an independent force but a mere agent, in accordance with the basic Marxist-Leninist tenet of the primacy of economics over politics, this thesis has more or less remained in force ever since, despite sporadic attempts from within to modify it. Thus, “enlightened” Marxists like Thalheimer and Otto Bauer in the earlier period, and a few others in our own time, have maintained that fascism was a unique phenomenon in the history of bourgeois society, for in the fascist state the executive was (or became) autonomous, operating in essential respects quite independently, or even against the interests, of the capitalist “ruling class.” Yet such a position, with its implication that economic factors are not necessarily the decisive ones, is clearly anathema to the orthodox Leninist conception stated above, and much effort has therefore been invested in Marxist circles to demonstrate the primacy of economics in the Third Reich as well as in Fascist Italy. This is, however, not a simple task, for it must be shown in each case that the capitalists turned to fascism when they were no longer able to cope with an acutely revolutionary situation. The trouble is that in actual fact there was no revolutionary situation in Italy in 1923 or in Germany in 1933. Moreover, although it is true that the industrialist Thyssen gave money to the Nazis and that Mussolini, through the marriage of his daughter Edda, had an interest in the Italian sugar and shipping industries, this did not prevent Hitler from detaining Thyssen in a concentration camp, nor did it hinder Mussolini from having his son-in-law shot.

In short, it is impossible to demonstrate the necessary confluence of interests within German industry—let alone among industrialists, bankers, and big landowners—which would have led them to join together in support of the Nazis. No matter how widely or deeply one digs, the sums paid to Hitler prior to 1933 were not only modest in absolute terms, they were small in comparison with what was given to other parties. German industrialists did not “make” Hitler, they joined him only after his party had become a leading political force, and it is possible that Hitler would have come to power even if the Nazis had not received a single pfennig from the bankers and industrialists.

If it cannot be shown that Hitler depended on finance capital to come to power, neither can it be successfully maintained that once in power the Nazis subordinated their policies to the interests of “monopoly capitalism.” Not only were Nazi anti-Semitism and the Final Solution not dictated by economic considerations and class interests; generally speaking, Hitler’s entire foreign policy was not in the best interests of monopoly capitalism; on the contrary, it ultimately led to ruin and destruction.

Hitlerian fascism, then, far from recognizing its own class interests, even acted against them. This means—and it will come as an unwelcome admission only to the orthodox Leninist—that fascism cannot be satisfactorily explained if one confines oneself to the analysis of class interests. The attempt to explain fascism in this way has the additional disadvantage of leading its advocates perilously close to an apology for fascism. For if it is all the fault of the socioeconomic “system,” why blame Hitler and Mussolini, who were after all only continuing the policies of their predecessors, perhaps with a little more vigor and determination? The difference between Hitler, Himmler, and Streicher on the one hand, and Churchill, Roosevelt, and de Gaulle on the other then becomes merely one of degree, not one of substance. Besides, as a movement directed against the economic status quo, European fascism might even be defended as representing a useful stage in the ongoing conflict between the have-nots and the plutocracies. Toward some such position of veiled advocacy the strict Marxist analysis of the role of fascism would seem inevitably to lead.

To be sure, no one can fairly deny that there is a clear link between fascism and economic crisis or that the social base of fascism and its economic policy ought to be studied closely. But equally no one can be taken seriously who has not accepted the fundamental fact that fascism is “about” political power, not about profit.



During the 1950′s the debate over the nature of totalitarianism generated a whole set of apparently new theories about fascism. Actually, the most striking of these, that there are strong similarities between fascism and Communism, was not new, having been first advanced by Italian critics like Francesco Nitti and Luigi Sturzo who, writing in 1926, called Bolshevism left-wing fascism and fascism right-wing Bolshevism. But it was at the height of the cold war that the tendency to concentrate on the elements common to fascism and Communism became most pronounced. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, the late Hannah Arendt claimed that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were “essentially identical,” and Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski drew up a detailed outline of the characteristics of all totalitarian regimes, ranging from an all-embracing ideology to an oligarchic mass party, complete control over the media, and a command economy.

To Communists this thesis was, of course, anathema, but criticism of it came from other quarters as well. After all, the historical conditions that gave birth to fascist and Communist regimes had been altogether different. Communist regimes, moreover, aimed at the transformation of society and at a new social order, whereas fascism was essentially conservative, or, at any rate, showed much less interest in socioeconomic problems. Some proponents of the totalitarianism argument had concentrated on features which, as it subsequently emerged, were not of central importance. Thus, after Stalin’s death, it became clear that the charismatic leader was not a sine qua non for the perpetuation of a Communist regime, nor were irrational terror and indiscriminate purges (which had been stressed by Hannah Arendt and others) a necessary characteristic of Communism.

In due course the pendulum of theory began to swing to the other extreme, and the idea of fascism as totalitarianism was altogether jettisoned, to be followed by a spate of new theories by sociologists, social psychologists, economic historians, philosophically trained historians, and others, many of them highly suggestive, none wholly satisfactory. Seymour Martin Lipset and, after him, Renzo de Felice, a leading historian of Italian fascism, pointed to the extremism of the middle classes which at a time of crisis turned away from liberalism to a third force, defending their interests against pressure from above and below alike. This may help to explain the social base of fascism in some countries (if not in others), but it contributes little to the understanding of the policy of fascist parties after the seizure of power. More useful was Lipset’s emphasis on the populist elements inherent in many fascist movements, and the distinction between left- and right-wing fascist parties.

Another writer, Hugh Trevor-Roper, defined fascism as the political response of the European bourgeoisie to the economic recession of the 1920′s and 30′s, or, in any case, to the fear caused by the recession, a response which was above all anti-Communist. This thesis too is wanting, for if Communism was perceived as an overriding menace in the 20′s and 30′s (a doubtful assumption in the first place), it was certainly a much greater danger after 1945, when no fascist response was forth-coming.

Then there was Ernst Nolte, whose contribution to the study of European fascism has been second to none, and who provided a widely quoted definition of fascism: “Anti-Marxism which seeks to destroy the enemy by the evolvement of a radically opposed and yet related ideology and by the use of almost identical and yet typically modified methods, always however within the unyielding frame-work of national self-assertion and autonomy.” Fascism seen in this light is a revolt against secularization and democratization—in brief, against modernism. Yet the movement which Nolte took as the starting point for his argument, the Action Française, while certainly reactionary, was not in essential respects a precursor of fascism; and his argument in any case is not of much help when applied to those quite numerous fascist movements in which the anti-Marxist element is subordinate. Nor should one overrate the utopian anti-modernism of the fascist movements. However much Hitler praised the peasant way of life of ages past, he was perfectly aware of the need to develop heavy industry, if only to produce tanks and airplanes for the coming war.

Equally, one should not exaggerate the role of fascism in the process of industrialization and modernization. As long ago as 1932 Franz Borkenau propounded the thesis that it might be the historical task of Italian fascism to industrialize the country, since the Italian bourgeoisie had been incapable of doing so and since the militant working class had been “objectively reactionary” in holding up economic progress. It was a stimulating theory, but Borkenau’s accompanying predictions for Germany were quite wrong and even in Italy events did not bear out his thesis, for Mussolini’s contribution to the industrialization of Italy was modest, to say the least, and it was only after the fall of the fascist regime that Italy began to catch up with its northern neighbors.

After World War II the modernization argument took a different guise. Fascism (it was argued) had helped to modernize Germany and Italy by doing away with anachronistic social structures and by promoting economic development. This is an obvious enough point, yet oceans of ink were spilled to prove it. Any modern mass movement is a mobilizing force—this is what constitutes the main difference between modern and old-fashioned dictatorship. Nor can a modern dictatorship afford to neglect economic development, which results in turn in social changes. The problem is that the downfall of the Third Reich, which coincided with the physical destruction of much of Germany, also resulted in further socio-economic changes, and perhaps much greater ones. Partisans of the modernization theory might still claim that fascism, in contrast to Attila the Hun and the Khmer Rouge, is “objectively” an agent of progress, but at this point the argument becomes a bit far-fetched.



Has fascism, then, disappeared? There would seem to be grounds for thinking so. Many of the regimes that have been called “fascist” by their opponents in recent times—Chile, or Spain under Franco, Portugal under Salazar, Greece under the colonels, or Indonesia under the generals—have in fact been anything but fascist. Rather, these have been old-fashioned authoritarian regimes, repressive in character yet conspicuously lacking the characteristics of a modern dictatorship. They have not been populist, not even Bonapartist; there has been no state party, not even a half-hearted attempt to mobilize the masses; and only in exceptional cases has the state intervened in the economy.

Yet that does not quite dispose of the issue, for if it was once believed that fascism was a specifically European phenomenon, impressing its mark on a whole era of European history, after World War II a whole series of regimes have emerged elsewhere in the world bearing at least some of the distinguishing signs of European fascism. Today almost all the countries of the Third and Fourth worlds are ruled by dictators, about half of them military men and the rest either Communists, autocratic monarchs, or some other kind of dictator. (The exceptions are at present Venezuela, Colombia, Costa Rica, a few little islands, some “guided democracies,” and countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, and Cyprus—altogether perhaps a dozen.)

Conditions in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East vary greatly, and so does the character of the new dictatorships. Some have been highly repressive, others only mildly so; some have made economic progress while others have stagnated, some military juntas have been more radical than others. Generally speaking, the effectiveness of a regime in silencing opposition has increased much more quickly than its aptitude in other fields.

Yet even though the new dictatorships are all different from one another, they have certain features in common. Making allowances for their lower cultural and social levels of development, in rhetoric they tend to resemble Communism, and in practice to display parallels with Italian fascism. They also often contain populist ingredients—such as the emphasis on Volksgemeinschaft and/ or nationalism—which were part and parcel of European fascism. The cult of violence, which figured so prominently in Europe, has likewise reappeared here and there in the new regimes (it would be difficult to think of a more eloquent advocate of the “morally cleansing properties of progressive violence” than Frantz Fanon). So, too, the anti-imperialist, anti-Western ideology of the new dictatorships echoes the old fascist concept of a proletarian nation deprived by the plutocracies of its rightful place in the world—a concept on which the Nazis based much of their attack against the Versailles peace treaty. And finally, the racism of the Nazis and the admixture of nationalism with quasi-religious elements of other fascist movements have found new expression in Third World ideologies ranging from Mobutism to Qaddafism. The minute analysis of Third World ideologies is in general an unrewarding enterprise: the actions of the dictators are a surer guide to future developments than their announced ideas. Yet these regimes do contain fascist elements, if as yet in a primitive political framework (broadly speaking, the less developed a country the less pronounced will be the fascist character of its dictatorship).

Despite all this, there has been a reluctance to call these regimes fascist, and new generic terms have been proposed for them: developmental dictatorships, revolutionary dictatorships, or left-wing nationalist dictatorships aiming at economic development and modernization.

The search for definitions and explanations is made more difficult by the tyranny of a political language which evolved out of realities that have ceased to exist. If Marxism is no longer of much help in understanding the dynamics of Soviet or Chinese politics, what is one to make of references to “Left” and “Right” in Zaïre or Cambodia, or to “Marxist guerrillas” in Chad or Bangladesh? There is no room for conservative parties in the Third World, for there is little to conserve in an age of the break-up of traditional society. Equally out of place are liberalism and democratic socialism, the products of a long historical development culminating in the psychological attitudes of tolerance and consensus, attitudes which exist barely, if at all, in the Third World. Everyone in these countries is a nationalist and a socialist of sorts, two terms which have become interchangeable. But socialism means no more than anti-capitalism, especially where capitalism is represented by foreigners or national minorities. The leaders are intellectuals or, more frequently, semi-intellectuals (“lower mandarins”) who have seized power through guerrilla movements or, more often, by transforming themselves into a military elite. Their political language borrows heavily from Marxism-Leninism, and as a result, the importance of the Communist element in Third World politics has been overrated. Nasser and Sukarno subscribed to fascist doctrines in their younger years, and there is little doubt what would have been the political credo of a Castro or Guevara and many Latin American guerrillas had they been born two decades earlier.



It was the fashion among Western observers in the 1950′s and 1960′s to view the emergence of the new dictatorships as a progressive and on the whole desirable phenomenon. An entire literature praised the new one-party states and military dictatorships for their vigorous dynamism and competence. It was claimed in all seriousness that these regimes would establish the necessary basis for the growth of effective representative institutions. The one-party system, as one observer put it at the time, could often be a significant step toward the liberal state. Others commended dictatorship as the only effective counter-force to Communism. Even Soviet commentators, who generally displayed greater realism, were carried away for a number of years by a new theory of “military socialism.”

These illusions have more or less been dissipated. It is one thing to explain the emergence of the dictatorships in the Third World as an inevitability, in view of the backwardness of the countries concerned. It would have been a near miracle for multi-party parliamentary systems to have come into lasting existence in these parts of the globe. (In this light, Mrs. Gandhi’s introduction of “guided democracy” in 1975 is not so surprising; what is surprising is that unguided democracy lasted for so long in India.) But it is another thing altogether to assume, as many did, that dictatorship would be a transitional phase, leading eventually toward freedom and greater popular participation in government. Today it is not even clear that dictatorship is conducive to economic progress, as so many observers once assumed. Brazil under Vargas and Argentina under Peron did not make substantial economic progress; Sukarno and Nkrumah led their respective countries to the brink of economic ruin; and, while there were important social reforms in Nasser’s Egypt and in Ataturk’s Turkey, overall development was unimpressive and it is too early to say with any certainty that their reforms will last.

In truth the record so far has shown that economic success or failure depends above all on the presence of oil or some other important minerals, or on a hard-working population bent on improving its living standard quite independently of, and frequently in spite of, the policy of the dictators. And even in countries showing substantial economic progress, there has been no advance toward freer institutions. One can think of quite a few Third World countries—not only those that produce oil—with a much higher degree of urbanization and literacy, and an infinitely higher per-cap-ita income, than Europe or the United States had in the age of the bourgeois revolution, but which still lack fundamental structures of liberty and civil rights.

If the optimistic predictions of armies’ becoming an “inculcative force for nationhood” are no longer aired with much conviction, now army seizures of power are justified as an ultima ratio, the army being the only institution with sufficient “legitimacy” to preserve the fabric of society. Research into the legitimacy or illegitimacy of regimes, however, will not take us very far toward an understanding of Third World politics. There has been a great deal of confusion about this subject; legitimacy usually means no more than that a regime is reasonably effective. The fascist regimes of Europe, it will be recalled, were very effective indeed, and would thus score high in any legitimacy scale. Also, both Hitler and Mussolini would no doubt have won large victories in free elections around 1935—another index of legitimacy. And citizens of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were allowed to travel abroad up to the outbreak of World War II—yet additional evidence of legitimacy.

The fact that there have been few military coups of late in some Middle Eastern countries like Syria and Iraq, whereas a great many occurred in the 1950′s and 1960′s, is sometimes adduced as evidence for the growing popularity of these regimes. Actually, all it shows is that the secret police in these countries have become more effective, and the military command structure more complicated, so that not every commander of an armored division is in a position to stage a coup. Syria, and in particular Iraq, are good examples of the transition from old-fashioned military rule to a “higher” state of dictatorship in which the army shares some of its power with the state party and the security services. The Syrian regime now accuses the Iraqis, and vice versa, of having established a “fascist dictatorship.” Both are correct and both exaggerate; they have rightly analyzed the tendency, but full-fledged fascism has not yet come to power in Baghdad or Damascus.



What, then, of the future? As long as the rulers of the Third World are unable to develop more or less effective political institutions, such as state parties, or to generate popular participation and enthusiasm, their regimes will resemble old-fashioned dictatorship more closely than modern totalitarianism. But the logic of events is driving them toward more modern and more efficient forms of dictatorship, and all modern dictatorships are bound to have fascist features to some extent.1 Dictatorship in the modern world cannot survive without an ideology of sorts; it has to mobilize the masses through some form of propaganda, and it has to deter its enemies by repression and terror. On the political level, modernization in the Third World means a transition from traditional authoritarian systems to more effective tyrannies. Not all countries will be able to make the grade; some will stagnate or relapse into anarchy. The more progressive ones will advance toward political systems providing greater “legitimacy.”

Meanwhile, the lack of economic progress generates frustration, and this is directed above all against the West. The very existence of working democracies somewhere in the world is a provocation and a danger for dictatorships, just as it was in the 1930′s. Perhaps even more so today, because whereas the old fascist regimes had doctrinally rejected democracy, the new dictatorships subscribe to it in theory (and disregard it in practice). Political opposition to Western democracy is in fact the common denominator of most Third World countries.

Thus, while the Western world sticks to its free institutions, it will face great and growing difficulties in its relations with the Third World dictatorships. The United Nations may be irrelevant in terms of political power, but it still is an excellent barometer for indicating the general trend in world politics. The fact that the West has found itself in growing isolation in the United Nations comes as no surprise. The old and much despised League of Nations, whatever its shortcomings, eventually rid itself of the dictators (Germany in 1933, Italy two years later, and in the end also the Soviet Union). The United Nations, on the other hand, has been taken over by countries which, whatever their internal differences, agree that dictatorship is beautiful.

The trend is ominous, and equally disconcerting is the reluctance on the part of the West to face up to the new realities, the belief that by the ritual invocation of “common” values such as peace, freedom, and human rights, fundamental differences can be papered over. Describing an earlier age of tyranny Thucydides wrote that “words changed their ordinary meaning and took on that which was now given them.” There still is the inclination, deliberate or unconscious, to deemphasize the meaning of one’s own values, as if ideological confusion provided a solid basis for rapprochement between democracy and dictatorship.

Tyranny has been present throughout history, but there are periods in which it has receded and others in which it has assumed epidemic proportions. It is the great danger of modern despotisms, as of modern weapons, that they are much more destructive than in any past age. Enlightened despotism in the form of “tutelary democracy,” in these circumstances, is a hope, not a foregone conclusion. Seen in historical perspective, European fascism may have been not so much the end of an era as the precursor of a new dark age.


1 In the 1920's the concept, “exotic fascism,” was used in the debates of the Communist International; it may well be resurrected one of these days.

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