What is Fascism?

Chip Berlet
September, 1992

This article is adapted from the author’s preface to Russ Bellant’s book Old Nazis, the New Right, and the Republican Party, co-published by South End Press and Political Research Associates.

“Fascism, which was not afraid to call itself reactionary… does not hesitate to call itself illiberal and anti-liberal.”
–Benito Mussolini

We have all heard of the Nazis–but our image is usually a caricature of a brutal goose-stepping soldier wearing a uniform emblazoned with a swastika. Most people in the U.S. are aware that the U.S. and its allies fought a war against the Nazis, but there is much more to know if one is to learn the important lessons of our recent history.

Technically, the word NAZI was the acronym for the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. It was a fascist movement that had its roots in the European nationalist and socialist movements, and that developed a grotesque biologically-determinant view of so-called “Aryan” supremacy. (Here we use “national socialism” to refer to the early Nazi movement before Hitler came to power, sometimes termed the “Brownshirt” phase, and the term “Nazi” to refer to the movement after it had consolidated around ideological fascism.)

The seeds of fascism, however, were planted in Italy. “Fascism is reaction,” said Mussolini, but reaction to what? The reactionary movement following World War I was based on a rejection of the social theories that formed the basis of the 1789 French Revolution, and whose early formulations in this country had a major influence on our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.

It was Rousseau who is best known for crystallizing these modern social theories in The Social Contract.The progeny of these theories are sometimes called Modernism or Modernity because they challenged social theories generally accepted since the days of Machiavelli. The response to the French Revolution and Rousseau, by Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and others, poured into an intellectual stew which served up Marxism, socialism, national socialism, fascism, modern liberalism, modern conservatism, communism, and a variety of forms of capitalist participatory democracy.

Fascists particularly loathed the social theories of the French Revolution and its slogan: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”

  • Liberty from oppressive government intervention in the daily lives of its citizens, from illicit searches and seizures, from enforced religious values, from intimidation and arrest for dissenters; and liberty to cast a vote in a system in which the ; majority ruled but the minority retained certain inalienable rights.
  • Equality in the sense of civic equality, egalitarianism, the notion that while people differ, they all should stand equal in the eyes of the law.
  • Fraternity in the sense of the brotherhood of mankind. That all women and men, the old and the young, the infirm and the healthy, the rich and the poor, share a spark of humanity that must be cherished on a level above that of the law, and that binds us all together in a manner that continuously re-affirms and celebrates life.

This is what fascism as an ideology was reacting against–and its support came primarily from desperate people anxious and angry over their perception that their social and economic position was sinking and frustrated with the constant risk of chaos, uncertainty and inefficiency implicit in a modern democracy based on these principles. Fascism is the antithesis of democracy. We fought a war against it not half a century ago; millions perished as victims of fascism and champions of liberty.

“One of the great lies of this century is that in the 1930’s Generalissimo Franco in Spain was primarily a nationalist engaged in stopping the Reds. Franco was, of course, a fascist who was aided by Mussolini and Hitler.””The history of this period is a press forgery. Falsified news manipulates public opinion. Democracy needs facts.
–George Seldes
Hartland Four Corners, Vermont,
March 5, 1988

Fascism was forged in the crucible of post-World War I nationalism in Europe. The national aspirations of many European peoples–nations without states, peoples arbitrarily assigned to political entities with little regard for custom or culture–had been crushed after World War I. The humiliation imposed by the victors in the Great War, coupled with the hardship of the economic Depression, created bitterness and anger. That anger frequently found its outlet in an ideology that asserted not just the importance of the nation, but its unquestionable primacy and central predestined role in history.

In identifying “goodness” and “superiority” with “us,” there was a tendency to identify “evil” with “them.” This process involves scapegoating and dehumanization. It was then an easy step to blame all societal problems on “them,” and presuppose a conspiracy of these evildoers which had emasculated and humiliated the idealized core group of the nation. To solve society’s problems one need only unmask the conspirators and eliminate them.

In Europe, Jews were the handy group to scapegoat as “them.” Anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and discrimination against Jews were not a new phenomenon, but most academic studies of the period note an increased anti-Jewish fervor in Europe, especially in the late 1800’s. In France this anti-Jewish bias was most publicly expressed in the case of Alfred Dreyfus, a French military officer of Jewish background, who in 1894 was falsely accused of treason, convicted (through the use of forged papers as evidence) and imprisoned on Devil’s Island. Zola led a noble struggle which freed Dreyfus and exposed the role of anti-Jewish bigotry in shaping French society and betraying the principles on which France was building its democracy.

Not all European nationalist movements were necessarily fascist, although many were. In some countries much of the Catholic hierarchy embraced fascist nationalism as a way to counter the encroachment of secular influences on societies where previously the church had sole control over societal values and mores. This was especially true in Slovakia and Croatia, where the Clerical Fascist movements were strong, and to a lesser extent in Poland and Hungary. Yet even in these countries individual Catholic leaders and laity spoke out against bigotry as the shadow of fascism crept across Europe. And in every country of Europe there were ordinary citizens who took extraordinary risks to shelter the victims of the Holocaust. So religion and nationality cannot be valid indicators of fascist sentiment. And the Nazis not only came for the Jews, as the famous quote reminds us, but for the communists and the trade union leaders, and indeed the Gypsies, the dissidents and the homosexuals. Nazism and fascism are more complex than popular belief. What, then, is the nature of fascism?

Italy was the birthplace of fascist ideology. Mussolini, a former socialist journalist, organized the first fascist movement in 1919 at Milan. In 1922 Mussolini led a march on Rome, was given a government post by the king, and began transforming the Italian political system into a fascist state. In 1938 he forced the last vestige of democracy, the Council of Deputies, to vote themselves out of existence, leaving Mussolini dictator of fascist Italy.

Yet there were Italian fascists who resisted scapegoating and dehumanization even during World War II. Not far from the area where Austrian Prime Minister Kurt Waldheim is accused of assisting in the transport of Jews to the death camps, one Italian General, Mario Roatta, who had pledged equality of treatment to civilians, refused to obey the German military order to round up Jews. Roatta said such an activity was “incompatible with the honor of the Italian Army.”

Franco’s fascist movement in Spain claimed state power in 1936, although it took three years, the assistance of the Italian fascists and help from the secretly reconstituted German Air Force finally to crush those who fought for democracy. Picasso’s famous painting depicts the carnage wrought in a Spanish village by the bombs dropped by the forerunner of the Luftwaffe which all too soon would be working on an even larger canvas. Yet Franco’s fascist Spain never adopted the obsession with race and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories that were hallmarks of Hitler’s Nazi movement in Germany.

Other fascist movements in Europe were more explicitly racialist, promoting the slogan still used today by some neo-Nazi movements: “Nation is Race.” The Nazi racialist version of fascism was developed by Adolph Hitler who with six others formed the Nazi party during 1919 and 1920. Imprisoned after the unsuccessful 1923 Beer Hall putsch in Munich, Hitler dictated his opus, Mein Kampf to his secretary, Rudolph Hess. ;

Mein Kampf (My Battle) sets out a plan for creating in Germany through national socialism a racially pure Volkish state. To succeed, said Hitler, “Aryan” Germany had to resist two forces: the external threat posed by the French with their bloodlines “negrified” through “contamination by Negro blood,” and the internal threat posed by “the Marxist shock troops of international Jewish stock exchange capital.” Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany by Hindenburg in January 1933 and by year’s end had consolidated his power as a fascist dictator and begun a campaign for racialist nationalism that eventually led to the Holocaust.

This obsession with a racialism not only afflicted the German Nazis, but also several eastern European nationalist and fascist movements including those in Croatia, Slovakia, Serbia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, and the Ukraine. Anti-Jewish bigotry was rampant in all of these racialist movements, as was the idea of a link between Jewish financiers and Marxists. Even today the tiny Anti-communist Confederation of Polish Freedom Fighters in the U.S.A. uses the slogan “Communism is Jewish.”

“Reactionary concepts plus revolutionary emotion result in Fascist mentality.”
–Wilhelm Reich

One element shared by all fascist movements, racialist or not, is the apparent lack of consistent political principle behind the ideology–political opportunism in the most basic sense. One virtually unique aspect of fascism is its ruthless drive to attain and hold state power. On that road to power, fascists are willing to abandon any principle to adopt an issue more in vogue and more likely to gain converts.

Hitler, for his part, committed his act of abandonment bloodily and dramatically. When the industrialist power brokers offered control of Germany to Hitler, they knew he was supported by national socialist ideologues who held views incompatible with their idea of profitable enterprise. Hitler solved the problem in the “Night of the Long Knives,” during which he had the leadership of the national socialist wing of his constituency murdered in their sleep.

What distinguishes Nazism from generic fascism is its obsession with racial theories of superiority, and some would say, its roots in the socialist theory of proletarian revolution.

Fascism and Nazism as ideologies involve, to varying degrees, some of the following hallmarks:

  • Nationalism and super-patriotism with a sense of historic mission.
  • Aggressive militarism even to the extent of glorifying war as good for the national or individual spirit.
  • Use of violence or threats of violence to impose views on others (fascism and Nazism both employed street violence and state violence at different moments in their development).
  • Authoritarian reliance on a leader or elite not constitutionally responsible to an electorate.
  • Cult of personality around a charismatic leader.
  • Reaction against the values of Modernism, usually with emotional attacks against both liberalism and communism.
  • Exhortations for the homogeneous masses of common folk (Volkish in German, Populist in the U.S.) to join voluntarily in a heroic mission–often metaphysical and romanticized in character.
  • Dehumanization and scapegoating of the enemy–seeing the enemy as an inferior or subhuman force, perhaps involved in a conspiracy that justifies eradicating them.
  • The self image of being a superior form of social organization beyond socialism, capitalism and democracy.
  • Elements of national socialist ideological roots, for example, ostensible support for the industrial working class or farmers; but ultimately, the forging of an alliance with an elite sector of society.
  • Abandonment of any consistent ideology in a drive for state power.

It is vitally important to understand that fascism and Nazism are not biologically or culturally determinant. Fascism does not attach to the gene structure of any specific group or nationality. Nazism was not the ultimate expression of the German people. Fascism did not end with World War II.

After Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies, the geopolitical landscape of Europe was once again drastically altered. In a few short months, some of our former fascist enemies became our allies in the fight to stop the spread of communism. The record of this transformation has been laid out in a series of books. U.S. recruitment of the Nazi spy apparatus has been chronicled in books ranging from The General was a Spy by Hohne & Zolling, to the recent Blowback by Simpson. The laundering of Nazi scientists into our space program is chronicled in The Paperclip Conspiracy by Bowers. The global activities of, and ongoing fascist role within, the World Anti-Communist League were described in Inside the League by Anderson and Anderson. Bellant’s bibliography cites many other examples of detailed and accurate reporting of these disturbing realities.

But if so much is already known of this period, why does journalist and historian George Seldes call the history of Europe between roughly 1920 and 1950 a “press forgery”? Because most people are completely unfamiliar with this material, and because so much of the popular historical record either ignores or contradicts the facts of European nationalism, Nazi collaborationism, and our government’s reliance on these enemies of democracy to further our Cold War foreign policy objectives.

This widely-accepted, albeit misleading, historical record has been shaped by filtered media reports and self-serving academic revisionism rooted in an ideological preference for those European nationalist forces which opposed socialism and communism. Since sectors of those nationalist anti-communist forces allied themselves with political fascism, but later became our allies against communism, apologiafor collaborationists became the rule, not the exception.

Soon, as war memories dimmed and newspaper accounts of collaboration faded, the fascists and their allies re-emerged cloaked in a new mantle of respectability. Portrayed as anti-communist freedom fighters, their backgrounds blurred by time and artful circumlocution, they stepped forward to continue their political organizing with goals unchanged and slogans slightly repackaged to suit domestic sensibilities.

To fight communism after World War II, our government forged a tactical alliance with what was perceived to be the lesser of two evils–and as with many such bargains, there has been a high price to pay.

“The great masses of people. . .will more easily fall victims to a big lie than to a small one.”
–Adolph Hitler



 

Techniques of the Propagandist

In 1923 Edward L. Bernays wrote the book Crystallizing Public Opinion and later, in 1928, the text Propaganda, considered seminal works in the field. “There is propaganda and what I call impropaganda,” said the 98-year-old Bernays impishly when I interviewed him a few years prior to his death. Propaganda originally meant promoting any idea or item, but took on its current pejorative sense following the extensive use of sinister propaganda for malicious goals during World War I and World War II.

While all persuasion uses the techniques of traditional propaganda, what Bernays calls “impropaganda”is “using propaganda techniques not in accordance with good sense, good faith, or good morals…methods not consistent with the American pattern of behavior based on Judeo-Christian ethics.” Bernays, who is called the “father of public relations,”is worried about the increased use of “impropaganda”in political campaigns and has spoken out against it. “Politicians who use techniques like these lose the faith of the people,” said Bernays.

In 1936 Boston merchant Edward Filene helped establish the short-lived Institute for Propaganda Analysis which sought to educate Americans to recognize propaganda techniques. Alfred McClung Lee, Institute director from 1940-42, and his wife Elizabeth Briant Lee, co-authors of The Fine Art of Propaganda, Social Problems in America, wrote an article in the periodical Propaganda Review in which they suggested educating the public about propaganda techniques was an urgent priority. The Lees also discussed the Institute’s symbols for the seven hallmark tricks of the manipulative propagandist:

  • Name Calling: hanging a bad label on an idea, symbolized by a hand turning thumbs down;
  • Card Stacking: selective use of facts or outright falsehoods, symbolized by an ace of spades, a card signifying treachery;
  • Band Wagon: a claim that everyone like us thinks this way, symbolized by a marching bandleader’s hat and baton;
  • Testimonial: the association of a respected or hated person with an idea, symbolized by a seal and ribbon stamp of approval;
  • Plain Folks: a technique whereby the idea and its proponents are linked to “people just like you and me,” symbolized by an old shoe;
  • Transfer: an assertion of a connection between something valued or hated and the idea or commodity being discussed, symbolized by a smiling Greek theater mask; and
  • Glittering Generality: an association of something with a “virtue word” to gain approval without examining the evidence; symbolized by a sparkling gem.

The Institute’s last newsletter reflected that “in modern society an element of propaganda is present in a large portion of human affairs…people need to be able to recognize this element even when it is serving `good’ ends.”

What are the Fallacies of Logic?

Investigative reporting and progressive research took a detour during the probe of the Iran-Contra affair. Because the executive branch was engaged in a coverup, and Congress refused to demand a full accounting, speculation about conspiracies blossomed. There certainly are conspiracies afoot in the halls of government and private industry. Documenting illegal conspiracies is routinely accomplished by prosecutors who present their evidence to a judge or jury. The burden of proof can be high, as it should be in a democracy. Journalists frequently document conspiracies, and their published or broadcast charges can be tested against standards of journalistic ethics and sometimes in court in cases of alleged libel and slander.
Coverage of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories in recent years, however, routinely violated common journalistic practices regarding second sourcing. A theory that cannot be documented, or for which there is only one source of questionable credibility, is a rumor…not investigative journalism.

With so much political and journalistic confusion it is useful to remember that academia has produced a long list of useful tools and techniques to evaluate the logical and conceptual validity of any argument regardless of political content or viewpoint.
Useful rational standards by which to judge the merits of any statement or theory are easily found in textbooks on debate, rhetoric, argument, and logic.

These books discuss which techniques of argumentation are not valid because they fail to follow the rules of logic. There are many common fallacious techniques or inadequate proofs:

  • Raising the volume, increasing the stridency, or stressing the emotionalism of an argument does not improve its validity. This is called argument by exhortation. It is often a form of demagoguery, bullying or emotional manipulation.
  • Sequence does not imply causation. If Joan is elected to the board of directors of a bank on May 1, and Raul gets a loan on July 26, further evidence is needed to prove a direct or causal connection. Sequence can be a piece of a puzzle, but other causal links need to be further investigated.
  • Congruence in one or more elements does not establish congruence in all elements. Gloria Steinem and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick are both intelligent, assertive women accomplished in political activism and persuasive rhetoric. To assume they therefore also agree politically would be ludicrous. If milk is white and powdered chalk is white, would you drink a glass of powdered chalk?
  • Association does not imply agreement, hence the phrase “guilt by association”has a pejorative meaning. Association proves association; it suggests further questions are appropriate, and demonstrates the parameters of networks, coalitions, and personal moral distinctions, nothing more. Tracking association can lead to further investigation that produces useful evidence, but a database is not an analysis and a spiderweb chart is not an argument. The connections may be meaningful, random, or related to an activity unrelated to the one being probed.
  • Participation in an activity, or presence at an event, does not imply control.
  • Similarity in activity does not imply joint activity and joint activity does not imply congruent motivation. When a person serves in an official advisory role or acts in a position of responsibility within a group, however, the burden of proof shifts to favor a presumption that such a person is not a mere member or associate, but probably embraces a considerable portion of the sentiments expressed by the group. Still, even members of boards of directors will distance themselves from a particular stance adopted by a group they oversee, and therefore it is not legitimate to assume automatically that they personally hold a view expressed by the group or other board members. It is legitimate to assert that they need to distance themselves publicly from a particular organizational position if they wish to disassociate themselves from it.
  • Anecdotes alone are not conclusive evidence. Anecdotes are used to illustrate a thesis, not to prove it. A good story-teller can certainly be mesmerizing-consider Ronald Reagan–but if skill in story-telling and acting is the criteria for political leadership, Ossie Davis would have been president, not Ronald Reagan. This anecdote illustrates that anecdotes alone are not conclusive evidence, even though most progressives would think that Davis would have been a kindler, gentler president than Reagan or Bush.

What is the Sucker Punch?

A “Sucker Punch” is when someone poses as a friend and then when they get close they knock you to the ground with their fist.

So when right-wing ideologues and organizers suggest a coalition on any topic other than broad-based civil liberties, just say no.*

Why? Read the following:
Right Woos Left:
Populist Party, LaRouchite, and Other Neo-fascist Overtures To Progressives, And Why They Must Be Rejected 


* The exception is important, because civil liberties for all is what allows democracy to be built in the first place