Fascism is militaristic
It is always tempting to frame those who disagree with us in our terms, rather than theirs.
Religions and political ideologies provide framings through which we view the world. When we notice that others seriously and persistently disagree with us, it is very tempting to see them as being driven by the opposite of what we revere or support. In doing so, we see them in terms of our framings.
So, if progressives see themselves as being driven by a pervasive concern for equality, and they observe that conservatives persistently and seriously disagree with them, then it is natural to view conservatives as being driven by their support for inequality.
In fact, conservative views of equality are typically instrumental: if they believe a form of equality supports good order, they are likely to support it, even strongly support it. If they believe a form of equality undermines good order, they are likely to oppose it, even strongly so. For conservatives are not driven by concern about equality or inequality. Their fundamental concern is social order and they wish to preserve what creates and maintains a stable social order. Hence their instrumental view of equality.
Now, conservatives will often seriously and persistently disagree with progressives because they will see many of their proposals as undermining good order. Hence, conservatives have often characterised progressives as being driven by hostility to order. And, yes, progressives have often been repelled by aspects of existing social orders, but that is not because they are oppose to order per se, but because it does not fit their vision of an equal society.
Progressives have often accused conservatives of not taking problems of inequality sufficiently seriously. Conservatives have often accused progressives of not taking problems of order sufficiently seriously. Both complaints have often been correct.
Christians may see those who seriously disagree with them, particularly if they are explicitly hostile to Christian perspectives or concerns, as satanic or demonic, or inspired by the same. This is also applying their own framings to those who disagree with them.
No political ideology has been more solidly mischaracterised by having other people’s framings applied to it than fascism. This is partly because fascist! has become such a ubiquitous term of abuse. But even intellectual analyses of fascism can run into the problem of framing fascism in ways that reflect the assumptions of the analyst, not of fascism itself.
A useful way of seeing what fascism is, or is not, is to compare four dictatorial regimes of the interwar period. Admiral Horthy’s regime in Hungary (1920–1944), Mussolini’s regime in Italy (1922–1943), Hitler’s regime in Germany (1932–1945) and Franco’s in Spain (1939–1975).
Horthy was Regent of the Kingdom of Hungary: an Admiral without a navy ruling a kingdom without a King. His regime, established after the suppression of Bela Kun’s communist regime, is often ignored in discussion of rightwing authoritarian regimes because it is a bit intellectually embarrassing. Here was a military figure ruling a quasi-parliamentary state that did not conform to grand models of what “fascism” was about and whose rule pre-dates any serious fascism. It is easier to dismiss him as an odd remnant of pre-war traditionalism than to tackle the awkward-for-analysis nature of his regime.
The original Fascist
Mussolini is, of course, the original Fascist dictator. He was the originator of the concept of “totalitarian” (though he pretended to practice it far more than his regime was operationally totalitarian). He was a former revolutionary socialist who was a keen observer of Lenin’s Bolshevik regime. Mussolini switched from the collectivism of class to the collectivism of nation under the stress of the Great War (1914–1918). He was the first serious practitioner of mass war-veteran politics; of the politics of men who had gone through the crucible of trench warfare. His Blackshirts were the first successful post-Great War political mobilisation of created-by-a-political-movement paramilitary forces in Europe.
While Mussolini embraced some of the common racism of the period, it was nation, not race, that was at the centre-point of his politics. But nationalism had been a politically potent force for many decades prior the 1920s. It was the combination of nationalism with mass political organisation based substantially around paramilitary pageantry and organisation that was distinctive about Mussolini’s movement.
Italian Fascism fetishised military organisation, military virtues, military heroism. It was this fetishised militarism which would lead Italian Fascism, and fascism more generally, to become so strongly associated with aggressive war: Ethiopia (1935), Albania (1939), Greece (1941).
The association with aggressive war would in turn generate much of the revulsion against fascism. After all, every single revolutionary Marxist state would be more tyrannical, and more murderous, than Mussolini’s regime. Several of them would be orders of magnitude more murderous. It was the association with aggressive war in and from Europe, flowing from the fetishisation of military organisation, virtues and heroism, that was more distinctive about fascism.
The secular Satan
The next in our foursome is by far the most consequential and by far the most evil. Indeed, as historian Tom Holland has pointed out, Hitler has become the secular Satan, the embodiment of evil. I would go further and say that he embodies the past-as-Hell that the forms of progressive politics based on the-imagined-future-as-secular-Heaven emotionally leverage off.
Hitler replicated Mussolini’s mode of politics, but based on the collectivism of race rather than the collectivism of nation. His was also a far more imperial project than Mussolini’s. Mussolini’s project was Italian national glory, however achieved. Hitler’s imperial project was lebensraum: a Judenfrei Reich of the master-race presiding over dispossessed and enserfed Slav untermenschen. As his project was far more extensive, requiring far more mobilising of resources, Hitler’s regime was far more totalitarian.
Mussolini was a Jacobin of nation, Hitler a Jacobin of race. That is, they both adopted the Jacobin model of politics unlimited in means (no limits on tactics) and unlimited in scope (politics reaching into all parts of life). Hitler (due to the nature of his project) was much more serious in his adoption of the Jacobin model than was Mussolini.
Hitler and Nazism was also, again due to the nature of their political project, more serious in the fetishising of military organisation, military virtues, military heroism than Italian Fascism. The SA, the Brownshirts, was a more extensive paramilitary organisation than the Blackshirts. The SS a much more seriously trained and effective paramilitary organisation than either. One that acquired a very substantial (and effective) military wing, the Waffen-SS.
Hitler was also far more committed to aggressive war than Mussolini. The paramilitarism that was such a striking feature of both Fascism and Nazism was not a mere matter of pageantry and street-fighting. It embodied a key feature of both movements.
Which makes them distinctive from other C20th political movements. Especially in Weimar Germany, other political parties might have paramilitary wings, but they were operational add-ons rather than a deep expression of the movement and its ideology.
With fascism, the militarism is not an add-on, it is constitutive, it is a central expression of the movement and its ideology. Hence the association with aggressive war. Without that explicit, constitutive militarism; without the fetishising of military organisation, military virtues, military heroism; you simply don’t have fascism. Without the explicit rejection of democracy and parliamentarian politics that goes along with such fetishisation, you also don’t have fascism.
The explicitly anti-democratic militarism is what analysts coming from other political traditions persistently miss, precisely because it is so outside the framing of the traditions they come from.
The authoritarian traditionalist
Franco was a general who led a civil war to overthrow a democratic republic. He took over a fascist movement with a paramilitary, the Falange, and made it part of his regime. He received aid from both Mussolini and Hitler’s regime. So, clearly fascist, right?
Actually, not so much. What aggressive war did Franco’s regime engage in? None. Sure, he sent the Blue Division of volunteers to fight on the Eastern Front, but they were volunteers. (The hard-core falangists stayed on the Eastern Front after the withdrawal of the Division as the Blue Legion.) Spain itself never got involved in the War. Indeed, in matters of espionage and giving refuge to Jews who could claim any Spanish ancestry, Franco actively frustrated Nazi policy. One suspects that sending off the serious fascists to get themselves killed, wounded and exhausted on the Eastern Front did not worry Franco.
Far from fetishising matters military, Franco celebrated, regularly, that he had presided over the longest period of peace in Spanish history. Franco-the-bringer-of-peace was a very unfascist stance to take.
Franco’s fascist trappings were pragmatic instrumentalism. He did what was operationally useful and no more. Fascism did not reflect his own ideological commitments. As one could see from what his regime did (including who he made his heir), Franco was an authoritarian traditionalist. His central concern was to create and maintain a traditional (Catholic) social order. Hence the joke that the Pyrenees were the highest mountains in Europe: they isolated Spain from Europe.
After his death, Franco’s regime transitioned (mostly) peacefully, and remarkably easily, to a democratic constitutional monarchy. Restoring the Borbon monarchy kept traditionalists happy, creating a Parliamentary democracy kept almost everyone else happy. The pretend-fascism of Franco’s regime vanished with barely a tremor: particularly as the Francoist Movement-National’s last secretary-general very ably helped orchestrate the transition to parliamentary monarchy.
So, not actually a fascist, or running a fascist regime, in any serious sense.
Where we are
There are plenty of demagogues, authoritarian populists and national populists in Western and other politics. There is a striking lack of fascists, except as very fringe movements.
If they don’t have paramilitary wings; if they don’t fetishise military organisation, military virtues, military heroism; if they don’t explicitly attack democracy and openly seek to replace it; they are not a fascist. If they don’t have an organised movement to do all the above which is a serious contender in national politics, they are not a fascist to worry about.
But with Hitler as the secular Satan, and Nazism and the Holocaust as the embodiment of the past-as-moral-hell, the use of fascist! as a term of abuse, as the ultimate political boo-word, is far too easy and glib. Hence its ludicrous over-use. Its use is even more convenient as it diverts attention from the far greater record of mass murder, tyranny and human misery that Communism, that revolutionary Marxism, has inflicted on far more people.
But the Nazi death-camps were liberated, filmed and photographed. We have the images, the walking skeletons, the court evidence, the archives. With the partial exception of Kampuchea’s Year Zero, we have far less evidence of the far greater Communist atrocities.
There are also large areas of academe with an ideological and comfort interests in playing down that record, and diverting attention from it. After all, if they took all that seriously, the question of why they permit Marxists to hold positions in academe, folk who clearly do not think any amount of mass murder and tyranny raises questions about their ideology, might become an awkward one
A grim upside of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is far more people are now aware of the Holodomor. Some are even wondering why they were not taught about it. Good question. Might even bring the education establishment some of the contempt so much of it increasingly and richly deserves.
Like any political movement and tradition, fascism needs to be understood in its own terms, not by a framing imposed on it from a different tradition. It is rather important to be genuinely able to recognise fascism when you see it.