Fascism is a totalitarian movement wherein an omnipotent government asserts control over every nook and cranny of political, economic, social, and private life – generally in the name of “the public good.” In its original sense, the word “totalitarian” did not carry the negative connotations it has acquired over time. The Italian fascist Benito Mussolini first coined the term to describe a society where everyone belonged, where no one was abandoned socially or economically, and where the state would take ultimate responsibility for the well-being of all its people. “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State,” is how Mussolini phrased it. Because fascism sees no legitimate boundary to its ambitions, it is expansionist by nature.
A common theme of fascism is its pledge to restore national pride to countries whose former prestige or power has diminished. As the historian Victor Davis Hanson notes, "Fascism thrives best in a once proud, recently humbled, but now ascendant, people [who] are ripe to be deluded into thinking contemporary setbacks were caused by others and are soon to be erased through ever more zealotry."
Fascism also tends to promote and exploit the grievances of “the common man,” portraying society as the theater of a ceaseless conflict – a class war – between oppressor and oppressed, victimizer and victim. Consequently, identity politics is central to fascism.
Yet another hallmark of fascism is its propensity to bring forth powerful, charismatic, even deified figures who are viewed as uniquely capable – along with their hand-picked advisers – of leading nations to restored or new-found greatness. Thus the cult of personality historically has been a central element of fascism. (The same has been true of Communist leaders such as Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, and Castro.)
The economics of fascism are collectivist, socialist and redistributionist – supremely hostile to free-market capitalism and wealth inequalities. Indeed, fascism is closely related to communism in both theory and practice. The chief difference between the two is that fascism is rooted in nationalism and seeks to create a socialist utopia within the confines of a particular country's borders; thus the Nazis, for instance, embraced “National Socialism.” Communism, by contrast, seeks to transcend national boundaries and promote a worldwide proletariat revolution, where the foot soldiers are bound together not by a common nationality but by their membership in the same economic class. The communist position was articulated in Karl Marx's famous exhortation in the Communist Manifesto: “Workers of the world, unite!”
Apart from this distinction, communism and fascism are kindred spirits of anti-capitalist totalitarianism. Author Jonah Goldberg characterizes them as “closely related, historical competitors for the same constituents, seeking to dominate and control the same social space.” As the fascist Mussolini put it, in a 1921 speech:
“Between us and the communists there are no political affinities but there are intellectual ones. Like you [communists], we consider necessary a centralized unitary state which imposes iron discipline and all persons, with this difference, that you reached this conclusion by way of the concept of class, and we by the way of the concept of nation.”
In his book Communism: A History, Richard Pipes has identified a number of additional areas where German and Italian fascism bore striking similarities to Soviet communism:
- Both the fascists and communists had a common enemy, which was liberal democracy with its reverence for civil rights, property, and peace.
- Both the fascists and communists were totalitarian regimes that regarded human beings as expendable raw material for the construction of a new social order.
- Both the fascists and communists tried to obliterate all distinctions between the state and the citizenry by penetrating and controlling every aspect of organized life.
- Both the fascists and communists enjoyed a political monopoly and governed with the assistance of the security police, which were endowed with unrestricted powers.
- Both the fascists and communists viewed pacifism with contempt.
Fascism's socialist/communist ideals dovetail neatly with the fascist desire to eliminate class differences among the populace. In many of his speeches, Adolf Hitler clearly stated his intent to erase all lines of division between rich and poor. Robert Ley, who headed the Nazis’ German Labor Front, boasted: “We are the first country in Europe to overcome the class struggle.” The militarism that became so deeply identified with the Nazis was actually intended, in part, to help advance the dissolution of class differences by uniting the members of all social strata in a common cause.
Economist Thomas Sowell, for his part, explains that whereas the federal government owns the means of production in a socialist/communist system, private enterprises own the means of production in a fascist system -- but those enterprises operate entirely according to the government's dictates.
While fascism is indeed the repository of all the political, social, and economic traits enumerated above, the fascist mindset manifests itself in somewhat different ways depending upon the culture in whose psychological soil it sprouts. For example:
- Whereas the Nazis were genocidal anti-Semites, the Italian fascists were protectors of the Jews until the Nazis took over Italy, and the fascist dictator Francisco Franco refused Hitler’s demand to deliver tens of thousands of Spanish Jews to the latter for extermination.
- Whereas the Nazis despised Christianity, the Italian fascists made peace with the Catholic Church – notwithstanding Mussolini's passionate contempt for that institution.
- Whereas racism was central to Nazi ideology, Mussolini expressed his own “sovereign contempt” for the “one hundred percent racism” of Hitler's government.
Resources: Liberal Fascism, by Jonah Goldberg (2007); "Islamic Fascism 101: On All They've Done to Earn the Name," by Victor Davis Hanson (September 29, 2006).