What Is Fascism? A historian parses the origins of an ideology.

AuthorHatheway, Jay

Political discourse in the United States today includes many references to fascism, a term that is frequently misunderstood. This essay is a brief introduction to what was meant historically, in contrast to the ways the term is being used today. While there are similarities, the differences are stark enough.

Fascism is a closed ideological system that places the state and the nation at the center of all human life. Classical fascism was developed in the early 1920s in Italy, by Giovanni Gentile and Benito Mussolini, in the aftermath of World War One. But the origins of fascism can be traced back to a negative reception of the European Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The Enlightenment began as a philosophical movement in Great Britain and France, in response to the rise of a new capitalist class of merchants who challenged the power of the crown and demanded the "right of the individual" to economic and political self-determination. The movement, however, was rejected by a number of Europeans who believed the new order was destructive to a Western culture then based upon Christianity and hierarchy. The followers of German philosopher Karl Marx, beginning in the mid-1800s, also rejected this novel social order, as did those who espoused an extreme form of nationalism which argued that each "nation" was a collective that had a unique transcendent essence or soul that distinguished it from other nations.

By the early twentieth century, nationalism had become popular as new countries such as Germany and Italy were created out of the unification of states in the late 1800s. Racism would be gradually attached to nationalism so that many Europeans conceived of a biologized hierarchy of nations, from high to low, which justified European imperialism such that poet and author Rudyard Kipling could extol the gift of the British to the world as "The White Man's Burden."

World War One and its aftermath did little to dampen the appeal of nationalism, racist or otherwise. Political leaders in Italy, for example, were angry that its nineteenth-century claims to national self-determination remained unfulfilled. The question of what to do led Mussolini, a veteran of the war and a well-known former socialist, to consider how best to respond to this betrayal. He concluded that the issue was a symptom of Italian degeneration as a result of Western notions of excessive individualism. His answer was the notion of "fascism" and the...

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