Populism as Core Element of Fascism

Portions of this essay first appeared on the PRA website in a section called “Too Close for Comfort” as preliminary research studies that were later incorporated into the book Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort by Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons, New York, Guilford Press, 2000; which maintains an updates website.

Fascism is a complex political current that parasitizes other ideologies, includes many internal tensions and contradictions, and has chameleon-like adaptations based on the specific historic symbols, icons, slogans, traditions, myths, and heroes of the society it wishes to mobilize. In addition, fascism as a social movement often acts dramatically different from fascism once it holds state power. When holding state power, fascism tends to be rigidly hierarchical, authoritarian, and elitist. As a social movement fascism employs populist appeals against the current regime and promises a dramatic and quick transformation of the status quo.

In interwar Europe there were three distinct forms of fascism, Italian economic corporatist fascism (the original fascism), German racial nationalist Nazism, and clerical fascism exemplified by religious/nationalist movements in Croatia, Hungary, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and the Ukraine, among others.

Right-wing populism can act as both a precursor and a building block of fascism, with anti-elitist conspiracism and ethnocentric scapegoating as shared elements. The dynamic of right-wing populism interacting with and facilitating fascism in interwar Germany was chronicled by Peter Fritzsche in Rehearsals for Fascism: Populism and Political Mobilization in Weimar Germany. Fritzsche showed that distressed middle-class populists in Weimar launched bitter attacks against both the government and big business. This populist surge was later exploited by the Nazis which parasitized the forms and themes of the populists and moved their constituencies far to the right through ideological appeals involving demagoguery, scapegoating, and conspiracism.

The Nazis expressed the populist yearnings of middle-class constituents and at the same time advocated a strong and resolutely anti-Marxist mobilization….Against “unnaturally” divisive parties and querulous organized interest groups, National Socialists cast themselves as representatives of the commonweal, of an allegedly betrayed and neglected German public….[b]reaking social barriers of status and caste, and celebrating at least rhetorically the populist ideal of the people’s community…

This populist rhetoric of the Nazis, focused the pre-existing “resentments of ordinary middle-class Germans against the bourgeois ‘establishment’ and against economic and political privilege, and by promising the resolution of these resentments in a forward-looking, technologically capable volkisch ‘utopia,'” according to Fritzsche.

As Umberto Eco explains, however, the populist rhetoric of fascism is selective and illusive:

Individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is a theatrical fiction….There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People….Wherever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell…Fascism.

Fritzsche observed that “German fascism would have been inconceivable without the profound transformation” of mainstream electoral politics in the 1920’s “which saw the dissolution of traditional party allegiances.” He also argued that the Nazis, while an electorally-focused movement, had more in common rhetorically and stylistically with middle class reform movements than backwards looking reactionary movements. So the Nazis as a movement appeared to provide for radical social change while actually moving its constituency to the right.

The success of fascist movements in attracting members from reformist populist constituencies is due to many complex overlapping factors, but key factors are certainly the depth of the economic and social crisis and transformation of, and the degree of anger and frustration of those who see their demands not being met. Desperate people turn to desperate solutions.

What is Fascism?

Originally published in 1997.

Author’s Note: I am skeptical of efforts to produce a “definition” of fascism. As a dynamic historical current, fascism has taken many different forms, and has evolved dramatically in some ways. To understand what fascism has encompassed as a movement and a system of rule, we have to look at its historical context and development–as a form of counter-revolutionary politics that first arose in early twentieth-century Europe in response to rapid social upheaval, the devastation of World War I, and the Bolshevik Revolution. The following paragraphs are intended as an initial, open-ended sketch.

Fascism is a form of extreme right-wing ideology that celebrates the nation or the race as an organic community transcending all other loyalties. It emphasizes a myth of national or racial rebirth after a period of decline or destruction. To this end, fascism calls for a “spiritual revolution” against signs of moral decay such as individualism and materialism, and seeks to purge “alien” forces and groups that threaten the organic community. Fascism tends to celebrate masculinity, youth, mystical unity, and the regenerative power of violence. Often, but not always, it promotes racial superiority doctrines, ethnic persecution, imperialist expansion, and genocide. At the same time, fascists may embrace a form of internationalism based on either racial or ideological solidarity across national boundaries. Usually fascism espouses open male supremacy, though sometimes it may also promote female solidarity and new opportunities for women of the privileged nation or race.

Fascism’s approach to politics is both populist–in that it seeks to activate “the people” as a whole against perceived oppressors or enemies–and elitist–in that it treats the people’s will as embodied in a select group, or often one supreme leader, from whom authority proceeds downward. Fascism seeks to organize a cadre-led mass movement in a drive to seize state power. It seeks to forcibly subordinate all spheres of society to its ideological vision of organic community, usually through a totalitarian state. Both as a movement and a regime, fascism uses mass organizations as a system of integration and control, and uses organized violence to suppress opposition, although the scale of violence varies widely.

Fascism is hostile to Marxism, liberalism, and conservatism, yet it borrows concepts and practices from all three. Fascism rejects the principles of class struggle and workers’ internationalism as threats to national or racial unity, yet it often exploits real grievances against capitalists and landowners through ethnic scapegoating or radical-sounding conspiracy theories. Fascism rejects the liberal doctrines of individual autonomy and rights, political pluralism, and representative government, yet it advocates broad popular participation in politics and may use parliamentary channels in its drive to power. Its vision of a “new order” clashes with the conservative attachment to tradition-based institutions and hierarchies, yet fascism often romanticizes the past as inspiration for national rebirth.

Fascism has a complex relationship with established elites and the non-fascist right. It is never a mere puppet of the ruling class, but an autonomous movement with its own social base. In practice, fascism defends capitalism against instability and the left, but also pursues an agenda that sometimes clashes with capitalist interests in significant ways. There has been much cooperation, competition, and interaction between fascism and other sections of the right, producing various hybrid movements and regimes.

Author’s postscript, December 2016.

In the nineteen years since I wrote “What is fascism?,” right-wing politics have continued to evolve, and my thinking about fascism has evolved as well. In particular, my concept of fascism has broadened with regard to the following points in the above sketch:

1. “Fascism…celebrates the nation or race as an organic community transcending all other loyalties…” I now believe the category of fascism should be extended to include some movements for which nation and race are secondary or irrelevant, but which promote a myth of collective rebirth around a shared culture or ideology, notably membership in a religious group. This includes certain totalitarian branches of the Christian right, Islamic right, Jewish right, and so on.

2. “Fascism seeks to organize a cadre-led mass movement in a drive to seize state power.” Some fascist movements, notably the European New Right and currents influenced by it, have deferred state power as a goal in favor of a “metapolitical” strategy. This means a long-term effort to transform the political culture, as a precondition to transforming institutions and systems of power.

3. Fascism “seeks to forcibly subordinate all spheres of society…usually through a totalitarian state.” Over the past half century, diverse branches of the far right—including several branches of neonazism—have rejected big centralized states in favor of various moves to decentralize political power. These currents represent forms of what I have called “social totalitarianism,” which seek to impose total ideological control through local governments and/or non-state institutions, such as church and family. I believe this represents a major shift in fascist politics, and one that has been overlooked by many scholars.

4. “[F]ascism defends capitalism against instability and the left…” Some writers have argued that German National Socialism challenged the basic economic principles of capitalism, by replacing the system of industrial wage labor with a system of slave labor in which workers on a mass scale were intentionally worked to death. This interpretation, coupled with the rise of anticapitalist ideology among some neofascists, has raised the question whether fascism might in some circumstances replace capitalism with another form of class rule—or with a chaotic breakdown of socio-economic systems.

For more in-depth discussions of what fascism means and how it relates to recent political developments, see my essays “Two Ways of Looking at Fascism” [http://sdonline.org/47/two-ways-of-looking-at-fascism/] (2008), “Is the Bush Administration Fascist?” [http://newpol.org/content/bush-administration-fascist] (2007), and “Trump: A fascist upsurge is just one of the dangers” [http://threewayfight.blogspot.com/2015/12/trumps-impact-fascist-upsurge-is-just.html] (2015).