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Jun 21, 2006

What Is Fascism?

tags: fascism

While rummaging through my office files, I came across a clipping of a twenty-three-year-old review-essay that I had forgotten I had saved from the New York Review of Books entitled "What Was Fascism?" by Istvan Deak. The books he reviewed were Who Were the Fascists: Social Roots of European Fascism, edited by Stein Larsen, Bernt Hagtvet, and Jan Myklebust, and Who Voted for Hitler? by Richard Hamilton.

Born during World War II in post-Huey Long Louisiana, coming of age in the White Citizens Council South and Cold War/post-Joe McCarthy America, having read It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis in college, having later taught courses on World War II, and having aged in the post-Cold War and post-Vietnam War eras, I've long been interested in the question of what fascism was and is.

Several of the authors in the Larsen book pointed out that the nature of fascism varied from country to country—from Croatia to Hungary to Germany, Italy, or Spain. Depending on nation or region, for example, varying social groups supported fascist movements; some fascist movements were more violent than others, with Hitlerian Nazism the most violent; some included strong religious components; others were more secular; and one author noted that it was ofttimes difficult to distinguish between fascist and right-wing authoritarian governments. Nonetheless, "fascism" was the generic term chosen to describe movements that went by different names, such as Nazi and Falangist. Deak thought that the essay, "The Concept of Fascism" by Stanley G. Payne was one of the best attempts at generalization. He summarized Payne's description of fascism this way:

"True fascism, he explains, is in opposition to liberalism, communism, and—less violently—conservatism. It advocates the creation of a new, nationalist, authoritarian state and an integrated social structure, and the building of an empire. Fascism . . . espouses an idealist creed calling on its followers to participate by an act of will. More important, it develops a very special style and organization, characterized by an emphasis on patriotic symbols and visible political 'choreography,' romantic and mystical rhetoric, attempts at mass mobilization, the cult and practice of violence, heavy emphasis on the masculine principle and male dominance, an organic view of society, an exaltation of youth, an emphasis on the conflict of generations, and, of course, a charismatic, personal style of leadership. Does Payne leave anything out? He could, in my view [Deak wrote] have said more about imperialistic expansion and war, about the militarization of society, and about the fascists' mania for demonstrations and marching."

In my view, other things should be included or given more emphasis in a general concept of fascism: a police-state approach to law and order; the emasculation of legislative and judicial entities; government spying on citizens; corporate-government-military alliances; the Leader principle; the desire to silence other political parties; racism; the use of populist rhetoric for reactionary purposes; and the identification and suppression of selected political, economic, social, and ethnic groups as the enemy within.

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