What Is Fascism?

The dying ideas of America’s ruling elite require a counter-hegemonic movement.

The trouble with posing the question, “what is fascism?” is that complex social realities are never composed of one single essence that can be pinned down in the “is.” Socrates was well aware of this problem when he endlessly posed his question: “what is virtue?” He routinely terminated the discussion after demonstrating that nobody knew what they were talking about, himself included. The problem is: if we say “fascism is x” we have inevitably left something out. But we talk about fascism as though we know what we’re talking about. Indeed, there is a veritable chorus of chatter rising up on all sides about “neo-fascism,” “post-fascism,” “late fascism,” or simply “fascism,” which, we are told, is making an unseemly re-appearance, particularly in the United States. President Joe Biden has even referred to supporters of Donald Trump as “semi-fascists.”

In the face of this din of confident voices, and despite the Socratic problems of definitions, we must ask the question: what is fascism? We should begin with the feature of fascism that viscerally repels us: fascism was a form of state power that violently crushed the communist threat, organized national production for war, smashed liberal freedoms of expression, press, and assembly, conquered the European continent, and ultimately engaged in the efficient, bureaucratically-organized slaughter of around six million people—most of whom were Jewish, and thereby identified as an official state enemy.

This monstrosity of authoritarian state power described as a “behemoth” by Franz Neumann evokes an emotional, affective response. First and foremost, the idea of fascism makes us feel a certain way—on the basis of the atrocities of the Nazi regime. This feeling cannot be readily included in a definition, but we should take note of its presence, as one of the most important “connotations,” so to speak, of the word. So, we have the state form, and the feeling of horror or disgust that goes along with the Holocaust. This is the primary sense of the word for us.

Next, comes the explanations for how this state form came into being. On the one hand there is analysis that examines the character structure that makes fascism appealing to isolated individuals fearful of losing their place in the world. On the other hand is analysis of the techniques of demagogues (like Mussolini and Hitler) who are able to effectively appeal to such individuals and put together a terrorist movement that helps bring them to power. While these two components are important, looking at things from a third angle holds the key to understanding the various manifestations of fascism from the 1920s through to the present.

The third element—explored in detail by Antonio Gramsci, the leader of the Italian Communist Party who spent the last decade of his life wasting away in Mussolini’s prisons—is the historical conjuncture that creates the opportunity structure for fascism to make an appearance. Gramsci indicated that Mussolini rode to power within the context of a severe “crisis of hegemony,” wherein the ruling ideas that had oriented the governing class for a generation seemed to have lost their credibility—even to the devoted ideologues and technocrats who had adhered to them most closely. In addition to the evaporation of the legitimacy of the traditional ruling ideas, no social force was strong enough to take the lead and impose a coherent ideological alternative that could orient a majority coalition to action. This whole situation of uncertainty and danger came about as a result of financial and economic crises rebounding around the planet, which were obstructing Italy’s (previously effective) drive to modernize their economy and catch up with the other industrialized states of the age.

Fearful of the communists, and unsure as to how to go about improving their position on the world stage, the northern industrialists and the great landowners of southern Italy threw their lot in with Mussolini, seeing in him their best chance of surviving in the life-or-death struggle of capitalist competition. These two powerful factions—whose interests were diametrically opposed—put their faith in Mussolini and the fascists, who seemed to be the only force capable of violently suppressing domestic communists and simultaneously vying with other great powers in the dangerous international environment of the post-WWI period.

While this originary instance of fascism occurred in a peripheral state that was trying to catch up with other industrialist powers, fascism in Nazi Germany unfolded in one of the most advanced industrial countries on the planet. And where Mussolini’s fascism was violent, imperialist, and authoritarian, Hitler and the National Socialists pushed these characteristics to the extreme. In the classical instances of fascism then, the state form was much more potent and brutal in the core than in the periphery.

How does this pertain to the situation that we face in the present? What is fascism? And is it really here? Are the Proud Boys fascists? Is Trump a fascist demagogue? Is a fascist state slowly germinating in the United States? Militant nationalist groups like the Proud Boys are clearly fascist movements. Such movements exist to some extent or another in every society that has made the transition to industrial capitalism, producing a mass of isolated individuals subjected to the personal, arbitrary authority of the employer and the anonymous, impersonal force of the marketplace. As for Trump, he certainly exhibits many of the techniques of demagoguery that are commonly classified as fascist—for instance, the use of the “big lie” that’s too bold to be disbelieved by the faithful—which have been effective at appealing to and cultivating the resentment and frustration of a disempowered and increasingly impoverished working class.

But all of this is secondary to the real problem of the present conjuncture: we are faced with a profound hegemonic crisis, provoked by the shock of the 2008 financial meltdown and the subsequent failure of the traditional ruling ideas (widely described as “neoliberal”) to forge a path forward. In this absence of effective ideological leadership, Donald Trump wants to “Make America Great Again” and Bernie Sanders wants to bring back the New Deal. Both of these proposals are premised on a fundamental denial of the transformations of global economic reality that have unfurled since the 1960s. Both of these proposals are symptomatic of the lack of imagination in our political discourse, the failure of our media to provoke meaningful debate, the failure of our associational life to produce the solidarity upon which counter-hegemonic movements are built, and the failure of our education systems and political institutions to produce a critical, independent-minded citizenry.

So, does the existence of a profound crisis of hegemony in the U.S.—a core state of the capitalist world order—mean that we are due for a virulent form of fascism similar to that experienced in Germany during the 1930s? That would be putting it far too strongly. There is no determinism in history. But the opportunity structure for fascism is presenting itself. 1920s Germany was economically and morally devastated from military defeat and economic collapse. The political system was an inherently unstable compromise between competing forces unable to construct a hegemonic coalition. The society was highly militarized from the experience of the total war of WWI (1914-1918) and from the gauntlet of a communist revolution that was viciously thwarted by conservative reactionaries (the November Revolution of 1918-1919). Conditions are not identical today, and we should not presume that every instance of fascism in a core country would be as brutal as it was in Nazi Germany. With that said, while we cannot answer the question “what is fascism?” with a simple definition, we also can’t exhaust its meaning by cataloguing all the conditions that gave rise to its original manifestations in Italy and Germany. If fascism is consolidated as a political regime in the United States, it will necessarily be singular in its manifestations. As Mark Twain quipped, history doesn’t repeat itself—it rhymes.

What we can say for sure is that we are in the midst of a crisis of hegemony and there is no resolution in sight. The best that the traditional ruling elite—of the combined Republican and Democratic parties—could muster in the last election was Joe Biden, a man who is clearly suffering from sharp intellectual decline, and who won the election only because the alternative was so repugnant. Let us recall that Mussolini and Hitler, too, were repugnant; but the situation devolved to the point that the ruling elite held their noses and took the plunge. If we would like to prevent the category of “core fascism” from becoming a fashionable way of comparing Germany of the 1930s with the United States of the 2020s, we had better start thinking creatively about how to move beyond the current impasse. First and foremost, this means political organizing at the local level, building associational ties around shared goals of political life, and doing the work to stitch these local networks together into a broader movement capable of articulating and advancing their counter-hegemonic vision as a viable alternative to the problems of the present.

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TYLER JAMES OLSEN is a doctoral student in Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City. He writes on international political economy, Critical Theory, and the theory and practice of participatory democracy.


TYLER JAMES OLSEN is a doctoral student in Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City. He writes on international political economy, Critical Theory, and the theory and practice of participatory democracy.

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