What Is Fascism? And Why Only Link It to Right Wing Politics?

Here’s why it’s no coincidence that throughout history, ordinary leftists have switched with ease to fascism.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
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One of the problems with tackling the spread of fascism is that it is used as a swear word: groups accuse each other of being fascist, and almost no group concedes that it is fascist. This is partly the consequence of World War II, when the term ‘fasci’, first used by Sicilian peasant socialists in the 1890s, was monopolised by the neo-right of Benito Mussolini in 1919, and then appropriated by various groups, including Adolf Hitler’s Nazis, until finally it crumbled into ignominy and defeat. But there is another reason too: fascism is difficult to define.

Kevin Passmore, Professor of History at Cardiff University, lists the following characteristics of fascism:

  • Ultranationalism
  • Charismatic leadership
  • Dictatorship
  • Racism
  • Antisemitism
  • A Single Party
  • Paramilitarism
  • Actual or threatened violence
  • Corporatism
  • A totalitarian ideology
    Anti-capitalism
  • Anti-socialism
  • Anti-communism
  • Anti-liberalism
  • Anti-parliamentarianism
  • Anti-constitutionalism

Contradictions In Fascism: How Are Fascists Both Corporatist AND Anti-Capitalist?

He then correctly notes that different fascist groups had different combinations of these in the 1930-40s, and also different interpretations. To further complicate matters, this list reveals obvious contradictions, perhaps the most glaring being this double whammy: fascists are both corporatists and anti-capitalist, essentially a contradiction, and they share their anti-capitalism with socialists and communists whom they attack!

One way out of this situation has been to note that fascism is anti-ideology. But this does not really lead us anywhere. First, fascists propagate fascism in various iterations as ideologies. Second, the claim to be ‘anti-ideology’ is as misleading as the claim to be anti-political.

The very announcement that you are anti-political is a political claim, and this applies to ideologies like fascism too, particularly in a world warped by dominant political interests.

However, if we shift these usual terms of debate and look at what fascists actually want, we come to a better definition, and one that gives us a better understanding of fascism. What fascists want, first and last, is power.

All the characteristics of fascism can be segregated on the basis of two factors: who has or threatens to have power (which explains their contradictions of anti-capitalism, anti-socialism, anti-communism and anti-liberalism, and is used to justify antisemitism against ‘rich Jews’), and how fascists can grab and retain unalloyed power (corporatism, totalitarianism, anti-constitutionalism, violence, even racism as a continued form of exploitation and control).

Power – Unalloyed Power – Is At The Crux Of Fascism

The fact that finally fascism is about power, raw power, power as its own final justification, helps us understand four sets of matters. First, the seemingly anti-ideological nature of fascism. Second, its invocation of the great leader, the single party, totalitarianism, and its dismissal of difference, parliaments and constitutional safeguards against power. Third, its contradictions, for fascists are perfectly willing to contradict themselves as long as it enables them to grasp power. Fourth, the tendency, often noted in fascist parties, to conveniently change their position when it suits them: for people so obsessed with ‘strong rule’ on paper, fascists are highly opportunistic in practice. This is not surprising, because being opportunistic is an essential aspect of retaining power.

Power, unalloyed power, power as its own final justification, is at the heart of fascism. Everything else is secondary.

For instance, fascists dislike capitalism but love corporatism, because in a capitalist world corporatism enables them to centralize and concentrate power. There has always been, and remains, a direct link between corporatism and totalitarianism. Similarly, fascists tended to be anti-constitutional in the past because a Constitution, by definition, sets limits on the power of any branch of government, and puts in place a transparent system of checks and balances. But, note, fascists have no objection to the façade of a Constitution, if they can empty it of its balances and controls. Their opportunism allows them to enter the discourse of constitutionality and hollow it out.

Surprising Overlap Between Leftist Supporters And Fascists

It is this brute logic of fascism that explains its fascination for fetishized powerful figures and periods from the past as well as a supreme leader in the present, for old forms of physical oppression and a constant modern-seeming rationalization of power, for ‘tradition’ and ‘scientific’ matters like eugenics. The charismatic fascist leader is finally the glorified projection of the worship of power in and by every adherent of fascism. He is not the cause, as critics often suggest; he is the consequence. He does not create fascism; fascism creates him, and in the process recreates itself.

This definition of fascism also enables us to understand something that has been anathema for the left for decades now: the surprising overlap between leftist supporters and fascists.

It is not a coincidence that Mussolini was a socialist leader before he formed the first organised fascist party with a rightist agenda. It is also not a coincidence that in different periods of history and in different lands, some ordinary leftist supporters have switched with surprising ease to fascism, even as many socialist and communist groups have continued to fight fascists.

What The ‘Revolutionary Left’ Often Forgot

This happened not only in Europe during the world war years, but also in many Muslim-dominated lands, where various national struggles, not least the Palestinian cause, moved from a predominantly leftist phase to an overwhelmingly Islamist, and hence at least partly fascist, phase.

I can even trace some of this in Pakistan and India, and currently there might be a conversion going on in Bengal. The left usually understands this shift in terms of the subconscious bourgeois mentality of those who leave it for fascist parties, or some other external factor, like media propaganda.

While all these have minor roles to play, what the left forgets is the very nature of fascism: power for power’s sake. As both Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhiji saw, power cannot be its own justification. The revolutionary left, with good cause, for it cannot ignore the tyrannies of the status quo, has sometimes forgotten this, telling itself that the ends justify the means. But, unfortunately, if you believe that “power flows from the barrel of a gun”, you automatically attract many who will jump ship the moment someone offers them a better gun. That is why fascism remains a danger on both the right and the left.

(Tabish Khair, PhD, DPhil, Associate Professor, Aarhus University, Denmark. He tweets @tabish_khair. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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