Presentation: Café of Dangerous Ideas, February 27th, 2021
In his 2018 book How Fascism Works, Jason Stanley offers an assessment of the state of American politics under the leadership of Donald Trump and suggests that there are troubling signs that fascism is on the rise in the United States. He bases this on what he determines as the ‘10 pillars’ of fascist ideology which he saw as being revived under the Trump administration. Included in this list are appeals to a mythic past, propaganda, anti-intellectualism, unreality, hierarchy, victimhood, law and order, sexual anxiety, appeals to the heartland, and a dismantling of public welfare and unity. The presence of these elements, or some combination thereof, suggest that a movement has distinct fascist leanings, and the then President Trump is held as representing the strongest example in recent history of a return to classic fascist politics. Stanley concludes that, in its essence, fascism is about dividing people so that political power can be achieved and/or maintained.
This is a neat summary indeed, but does this do justice to the complex and nuanced history of fascism as it has manifest throughout time? Our answer to this question will largely depend on the working definition we use when determining what fascism is and what it isn’t. Unfortunately, the problem of definition is not easily resolved. For one, we might consider the fact the scholars of fascism have struggled to provide a clear definition, preferring instead to acknowledge some common themes shared amongst them rather than offer a clear-cut and infallible definition. This has been helpfully acknowledged by Kevin Passmore, whose careful analysis of fascist movements throughout history acknowledges their often-contradictory elements. He notes:
Difficulties arise when scholars claim that their pet theory provides the only way to understand fascism. Since any given political movement is too complex to be encompassed within a single concept, they soon encounter evidence that won’t ‘fit.’ They get around the problem by claiming that their theory explains the most important aspects of fascism. Difficult features are dismissed as less significant. Unfortunately, this division of the features of fascism into primary and secondary is arbitrary – or determined by political preference.
This difficulty of achieving a consensus is not born out of abstract intellectual debate, but rather a very awareness of the diverse historical iterations of fascist movements and the significant differences between them. Generally, fascist movements tend to reflect some combination of the following:
- Identification of enemies as a unifying cause
- Increasing militarization
- Control of the mass media
- A close relationship between religion and government
- A charismatic, visionary leader
- Use of terror for the purposes of suppression/repression
- Fraudulent elections
- Disdain for human rights
- The protection of corporate power
It is important to point out, however, that these elements (which are not exhaustive) are applicable in a variety of contexts and to different extents. As one example, communism and fascism utilise totalitarianism as a tool for the governance of the state. Both Nazism and Soviet Russia employed vast spy networks and secret internal police as a way of suppressing opposition. Both regimes tended to devalue the individual in favour of the collective good and the idea of national strength through unity. Both regimes also appealed to the more affluent and economically prosperous elements of society as responsible for exploitation and oppression. The channels of media within both contexts were also subject to state censorship and control. This is not intended to disavow the major ideological differences between communism and fascism but is simply pointing out that there are considerable shared features as well. At least on the operational level, fascism and communism often operate using similar tactics.
An interesting question arises when we consider how many of the elements ascribed to fascism need to be present before we might consider something to be truly fascist in orientation. To illustrate this difficulty, I would like to draw attention to the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP, or NAZI) as an example of the highly contextual nature of fascist politics. For many, the Nazis are the very definition of fascism, and this is certainly justified to a large extent. Yet, if we cast our mind back to Jason Stanley’s ’10 pillars’ of fascism, we can observe that not all of these elements are applicable. It is inaccurate, for example, to state that the Nazi’s were anti-intellectual. Certainly, Hitler made plenty of proclamations expressing his distaste for intellectuals, and the early phases of the movements certainly contained a boorish, thuggish element. Yet, many elements of the Nazi leadership and supporting organisations were engaged in offering what they felt was an intellectual and philosophical foundation for National Socialism. Alfred Rosenberg’s The Myth of the Twentieth Century is an example of this, as is the work of various religious organisations who sought to provide evidence of the non-Jewish origins of Christianity. It is also relevant that National Socialist leaders, including Hitler himself, frequently appealed to key figures in German intellectual history as precursors of the movement. Included in this list of intellectual luminaries was Martin Luther, Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant, Johann Fichte, and Friedrich Schiller. It is more accurate, then, to speak of a specific Nazi brand of intellectualism (which was based on racism and anti-globalisation) rather than dismiss the movement as being ‘anti-intellectual.’
One other interesting issue relates to the relationship between Nazism and the German churches. As noted above, one of the hallmarks of fascist politics appears to be the close relationship between church and state. Within Mussolini’s Italy, this relationship was a close one, as the Vatican sought to adapt itself to the spirit of the times. The dynamic of church and state relations within the Third Reich had altogether different nuances when compared with the Italian fascist state. One of the interesting things about Hitler is that in the early years of his political career he spent considerable effort courting church support. In the Nazi party policy platform issued in 1920 and written by Hitler, point 24 suggested that the Party supported the idea of “positive Christianity.” This led many German Christians to believe that the Nazi party was Christian in orientation. Unfortunately, this does not bear the weight of scrutiny. As 1930s Germany grew increasingly militarized and combative, so too did Hitler’s response to the churches grow more dismissive and bitter, forcing a wedge between church and state which would not be overcome. Ultimately, the Nazi’s felt that the churches were ineffectual and of no consequence to the advancement of the regime. This is what led Hitler to state that he intended to let the churches “rot like a gangrenous limb.”
Another point worth mentioning, which is seen by Stanley as an essential feature of fascism, is the notion that its ideology seeks reversion back to a mythic past. On the one hand, this is certainly a feature of Nazi rhetoric. Disillusionment with the Weimar Republic and industrialisation was a widespread phenomenon within Germany at this time, and in this climate, many longed for a return to a pre-republic and pre-industrialised agricultural ethnic community. Yet in important ways the Nazis were embracers of the most cutting-edge technology and were at the forefront of scientific discovery. Unfortunately, these discoveries were to have grotesque applications via the war and concentration camps, but this does not alter the basic fact that the Nazis were not anti-modernity or anti-scientific. This is observed by Douglas O’Reagan, who has recently written a study of how Nazi scientific and technological discoveries were utilised by Allied powers in the post-War period.
Stanley’s conclusion that Fascism is about dividing people to maintain power is also problematic when applied to the example of Nazi Germany. Because of the legacy of anti-Semitic feeling within German history, Hitler’s demonization of the Jews met with deep sympathy from large swathes of the population and required little manipulation of public mood. In response to the perceived threat of ‘international Jewry and finance,’ the Nazi’s promoted a myth of cultural unity based on the idea of Blut und Boden (blood and soil), in which ethnic Germans were called to be united in their shared racial identity. So, although the Nazi’s reflected the fascist tendency to identify national enemies, these enemies were mostly considered external. Internally, the racial purification of the Volkgemeinschaft (people’s community) would lead to a future without division.
It is also noteworthy that the National Socialists were legally elected, which would appear to be incongruent with many assessments of Fascists as achieving power through dubious or illegal means. Inspired by Benito Mussolini, Hitler’s Stormtroopers had attempted to steal power from the Bavarian Government in 1924 by forcibly storming Munich’s Field Marshall’s Hall. This resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of Hitler and other Nazi leaders. This led to a change in philosophy, in which Hitler held that all future elections must be undertaken within the spirit of the law (although not without the aid of propaganda!).
What I hope to have introduced above is the difficulty we face when attempting to understand what constitutes fascism. It is beyond the scope of this presentation to offer a more detailed treatment of fascism throughout history and in contemporary discussions, but I would like to leave you with a concept for thinking about fascism which I find helpful.
I suggest that we might do better to speak of a fascist instinct or ‘spirit,’ rather than forming fixed overidentifications of fascism with certain political movements. Historically, fascist movements have been broad and have displayed markedly different approaches to ideology and governance based on a range of geographic, ethnic and cultural factors. They can be manifest on far-left movements as well as its more obvious associations with far-right political groups. After all, technical differences in ideology may not feel particularly relevant for those on the receiving end of fascist violence and repression. I would further suggest that the fascist impulse forms in response to a range of societal factors which emerge in times of economic hardship, perceived moral decay and decadence, as well as traditional fears of immigration. Indeed, this was the topic of Fritz Stern’s important study on the rise of Nazism, which he located as originating in the despairing and turbulent years of post-WW1 Germany. If we wish to avoid such ideas and movements gaining currency in the future, we need to do a better job of engaging with and responding to the reasons why fascist ideas emerge in the first place. The resilience of fascism in the post-WW2 era is evidence that it continues to connect with new adherents and sympathisers who, to differing extents, feel that fascist ideology provides answers to the chaotic nature of contemporary life.
So, what is ‘dangerous’ about all of this? In reminding ourselves of the fluidity and adaptability of Fascism ideas, we are compelled to consider whether fascism can be so narrowly defined as it often is in contemporary discourse. It seems to me that the elements indicative of fascism as discussed above are currently replicated in a variety of political movements not traditionally associated with far-right politics. As an example, the censoring of media and the phenomenon of de-platforming undertaken by various tech giants seems indicative of a fascist approach to controlling popular discourse via manipulation of the media, even though these companies would justify this with recourse to creating a more just and equitable world. The genocide of the Uyghur peoples by the Chinese Community Party also conjures up disturbing images of the Nazi atrocities. When we add these instances to the problem of classification and definitions discussed above, it appears prudent to exercise caution before we label something or someone as Fascist. Perhaps the Fascist instinct is not simply a matter of political ideology but is instead a recurring feature of humanities psychological response to grief, powerlessness, and a sense of loss. If this is the case, fascist ideologies will remain a part of our cultural and political landscape until these underlying factors are addressed.
 Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them (New York: Random House, 2018).
 Kevin Passmore, Fascism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 13-14.
 Mark Donovan, “The Italian State: No Longer Catholic, no Longer Christian,” in Church and State in Contemporary Europe: The Chimera of Neutrality, eds., John T.S. Madeley and Zsolt Enyedi (London: Frank Cass, 2003), 113.
 John S. Conway, The Nazi Persecution of the Churches,1933-45 (Toronto: Ryerson, 1968), 15.
 Douglas M. O’Reagan, Taking Nazi Technology: Allied Exploration of German Science After the Second World War (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2021).
 Clifford R. Lovin, “Blut Und Boden: The Ideological Basis of the Nazi Agricultural Program.” Journal of the History of Ideas 28, no. 2 (1967): 279-88.
 Fritz Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology (Los Angeles: University of California Press,1974).