We read of genocide in WW2 Europe, systematic torture and killings of political opponents, Kurds, and more in 1979-2003 Iraq, and less severely, xenophobia in modern day Greece and Russia. One word is used to describe the political atmosphere of these atrocities, Fascism. But this is an old story.
Certainly the political results of Fascism have been terrible and horrific but that does not mean the underlying philosophy is this way. Classical Liberalism can produce equally horrific results in the hands of the prudent sociopath and a similar statement can be made for Communism. I think we should dig deeper and continue to question conventional wisdom because Fascism has permeated world ideological thought for better or for worse. It continues to crop up during times of economic or political crisis. People of various cultures, religions, and creeds all are drawn to the tenants of Fascism in some form, sometimes unknowingly. Therefore it is our duty to understand.
I want to tackle the “Birth of Fascism” from a few angles. Historical, political, and philosophical. So, pull up a chair, get comfortable, and enjoy.
Italy and Germany were treated as the playground of the great powers in Europe for some time. Germany was fragmented via the Holy Roman Empire and none of the great powers had any interest in allowing Germany to unify (to form another great power to fight against? No thanks). In a similar vein, Italy was shattered into pieces and continuously ransacked before and after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
The Vandals, Ostrogoths, and Visigoths all took their piece of the Italian pie. Germany saw the migrations of the Saxons, Franks, Goths, Vandals, Huns, and Ostrogoths from their land outward. The result was the eventual construction and destruction of numerous large empires who competed over Italy and Germany through the dark and middle ages. Rinse and repeat this process for hundreds of years and it’s easy to see the longstanding fragmentation and frustration with continuous foreign influence. But let’s fast forward to around 1816.
Oh Napoleon… what have you done
At his peak, Napoleon’s grand army had dissolved the Holy Roman Empire, taken over (almost) all of modern day Italy, conquered Spain, and even got a nice little blob of land in Poland. But like all great parties of conquest and merciless slaughter, it came to an abrupt end. With Napoleons defeat came the overwhelming surge of Nationalism.
As it turns out, hacking and slashing your way through entire cultures has a tendency to make those people group together and resist. Because, while their current boss may not be all that great, the guy who raids your village and kills your friends is worse. This led to the conquered forming tight nit bonds via energizing long standing communal feelings over huge swaths of territory. They all were unified by their common heritage and in their hatred of being conquered by the same enemy.
How great would it be if we could put our Italian (or German) differences aside and hold hands? They thought (quite correctly), that it was only a matter of time before Napoleon pt. 2 comes around and if they remained fragmented they would be easy prey. From this angle, unification seemed like the only option for survival.
Early 1800s Europe was an exciting (albeit a very turbulent/scary) time. The fabric which held society together so well previously was being shredded apart. While previously self-sufficient plots of land protected by a heavily armored and skilled lord was an excellent strategy of defense against the raiding tribes of Europe; soon those tribes disappeared or formed empires of their own. While previously the church and nobility held power, their grip was radically loosened by a large number of factors such as…
- Incredible increase in production of material wealth (the industrial revolution). Leading to a new class of wealthy industry men (the “bourgeoisie”).
- Improvements in agricultural technology leading to larger populations.
- Faster and more efficient methods of travel between the corners of an empire.
- Catholic Church effectively removed from their position as a player in politics (started by King Henry 8th).
- Technological improvements in weaponry, making the skilled caste of knights (and their governing lords) completely useless.
The old elites were losing power and to compound the issue was an unforeseen aftermath of Napoleon’s conquest; the spreading of the new radical French ideas of Liberalism into staunchly feudal cultures. This forceful introduction and the shattering of old feudal lordships (including their laws, privileges, etc.) was the springboard by which alternative philosophical thought flourished and the citizenry began to question more boldly the usefulness of the old elite.
In the mid 1800’s the industrial revolution churned on with numerous provocative invasions/consolidations by the major players of this time. In addition to the new found wealth the world over, new thinkers emerged and began to question Liberalism’s great claims of equality, liberty, and brotherhood. One such thinker was Karl Marx who wrote the famous critique of capitalism, Das Kapital (1867).
In addition to his critique of Capitalism, Marx also wrote extensively on the necessity of a classless society, the historical inevitability of its coming, and the need for the workers of the world to seize the means of production (socialism). It was strong rhetoric which resonated with the poor and middle class alike. Communism would determine the course of human events for over a hundred years. Its early experiences in Russia was a stark lesson to Socialists in Europe seeking answers for their own nations. Such as, do we need a vanguard party? How difficult will it be to topple the current regime? Will we gain enough popular support? And most importantly, can we survive the painful endeavor of collectivization?
Post World War 1 became the spark for radical political and social change. With so much destruction, so much death, people could no longer afford the luxury of sitting on the sidelines. Every family suffered and many took radical action. Some public and some private meetings would be held throughout Germany and Italy (and all of Europe for that matter). Anarchists, Socialists, and Communists all looking for support, all asking for their citizens to rise up against imperialism and unite the proletariat (the workers) against the dreaded bourgeoisie (the owners of factories/aristocracy) who gave them so much suffering in the industrial age.
Italy saw little increase in industrial production even before the war and become disillusioned that free market capitalism could propel them to greatness. Italy saw the British, French, and Germans rapidly expand their imperial holdings, continue to grow their economics, and develop military might.
Italy was devoid of any important industrial resources (aside from agriculture), little infrastructure, and a populace desperate for something greater. So soon new thinkers arrived armed with new philosophical arguments; ready to pitch their case for rebirth.
The philosophical push for Fascism can be thought of as one going against two radical tidal waves.
The first was Classical Liberalism (to be discussed later) which was a real revolution in the way people thought about politics, science, religion, and what it meant to be human in the political world. It proposed rights of the citizenry under its government, creation of private property, equality under the law, and more.
Secondly there was Communism (also to be discussed later) which was a revolution of how people view history and economics. It is the traditional response to Classical Liberalism. It rejected the materialistic tendencies and the exploitative nature of the Boss->Worker relationship. It espoused a society where the workers own the means of production and earn equitable wages for their labor (profits go to the workers who create them). It focuses on collectivism and human unity. It seeks to eliminate class divisions and eventually wither away the state once capitalism (and its supporters) have disappeared.
Fascism refused both. It wanted a “Third Way” between these two choices. It rejected Classical Liberalism’s claims to individualism and to objective truth. Fascism also rejected Communism due to its anti-nationalist tendencies. Both Classical Liberalism and Communism were materialist ideologies (reality is objective and observable without bias), which the Fascist rejected fervently.
Italian Fascism originated primarily from frustrated Marxist theorists (Syndicalists). They saw the situation in Italy as an undeveloped nation unable to enter the ‘advanced’ stage of capitalism (which, according to Marx, would allow for a socialist revolution and the beginnings of a Communist transition). They sought solutions beyond Marx and were unimpressed with the famine left after Lenin’s collectivization in Russia.
Fascism’s roots stem from two very different groups merging in Italy, Nationalists (from the ‘right’) and Syndicalism (from the ‘left’).
Syndicalism proposes a form of socialism where society is organized ‘bottom-up’ via direct democracy. This is done with trade unions as the representatives of workers with the caveat that the unions operate independently of the state and in some cases fight against it (very different from other forms of Socialism). Syndicalism shared its views on the world from Marxism but, where Marxism is quiet on the actual method of defeating capitalism, Syndicalism proposes the approach to do so. Many of Marxism’s sentiments about imperialism, the evils of economic classes, and religion were borrowed from the Syndicalists. But, the Italian Syndicalist movement had a unique nationalist twinge to them due to historical considerations.
Nationalism was a common theme for many political theorists in Italy and some Italian nationalists were heavily influenced by Marx, with some revisions. Many saw nationalism as necessary to bringing Italy to greatness via rapid industrial development. The issue that nationalists had with Marxists was that Marxism was “Scientism,” or the idea that everything was subject to a scientific solution. They thought Marxism ignored one of the most important factors in the human condition, moral sentiments.
Eventually, the Italian Syndicalist (infused with Nationalism) thought that these moral sentiments was what brings the masses to rise up. Humans are predisposed (due to our collectivist nature) to sacrifice themselves over “Myths” (a vision of a future greater than the present). And it was from this starting point that Nationalists and the Syndicalist began to unify.
Both wanted to engineer a revolution since Marx was silent on how exactly these revolutions occur, instead they were supposed to spontaneously arise from the working class. Italian theorists thought that this ignored great men and heroes who undoubtedly bring about revolution (learning from the Russian experience with Lenin). With some initial whelping, Syndicalists agreed. Revolution needed strong leadership and a strong vanguard party.
The last piece of the puzzle in our merger was a key axiom; only nations could behave as international actors (not the collective class of workers). That all members within a nation must act in a unified manner in order to compete, in a Darwinian struggle, for survival.
Once Syndicalists agreed with this, the merge was inevitable. It resulted in National Syndicalism and with it came the birth of a Fascist.
The creation of Fascist philosophy is a complicated road, so this post tried to simplify it a bit as a merger between the ‘right’ and ‘left’. As revolutionary fervor swept through Europe, Nationalists were heavily influenced by Communist theory bringing them toward our Syndicalists. Those Syndicalists, influenced by Nationalist arguments and facing the ‘reality’ of a perpetually poor and backward Italy moved toward the Nationalists (moving away from class warfare and more toward class unity).
Looking forward, we will link up our new National Syndicalism and other philosophers to find our Fascist thinkers in Italy which we will examine thoroughly.
Until next time.
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