Birth of a Fascist

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.

Historical Current

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.

Invasions_of_the_Roman_Empire_1If only they had built a big wall…

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.

Napoleon_returnedOh 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.

Political Current

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.

Dresden-Zwinger-Armoury-Armor.02Pretty fancy armor, sadly one bullet will drop them both

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).

MarxCapitalWhy yes, the book is massive. And yes, most of it is very boring.

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.

4 (20)Rural Italy, beautiful but limiting

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.

Philosophical Current

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.

139px-Fascist_symbol.svgThe Fasces, the symbol of Fascism

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.

Fiume_cheering_D'AnnunzioA glimpse of what was to come.

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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  1. Some recall when universities used to teach stuff like that, back when the social sciences included scholars. Probably a few left, here and there, generally excluded from the podium at conferences …like maybe, Austrian economists.

    Seems to me, most of he various isms’ in our politics are just current labels for grifts arising from our all too human DNA. Smart, ambitious guys find uses for them in their various circumstances and times, over and over, painting new labels to suit their current needs. Old wine in new bottles. You laid out a nice portrait of the process, a service. Don’t stop.

  2. Yours is an interesting article. Although I hadn’t thought one way or the other (as yet) on the historical aspect, let me take a stab at it. (Sorry, I tend to think long.)

    Going back to our ape ancestors, it seems to me that they formed into clans with their own pecking orders and mostly communal ownership. There were some who innovated (tools, drawing, etc) but this was the exception.

    As the last Ice Age ended, some Asians came over the land bridge. I expect that they were leaving slim pickings looking for greener (or just green) pastures. As they came one, or a few, at a time, they would not have had a specific social order, but it appears they grouped together over thousands of years into the communal system as American Indians did. We see this same communal ownership system in most (all?) primitive cultures around the world.

    Could some great thinkers in each group have theorized it and then made it happen? Possibly, but I doubt it. These were brutish times, where the main job was staying alive. There was limited free time available to think about the nature of the world and society.

    Their communication would have been limited to their tribe, and they would have protected their territory from encroachers. You could call it nationalism, for their tribe was their nation.

    Sometime around 8000 years ago, the climate warmed up to several degrees above today’s levels during what was called the Holocene Climate Optimum. During this time, plant and animal life flourished, and these early peoples had easy pickings. They began to have some leisure time.

    Some of these groups were more successful than others in using this leisure time to develop better technology and practices, and by comparison, they became well-to-do. If a nearby tribe also was successful, they might have begun to trade, which made both tribes even wealthier. The languages of the tribes would have become closer as they developed economic and social ties.

    Some tribes would have had stronger leaders and more communal property societies. Advances would depend on being allowed. (Even today, in the corporate world, we have a sickness call, “Not Invented Here.”) It is the ones which were more tolerant of individual initiatives (entrepreneurship) which would have had the most opportunities to get richer. Some did better than others at this game.

    As wealth grew, there were two opposing ways of thinking:
    Work hard, work smarter, make what will trade better, so that I can get rich in the process of giving others what they want
    Enjoy the hard work of others – work if need be or take from others if possible

    The first is closer to what we think of as Classic Liberalism. You get rich by your own efforts (plus some luck). You do well by helping others to live well.

    The second has many variations but boils down to disrespect for private property. It could be the chief, it could be the thief, it could be the guild socialist, or many others.

    Then the Climate Optimum gave way to a mini Ice Age during which many died and the wealthy and powerful became guarantors of survival, and new rulers of tribes and communities of tribes

    There was a succession of Warm Periods (eg. Minoan, Roman, and Medieval) interspersed with their own Dark Ages/Little Ice Ages. Economic progress for some during the warm periods and stagnation for all during the cold times.

    Some groups which were successful during a warm period may have become attackers and looters during the cold periods. Nations came and went, helped by warm climate or hurt by drought and cold.

    The ancient Egyptians never thought about liberalism, imperialism, or socialism as such. The leaders controlled what they could, attacked who they could, and left everything else alone. By default, knowledge and wealth grew during the good times.

    The Greeks arose from poverty through conquest as well as trade. Athens became the “center of the world” and reached it’s Golden Age. But then Pericles came along, broke a treaty with Sparta to start the Peloponnesian Wars, and wound up pissing away all of Athens’ wealth.

    Rome grew to greatness during the Roman Warm Period, conquered much of the known world, and became wealthier through trade. Early on they lived under a locally liberal democracy. But then they went more and more toward a “Bread and Circus” mentality under a stronger central ruler, and reached the limits that their wealth allowed so far as conquest and control. And, then the Dark Ages cold climate period arrived.

    The Medieval Warm Period went much the same way. Riches through trade (think Marco Polo) and entrepreneurship, allowed some groups to become wealthy and form nations, while some chose the military route by taking the wealth of others. New worlds were discovered, new technologies were developed, new peoples came under the power of new rulers. The rulers either allowed their subjects to do as they liked (so long as taxes were paid), or the kings micromanaged every aspect of life – or somewhere in between.

    Then came the Little Ice Age. But, not all the previous wealth was destroyed during the hard times, so new discoveries flooded in early in the warming, and the Industrial Revolution kicked off the Current Warm Period.

    But human nature has both a bright side and a dark side. People are not 100% good or 100% bad. Even James Watt, whose steam engine inventions did so much to raise the general Standard of Living, also prevented competing inventions from being used.

    In all the examples I’ve seen throughout history, the two ways of acting always exist:
    Achieve through your own effort
    Take what others have worked for

    While we can make distinctions of nationalism vs government withering away, or a classless system vs people doing better than others (either through work or theft), for me there is only one constant:
    Either I am free to act, to work, to think, and to benefit from the or results of my own effort (alone or in concert with others), or
    Someone else controls some or all of what I can do.

    It matters not at all to me whether that other is a guild or a government agency or a religion, wants eventually to rule or just be my friend, does it for personal gain or for the good of all mankind. Either I control me, or someone else controls me.

    The first, I decide, I call Classic Liberalism. The second, I’m controlled, I call socialism, though others may split hairs calling one communism, another fascism, another Peronism, another crony capitalism, a mixed economy, or another the welfare state.

    There is much more to say, but as this “comment” is too long already, I will get off my soap box and bid you, “Good Day.”

    Bob Shapiro

  3. The history lesson was nice but the problem is that official history too often differs from the reality or living. Fascism is no different. One may say that it is socialism run to the extreme. What starts as a desire for the state to harness business and society in a new variation on a theme that includes morale and social values devolves into dictatorship given enough time. The end is either a sort of fascism or communism. Whether the guiding spirit is the spirit of communism or the spirit of (whateverism) does not matter, the effect is the same. The spirit fails as does the flesh. Academic explanations do little to advance the reasons why these “isms” gain popularity. If anything we tend to look for formulas or at least heuristics to guide up and make sense of what we do not understand.

    1. The purpose of the series is to discuss the philosophical tenets of fascism. There is another aspect of ideology, that of when a government actually takes power and rules. If your criticism is that I didn’t discuss the latter then I am indeed guilty, as that isn’t my intention. If you find no value in learning about the former then I am sorry you feel this way as it’s clear you fundamentally disagree with me on a key point that I think is true: the philosophy leeks down to its adherents and impacts our own views in the modern world. This in turn changes how we view our political world, and changes how we respond to it.

      If you don’t think that the philosophy of fascism (the liberal, ivory tower book writing type) is useful in any practical sense then I’d disagree with this also as I outline how it impacts us today in other posts.

      Thanks for your comments.

  4. Quick question, where did you source the idea that the Syndicalists sided with the Nationalists to create the Fascisti? If that were the case, why did the CNT fight against the Falange in Spain? I’d love to see where your source comes from, I’d wager it was British Labor press, no? Mussolini himself said openly that he created the Fascisti from uniting Italian Republicanism with Socialism, not Trade Unionism.

    1. Hi Eric,

      As promised I have a few quotes for you from the book Mussolini’s Intellectuals (Fascist social and political thought) by James Gregor which justifies my characterization. However, this characterization is the summary of about a hundred pages from the text and has a meandering path. Also, I think it’s important to recognize that syndicalists in Italy are not the same as those in the UK, or in Spain, especially during the politically charged era of the early 1900s. Also I should mention that not ALL syndicalists joined the fascist movement in italy either, but rather some high profile intellectuals. As always, there are hold outs and even members of the fascist movement itself which distanced itself from Mussolini prior to him taking power. I hope this satisfies your question.

      “Through the decade prior to the First World War, and the war’s culmination in 1918, the Italian political scene featured doctrinal changes among Marxists that were to gradually allow a union of developmental nationalism and revolutionary syndicalism. To trace the doctrinal developments during that period is essential to understanding how their ultimate union was to infuse Fascism with distinctive ideological character. At each stage in the process, differences were clearly discernible-sometimes obscuring the maturing synthesis. Nationalist theoreticians, nonetheless, had early anticipated just such an outcome-and the informal logic governing the development is relatively easy to reconstruct.” Page 61, Chapter 4 “Sergio Panunio: From Revolutionary to National Syndicalism”

      “Nationalism, national syndicalism, and Gentile’s neo-Hegelianism had begun to come together to produce the ideology of Mussolini’s Fascism. It was within those fateful years, between 1919 and 1925, that Fascism matured into the developmental totalitarianism that was to shape much of the twentieth century. It was the thought of Giovanni Gentile that was to provide many of the ligaments that wove together its ideology. And it was to be Ugo Spirito who was to translate Gentile’s thought into the political currency of the period.” Page 84

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