Political dictatorships have existed throughout recorded history. But the fascist variety of dictatorship is a disease of modern economically developed capitalist societies. Indeed, fascism could be described as an extreme form of capitalism in crisis. And since capitalism is an economic system highly prone to crisis, fascism continues to be a very real possibility. Fascism can occur when economic dysfunction generates a strong popular movement demanding change. Such a movement often has both radical (left) and reactionary (right) components, either one of which can become dominant.
If the capitalist class becomes sufficiently fearful of losing property and power, it reaches a compromise with the reactionary sector of the popular movement. The essential terms of this compromise are the following: (a) a significant part of the capitalist class supports the reactionary movement financially and helps it gain state power; (b) the movement attacks the enemies of capitalism and, when in power, protects capitalist wealth; and (c) when armed with state power, fascist leaders promote capitalist accumulation by militarizing the economy and pursuing an expansionist foreign policy. Note that the capitalist class rarely creates the fascist movement, but the latter cannot attain durable state power without the support of the former.
Fascist leaders divert popular anger away from the capitalist class by promoting a virulent nationalism and by directing animosity toward vulnerable scapegoats (e.g. Jews, immigrants, socialists, pacifists) who are held responsible for mass suffering. A successful fascist movement produces a charismatic leader who becomes the totemic embodiment of the entire nation. The fascist goal is to create a totally unified nation and a monolithic state both willingly commanded by the charismatic leader.
Fascism is hostile to democracy because democracy is divisive, mercurial and indecisive. The charismatic fascist leader understands and can implement the popular will far better than a pompous, chattering parliament. Fascism is hostile to liberalism because liberals support individual freedom rather than national unity and collective power. Fascism is hostile to socialism because socialists promote class struggle and international concord, both of which weaken the nation-state. Fascism is hostile to pure intellectual endeavor because the loyalty of intellectuals wavers and because intellectuals may critique fascist ideology.
In sharp contrast to both liberals and socialists, fascists find value in violence. Violence, for fascists, is an expression of courage, vigor and strength. It purges the violent individual of weakness, and it unifies those who engage in violence collectively. Thus warfare, as the ultimate expression of violence, is seen by fascists as a positive thing. Warfare unifies the nation, builds endurance and vitality, and demolishes weak or undeserving elements. Any nation that truly covets greatness must engage in brutal warfare.
Fascist movements have acquired state power in Italy, Germany, Japan and Spain, to mention only the most famous examples. Each fascist society is unique, incorporating elements of its distinctive cultural heritage. Thus full-blown fascism is not an alien foreign imposition but rather a pathological realization of certain authentic national propensities. Unfortunately, no modern capitalist society — even ones with long-established democratic institutions — is immune to fascism.
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s “Peace Train” runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.