While the term “fascism” has been around quite some time, it has enjoyed a resurgence proportional to the attention given to the alt right. Since the term has a strong negative connotation it is used across the American political spectrum in attempts to cast opponents in a negative light. Both Bush and Obama were called fascists. Trump’s detractors and supporters now regularly use the term on each other. But what is fascism?
One obvious philosophical problem, as noted by John Locke, is that “people can apply sounds to what ideas he thinks fit, and change them as they please.” The problem is that this can lead to unintentional confusion and intentional misuses. Locke’s solution was practical: when making inquiries “we must determine what we mean and thus determine when it is and is not the same.” Honest people have excellent reason to agree on the meanings of terms (or at least lay out the boundaries of the discussion), deceivers have excellent reasons to shift meanings as they wish. As such, those interested in an honest consideration of fascism can disagree but will at least endeavor to be consistent and clear in their usage of the term. I can also use a stop sign analogy. While the American stop sign is a red octagon with “stop” in white letters, this could be changed to a purple square with the symbol of a hand in the center. Or an orange circle. Or almost anything. But we did to agree on what the sign will be in order to afford traffic accidents. The same holds for defining terms.
One obvious place to seek the meaning of “fascism” is to look at what paradigm fascists and fascist thinkers assert it to be. As such, Benito Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile provide a good starting point. I am obviously open to good faith disagreement.
One aspect of classic fascism is the rejection of peace. As the classic fascist sees it, perpetual peace is impossible. If it were possible, it would be undesirable. War is seen as good because it energizes the population and provides the opportunity for nobility and heroism.
While some claim that fascism is a leftist ideology and link it to socialism, there are two problems with this view. One is that fascism is a political rather than economic system. For example, while the Nazi state provided German companies with slave labor, these corporations remained owned by individuals like Porsche rather than the state. And state ownership of the means of production is the hallmark of socialism. The second is that the fascist ideology directly opposes the basic tenets of socialism, especially the Marxist variants. In the case of Marxism, fascism explicitly rejects economic determinism. In the case of socialism in general, fascism rejects the notion of class conflict. The focus of the fascist is on race rather than class.
Fascism also opposes liberal democracy on two primary grounds. Since fascism regards the state as supreme, the notion of majority rule by voting is anathema to their ideology. Instead they embrace authoritarianism. Fascism also associates the concept of equality with democracy and rejects equality on two grounds. First, fascism sees inequality as immutable. Second, the fascist sees inequality as good, thus rejecting the idea of progress.
One plausible reason someone can honestly confuse socialism and fascism is that the fascist state is regarded as absolute and everything else exists to serve the state. Under classic socialism, the state owns the means of production. But these are not the same. A fascist state, such as Nazi Germany, can have a capitalist economy that exists to serve the state and this allows for individuals to own companies such as Porsche and profit handsomely under fascism.
A socialist economy could exist in a very free direct democracy in which the state exists to benefit the individual. One could, of course, have a fascist state that also owns all the means of production, but fascism is not socialism.
The fascists also have a negative view of liberty—the state is to decide what freedoms people have, depriving them of what the rulers regard as useless and possibly harmful liberties. Fascists also reify the state, regarding it as having “a will and a personality.” From a rational standpoint, this is nonsense—while Hobbes liked to cast the state as a leviathan composed of the people, the state is just a collection of people with various social constructs forming the costume of the state. To use an analogy, the state is but a giant pantomime horse or an elaborate dragon dance.
The fascist view of the state also puts them at odds with the Marxist—under Marxist theory, the state will no longer exist under communism because it will no longer be needed. As such there can be no communist state in the strict sense, though this term is obviously used to describe countries that profess some form of Marxism that never gets around to getting rid of the state that is run by the ruling class.
Fascism also embraces the idea of empire and imperialism and use this to justify discipline, duty and sacrifice—as well as “the necessarily severe measures that must be taken against those who would oppose” the state. So, these are the basics of fascism, as per Mussolini and Gentile.
As with any complicated and controversial concept, there are many other views of fascism. Some are compatible with the account given above. There are also some fascists that attempt to recast fascism to, ironically, attack those who oppose fascism.
While I do not claim that this account is the definitive account, it does provide some basic and key qualities of fascism and deviations from them should be justified.