I'd always had a hard time grasping what fascism is. It seemed sort of vague. It turns out it's because it is vague! Here is the best thing I've read about fascism:

Clean this up!

As the previous lecture argued, fascism and communism spoke a
similar language that appealed to many people in the interwar period.
But while communism was a “makeover” of an older, established
political movement, fascism was a complete newcomer on the scene.
Furthermore, it had no coherent body of theory that defined exactly
what it meant. Yet, during the interwar period, it became a powerful
“third way,” in opposition to both communism and liberalism.
A. Because fascism lacked a coherent theory, it requires more effort
to define what it stood for, and some scholars even argue that there
is no generic phenomenon called fascism. The definition we will
follow is the tripartite one laid out by Stanley Payne in his A
History of Fascism.
B. Payne begins with what he calls the fascist goals and ideology.
1. Fascism’s primary goal was the regeneration of the nation,
and fascists adopted an extreme form of nationalism to
achieve this.
2. In Nazi Germany, this took the form of racism.
3. Italian fascists defined their identity through their culture and
4. Whether racist or not, ultra-nationalism was based on the
belief in inherent superiority.
5. Fascists also proposed a new economic system, neither
communist nor capitalist, which would support the “little
6. Payne includes the embrace of violence as one of their goals,
thus making clear that violence was not simply a means to
power but a value in and of itself.
C. Payne follows with what have been called the “fascist negations,”
because it has always been easier to define what fascists were
against than what they stood for.
1. They were fundamentally anti-liberal, in the sense that the
nation, not the individual, was the fundamental unit of society.
2. For the same reason, they were anti-communist, given that
communists proposed the union of all working classes across
national boundaries.
3. Finally, they were also anti-conservative, even though we
usually identify fascism as a right-wing movement. Scholars
have used such terms as the radical right to articulate the
4. Fascism departed from conservative tradition in that it was a
mass movement, not an elite movement; fascism was
contemptuous of upper-class values, attacking the church and
the aristocratic hierarchical order.
5. Although fascists claimed to preserve some traditional values,
such as nation and family, they were willing to use radical and
violent means to do so.
D. The last part of Payne’s definition of fascism refers to features of
style and organization.
1. What made fascism a new kind of movement went beyond its
ideas to its new methods of mobilizing support. In many ways,
the fascists were the first to take full advantage of the tools
and resources of mass society to create a mass following.
2. Techniques included the full use of mass media and public
rituals, the exaltation of a single leader, and the embrace of
3. Mass patriotic rallies and military demonstrations symbolized
a union of people bound together in agreement.
E. The need for such an elaborate three-pronged definition comes
from the fact that fascism overlapped with existing movements in
certain aspects, and it is only through a holistic model that we can
begin to capture the dynamism of such a vague and even
incoherent movement.
II. Who were the people who responded to the fascist message of national
A. Unlike supporters of communism, fascist followers were not
drawn from a specific class but from various socioeconomic
1. Fascism drew from the lower middle classes, army veterans,
students, small peasant farmers, the unemployed, and middle-
class people dissatisfied with their opportunities in life.
2. What joined them together was their disenchantment with
their own lives and with the status quo, rather than a set of
common interests.
3. Fascism offered a transcendent purpose to people’s lives—
they were offered a glorified sense of national purpose to
replace their own dull existences. A sense of community was
an important factor in fascism’s appeal.
4. The appeal of extreme nationalism provided a language of
mission for the marginalized.
B. Benito Mussolini, who founded the fascist movement in March of
1919, provides a good example of the kind of psychologically
displaced person who would be drawn into the movement.
1. After World War I, the veteran Mussolini struggled to put his
life back together. He expressed disgust with both liberals and
socialists and found himself marginalized by the prevailing
liberal, but stagnant, political system in Italy.
2. He turned to nationalism as a path to restoring national
3. Thus, the fascist historical movement emerged out of a
specific set of problems: of mass society, socialist revolution,
and the liberal crisis, which came to a head with the end of the
First World War.

Essential Reading:
Stanley Payne, A History of Fascism, 1914–1945, Introduction.

Supplementary Reading:
Jasper Ridley, Mussolini: A Biography.

Frank Snowden, The Fascist Revolution in Tuscany.

Questions to Consider:
1. Consider the fact that the fascist label has been loosely applied to all
sorts of movements and regimes since the 1920s and 1930s, and
scholars argue about whether it should be narrowly or broadly applied.
2. Did you find the complex definition of fascism a convincing way to
understand the phenomenon, or a confusing attempt to make fascism
into something more coherent than it was?

- Radcliff, Pamela: Interpreting the 20th Century: The Struggle Over Democracy, Course Guidebook, The Great Courses

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