What is fascism, and how does it manifest itself?

 Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler
Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler (Image credit: Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Fascism is a complicated political ideology. Fascism is defined in a variety of ways; some describe it as a collection of political actions, others as a political theory, and yet others as a mass movement. However, while most definitions agree that fascism is dictatorial and encourages nationalism at any cost, there is disagreement about its fundamental traits.

Fascism is most often linked with the regimes in Italy and Germany that rose to power following World War I, however, fascist regimes have also reigned in other nations. Among the most well-known fascist leaders of the twentieth century were Adolf Hitler in Germany, Benito Mussolini in Italy, Francisco Franco in Spain, and Juan Perón in Argentina, among others.

Fascist rhetoric and political organisation have evolved in the decades following World War II, with certain components becoming more extreme. Furthermore, fascism has progressed in the political scene of the twenty-first century. However, the fundamental fascist doctrines and goals advocated by leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini are still prevalent in populist organisations today, and they continue to influence fascist movements in countries all over the world.


Mussolini created the term “fascism” in 1919, shortly after the outbreak of World War I. The name “fascism” is derived from the Italian word “fascio,” which means “a bundle or gang,” and is often understood to refer to a militant fraternity. Axe tightly tied with sticks is what the term “fasces” means, according to the History Department at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and it was this picture that became a symbol of the fascist movement in the United States.

What is the definition of fascism? “Fascism is a form of political practises distinctive to the twentieth century that arouses popular enthusiasm through sophisticated propaganda techniques,” Robert Paxton, a professor emeritus of social science at Columbia University in New York, who is widely considered the father of fascism studies, told Live Science.

According to Paxton, fascism employs such propaganda to promote the following goals:

  • Individual rights, civic liberties, free enterprise, and democracy are all rejected by anti-liberal forces.
  • the opposition to socialism, which rejects economic ideas derived from socialist systems
  • certain people are excluded from society, often via violence
  • a form of nationalism that tries to increase the influence and power of a country

The term “modernization” has historically been associated with fascism, “particularly when it refers to liberalism, democracy and Marxist ideas as well as individualism and feminism,” according to historian Chris Wright, an adjunct assistant professor at the City University of New York. According to Wright in his essay “Reflections on Fascism,” which was published on ResearchGate in 2020 but has not yet been peer-reviewed, fascists have preferred modernization “if the term means technological and economic advancement, military superiority, efficiency, and the glorification of speed and machines,” among other things.

A fundamental belief in human inequalities underpins fascism, according to journalist Shane Burley. Burley is the author of two books: “Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse” (AK Press, 2020) and “Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It” (AK Press, 2015). (AK Press, 2017).

In an interview with IA NEWS, Burley explained that “the modern world is constructed under a mythology of human equality.” “Even if equality is not achieved, and even if those involved have no intention of achieving it, it is still the underlying narrative in modern societies that human beings are equal,” Burley said.

Fascism, on the other hand, supports the premise of inherent inequality and the inevitability of social hierarchies between groups, according to Burley. According to Burley, the belief that a person’s position in society is established by components of their identity that are beyond their control, such as ethnicity or gender, lies at the heart of this hierarchy, he explained.

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Fascism always adapts to the specific qualities of the country in which it is practised, resulting in a wide range of regimes. For example, Paxton stated in “The Five Stages of Fascism” that “religion… would play a much higher part in true fascism in the United States” than it would in more secular Europe.

To make matters even more complicated, non-fascist administrations have frequently copied parts of fascist regimes to provide the image of might and a national vigour, according to Paxton. He explained that, for example, enormous mobilizations of citizens in brightly coloured shirts do not inherently imply the presence of fascist political practices.

The widespread use of the term “fascism” in everyday speech creates confusion about what the term actually means. According to The Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank based in Sydney, the term “historically informed analytical term” has become “more frequently used as a political slur than as a historically informed analytical term” in recent years.

In addition, according to Burley while all fascist movements are on the far right, not all far-right groups are fascist.

The philosophy of fascism is not fixed, in contrast to the philosophy of most other political, social, or ethical ideologies — such as those of communism, capitalism, conservatism, liberalism, or socialism — “There was no ‘Fascist Manifesto,’ and there was no founding fascist theorist,” Paxton explained. A former professor of history at the University of New Brunswick (Canada) Gilbert Allardyce called fascism “a mulish idea” that irritated historians even as they continued to use the term.

According to Allardyce in a 1979 article published in the journal The American Historical Review, “Put simply, we have agreed to use the phrase without agreeing on how to define it.”

Although the definition of fascism is difficult to pin down, all fascist movements share some fundamental beliefs and activities.


Fascism necessitates some fundamental allegiances, such as those to a nation and a gatekeeping “master race” or group to function. Increasing the strength, power, size, and success of the nation is the fundamental concept of fascism, according to Paxton, who characterised it as “the only definition of morality under fascism.” Considering that national strength is the only thing that distinguishes a “good” nation, fascists are willing to go to any length to attain that aim.

As a result, fascists want to exploit the country’s resources to expand the country’s power. As a result, assets are frequently nationalised under fascism, which is similar to Marxism, which is defined as an anti-capitalist economic, philosophical, and political framework of beliefs that promotes a classless society, according to the Stanford University Center for the Study of Language and Information, which is located in Stanford, California.
Fascist regimes, guided by the idea of excessive nationalism, tend to carry out identical deeds, albeit the specifics vary, according to author George Orwell in his essay “What Is Fascism?” “The Anatomy of Fascism,” a book by Paxton on the subject that was published in 2005, describes how fascist governments make use of large gestures such as parades and leaders entering the stage in a rousing manner.

Fascists are also masters of propaganda, use it as a tool to scapegoat specific groups of people, but the groups scapegoated may alter from one country to the next. During World War II, the Nazi regime attacked Jews and other ethnic minorities, such as the Roma people, while Mussolini’s Italian regime targeted Bolsheviks, who were militant, far-left Marxists who advocated socialism. (Mussolini had a long working relationship with Jews, and his mistress, Margherita Sarfatti, was originally Jewish before she converted to Catholicism.) As a result of Mussolini’s collaboration with Hitler, antisemitic elements were eventually incorporated into his administration, and Sarfatti fled Italy in 1938 as Mussolini began adopting antisemitic legislation, according to the Jewish Women’s Archives. Mussolini, on the other hand, differed from Hitler on the issue of biological racism in general.)

Fascist fascism, according to Paxton, is built on sentiments rather than philosophical principles (which may explain why fascism can be hard to define). Fascist regimes are fueled by seven “mobilising passions,” according to the author of his 1988 essay “The Five Stages of Fascism,” which was later published in 1998 in the Journal of Modern History. They are as follows:

  1. The importance of the group as a whole. Supporting the collective appears to be more essential than upholding individual rights in this situation.
  2. Believing that one’s own group is a victim is called victimisation. This justifies any actions taken against the group’s adversaries.
  3. The assumption that individualism and liberalism allow for dangerous decadence and harm to the group is known as groupthink.
  4. A strong sensation of belonging to a group or brotherhood.
  5. Individual self-esteem is correlated with the perceived greatness of a group or organisation. The term “increased sense of identity and belonging” was used by Paxton to describe this.
    Excessive backing for a “natural” leader, who is often a masculine figure. A single individual ends up taking on the role of national hero as a result of this development.
    Paxton expressed admiration for “the beauty of violence and will when they are devoted to the achievement of the group in a Darwinian battle,” in his writing. Natural superiority or, more specifically in Hitler’s case, biological racism are concepts that fit within a fascist interpretation of Darwinism, according to the theory of evolution.

As soon as they took power, “fascist dictatorships curtailed individual liberty, imprisoned opponents, prohibited strikes, sanctioned unfettered police authority in the name of national unity and renewal, and engaged in military aggression,” stated Paxton.


Mussolini’s fascism of 1919 combined strong nationalist expansion with social objectives such as women’s suffrage and workers’ rights, amassing power by creating alliances with conservatives and existing government groups, and establishing a new fascist state in Italy. The emergence of fascist movements across Europe, including the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the Nazi Party), the British Union of Fascists, Portugal’s National Union, the Yugoslav Radical Union in Yugoslavia, and Austria’s Fatherland Front, was fueled by the success of fascism in Italy.

Strong-arm squads were known as the Blackshirt Militia, who were supported by industrialists and engaged in combat against socialist farmer organisations, attacks on socialist periodicals, and occupation of socialist-led cities, according to the AHA, were active in Italy in 1922. In 1922, they made a threat to march on the city of Rome. The government attempted to appease Mussolini by appointing him as prime minister, but he quickly rose to the position of the dictator in 1925. Following this came the violent suppression of dissent, the deification of Mussolini, the violent expansion into Ethiopia, Albania, and other nations, and, in 1939, the collaboration with Nazi Germany and participation in World War II.

Numerous lessons were gleaned by Hitler from Mussolini, among them the significance of publicity and the use of force. In the 1920s, he rose to popularity as the leader of the Nazi Party with theatrical speeches, big entrances, and passionate rhetoric against Jews, Marxists, liberals, and internationalists — those who favour social and economic interdependence among nations, according to Paxton. In January 1933, President of the Weimar Republic Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler as chancellor, expecting that Hitler would put a stop to the expanding Communist Party. By the summer of 1933, Hitler’s regime had evolved into a dictatorship. Hitler rearmed Germany and began attacking neighbouring countries in contravention of the Versailles Treaty, which was signed in 1919. The invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany on September 1, 1939, marked the beginning of World War II and the Holocaust.

Fascist ideologies from Europe influenced regimes throughout Latin America, notably those in Bolivia and Argentina. According to Paxton, “These countries too had a rough time during the Depression, and ordinary middle-class parties operating parliamentary systems were notably ineffective.” Even though Spain and Portugal were dictatorships until 1975, the governments in those countries were a mix of conservative and fascist political groups.


Fascist’s economic practises were described as “socialist with a capitalist veneer” by the Library of Economics and Liberty, although the economics of fascism are complex. Fascist administrations, according to The Library of Economics and Liberty, seek autarky, or national self-sufficiency, as a means of achieving their objectives. In the 1920s and 1930s, fascist leaders portrayed it as a viable middle ground between bourgeois, profit-oriented capitalism with a distinct upper and lower class and revolutionary Marxism, which would dismantle many social institutions and persecute the bourgeoisie, or upper class, in order to achieve social equality.

Fiasco cartels (business monopolies under government control) dominated many aspects of commerce, finance, agriculture, and manufacturing in Germany and Italy in the decades before WWII, making decisions in the interests of the state’s power while also allowing the conservative business elite to maintain and grow their wealth. The cartels forced salary reductions and compensated the workers with a sense of national pride.

Cooperation with businessmen and members of the conservative elite is a characteristic of fascism. Despite the fact that fascists start out with radical views, they always combine to go in the direction of safeguarding private property, according to Paxton in an interview with Live Science. According to him, this is, nevertheless, an uneasy alliance.

As he explained, conservatives are essentially people of order who want to use things like the church and property to maintain an existing social order, while fascists are revolutionaries, who will dismantle social institutions if they believe doing so will bring about national power, grandeur, or expansion for their respective countries. “Businessmen in Nazi Germany were not thrilled about Hitler at first since he had anti-capitalist ideals at the time of his election.” Despite the fact that conservative German businessmen ultimately established a brief alliance with Hitler’s administration, Paxton noted that “they frequently tripped on each other’s toes.” A coup attempt against Hitler was launched on July 20, 1944, by right-wing extremists.

As Paxton put it, “there is always a sense of tension between the two motions.”


Throughout the history of the twentieth century, fascist regimes have required specific sociocultural and political conditions in order to climb to power. It is also worth mentioning that fascist ideals have grown in popularity in numerous nations, including Britain in the 1920s and 1930s, without fascist regimes gaining power or fascist political parties being major political participants in those countries.

First and foremost, fascist governments in the twentieth century have relied on major national crises to obtain popularity and authority in order to maintain control. Following their countries’ defeat in World War I, many Germans and Italians were concerned about the future of their country. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “people in Germany were confronted with dismal economic conditions, soaring unemployment, political instability, and dramatic social transformation.” The AHA reports that the Italian population were suffering from growing inflation, unemployment, strikes, as well as “confused and ineffective” economic measures during this time.

It is also necessary for fascism to prevail that the general public believes that the established political parties and institutions are incapable of changing the national situation. For a fascist party to become powerful, the combination of a strong national identity and dissatisfaction with the government must be accompanied by an external catalyst that persuades citizens to support what are often small fringe movements in the first place. Aristotle Kallis, a professor of history at Keele University in England, stated in a lecture on fascism that he delivered in Amsterdam in 2015 that the Great Depression served as a catalyst in Germany and, to a lesser extent, Italy.

The German economy suffered greatly as a result of the Great Depression and World War I. As Paxton put it, “the war had released inflation, and everyone who had savings or who was living on a fixed income, such as retirees, watched their money dwindle away.” People were desperate, ashamed, and bewildered, he continued.

When it comes to fascism, Paxton argues in his essay “Five Stages” that it can develop only when a society is familiar with political liberty and when democracy has been in place long enough for the people to become disillusioned with it. Italy, for example, has experienced a series of weak and revolving-door governments throughout the years. Furthermore, Germany was without an effective legislative majority for three years prior to Hitler being appointed chancellor. As a result of their inefficient governments, suffering people, and national shame, both countries were confronted with two conceivable solutions to their problems: communism and fascism.

“The emergence of fascism is not really understood unless one also considers the rise of communism,” Paxton asserted. It was these two groups in the twentieth century that sought to abandon democracy and replace it with something else in order to make the country more powerful.

Germany and Italy were both struggling economically, and the political left — which consisted of communists and socialists — was gaining ground in both countries. It appeared as though a socialist revolution was on the horizon, particularly in Italy. The incumbent government, as well as conservative capitalist elites, were strongly opposed to communism and socialism at the time.

Fascist pandering to conservatives was noted by Paxton as another component in laying the groundwork for the establishment of a fascist state early in the movement. Fascists have no other option but to infiltrate conservative elites, according to the author.

At the time, the governments of Germany and Italy made the decision to affiliate themselves with fascists. It was because of their violence and rigidity that “the fascist parties came to the public’s attention as the most strident opponents of socialism,” Paxton explained. “Fascists were offered the role of head of government by the leaders of state in both nations since the other possibilities, the regular parliamentary parties, had failed to deliver results. Each of these ideologies promised violent answers, and each claimed fascism by killing the other “Paxton expressed himself.

Because they had allied themselves with fascists and were fearful of a socialist revolution, the German and Italian governments refused to cooperate with the opposition. This resulted in political gridlock, which is another of the elements identified by Paxton as necessary for fascism to rise to power.


The ideology of fascism, as defined by Mussolini’s and Hitler’s governments, was mostly out of fashion in Europe and North America following World War II. According to Paxton, the term “fascist” has become a go-to political pejorative, resulting in overuse and diminished significance. Nonetheless, he asserted, fascist or proto-fascist forces have been increasing in Europe and North America for the past few decades, particularly in the United Kingdom.

With the growth of populism — political movements that elevate regular people above elites — across Europe and the United States in recent years, many have questioned if fascism is regaining ground. In an interview with CNN, Paxton stated that he does not believe fascism is on the increase in the United States, defining American populist movements as “far more classic conservatism.” “Individualism is the fundamental social-political programme, but not for everyone, but rather for entrepreneurs. It defends the right of businesses to pursue the greatest possible profit in the absence of laws and regulations.”

In recent years, small factions of the wealthy and powerful in America have gained popular support “using rhetorical methods that are reminiscent of fascism,” according to Paxton. Despite the fact that many of the economic, social, and political drivers of mid-20th-century European fascism were specific to that period and place, fascism’s core ideas can still be found in modern populist movements that embrace hardline nationalism, white supremacy, and xenophobia, according to Burley.

According to Burley, because most modern fascist movements lack official political party representation or governmental power, “they operate inside a social movement framework rather than a political framework.” Fascist movements nowadays also employ more sophisticated terminology when discussing their mission and goals, frequently adopting the vocabulary of left-leaning movements in their description of their objectives.

A good illustration of this is the language of white nationalism and the alt-right, notably in the manner that they describe racial politics,” Burley said, citing phrases like “white separatist” and “white self-determination.” Modern movements cloak a fascist agenda in deceptively progressive terminology by borrowing talking points from anti-imperialist movements and decolonization movements from the 1960s and 1970s, according to Burley. Modern movements cloak a fascist agenda in deceptively progressive terminology, according to Burley.

In addition, “since the broader public is strongly opposed to open imperialism, they must instead employ a coded vocabulary about white sovereignty,” he explained. Despite the fact that such movements fall under the broad definition of fascism, “it’s only that the external conditions and the way individuals participate politically have changed,” according to Burley.


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