22 March 2022

Fascism in history

Very intrigued with this interview with Kurt Weyland, who has just had a book published Assault on Democracy: Communism, Fascism, and Authoritarianism During the Interwar Years. It clarifies some things about the relationship between 20th century fascism versus other authoritarianisms, which I think is very important, though I think about it rather differently.

A few highlights I want to keep for future reference —

I think of fascism as a distinctive authoritarian ethos among other authoritarianisms — Weyland sees fascism as so distinctive that he splits it entirely from authoritarianism:

Fascism is a different type of political regime from authoritarianism. In the political science terminology, it’s totalitarian. It’s an effort to establish total control, to have strong mass mobilization pushed by the leader in order to bring a profound transformation of politics. And a profound transformation that is, in some sense, guided by a contradictory vision, bringing back elements of the long-forgotten past, but also in a form that is hypermodern, that uses the most advanced technology. And so, fascism is a profoundly totalitarian, very energetic, very dynamic, very mobilizational kind of system.

Conservative authoritarianism is very different because conservative authoritarianism wants to either preserve what exists or go back just a little bit to the preceding authoritarian regime that existed.


One can understand all authoritarianism, in some sense, like a division of labor. Let the elite and the government govern and the people stay out of it and don’t get involved in politics. And so, what underlies authoritarianism is a hierarchical approach to politics and approach where most of the population is supposed to be depoliticized, not to get involved. So, it doesn’t have nearly the dynamism, the energy of totalitarian fascism. And so, they’re quite different types of regimes. You just see that in a number of specific features. So, fascism is much more violent, much more imperialistic, much more expansionary than conservative authoritarianism.


authoritarian regimes used organized coercion of the state to employ usually targeted repression. And so authoritarian regimes tell the population, ‘Stay out of politics.’ And many people comply out of fear. And so that means that authoritarian regimes, most of the time do not need very much repression and they use the police and the military to specifically target people who actively oppose them. Fascism is very, very different partly because fascism emerged from bottom-up mass movements. [...] this is not the state using organized coercion. The mass movement takes over the state and because of its totalitarian goals of totally transforming things needs much more massive, much more widespread much more permanent kind of coercion.

On the conditions for fascism succeeding: a democratic state that is too weak to address leftist organizing, producing an anti-left mass movement:

... fascism is a direct reaction to a perceived leftwing movement. You know, here the left tries to pull things off with these land seizures, these factory occupations, and then the right emerges and cracks down. And fascism emerges and is most powerful only in kind of countries of middling level of modernization. What you’ll see is the most modernized countries of Western and Northern Europe, they maintain democracy. Their democracy was developed enough. Civil society was advanced enough, developed enough. The party system was consolidated enough that when they had right-wing movements like in France and Belgium, they never really got a ton of support that could kind of contain them and limit them. So, in the developed countries, democracy survived.

In the really backwards regions, Eastern, Southern Europe, and Balkans their society was so backward, left-wingers never got strong enough. That established kind of elite and the state and the military took care of the problem. And so, fascism emerged kind of in between


And so, you see, of course, the interesting thing is fascism only came to power in the democracies, because it was a mass movement that then used democratic mechanisms to turn that mass movement into, especially in the German case, increasing electoral support and in the Italian case, at least get a foothold in the party system and then rise. Where authoritarian regimes that close the electoral arena and that was strong enough to crack down, not only the left-wingers, but also on the right-wingers, the fascists never came to power.

On fascism’s anti-conservatism:

Because the conservatives, they want to establish their control. They want to cement hierarchy. They want to exclude the population and the fascists. The fascists were in some sense anti-conservative. They didn’t think that the established elite had done a very good job. They wanted to push them out of the way. They wanted to establish the preeminence of their personalistic leader, their equivalent to Hitler and Mussolini. And so, there was a significant conflict and the fascists had a much more dynamic transformational project. They had a much more of kind of bottom-up support, whereas the conservative authoritarians were kind of top-down and hierarchical. There was also a social difference because many of the fascist leaders and the fascist movements essentially came from lower, lower middleclass groupings and different from the elitist authoritarians.

On distinguishing fascism from the populism of figures like Perón:

[Populists] downgraded liberalism, they cracked down on the opposition, they screwed the playing field, they became over time authoritarian, but they always maintained elections. They never had mass terror. They didn’t turn Argentina into a kind of bastion of dictatorship. Very different from German Nazism and Italian fascism. And so, you can say that, yes, in some sense, the Argentine case shows populism emerged from the realization that fascism wasn’t viable anymore and you had to kind of transform. But I do think as Finkelstein used to emphasize in this academic work that this is a qualitatively different phenomenon. That populist leaders get their way in their eternal hunger for power and their effort to establish their own hegemony.

I think the worst that can happen under populism is what Levitsky and Way call competitive authoritarianism. So, you have an authoritarian leader who still uses elections and parties and there are opposition parties allowed and all these kinds of things. And that is totally different from fascism where there was no opposition party and there were no elections. And there was mass violence and a profoundly transformational impulse and they were much more ideological.