Conventional wisdom has it that “we didn’t start talking about fascism a lot, you know, prior to President [Donald] Trump’s election or even the last, like, two, three years,” to quote NPR host Noel King’s interview of antifa expert historian Mark Bray. Like so much else in this age of post-truth, this is wrong. In fact, alongside its alleged synonym, Nazism, the word “fascism” has long degenerated into an all-purpose expletive directed at anyone with the temerity to disagree with the speaker. Considering its ubiquity, therefore, a closer look at its history may contribute some much-needed clarity.
The original fasces, plural fasci, is an Italian word that in its 16th-century Latin version referred to a bundle of rods. Suggesting strength through unity, fasci was first used in Sicily in the late 19th century to refer to groups of men organized for political purposes. It was later appropriated by several trade union groups that supported joining the Great War in opposition to most Italian socialists, who preferred neutrality (as had the Bolsheviks in neighboring Russia). At first, the renegade socialists sought to avoid calling themselves a “party,” which connoted faction as opposed to common effort and consensus, preferring simply fascisti.
While hard to detect a common core to the different anti-liberal, anti-conservative European political movements that adopted the “fascist”—and later, “national socialist” or “Nazi” label in the early 20th century—each claimed to follow a distinct political vision, deliberately eschewing programmatic consistency for the sake of political expediency. In the case of National Socialism, for example, the German political scientist Franz Neumann noted at the time that its “ideology is constantly shifting. It has certain magical beliefs—leadership adoration, supremacy of the master race—but [these] are not laid down in a series of categorical and dogmatic pronouncements.”
For that reason, Columbia University professor Robert O. Paxton suggests defining fascism as primarily a form of “political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood.” But underlying that behavior was a thread of animating principles that galvanized the volcanic “mobilizing passions” of credulous crowds deeply resentful in the aftermath of the Great War into an ideology. That ideology, writes Paxton, categorically “abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence, and without ethical or legal restraints, goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
An overwhelming visceral resentment was thus critical to implementing what the German émigré political theorist George L. Mosse has called “the Fascist revolution,” whose French, Russian, Italian and German variants all involved “mass mobilization and control and replacing an old with a new elite.”
That theme, writes the Polish-born Israeli historian Zeeb Sternhell, was based on “a system of ethics, with criteria of behavior dictated by the entire national body, independently of the will of the individual [which] … denied the validity of any absolute and universal moral norms: truth, justice and law existed only to serve the needs of the collectivity.” Sternhell calls this a “truly tribal concept of the nation,” but it was also unquestionably socialist.
The fusion of the two collectivist ideologies—tribal nationalism and Marxist socialism—had been accomplished by Enrico Corradini who, in 1910, had called Italy “a proletarian country.”
Having implicitly “borrowed the idea of class struggle from Marxism,” writes Sternhell, Corradini “transposed it onto a higher level, that of war between national groups. The principle remained the same: violence is the motive force of history.” Whether violence involved classes or nations, an economic system that eschews individual initiative had to replace capitalist liberalism.
Mosse agreed that the nationalist mystique at the heart of fascism is consistent with a socialist vision, along with anti-Semitism. “French socialists of the mid-nineteenth century, and men like Edouard Drumont [founder of the French Antisemitic League in 1889], toward the end of the century, had combined opposition to finance capitalism and the advocacy of greater social equality with an impassioned nationalism,” wrote Mosse. The connection between anti-capitalism and anti-Semitism would gradually evolve from the middle ages, until egoism and the love of money was declared their common denominator. That it would find its most effective articulation in the writing of Karl Marx, heir to a long line of rabbis, is not only ironic but unspeakably tragic. Hard as it still is for many Jews to believe, it had been Marx who said that “[m]oney is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist,” and even “Once society has succeeded in abolishing the empirical essence of Judaism—huckstering and its preconditions—the Jew will have become impossible.”
Small wonder that in his address to a National Socialist German Workers Party meeting in August 1920, Hitler could say: “Jewry means egoistic attitude to work and thereby mammonism and materialism, the opposite of socialism.” This made anti-Semitism a logical extension of socialism: “How can you not be an anti-Semite, being a socialist!” hollered Hitler—to whom the audience is recorded to have responded: “Hear, hear!”
The notion that Nazism was capitalist has been convincingly refuted in the copiously researched study of Nazi economics by the Israeli historian Avraham Barkai (1921-2020): “Ideologically, [the Nazi] system proclaimed the rejection of liberalism, that is, free competition and regulation of the economy by market mechanisms; these were to be replaced by the dictum of state supremacy and the state’s duty to intervene in all spheres of life, including the economy.” Thus did fascism, Nazism and anti-Semitism have the same enemy: liberalism.
This is no longer even denied by radicals like Natasha Lennard, described in The Nation as “one of the most astute thinkers to emerge from the Occupy movement,” who offers the following definition:
In the simplest, most popular sense, anti-fascist organizing—often known as antifa—is a militant, no-tolerance approach to far-right, racist nationalism. As a practice taken up by the far left, socialist and anarchist alike, antifa is an illiberal intervention that does not rely on the state, the justice system, or any liberal institution to resist fascism.
Illiberal indeed. She didn’t have to add anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic; it’s manifest, however hushed by mainstream media and too many Jews. California introduces an ethnic-studies curriculum that is openly anti-Semitic and anti-Israel to “promote diversity”; a Jewish student has to resign as vice president of student government because she refuses to disavow Israel; Black Lives Matter protestors carrying “Free Palestine” and “f***Israel” posters vandalize synagogues in Los Angeles and New York, to say nothing of destroying Jewish stores—all this in the name of anti-fascism and equity.
Recalling the accurate name of the ideology’s Sicilian and socialist pedigree is overdue. No one said it better than the late Robert S. Wistrich, the great historian of anti-Semitism:
It is certainly no coincidence that in all three cases, [the political religions of Nazism, Stalinism and Islamism], a remarkably similar anti-American and anti-Jewish demonology has been manipulated in the cause of destroying Judeo-Christian values, individual freedom and liberal democracy. … At their very heart we can find the oldest and darkest of ideological obsessions—that of antisemitism.
Juliana Geran Pilon is a senior fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. Her latest book is “The Utopian Conceit and the War on Freedom (2019).” She has taught at the National Defense University, the Institute of World Politics, American University, St. Mary’s College of Maryland and George Washington University.
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