What was fascism?
The word itself is problematic. For many, especially those of a Marxist bent, it was an attempt to divert working people from the real cause of their problems. For other, it was a vehicle for anti-Semitism and conspiracy thinking in general. For others still, as George Orwell noted, it was, and still is, a crude insult: “something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class” (Orwell, 1944).
How did fascists define this word? For Benito Mussolini, it was a reaction to liberalism:
We are free to believe that this is the century of authority, a century tending to the ‘right’, a Fascist century. If the 19th century was the century of the individual (liberalism implies individualism) we are free to believe that this is the ‘collective’ century, and therefore the century of the State. (Mussolini, 1933)
Fascism is defined here in opposition to liberalism, the belief that individuals should be free and self-determining. Beginning in the 18th century, liberalism had spread from Great Britain to continental Europe, first passively, through the diffusion of ideas, and then actively, through war and revolution. It reached its height at the end of WWI with the overthrow of the old autocratic order and the establishment of liberal regimes of one sort or another across the continent.
Already, however, a reaction was developing. Conservatives, particularly in the Roman Catholic Church, were pointing out that liberalism would eventually destroy all traditional identities—the family, gender, kinship, ethnicity. Since these identities are nonconsensual, they violate liberal principles of personal freedom and individual choice. People do not get to choose their family, gender, kinfolk, or ethnic background. Thus, sooner or later, liberalism would cause these identities to dissolve away, under the influence of universal education, the increased mobility of people, and the ability of the market economy to offer more lucrative ways of organizing one’s life. Communists were seen as people who wanted to accelerate the process, by using the brute power of the State. This was “liberalism in a hurry”—the path initially taken by the Soviet Union, one of the new states to emerge after WWI.
If communists wanted to use the State to destroy traditional identities and speed up the emancipation of the individual, fascists saw the State as a means to reverse the process.
Fascism and the First World War
Was fascism caused by WWI? In part. Before the war, the continent was dominated by autocratic regimes that were slowly moving toward liberal democracy. At war’s end, liberalism reigned almost everywhere. Conservatism had become an ideology of opposition and was thus less hindered by ties to the establishment. Its leaders were freer to choose their own tactics and radicalize their ideology.
Nonetheless, much of the ideology was pre-war. The Catholic Church in particular had been attacking liberalism in encyclicals going back to Quanta cura (1864) and Rerum novarum (1891). When Mussolini took power in 1922, there was already a blueprint for an alternate model of society, a “corporatist” one where the State would defend and promote traditional values. This blueprint was adopted by other Catholic leaders during the interwar years, with the result that fascist or near-fascist regimes soon covered almost all of Catholic Europe: Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain, Salazar in Portugal, Dollfuss in Austria, Horthy in Hungary, Pilsudski in Poland, and Smetona in Lithuania. A broader definition would include non-Catholic regimes that nonetheless looked to Mussolini as a model: Hitler in Germany, Metaxas in Greece, and Tojo in Japan. Finally, the fascist critique of liberalism influenced policy making even in the liberal democracies and the Soviet Union under Stalin.
This may be seen in Catholic Europe’s main holdout, France, which nonetheless became aggressively pro-family in response to an alarmingly low fertility rate, well below replacement level. The Alliance nationale contre la dépopulation was the main arm of this propaganda war:
By its social measures—showing more social solidarity toward families, giving women the right to vote—the Alliance’s agenda seems progressive. […] In other ways, it seems clearly conservative. Its morality described car sightseeing and movie going, alongside alcohol, smoking, and gambling, as superfluous or harmful expenses. It instead emphasized the cult of duty, obedience, and the spirit of sacrifice. It worried a lot about the impact of the birth rate on the supply of men for military service even though it denied wanting to make cannon fodder. It advocated stronger repression of abortion. Finally, it thought highly of the Nazi regime’s pro-natalist policy, even though it designated Germany as the main enemy. (Langlois, 2012)
A similar shift toward social conservatism took place across the Atlantic. Although Roosevelt’s America is today seen as a triumph of liberalism over fascism, its liberalism was willing to incorporate non-liberal and even anti-liberal policies. The Hays Code, introduced in 1930 and strengthened in 1934, imposed strict moral guidelines on movie making. Meanwhile, Frances Perkins, U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Roosevelt administration, pushed for policies that would encourage marriage, support large families, and promote population growth (Carlson, 2002). A key one was the ideal of the man as breadwinner and the wife as stay-at-home mother:
Maternalists would use the New Deal to reward the domestic woman and discourage the working mother. They expanded and nationalized existing state programs that protected mothers and created “new ones to deliver social benefits to the wives and widows of wage-earning men.” They “prescribed domesticity to unemployed women in vocational programs that trained [them] for housekeeping and parenting,” and they urged “counseling services for mothers tempted to work outside the home.” Linking truancy, incorrigibility, and emotional disorders among children to a “mother’s absence at her job,” the Maternalists mounted campaigns to bring working mothers home.
Similarly, the Soviet Union abandoned its initial liberalism and became increasingly conservative.
The October Revolution of 1917 brought to power a radical socialist government that denounced the family as a bourgeois institution, undermined the institution of marriage, and promised the liberation of women. […] Yet by the 1930s, official Soviet culture endorsed strong families, glorified motherhood, and strove to raise the birthrate. The Soviet government also made divorce more difficult and outlawed abortion. The country that had embarked upon the great socialist experiment, reverted to a very traditional family model and an essentialized notion of women’s “natural role” as mothers. (Hoffmann, 2000)
This shift was partly based on bitter experience:
Following the Revolution, some men scorned marriage or married and divorced multiple times. As a result, many women were left raising children with no support from male partners. People began to complain of the large number of “unpleasant and unscrupulous divorces,” and call for “decisive and concrete measures … to once and for all put a stop to this outrage.” Soviet officials published exposes of “Red Don Juans” and condemned young men for reneging on promises to marry young women they had seduced, and for marrying and divorcing multiple times. One writer set forth as the Soviet ideal “a long marriage, based … on mutual trust and respect.” (Hoffman, 2000)
Liberal sexual morality had also produced many homeless children and a sharp decline in the birth rate. As a result, moves were taken to limit both contraception and abortion. Although contraceptives were not banned, no resources were allotted to make them. Abortion was outlawed in 1936 except for medical reasons. Other measures sought to encourage family formation and promote motherhood. (Hoffman, 2000).
The end of fascism
Fascism failed to make a lasting push-back against liberalism. One reason was that fascist regimes were just as likely to fight each other as their liberal and communist opponents. Within the social environment created by fascism, nationalism tended to radicalize, leading to idealization of the nation and desires to expand through military adventurism.
We think of WWII as a struggle between liberal democracy and fascism, yet it began as a war between two conservative authoritarian states: Germany and Poland, both of which had a record of repressing national minorities and grabbing land from weaker neighbors. When the war was over, fascism had perished not only on the Axis side but on the Allied side as well.
Would things have been different if WWII had never happened? We have only to look at the example of Spain. There, fascism survived the end of the war and died peacefully with Franco’s death in 1975. Today, Spain is one of Europe’s most liberal states.
Ironically, fascist policies survived longer in the liberal democracies. An argument can be made that the baby boom resulted from a conjugation of postwar prosperity with fascist-inspired family policy. Yet, here too, the fascist critique of liberalism failed to make a lasting push-back. By the 1970s, a new generation of liberals were condemning the New Deal for the compromises it had made with social conservatives, even to the point of putting the liberal project on hold. It was now time to finish the job.
Lessons for the future
In its effort to push back liberalism, fascism relied on two supports: nationalism and the Catholic Church. Both would prove to be problematic.
Today, the word “nationalist” is applied to parties like the Front National in France or the PVV in the Netherlands that are more properly called anti-globalist or perhaps anti-replacement, since their main goal is to halt the demographic replacement of native Europeans.
This was not the meaning of “nationalist” in the early 20th century and even less so in the 19th. Back then, nationalists had initially allied themselves with liberals in a common project to emancipate the individual from parochialism—emotional attachment to little regions that often had their own dialects, customs, and sense of belonging. The individual would henceforth identify with a much larger nation-state and be able to circulate over a much larger territory thanks to a common citizenship, a common language, and a common identity. Nationalism was thus the first step in a process that would lead to today’s globalism
This logic was carried over into the fascist movements of the early 20th century. The desire to create larger, more uniform nation-states led to repression of national minorities and moves to seize territory from other countries. By abolishing local and regional cultures, and by creating an ersatz national culture in their place, these movements helped to pave the way for the deracinated individualism that is now the norm in most Western societies.
The Catholic Church
In the past, particularly before the 1960s and Vatican II, the Catholic Church could provide a solid base for push-back against liberalism. Today, it no longer can, partly because it is a shadow of its former self, especially in Europe, and partly because it has become a vehicle for liberalism in its most radical form. When the pope goes to Lampedusa to greet African immigrants, it’s clear that he sees this immigration in a positive light. He wants to be “on the right side of history,” and that history will no longer be Christian or European.
Very little is left of social conservatism in the Catholic Church. Perhaps that will change, but not in the near future, and certainly not during the tenure of the current pope. For better or for worse, the next push-back against liberalism will have little to do with organized religion.
It would in any case be difficult to resurrect nationalism or traditional Catholicism within the time available. For now, it may be better to focus on measures to push back against the most serious and irreversible component of the liberal project, “The Great Replacement”:
– halt an immigration surge that is already spinning out of control. We’re in the early stages of a demographic tsunami, and the word is not too strong.
– create stable kin-based communities where people can develop high levels of trust in each other. There would be no need to impose such a way of life. Many people would jump at the opportunity.
– preserve the genetic heritage of Europe not because we completely know what we’re trying to save, but because we often don’t know. The human genome is largely a black box, and we are only beginning to understand how human populations differ from each other. The burden of proof is on those who seek irreversible change.
– preserve the genetic heritage of Europe because of what we know we will lose.