What Is Fascism—And Why the Definition Matters

The label “fascism” gets tossed around a lot—but that doesn’t mean it lacks a coherent definition, or belongs solely to a bygone past. The political formation we call fascism is still very much alive, and very dangerous.

A shortened version of this article appeared in the Mar./Apr. 2021 issue of Current Affairs.

On January 6, 2021, the world gaped at their smartphones and television screens as Donald Trump’s bizarrely dressed and dangerously radicalized mob of marketing executives, real estate brokers, portfolio managers, live-streamers, veterans, bartenders, and others bulldozed through state security forces and stormed the United States Capitol, some of them on a mission to lynch Mike Pence, Nancy Pelosi, and any members of “the Squad” they could find. As the Capitol Police appeared to melt away, routed as decisively as France’s Third Republic when German panzers poured through the Ardennes, many wondered: was this the beginning of a fascist coup? Were America’s democratic institutions, deliberately flawed and limited as they are, crumbling before our eyes? Or, as some outspoken parties continue to argue, was this Internet-poisoned rabble largely harmless? Should we be much more concerned by tech moguls’ unchecked, unaccountable power to censor and control public discourse, or by the expansion of the surveillance state under the guise of anti-terror security? Should the left try to ally with the sort of person who attended the “Rally to Save America” —not the actual Nazis of course, but the masses imagined to be disillusioned by decades of corruption, endless warfare, neoliberal austerity, and a smugly condescending liberal coastal elite? None of these questions have anything close to simple answers (though, if you’re looking for a cheat sheet, I’m inclined to say no, and fuck no).

At the heart of these debates are conflicting explanations of what the actual fuck is going on with America and what we can do about it. On the one hand, if we choose to identify Trump and his supporters as “fascists,” we instinctively understand from history that this is a very bad thing. We are all presumably well aware of how within living memory, fascists launched the bloodiest and most destructive war in the history of the world, resulting in more than 80 million deaths. The Nazis are deeply ingrained in the popular imagination as evil incarnate, the armies of darkness that threatened to march across the face of the earth. If Trump and his supporters are determined to be “fascists,” those monsters from history, then even if he has been temporarily defeated, we should still be very alarmed. But if they aren’t fascists, or at least if they aren’t dangerous ones, then we can focus on a more familiar and, in some respects, more comfortable enemy: the 21st century neoliberal establishment in all of its austerity-enforcing, privacy-violating, phone-tapping, and murderous drone-bombing horror.

…these labels and terms do matter, not only because fascism and liberal imperialism are in fact different things, but because fighting fascism requires different tools, arguments, and strategies than the ones used to combat liberal capitalism and its imperial project.

Some on the left might argue that this distinction doesn’t really matter. There is a long tradition in left-leaning discourse to identify fascism with liberal or neoliberal imperialism. Leftists recognize that the United States already is a brutal capitalist tyranny with a long history of aggressive warfare, racial authoritarianism, and genocide. So, the debate over fascism can also become a debate over the nature of the United States: how should we understand capitalism’s endless injustices and inequalities, the governing ideology of liberal democracy, and American imperialism? And if we dig even further, it becomes a dispute over the ideology of liberalism itself, and liberalism’s relationship to fascism. When you scratch a liberal, does a fascist really bleed?

I think that these labels and terms do matter, not only because fascism and liberal imperialism are in fact different things, but because fighting fascism requires different tools, arguments, and strategies than the ones used to combat liberal capitalism and its imperial project. “Fascism” has descriptive power beyond a pejorative term or an epithet, and it’s back, baby, posing a greater threat than at any point since the Second World War. Understanding fascism is crucial not only because accuracy in words and labels matter, but because it’s enormously important to recognize and understand fascism in order to effectively mobilize against it and destroy it.

Liberal imperialism and fascist imperialism are both murderous criminal enterprises which have and, in the former case, continue to wreak death and destruction on untold millions. It is of cold comfort for an Iraqi orphan to be told that their parents’ killers weren’t “fascists.” Nevertheless, we need to recognize that liberal imperialism and its fascist counterpart operate differently and are vulnerable in different ways. While both Bush and Obama unquestionably committed atrocities while they stood at the helm of the most powerful capitalist state the world has yet seen, they were not fascists. George W. Bush would be better condemned as a liberal imperialist, one whose speeches were inundated with now-clichéd liberal shibboleths like “liberty” and “freedom.” Admittedly, calling Bush a “liberal imperialist” rather than a fascist lacks a certain punch. But labeling Bush and Obama as fascists doesn’t work because fascism is not only explicitly and emphatically anti-communist, but anti-liberal as well.

In the 20th century, fascism only became a powerful force when liberalism failed. The First World War threw Europe into social and political chaos, slaughtering millions, shattering ancient empires, and profoundly disrupting social and economic life. Free market liberalism did not have the answers. In Russia, liberals failed to address the twin crises of war and economic collapse, and were swept aside by the Bolsheviks. In Italy, the liberals mismanaged the war, signing a peace treaty that was a national humiliation. Soldiers returned home to face mass unemployment, uncontrolled inflation, and widespread unrest. The Italian king and governing establishment—including the discredited liberals—ended up inviting Benito Mussolini’s fascists to form a government to restore order in 1922. Elsewhere in Europe, liberal democratic politics stabilized after the immediate post-war revolutions and upheavals. In Germany, the Nazis remained relatively marginal until the Great Depression finally destroyed the inter-war liberal order. Not only did the Depression result in massive unemployment and immiseration worldwide, but the economic crisis was unsolvable, even theoretically, by traditional liberal means. The laissez-faire approach that had led to the collapse offered no solutions when it came to climbing back out of it. With Germany threatening to unravel, and the communists waiting in the wings, the Nazis had answers that maintained a form of capitalism while directly rebuking liberalism: replacing liberal notions of pluralistic democracy, individual autonomy, and free market economics with the radical centrality of the nation.

What Is Fascism?

Rejecting both liberalism and socialism, fascism is a set of radical, revolutionary ideologies and political movements of the extreme right that place the nation, however defined, above all other possibilities of human experience and social organization. For fascists, the nation is the central analytic prism through which all of world history, all knowledge, and all human social relationships are to be understood. If a Marxist sees dialectical class struggle as the motor of human history, while a liberal sees the enlightened march of progress and a conservative sees the decline from a harmonious past, the fascist sees the nation. If we want a general framework for what fascists actually believed, or believe, historian Roger Griffin’s 1991 definition, now almost a cliché, is genuinely helpful. In his book A Fascist Century, Griffin identifies fascism as a political ideology “whose mythic core… is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism.” The unusual term “palingenetic” refers to central narratives of national “rebirth.” In another useful formulation, Griffin writes that fascism might be defined as “a revolutionary form of nationalism driven by the myth of the nation’s imminent rebirth from decadence.” Emerging from illiberal, anti-democratic, and (mostly) counter-Enlightenment 19th intellectual traditions, fascism opposed liberalism’s universalist emphasis on reason, the rule of law, individual autonomy, and pluralistic representative democracy; as well as socialism’s materialistic, revolutionary, class-focused, and internationalist egalitarianism, supplanting both with the spiritual, emotional, particularist, and fundamentally irrational totalization of the nation-state. 

Historical fascists pursued a revolutionary project, though not in the Marxian or socialist socio-economic sense: under a fascist regime, workers remained workers and capitalists remained capitalists. What fascists undertook was an ideological and political transformation of the nation, the state, and politics, culminating in the construction of a radical and all-encompassing authoritarianism that, in principle if not in practice, fused the nation, state, and the leader. This realized nation-state expressed its will not through liberal democratic parliamentary squabbling, but through the fascist movement and its leadership cult, and in the person of the leader: il Duce or der Führer. In Germany, where fascism historically reached its most extreme expression, a particular propaganda poster expressed this concept well: the image of Adolf Hitler above the words “Ein Volk, ein Reich! ein Fuhrer!”: one people, one realm, one leader.


Beyond this ideological core of authoritarian ultranationalism or revolutionary nationalism, theorists of fascism can disagree significantly, and fascist variants themselves differ rather dramatically. That said, there are key components for understanding fascism, at least as it existed when it came to power in the 20th century. Some of these strike us as more familiar when we look around the contemporary world than others. I will touch on four: 1) the fascist division of the world into binaries of Us and Them, 2) the cult of the leader, 3) the corporatist vision for the national state, and 4) the fascist mass movement.

The fascist understanding of the nation and its place in the world relies on fundamental, Manichean binaries: the distinction of Us and Them, with the boundaries of the nation (Us) enforced through violence. Fascism’s Us consists of the true members of the nation, standing together to oppose Them, the sinister Other who threatens Us, destabilizing the nation’s unity and internal harmony. This demonic enemy, whose identity and nature varies between different fascist formulations, poses a profound and existential danger to the nation, poisoning it from within and from without. The enemy is pernicious and insidious, justifying any and all measures against them, but they are also vulnerable to the nation’s power: simultaneously strong and weak, in Umberto Eco’s classic formulation. Exploiting emotions of pride, humiliation, and rage, the fascists’ “enemy” is a reversal of the real: transforming victim into perpetrator and turning fascist perpetrator into victim. The nation’s vulnerability, its sense that it is under threat, justifies and celebrates acts of what historian Robert Paxton calls “redemptive violence” to defend the nation and purge it of its enemies. Fascist rhetoric can be deceptively “anticapitalist,” with tirades against parasitic “elites” or plutocratic, internationalist, cosmopolitan bankers (by which they nearly always mean Jews). There is a real danger here for socialists to be suckered in by fascist populism: actual wealthy capitalist “elites” are, of course, a familiar enemy of socialism. But because fascism is national in focus, its apparent anticapitalism is just an illusion and a misdirection. Fascists aren’t interested in replacing capitalism at all—and certainly not with a new system that’s better for everyone. They want the system, whatever it is, to defend and enforce their dominance: the dominance of one race over others, of one gender over others, and to crush all real or perceived threats to that dominance from within or without. 

In Italy and Germany, the fascist leadership cult coalesced around Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler as the voice and will of the nation mobilized into one unitary being. As the linchpin at the heart of fascism’s fusion of nation and state, the leader personally took on sacred dimensions, becoming the definitive source of truth and the legal authority superseding any precedent. Expressed in diatribe, film, and highly controlled civic discourse, Hitler—as the personification of the nation’s will and spiritual essence—was the defining fountain of transcendent truth that defied any empirical validation, becoming, as historian Frederico Finchelstein observed, the very incarnation of truth itself. Unverifiable, unfalsifiable, the leader’s vision of reality formed the alternate world of mythic fascist “truth.” This leadership concept was further expressed by the Nazis’ Führerprinzip, the philosophy that the will of the leader, embodying the national will, superseded all written law. Hitler’s autocratic decrees repudiated liberal German constitutional jurisprudence, as the regime violated liberal notions of property rights and the private sphere in directing state power to foster and protect the Volksgemeinschaft, the racially defined national community.

Some pieces of this may indeed sound familiar to anyone lived through the last four years: Trump governed as a self-described nationalist who claimed to place America first, America über alles, and wanted to “make America great again,” for it to be reborn (palingenesis) and made anew following a period of decline. Trump’s new post-presidency think tank is named “The Center for American Restoration.” His rhetoric has operated through binaries of Us and Them, celebrating and encouraging violence against the insidious Other, in the form of Mexicans, Muslims, journalists, liberals, or Antifa. His political opponents are illegitimate as a matter of course because they are his opponents. Trump’s QAnon adherents take Trump’s logic a step further, envisioning redemptive and cleansing violence to purge the nation of its internal enemies in what they call “the Storm.” Trump preferred ruling by arbitrary decree, rejecting any source of truth outside his own perspective, and built a fanatical following around frequently ridiculous, self-serving myths and lies. 

But here is where it gets complicated. 20th century fascism was largely dependent on its mobilized paramilitary organizations, which were backed by significant segments of the population. In Fascists, sociologist Michael Mann observes that these paramilitaries aimed to be seen as “popular,” posing as true expressions of the nation’s will, a national vanguard at the forefront of a mass movement. Their ranks were often first filled by traumatized and hardened First World War veterans who shared wartime bonds built around camaraderie, the military hierarchy, and the practice of violence. The groups celebrated and practiced brutality on a large and public scale, deliberately provoking altercations with their political rivals—such as communists and socialists—and then swooping in, presenting themselves as the guardians of law and order. Prior to seizing power, the paramilitaries were the core “muscle” behind fascist politics, waging street warfare and threatening the authority of the existing state. The fascist paramilitaries in Italy and Germany were enormous organizations, forming their own “state within a state” of newspapers, clubs, and social welfare measures. Fortunately, at present, while American fascist groups like the Boogaloo Boys do exist and do pursue provoking strategies, these clubs are generally smaller and more disorganized groups than the successful interwar fascist movements. And despite clear sympathies, the Republican Party has yet to fully merge with them; they haven’t literally united into a single organization.

When fascists succeeded in taking power in Italy and Germany, they worked toward a peculiar vision of the state, often termed “the corporate state.” While Trump’s plutocratic collusion with big business for brazen self-enrichment sort of falls under the umbrella of this idea, the 20th century corporate state was envisioned as something much more radical. According to Benito Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile’s own definitions, under fascism, the corporate state replaces the inauthentic politics of liberal democratic pluralism, forming “an organized, centralized, authoritarian democracy.” In conception, the fascist state represents the total blending of nation and state: it “is all embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. Thus understood, Fascism, is totalitarian, and the Fascist State—a synthesis and a unit inclusive of all values—interprets, develops, and potentates the whole life of a people.” The “corporate state,” in this sense means “corporate” like the human body, with all groups and interests and classes that make up the nation “harmonized” for the good of the totality. Crass commercial relations between capitalists and workers are, in theory at least, of secondary concern, with economic class divisions to be transcended and subsumed by the unifying power of the nation-state as the fundamental basis for reality. Mussolini and Gentile argue that in its ideal and largely unrealized form, fascism is “spiritual” rather than materialistic, and communal rather than individual. Fascism rejects the primacy of the individual at the core of 19th century liberalism, emphasizing the nation above all. Rejecting liberal democracy’s factious parliaments and its atomizing individualism along with socialism’s concern with equality and property redistribution, the corporate state aimed to resolve the tensions of modernity once and for all with the power of the nation-state.

Historically, no corporate state ever really resembled this ideal. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were absolute clusterfucks of competing interests, corruption, and structural incoherence. Nevertheless, fascism proved to be a terrifying and enormously powerful authoritarian configuration, reaching its most radical form in Nazi Germany, where the state expanded to involve itself in every arena of human life, aiming to mobilize and reshape society while also rearming for military aggression. 

In one of the most beautiful sections of The Communist Manifesto, Marx writes that the productive and destructive unfolding of capitalism meant the destruction of old social relations, conditions, and beliefs: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” For the fascist, this “real condition” is the transcendent truth of the nation-state. In a world of nations pitted against one another in Darwinian struggle and zero-sum competition, the only choice is to discard all other illusions: gather together to greet the storm. Be strong, not weak.

Economic Anxiety and Its Limits

The Marxian analysis of fascism reminds us that no matter how radical fascism was in its political theory or its populist, anti-plutocratic rhetoric, it remained a firmly capitalist system. When in power, it never really threatened capitalism’s socio-economic structure, or the power of the capital-owning classes overall. This was why traditional Marxian analyses of the movement paid less attention to fascism’s ideological contents in favor of explanations grounded in economics: fascism was a product of socio-economic class and the class struggle that underlies politics. World history is, above all, the history of class struggle, and inter-war Marxists argued that fascism represented a particular political formation in the global struggle between the capitalist bourgeoisie and the awakening proletarian masses uniting in the struggle for socialism. In July 1924, as Stalin consolidated his power, the Comintern declared that fascism “is one of the classic forms of the counter-revolution in the epoch of capitalist decay.” The declaration argued that fascism “is the instrument of the big bourgeoisie for fighting the proletariat, when the legal means available to the state have proved insufficient to subdue them. It is the extra-legal arm of the big bourgeoisie for establishing and consolidating its dictatorship.” In this view, the coercive powers held by the liberal bourgeois state—which had always been nothing more than a façade for bourgeois dictatorship—had proved inadequate, and, essentially, fascism was the maintenance of capitalism through new means. It was nothing profoundly different.

In exile, Leon Trotsky developed a more nuanced analysis of fascism. He acknowledged fascism as a mass movement, something new and distinct, with its own dynamics and unique dangers. Trotsky wrote that the supporters of fascist movements, largely the “petty-bourgeois mass,” formed the “genuine base” for fascism: businessmen, bureaucrats, shopkeepers, educated professionals, managers, land-owning small farmers, and other middle-class people with limited capital but defensive of their socio-economic position. They were joined by some members of the working class whose revolutionary aspirations had been crushed. In the form of fascism, capitalism unleashed “the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie and the bands of declassed and demoralized lumpenproletariat—all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy.” The petty bourgeoisie, in Trotsky’s view, was trapped in a vise: manipulated and exploited from above and threatened by the working classes from below. Downwardly mobile, impoverished by the very logic of capitalism, crushed by economic crises, humiliated, miserable, and heavily indebted, the petty bourgeoisie as “doomed classes” tended to turn their energies and hatreds downward at the workers in the “party of counter-revolutionary despair.”

If we look at the people who stormed the Capitol, it may seem that we have uncovered fascism’s apparent social base of radicalized, struggling, petty bourgeois reactionaries. There’s the Texas real estate broker who flew to Washington D.C. in a private plane, the Chicago-area marketing CEO, and the Georgia investment manager who showed up to overthrow the outcome of a liberal democratic election. Nevertheless, this line of class analysis has its limits. Outside the Marxian tradition, generations of scholars have, in large part, struggled to prove a clean correlation between socio-economic class and support for fascist movements. It’s not entirely clear that fascism really appeals the most to those suffering from “economic anxiety,”: aka, a downwardly mobile petty bourgeoisie. Nobody struggling economically can really afford to fly to Washington D.C. with thousands of dollars worth of tactical gear for a Wednesday insurrection. I haven’t seen any evidence that the marketing CEO or real estate broker were genuinely suffering financially. The Georgia investment manager may well have been at the top of his career.

A widely-disseminated Washington Post analysis of capitol rioters’ economic conditions found that a majority of those charged at the Capitol had “signs of prior money troubles,” such as bankruptcies, bad debts, and unpaid taxes over the last twenty years. Their bankruptcy rate of 18 percent “was nearly twice as high as that of the American public,” and a fifth of them “faced losing their home at one point.” However, the Post’s methodology is opaque at best. For one thing, other than the bankruptcy rate, there’s no indication as to how these findings compare to Americans as a whole, particularly those sharing their regional, class, race, or gender background, or even their age cohort. Terms like “prior money troubles” leave room for vast disparities of meaning: from failing to pay a handful of credit card bills (“sued for money owed to a creditor”) to owing the United States Government $400,000 in unpaid taxes (!). Most of us can only dream of suffering from enough “economic anxiety” to be hit with a $400,000 tax bill. Jenna Ryan—the private jet-flying real estate broker—is paying off a $37,000 federal tax lien. A University of Chicago study found that those arrested at the Capitol were 94 percent white and 86 percent male. 66 percent of them were older than 34, with an average age of 40. Just 9 percent of them were unemployed, while 13 percent were business owners, and 27 percent were white collar workers.

 Michael Mann has argued that historically, most fascists were not particularly economically disadvantaged, nor were they especially drawn from the middle class. There is some variance here: in Germany after 1930, the Nazis were supported by voters from all classes, and in some countries, like Hungary and Romania, fascist supporters actually tended to be more working class than not. Mann argues that, in general, the social base for fascism came not from “marginal” or “rootless” or even the struggling petty bourgeoisie, but from individuals in relatively secure social positions. They were people who “tended to come from sectors that were not in the front line of organized struggle between capital and labor.” Instead, fascists were often people “viewing class struggle from the ‘outside,’ declaring ‘a plague on both your houses.’” They were people who “viewed class struggle with distaste, favoring a movement claiming to transcend class struggle.” Unsurprisingly, fascists tended to be soldiers and veterans; somewhat surprisingly from our perspectives, they also disproportionately came from people closely involved with and invested in the state: “civil servants, teachers, and public sector manual workers.” (Other than veterans, who may have represented between 14 and 20 percent of those arrested in the Capitol, groups like teachers and civil servants would not appear to be the base for Trumpism in the United States of 2021.)

The Marxian analysis of fascism reminds us that no matter how radical fascism was in its political theory or its populist, anti-plutocratic rhetoric, it remained a firmly capitalist system.

Historical materialism doesn’t quite explain why people are drawn to fascism, and it also doesn’t explain how Nazis and other fascists behaved once they were in power. True, they immediately crushed labor unions, murdering communists and socialist activists with glee, and forced workers into fascist labor unions subordinate to state authority. But the Nazis’ ultimate goals were, by most standards, irrational and fantastical: the transformation of Germany into a world power through a total race war fought in all directions, and against the majority of the world’s wealth and industrial power. The result was 80 million dead, the Holocaust, hundreds of millions of destroyed lives, and unimaginable devastation.

To make any real sense of Nazi behavior, we have to look at their ideas. Emerging from various right-wing Völkisch intellectual currents, strands of German romantic nationalism, various reactionary and anti-liberal ideologies melded with racial social Darwinism, the Nazis envisioned a New Order fundamentally organized around racial hierarchy. At the peak was to be the Volksgemeinschaft, the racially defined national community of the master race. Below them fell the subordinated peoples of Western Europe, and the enslaved, displaced, or exterminated peoples of Eastern Europe. Jews occupied the role of the absolute racial enemy, the Other secretly orchestrating both plutocratic international capitalism and Soviet socialism. Under Nazi rule, no coexistence with Jews was possible. Once in power, the Nazi regime mobilized the nation-state on a massive scale: first to protect and grow the national community, then to purify it spiritually and physically. This entailed reasonably generous welfare provisions (particularly pro-natalist ones) in the interests of promoting “a healthy racial community,” and at best, neglect or expulsion for those outside of it. This is one of the clear points of total contradiction between fascist and socialistic visions for a welfare state. Fascists demand benefits that are exclusively for them and people like them—because they and only they are deserving of anything, and because the fascist welfare state enshrines and enforces social, political, and economic power. Depending on the fascist configuration, this could mean the power of German over non-German, of white people over Black people, of men over women, or of Christians over Muslims and Jews. In Nazi Germany, these exclusivist welfare policies meant sterilization and death for “the unfit” and the nation’s enemies.

At the same time, the Nazis pursued economically unsustainable rearmament and military expansion that could only be paid for by future plunder and conquest. For Hitler and his allies, all of this national “socialism” was capitalism mobilized and directed to a long-term geopolitical purpose: the revision of the global order and transformation of Germany into a world power. Hitler’s genocidal war for Lebensraum, living space for the German nation in the east, would obliterate the “Judeo-Bolshevik Soviet Union,” to be depopulated and transformed by German colonization. The eastern conquests, they believed, would provide sufficient exploitable resources to reconstruct Germany as continental empire capable of competition over the next few centuries with the ultimate geopolitical enemy and, clearly, the emerging superpower: the supposedly Jewish-dominated United States.

When analyzing fascism, it’s important that we don’t assign an underlying true, material logic to their madness based on what we think should motivate them, waving away what they actually say, believe, and want. The fact is that Nazis had particular beliefs which can’t be neatly boiled down to class warfare and material needs. The members of Trump’s anti-democratic mob, in many cases quite economically secure people, were mobilized to defend white supremacy: to revolt against perceived cultural and political (and possibly but not necessarily economic) erosion with violence. We need to pay close attention to fascist ideas, fascist ideology, and fascist plans. We need to take them seriously, because this shit is terrifying.

Fascism, Liberalism, and Empire

Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany also make little sense unless we understand them as imperial projects, emerging and collapsing in the context of centuries of global European imperialism. 20th century fascism arose from a world dominated by empires. At Versailles in 1919, soon-to-be fascist Italy was tossed colonial scraps in payment for its million dead; a humiliated Germany was stripped of its overseas possessions. Surrounded by colonial empires of enormous power and prestige, fascists saw empire as an inescapable necessity for national survival. The Second World War was ultimately Germany’s suicidal war for empire: an attempt to dominate foreign states and seize land, with dispossession and death for the “natives” in their way. War for empire was itself nothing unusual: the First World War had been, after all, a war for empire. The United States fought genocidal wars of expansion to conquer and settle the North American continent with white Europeans, and it continued to plot imperial interventions across Latin America and Asia. The British Empire was, to put it mildly, not a peaceful endeavor. What then, if anything, distinguished fascist imperialism from what Europeans had been doing for centuries?

This was the line of thinking pursued by postcolonial intellectuals in the tradition of Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, who understood fascism through the murderous horrors of European capitalist imperialism. Césaire argued that not only did fascism represent, essentially, the normal work of capitalist exploitation, it amounted to mostly the same barbarities that Europeans had been inflicting on non-Europeans for hundreds of years. What differentiated the tens of millions of dead from Nazi imperial aggression within Europe from those who died and even now continue to die during the centuries of global empire? In the aftermath of the Second World War, Césaire wrote that “before they [Europeans] were its victims, they were its accomplices… they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them… they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples.” Hitler was the “demon” inherent in European imperialism, now brought home. He was unacceptable because his imperialism treated Europeans like natives

what [the European] cannot forgive Hitler for is not crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India, and the blacks of Africa.

With the arguable exception of the Holocaust, nearly every horrific Nazi measure had a precedent in the liberal democratic world, particularly in the United States and the British Empire: concentration camps, Jim Crow in the American South, slavery, the colour bar in South Africa, genocidal settler colonialism, illegal and unprovoked warfare, the appropriation of land and territory from indigenous peoples, racial segregation and racial caste systems, and murderous antisemitism. Social Darwinism emerged in the context of 19th century European imperialism, justifying racial supremacy and colonial domination on a pseudoscientific, biological basis. Eugenics was a popular and mainstream scientific project in the 20th century until it was discredited by Nazi excesses. Many liberals greeted these scientific developments in the oppression of “primitive” peoples as the march of progress.

Hitler, in fact, looked to the United States and British Empire as models for a continental empire. Many Nazis were admirers of American racial laws, particularly those in the American South. In Hitler’s American Model, James Whitman details extensive parallels between the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws and the Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation in the American South, the United States’ own legally enshrined and violently enforced racial caste system. According to historian Mark Mazower’s books Dark Continent and Hitler’s Empire, the United States’ conquest and settlement of the North American continent served as an important blueprint for Hitler’s empire to be built in the ashes of the Soviet Union. In October 1941, Hitler remarked that Germany intended to treat Eastern Europeans like “Red Indians… In this matter I am cold as ice.” Their welfare was absolutely no concern; Hitler observed that “[w]e eat Canadian corn and don’t think of the Indians.” One SS pamphlet compared Ukraine to a future German California: a vast and fertile territory, mismanaged by the Soviets, but suitable for feeding new generations of the Aryan race. Hitler was an open admirer of the British Empire as well, writing favorably in 1928 of the English people’s “overall governing qualities as well as… [their] political clear-headedness,” and their racial suitability for managing a global empire. He was particularly impressed by the British ability to rule over vast territories with only small numbers of white people. At times, he imagined Ukraine not as a California but a “new Indian Empire,” ruled by a small number of officers, perhaps serving as Germany’s “North-West Frontier.” Many Germans understood their territorial conquests in the East and their relationship with its inhabitants in decidedly colonial terms. For instance, one German in the Ukraine in 1942 described his situation as being “here in the midst of negroes.” On occasion, Hans Frank, the Gauleiter of occupied and dismembered Poland, thought of his territory “a protectorate-state, a kind of Tunis.” He was also known to speak of the occupied country as a sort of “life reservation” for Poles. For a time, Nazi leadership envisioned part of occupied Poland serving as a possible “reservation” for Jews.

So what really was the difference between liberal imperialism and fascist empire? During the Second World War, the United States deported its Japanese population to concentration camps. Allied air bombardments killed millions of civilians. Millions of Indians died under British control in the Bengal famine of 1943. Even after the war, the British didn’t hesitate to construct a monstrous concentration camp system in Kenya in the 1950s to fight anti-colonial rebels. In the 1960s and 1970s, the American involvement in the Vietnam War killed millions. Since 2003, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died in the invasion George W. Bush justified with a web of lies. Why should we care if some murderers were “fascists” and some weren’t?

It’s true that in practice, liberal imperialism amounts to little more than brutal exploitation and domination. But that is not how it sees itself, not how it justifies itself both at home and abroad. The liberal imperial imagination envisions the peoples of the world in a hierarchy best captured by the metaphor of a ladder: the ladder of progress. At the top of the ladder are the most enlightened, civilized, rational, and progressive: white Western liberals themselves. Perpetually below them are the Others: the developmentally delayed denizens of the backward reaches of the world in dire need of some form of intervention or uplift, often couched in terms of “economic development,” “progress,” “free trade,” or maybe “women’s rights.” Think of George W. Bush’s rhetoric of bringing “freedom” and “democracy” to Iraq, or liberating Afghan women from Islamist domination.

In its contemporary form, however, liberalism recognizes its Others as people—that is, fellow human beings not absolutely and irreconcilably different from the liberals themselves. Its stated ambition is to provide the best for everybody. If you’ll only just shut up, calm down, and listen to the experts at the World Bank or The Economist, regulated capitalism and representative democracy will eventually bring peace and prosperity to even the remotest and most backwards of nations (though with some groups deservedly reaping more benefit than others). The ideology of progress, the messianic march to the future at the heart of liberalism, means that the expansion of capitalism, reason, and democratic governance will ultimately bring peace and prosperity to everyone—just keep waiting, and believing.

While hypocritical, racist, and fatally flawed, these concessions—of supposedly universal goals and a common humanity—have allowed space for oppressed groups to confront and resist liberalism on its own terms. Across the colonial world in the twentieth century, indigenous elites educated to be the administrators and colonial intermediaries that would undergird colonial domination for another century hurled the contradictions of liberal empire back into astonished white faces. In the United States, liberal feminist and civil rights activists confronted the American imagination with the country’s failure to live up to its own image in terms that it absolutely could not ignore. The space for speech, opposition, and resistance that liberalism allows—while inadequate, bigoted, and often marginal—has been an important part of peaceful struggles for social justice.

No such possibilities exist within fascism. Fascism recognizes only the nation, power, blood, and domination. If liberals envision the world as a metaphorical ladder of civilization, enlightenment, and progress, the fascist imagines only the contented and well-fed faces of national compatriots, with slavery or the mass grave for everyone else. The fascist world is divided between two incommensurate types of people: winners and losers, superior and inferior, Us and Them, groups sharing fundamentally nothing other than, perhaps, a grudgingly acknowledged humanish shape. Nazi imperialism eliminated every justification for empire but naked force: might and might alone makes right. The all-encompassing centrality of the nation, this radical particularism, entails a total rejection of any possible or even theoretical universalism proposed by socialism or 21st century liberalism. It’s the boot smashing on a human face forever: perpetual slavery and murder for countless millions.

The naked cruelty of fascist imperialism is clearly illuminated in Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent, particularly when he examines the Nazi project of “spiritual sterilization” in Poland. The Germans closed Polish universities, murdered members of the Polish intelligentsia and ruling classes, and began implementing policies that treated “Poland” as nothing more than an exploitable resource to be tapped and, ultimately, emptied and erased from the map. In May 1940, Heinrich Himmler wrote that the goals of Polish education going forward “should be: simple arithmetic up to [the number] 500 at most; writing of one’s name; a doctrine that it is a divine law to obey the Germans and to be honest, industrious and good. I don’t think reading should be required. Apart from this school there are to be no schools at all in the East.” And the Nazis’ project had only just begun when, at tremendous cost, the combined armed forces of the capitalist and socialist world managed to grind it to a halt.

What We’re Dealing With

Fascism allows no room for opposition. It sneers at even limited notions of a common humanity. Nuanced essays on hypocrisy, cruelty, and injustice will fall entirely flat with fascists, because to them, the people who are suffering aren’t really human beings in any meaningful sense. Fascists bond over exclusion, dominance, and sadism. In the words of Adam Serwer, “the cruelty is the point.” Fascism can’t be debated, negotiated, or worked with, because fascists reject the entire premise of discourse, of multiple perspectives, and of negotiable interests. Any “alliance” between left-wing and right-wing “populists” over opposition to “elites” is a suicidal fantasy. There is no good faith engagement with a fascist qua fascist because fascism rejects pluralism in principle.

Fascists tell lies as a matter of course. They have a history of participating in democratic institutions only to take them over and destroy them. They do at times employ anti-capitalist rhetoric, but only in the service of nationalism and dominance. They may break and ignore laws, not out of any sense of injustice, but because they disavow any authority but their own. Obsessed with strength, fascists are therefore vulnerable when they appear weak and pathetic, a.k.a. like the losers they are obsessed with. This was an approach taken by the antifascists in the German town of Wunsiedel in 2014, who transformed a neo-Nazi rally into a humiliating fundraising opportunity for the anti-Nazi organization EXIT-Germany. Mockery and humor can undermine fascists’ appeal, turning their “struggle” into a farce, damaging their pride, and striking at the core of the hypermasculine persona of strength that they love to project.

At the same, we must never forget that even when fascists appear defeated, ridiculous, and mockable, they are still dangerous. In the wake of Trump’s electoral loss and the failed coup attempt, American fascists may indeed look harmless, but so did the Nazis in the aftermath of the absurd “Beer Hall Putsch” of 1923. Following Hitler and his allies’ failed attempt to seize power in Bavaria, many observers, The New York Times included, were quick to write their political epitaph. Hitler was given a light prison sentence; he used the opportunity to dictate Mein Kampf, and emerged from prison to national stardom. When the economic collapse of the Great Depression turned the Weimar Republic’s crippled and polarized political gridlock into an urgent crisis, the mockable Hitler and his once-dismissed Nazis were prepared to step in with radical solutions. It would be a huge mistake to believe the threat of Trump has passed. The political, cultural, economic forces that created Trump and Trumpism aren’t going anywhere.

The Nazis’ path to power was prepared by opponents who underestimated, dismissed, and belittled them, preferring to focus on older adversaries and more familiar grudges. From its Sixth Congress in 1928 through 1934, the Stalinist Comintern employed the label of “fascist” against potential allies on the left. Labeling reformist proponents of social democracy as supporters of “Social Fascism,” this infamous “Left Turn” rejected coalition-building between reformist socialist parties and communists, erasing any distinction between non-communist socialists and reactionaries. The tendency was older, but Stalin transformed it into an official party line: “Fascism is the bourgeoisie’s fighting organisation that relies on the active support of Social-Democracy. Social-Democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.” Ernst Thälmann, the leader of the German Communist Party, the KPD, embraced this epithet against his social democratic rivals in the SPD with particular enthusiasm. The 1929 pamphlet “What is social fascism?” argued that the “most dangerous form” of fascism was its “Social Democratic form.” Social fascism was, in the words of the Comintern, “an instrument for paralysing the activity of the masses in the struggle against the regime of fascist dictatorship.” Even more absurdly, Thälmann went so far as to declare in February 1930 that the SPD-led Müller coalition government, a fractious alliance of mostly liberal parties, indicated that “the rule of fascism has already been established in Germany.”

…we must never forget that even when fascists appear defeated, ridiculous, and mockable, they are still dangerous.

Bad blood certainly ran both ways, and members of the KPD had good reason to distrust the SPD. The KPD was itself formed by left-wing revolutionaries who had mostly split from the SPD over the First World War and the leftist Spartacist uprising in its aftermath. When push came to shove, the SPD was reformist and decidedly not revolutionary; its supporters weren’t interested in overthrowing the new liberal democratic state and seizing the means of production. During the Spartacist uprising of 1919, the SPD supported the Freikorps, right-wing paramilitaries who crushed the Spartacists, murdering Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, and many more in the process. Even when facing the Nazis, SPD leadership remained uninterested in allying with the KPD and its “Bolshevism.”

The refusal of the KPD and SPD—both left-wing and largely working class political parties—to approach any reasonable accommodation with one another famously cleared a path for the Nazi seizure of power. Rejecting an increasingly alarmed Trotsky’s public calls for the communists to ally with social democrats as “fascist and counter revolutionary,” in September 1932, Thälmann argued that Trotsky’s proposal was “the worst theory, the most dangerous theory and the most criminal that Trotsky has constructed in the last years of his counter revolutionary propaganda.” Despite the urgent and growing threat of Nazism, the KPD directed the bulk of its efforts against the SPD, confronting SPD unions with slogans such as “Drive the social fascists from their jobs in the factories and the trade unions!” and “Chase them away from the factories, labour exchanges and professional schools.” The KPD even notoriously allied with the Nazi Party in an unsuccessful August 1931 referendum to remove the Social Democratic government in Prussia, the SPD’s most important political stronghold. The SPD returned the hostility, equating Nazis with “Kozis” (communists).

A broader left-wing alliance could have made a difference: in the final two German national elections of 1932 before Hitler came to power, the SPD and KPD received a combined 36.2 percent to the Nazi 37.4 percent in July, and a combined 37.3 percent to the Nazi 33.1 percent in November respectively. When Hitler became chancellor, the KPD called for a general strike. The SPD declined to participate.

Following the Reichstag fire of 1933, the Nazis didn’t hesitate to crush both left parties. The SPD’s Iron Front against Papen, Hitler, and Thälmann proved just as ineffective as the Communists’ Antifaschistische Aktion when facing the power of the modern state. Otto Wels, the last pre-war SPD chairman, fled before he could be arrested, but most prominent members left in the country were sent to concentration camps. Ernst Thälmann was imprisoned in March of 1933 and spent the rest of his life in Nazi captivity. On August 18, 1944, Adolf Hitler had Thälmann killed.

After the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, Stalin revised his strategy and encouraged European communist parties to once again join anti-fascist coalitions. He still, however, underestimated the immediacy of the Nazi threat. The 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact briefly made the Soviet Union into Hitler’s partner in revising the liberal international order established at Versailles. Stalin greedily seized a third of Poland, all of the Baltic states, and launched a bloody and futile invasion of Finland. His reward was Operation Barbarossa: the Nazi invasion that resulted in over twenty million dead and the near total destruction of the Soviet Union.

Once entrenched in power, the only option remaining against fascism is force. Fascism cannot be compromised with: it does not leave space for healthy dissent. To defeat fascism,  leftists the world over have to unite and form a broad, multiracial, working class coalition. At times, it may be necessary to unite with liberals over values we share: pluralism, democracy, autonomy, and freedom. But what leftists can never do is unite with fascists against liberals or against anyone: their anti-liberalism and anti-elitism are not ours. We are not welcome in their nation.

Sculpture of Mussolini in Adwa, Ethiopia, circa 1920s.

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