Fascism: What Does It Really Mean?

Ivan Misiura | United States

What is fascism and what does it stand for? In our political landscape, people throw the word around a lot, but they often have misconceptions about its true meaning. What, then, do acclaimed fascist leaders themselves have to say about it? Fascism is a tremendously complex ideology with books upon books explaining it, but a number of key principles are clear and simple.

The Identity of Fascism

Generally, a fascist finds the meaning of life in the context of his culture and utility to his nation.  He approaches life with the utmost seriousness. As Mussolini puts it in The Doctrine of Fascism [DF], a fascist “disdains the easy life”.

In fact, their outlook on life goes so far as to become religious. Many fascists define such as “ [A life] in which man is viewed in his immanent relation to a higher law, endowed with an objective will transcending the individual and raising him to conscious membership of a spiritual society”[DF]. In other words, the proper way of life is one of utmost subservience to the higher order above him. From the fascist perspective, one’s human status is dependent on one’s rule in family, society, and government. To act outside of these is to be a “non-entity”[DF].

The greatest ideological enemies to fascism are individualism and communism. Firstly, fascism maintains that the state is of the utmost value and authority. Mussolini states: “the Fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State”[DF]. It is imperative to the fascist nation that her citizenry subjugate themselves and do so with honor. Thus, the individual does not need to worry about his rights or safety; the state will provide them all.

Mussolini and virtually all under the banner of fascism hold immense disdain for the communist ideal. Being anti-state, anti-hierarchy, and anti-nationalist, communism is undoubtedly antithetical to fascism. In many cases, like that of Italy, fascism has actually grown out of fear of communism and in response to the perceived threat it posed to the nation.

Fascist Economics and Social Policy

Fascism takes the third position economically and is neither communist nor capitalist. Fascist nations encouraged corporatism, where the state had rigid control of production, but not distribution. With handsome rewards for speedy, quality production, companies had little worry about competition. This third position violently opposed free trade and even dismembered any industry in its borders that did not provide essential products or services to the cause of self-sufficiency.

To be under the fascist state was to participate or die. The state would take care of you if you did your part in sustaining the nation and, by extension, your neighbor. It is dubious that this strays too far from Marx’s famous maxim: “To every man according to his need, from every man according to his ability”.

Being a monolith of a government, it is no surprise fascist nations keep a tight leash on their people. Known for secret police and strict enforcement of obscene law, fascism has developed a rather austere and cold-hearted reputation.

Fascist doctrines discourage free speech and free thought, sometimes at gunpoint. Curfews exist, as do compulsory checks and registrations for many things we now see as basic liberties. The powers-that-be quickly extinguish anything they might view as a threat. For these reasons, many have drawn parallels between fascism and the ideas of Nicolo Machiavelli. Moreover, many consider it to resemble the Orwellian society of 1984.


Depending on the manipulation of words and concepts, fascism has many apparent contradictions. In fact, Mussolini himself believed the movement to be a force for not only inclusivity but also liberty. “And if liberty is to be the attribute of living men and not of abstract dummies invented by individualistic liberalism, then Fascism stands for liberty, and for the only liberty worth having, the liberty of the State and of the individual within the State”[DF].

He continues, “Fascist State — a synthesis and a unit inclusive of all values — interprets, develops, and potentates the whole life of a people”[DF]. To the fascist, liberty is the freedom of the state, not the people, to act without constraint from outside forces. Moreover, it is inclusive not of ideas, but of people who embrace the pre-existing ideas. Contrary to popular belief, fascism is not indispensably racist, though some fascist regimes have been.

The Essence of Fascism

While theorists have laid down many definitions to this elusive philosophy, Robert Paxton puts it most aptly. Having specialized in social and political history, Paxton has invested countless hours and endless interest in answering this question: what is fascism? In doing so, he articulates what he believes the bare bones of fascism, in eight components.

  • “The primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it;
  • The belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external;
  • Dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;
  • The need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary;
  • The need for authority by natural chiefs (always male), culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny;
  • The superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason;
  • The beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success;
  •  The right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle”.

A Proper, Concise Definition

Paxton finally comes to a conclusion to his previous question in his 2004 book, “The Anatomy of Fascism”. After extrapolating what he calls “The Five Stages of Fascism” (its birth, taking root, attainment of power, exercise of power, and “Radicalization or Entropy”), he presents us with a working definition.

“Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion”.

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