With groups spanning the political spectrum using cherry-picked definitions of fascism as props, we explore where the real roots of fascism and Nazism lie.
Written in association with Katie Barker
You’ve most likely heard it dozens of times before. ‘Nazism stands for national socialism; that means the Nazis were left wing’. Or, similarly, ‘Fascism was collectivist and statist and should therefore be considered a left wing ideology’. It’s easy to dismiss these suggestions as a way to shrug off all the unpleasant movements onto the opposite side of the spectrum to one’s own. And indeed, this is often nothing more than a superficial point-scoring exercise.
However, the opposite conclusion, that Nazism and fascism were entirely right wing, bears some investigation in itself. Certainly, it is true that such movements often considered themselves right wing, and primarily opposed left wing forces in their own countries. It is also true that many fascists proclaimed themselves to have transcended the political spectrum and found an answer to the left/right divide.
An investigation into the origins of fascism reveals what I believe to be two distinct trends, one from the right and one from the left, which converged to create the various fascist movements we remember from history. The development of fascism in each country bears some striking similarities as well as various unique circumstances and differences. Let’s take a look at some of the most familiar manifestations of fascism in Western Europe: in France, Italy, Britain, Spain and Germany.
The Birth of Fascism
In Paris, 1889, the Socialist International held their first meeting. Divisions in this organisation would reflect the eventual conflicts which would go on to dominate so much of the political discourse of the 20th and 21st centuries. After the split of the original International Workingman’s Association (the First international), conflicts between anarchists and socialists, between libertarianism and authoritarianism more generally, would continue to play out both within and without the Second International. The Socialists chose at this time to declare themselves for international cooperation against patriotism, a decision which not all on the left approved of and one which would have an impact on many later events. Many of the detractors would go on to play a role in the establishment of fascism.
The Dreyfus Affair proved to be a defining moment in the development of modern antisemitic, anti-intellectual and nationalist politics. Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer, was convicted on flimsy evidence of committing treason by sharing intelligence with Germany. Until his exoneration in 1906, the affair divided French politics and led to increasing radicalisation, with a new right developing around a reactionary ideology. This was perhaps best summed up by Charles Maurras as opposition to the “four confederate states of Protestants, Jews, Freemasons and foreigners”. Maurras would go on to join Action Française, and, despite his agnosticism, he would harness the reactionary force of Catholicism to revive the right.
Maurras was praised by Georges Sorel, a revolutionary syndicalist who believed that the French proletariat could only achieve victory through the use of myth and violence. Sorel was strongly anti-democratic and believed in classicism as opposed to enlightenment values. He rejected science as a manipulation to be resisted, lest it enslave men. He saw life as a perpetual battle against this. Sorel believed that the general strike was the means by which class war between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat would emerge, and he thought proletarian violence would strengthen the bourgeoisie, leading to the moral regeneration of society. Although finding the ethical dimension of Marxism useful, he dismissed its materialist and mechanistic components, instead taking inspiration from elements of Proudhon’s conception of libertarian socialism. Although Proudhon was quite clearly anti-nationalist and anti-statist, he also was also vehemently sexist and antisemitic.
It was at this juncture that Sorel turned to the right, embracing Maurras, who considered that “a socialism liberated from the democratic and cosmopolitan elements fits nationalism well as a well-made glove fits a beautiful hand”. Sorel was briefly part of a plan to create a journal of ‘national socialism’ before it was abandoned, and then took to writing antisemitic content for another newspaper. Sorel joined with Action Française nationalist Georges Valois in the Cercle Proudhon, which was declared by Valois to be “a common platform for nationalists and leftist antidemocrats”. Nationalism and syndicalism would be “two synthesising and convergent movements, one at the extreme right and the other at the extreme left, that have begun the siege and assault on democracy”. Sorel would die in 1922, seeing the birth of both Russian Bolshevism under Lenin, and Italian Fascism under Mussolini, declaring “Mussolini is a man no less extraordinary than Lenin. He, too, is a political genius, of a greater reach than all the statesmen of the day, with the only exception of Lenin.”
Benito Mussolini began his political career as a member of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI). He was on the left of the party and by the 1912 PSI party congress he and his fellow young firebrands were able to dominate, preventing cooperation with Giolitti who was attempting to lure the socialists into cooperating with the idea of moderate reform. Mussolini was concerned that moderate social democrats would, through collaboration with the establishment, lose their fire and give up on the implementation of any genuinely socialist policies.
Before the outbreak of the First World War, Mussolini was an advocate for staying out of the coming conflict, opining “Down with the war. Down with arms and up with humanity”. However, the ‘great drama’ of the war and the potential for Italian renewal and revolution changed his mind and Mussolini was thrown out of the PSI for advocating for Italian entry into the war. Following his removal, he used his newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia (The People of Italy) to call for an interventionist strategy. The paper displayed the word ‘Socialist’ on its masthead until 1918, but was funded by the French government and industrialists as a way of agitating for Italian entry into the war on the side of the entente powers.
Mussolini was amongst those claiming credit for securing Italy’s entrance to the war. The idea of this being a revolution, the victory of a ‘real Italy’ over venal and grasping politicians – especially his former comrades in the PSI – became his narrative. By 1917 he was also being paid a weekly sum of £100 by the British government for his work to keep Italy in the war, both through II Popolo d’Italia and by organising groups of army veterans to intimidate peace protesters.
The Paris Peace Conference was severely disappointing for the Italians, and writer Gabriele D’Annunzio took advantage of mounting anger to occupy the city of Fiume, in present day Croatia, which he believed rightfully belonged to Italy. For over a year, it was an experiment in alternative forms of government, with a revolutionary syndicalist constitution and a passionate, theatrical leader in D’Annunzio. Mussolini watched on with jealousy and began to think about how he could capitalise on the situation in Italy. His sympathies certainly still seemed to be with the left, but as an exile from the PSI he sought a new following. He changed the masthead of the newspaper from ‘Socialist’ to ‘Combatants’ and Producers’ Daily’; suggesting he was trying to detach himself from the socialists and move more towards syndicalist and nationalist groups.
However, even as late as 1919, the manifesto for his new movement, the Fasci di Combattimento, was clearly a socialist one, calling for the abolition of the Senate, a constituent assembly, confiscation of war profits and the perennial socialist cry: Land for the peasants. Mussolini seemed to offer no clear platform and no fascist deputies were elected in November 1919. Mussolini himself did not secure a single vote in his home town of Predappio. During 1920, most of the left-wing elements of his programme were dropped, leaving behind an emotive mix of patriotism, calls for national greatness and a growing aversion towards socialism. It was only now, in the shadow that the Russian Revolution had cast over Europe, terrifying the established powers, that Mussolini’s fascism began to attract attention.
“During 1920, most of the left-wing elements of his programme were dropped, leaving behind an emotive mix of patriotism, calls for national greatness and a growing aversion towards socialism. It was only now, in the shadow that the Russian Revolution had cast over Europe, terrifying the established powers, that Mussolini’s fascism began to attract attention.”
The Rise of Nazism
Meanwhile, in Germany, a former army corporal and failed artist found himself in charge of a small political movement he had been sent by the German government to infiltrate – what was at the time simply called the German Workers Party. In his push for full control of the party, he insisted that it be renamed the ‘National Socialist German Workers Party’.
It is difficult to see any real aspects of socialism within Nazi ideology or policy. Even before Hitler joined, the German Workers’ Party was more anti-capitalist than socialist, and the plans for controls on the economy were more about preventing ‘foreign’, that is Jewish, control. There was never a real socialist agenda to transfer power to workers.
Some are able to point to Goebbels exclaiming that the Nazis would bring “der echte Sozialismus” (the real socialism) to the Soviet Union, or to Hitler declaring “I am a socialist” in argument with the Strasser brothers, Otto and Gregor. The Strassers did self-identify as socialists, going so far as to call for the nationalisation of industry. However, even as early as the Bamberg Conference of 1926 Hitler ruled out the ideas of expropriating land and democratisation of decision-making. He clearly allied the party with business and solidified the ‘Führerprinzip’ – the belief in strong, authoritarian leadership.
The Strassers made another attempt to change policy in 1930 but Otto was forced out of the party and Gregor was made to recant his heresy. Hitler made it clear that “it would be little short of a crime to destroy the existing economic system.” Gregor Strasser perished in the Night of the Long Knives in June 1934, but any pretence that the Nazis were socialists had died long before he did. The Night of the Long Knives was about reassuring the army and traditional elites, as well as removing the threat of Ernst Röhm’s unruly paramilitary wing of the party, the SA. Socialism within the party and the threat of a real second revolution had already been defeated.
The Nazis were socialists only in the sense of appropriating the term as a way of attempting to gain working class support. This largely failed, and the working classes remained loyal to the SPD and KPD. Perhaps the last word on this should go to Historian Joachim Fest: “Hitler’s party was socialist only to take advantage of the emotional value of the word… As with Hitler’s protestations of belief in tradition, in conservative values, or in Christianity, the socialist slogans were merely movable ideological props.”
“As with Hitler’s protestations of belief in tradition, in conservative values, or in Christianity, the socialist slogans were merely movable ideological props.”
Britain was largely spared the scourge of home-grown fascist movements, with the only notable figure being Oswald Mosley. Mosley’s path to fascism took a somewhat circuitous route. His political career began as Conservative MP for Harrow, and he was the youngest MP to take his seat after the general election of 1918. His ideology seemed uncertain at the time, although his speeches revealed him to be a proficient orator with a strong disinclination for war. His time with the Conservatives was relatively short, and a parting of ways came from a dispute over Irish policy. Crossing the floor first as an independent, the formation of the first Labour government in 1924 led him to join them and the Independent Labour Party. Mosley was a committed Fabian, but found his attempts to advance his career in Ramsay MacDonald’s government thwarted. He was outside of the cabinet as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and given the portfolio for reducing unemployment. His ideas were blocked, and he grew increasingly impatient with the Labour movement.
Mosley put forward his ideas for the economy in what became known as the Mosley Memorandum. This can be seen as both nationalist and socialist with its call for nationalisation of industry and use of public works to solve unemployment, as well as high tariffs as a form of protectionism for British industry. The Mosley Memorandum was rejected by the cabinet and Mosley promptly resigned before attempting to convince the rest of the party to adopt his plan. He was rebuffed once again and took his plan and his oratory to the New Party.
The New Party’s only real achievement was splitting the left-wing vote and allowing in Conservative candidates. In the 1931 general election, called amidst the strife of the Great Depression, the party won no seats and lost those it already held. Mosley now looked to Europe for inspiration and found it in the form of Mussolini’s fascists. Mussolini had, of course, made the move from socialism to fascism too. Mosley formed the British Union of Fascists in 1934 and barely any trace of his earlier Fabianism or socialism remained. The BUF were nationalistic to the point of authoritarianism and strongly anti-communist. Mosley’s journey from conservative to fascist via a flirtation with socialism was now complete. Perhaps his father-in-law, Lord Curzon, had been right to view him largely as an opportunist, out for self-promotion. The BUF was banned during the Second World War, and Mosley spent the rest of his days without any real political clout, reviled for his willingness to turn his party towards anti-semitism in imitation of the Nazis.
The Spanish National Syndicalist movement developed from the work of Ramiro Ledesma Ramos, a postal clerk and student of philosophy. Ledesma established the basis of National Syndicalism in his weekly newspaper La Conquista del Estado, which was funded by the government in the dying days of the monarchy. Although the paper survived for only seven months, it influenced political thought in Spain. His work was an attempt to fuse nationalism with the anarcho-syndicalism of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), the largest union in Spain. He hoped to convince them to embrace a corporate nationalism, but was largely unsuccessful.
Ledesma went on to join forces with Onésimo Redondo Ortega whose ideology emphasised national unity, Spanish values and social justice. Their joint organisation, Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista (JONS), was the first Spanish National Syndicalist organisation. The symbols of JONS – the yoked arrows of the Catholic kings, the red-black-red anarchist banner and the slogan Arriba! would go on to be adopted by the Falange. Taken on its own merits, JONS was not a success. Ledesma and Redondo did not work well together and failed to make their ideology attractive. However, it did influence the development of the Falange.
The main actor in this development was José Antonio Primo de Rivera, son of the former dictator, Miguel. He had come, like his father before him, to scorn liberalism, internationalism and egalitarianism in favour of nationalism. In the first years of the Spanish Republic he was desperate to hit on an alternative and the Falange Espanola was formed in 1933, absorbing Ledesma’s radicals. The idea was to combine nationalism, dictatorship and socio-economic reform. Ledesma was the chief architect of the party’s programme, which was typically fascist in most ways, with an emphasis on national dictatorship and the role of violence in regenerating Spain. However, economic revolution was promised, with national syndicates to organise and coordinate all of Spain’s economic activity.
Falangists were keen to deny links with fascism as they were concerned about links with Italian fascism and Nazi ideology. By 1935 they were emphasising that Falangism was a native Spanish Nationalist movement. Ledesma continued to try to rally Falange membership to a National Syndicalist movement, but this gained no traction and the Falange was now clearly Primo de Rivera’s movement. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, Falangism became a core pillar of opposition to the left and was eventually co-opted by the Nationalist’s dictator General Franco. Franco was not a Falangist – he simply used the movement as his official political ideology and structure, and by April 1937 the Falange was the state party of Spain, and its programme was the programme of Franco’s fascist government, with an emphasis on ideology shared with both Italian Fascism and German National Socialism.
Although Sorel never found particular success in France, there were numerous others on the left who found their way into far right positions later on. One of the key French right-wing figures who made the journey from the left was Jacques Doriot. Doriot had found himself cast out by the Communist Party for suggesting they work with other leftist parties in a Popular Front. Doriot went on to actively denounce communism and form the Parti Populaire Francais (PPF), a fascist and anti-Semitic organisation, in 1936. Much of the leadership of the party had Communist origins and they styled themselves as the Politburo, whilst adopting a virulently anti-Marxist stance and perpetuating violence against Communist Party members.
Neosocialism was a further aspect of French fascism that emerged from a left-wing incubator. Advocated by revisionist members of the French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO), such as Marcel Déat and Pierre Renaudel, neosocialism rejected ideas of reformism or popular revolution, instead promoting the idea of ‘constructive revolution’ from above, led by the state, which would lead to a technocratic, planned economy. It would be revolution, but authoritarian revolution.
In 1941, during the occupation of France by Nazi Germany, Déat and other neosocialists formed the Rassemblement National Populaire (RNP) – the National Popular Rally. Déat saw the occupation as a chance to revolutionise France. The German authorities forced the RNP to merge with the far-right Revolutionary Social Movement (MSR). This led to tensions as the RNP was made up of, and recruited, former leftists, whilst the MSR was always a right-wing reactionary movement. Despite its admiration for Nazi Germany and anti-Semitism, the RNP maintained a commitment to universal suffrage and anti-clericalism. This led to a break with the MSR faction, and an inability of the RNP to work successfully with other fascist groups. The short-lived attempt by Déat to create one party of collaboration, the National Revolutionary Front, failed miserably.
In the last few years of Mussolini’s life, as his health was beginning to decline, he was rescued from the Allied invasion of Italy by the Nazis. Hitler insisted, under pain of the destruction of Italian cities, that he head back north and set up a puppet state under the name of the Italian Social Republic, otherwise known as the Republic of Salò. In doing this, he returned to some of his old socialist roots, attempting to ‘socialise’ the Italian economy by taking control of any businesses with over 100 workers, and giving unions a part in the process of state planning. The unions, however, rejected this as a sham, and at any rate the Nazis had full control of the ISR’s industry regardless, having no interest in pursuing social reforms in the midst of a war they were beginning to lose.
Fascism represented an attempt to fuse socialism and nationalism into one coherent ideology. But ultimately the social and national elements never sat so comfortably as hand-in-glove. Those on the left who were drawn to fascism did so because of their racism – antisemitism in particular – or pure ambition, but largely still believed in social reform. Those on the right who moved into fascism did so because they found the pretence of socialism useful. They desired to restore the working-classes loyalty to the nation and believed that by taking on the trappings of the left they could disguise themselves as a movement which would uplift the workers as valuable elements of a cohesive nation-state.
“Those on the left who were drawn to fascism did so because of their racism – antisemitism in particular – or pure ambition, but largely still believed in social reform. Those on the right who moved into fascism did so because they found the pretence of socialism useful.”
Mussolini was greedily ambitious, cowardly, and perhaps not the greatest thinker, but likely genuinely believed in trying to answer the questions which the emergence of socialism posed to Western society at the time. He, therefore, represents the parts of fascism which drew from the left – impatience, a fondness for violence, authoritarianism in pursuit of social perfection. Others were drawn to fascism, even from the libertarian left, out of a disdain for the compromises of social democracy, and yet others were interested in its potential for technocratic planning.
Hitler was similarly ambitious, but unlike Mussolini, he was driven by an all-consuming hatred. He represents the elements of fascism which drew from the right – a belief in hierarchy as the natural order, a perpetual feeling of grievance derived from conspiracy theories of traitorous betrayal, mysticism, romanticism and a rejection of science and intellect.
Fascism may be a flawed ideology, destined to rip itself apart from internal divisions, but its legacy has lasted beyond the fall of Nazi Germany. We should endeavour to be aware of not just the trappings of old fascism but the potential sources of similar sentiments which may not come bearing the swastika or the fasces. To that end I will be exploring fascist movements in the Cold War and fascism in the modern day in future articles.