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December 06, 2004

THE AMERICAN ROOTS OF FASCISM



The American "Progressives" were the first Fascists of the 20th century

"Fascism" is a term that was originally coined by the Italian dictator Mussolini to describe his adaptation of Marxism to the conditions of Italy after World War I. Lenin in Russia made somewhat different adaptations of Marxism to the conditions in Russia during the same period and his adaptations came to be called Marxism/Leninism. Mussolini stayed closer to Marx in that he felt that Italy had to go through a capitalist stage before it could reach socialism whereas Lenin attempted to push Russia straight from feudalism into socialism. Mussolini's principal modification of Marxism was his rejection of the notion of class war, something that put him decisively at odds with Lenin's "Reds".

If the term "Fascism" means anything of itself it means "Groupism" -- as the fasci of Italy at the time were simply groups of political activists. The fasces of ancient Roman times were of course the bundles of rods carried by the lictors to symbolize the great strength of the organized Roman people. The idea again was that people were stronger in groups than as individuals.

Mussolini's ideas and system were very influential and he had many imitators -- not the least of which was Adolf Hitler -- and some even survived World War II -- such as Peron and Chiang Kai Shek. I have set out at length elsewhere what Mussolini's Italian Fascism was all about so I will simply summarize here by saying that Fascism was a nationalist form of extreme socialism whereas Trotskyism was/is a internationalist form of extreme socialism and Leninism was somewhere in between.

So was Mussolini a totally original thinker? Not at all. Students of ancient history see Sparta as the first Fascist State and students of Marx identify Fascism with Bonapartism -- the type of regime devised by Napoleon Bonaparte and revived by his nephew Napoleon III. But Mussolini was quite intellectual and his thinking was in fact much more up-to-date than that would suggest. He was certainly influenced by Marx and the ancient world but he had a whole range of ideas that extended beyond that. And where did he turn for up-to-date ideas? To America, of course! And the American ideas that influenced him were in fact hard to miss. They were the ideas of the American "Progressives". And who was the best known Progressive in the world at that time? None other than the President of the United States -- Woodrow Wilson -- the man who was most responsible for the postwar order in Europe. So Mussolini had to do little more than read his newspapers to hear at least some things about the ideas of the American Progressives.

And what those ideas were is pretty amazing. "Progressive" was the label favoured by the American Left of the day -- as it still is -- and yet they believed in such things as war being a purifying force, the subjugation of democracy to elite leadership, book-burning, stiff-arm salutes, loyalty oaths, flag ceremonies, the inferiority of blacks and Jews and, of course eugenics. And who said this: "Conformity will be the only virtue and any man who refuses to conform will have to pay the penalty." It could easily have been Mussolini or Hitler but it was in fact Woodrow Wilson.

So 20th century Fascism was in fact an American invention, or more precisely an invention of the American Left. Like many American ideas to this day, however, it proved immensely popular in Europe and it was only in Europe that it was put fully into practice. As it does today, American conservatism kept the American Left in some check in the first half of the 20th century so it was only in Europe that their ideas could come into full bloom. For documentation of the many surprising statements I have just made, see an expanded version of this post here (extra copies here and here) and for deep background on the Progressives see this essay on Croly, one of the leading lights of Progressivism. Note the agony caused to Croly by the need to keep within democracy.