What do we mean by "fascism"?

"Fascism" means different things to different people. To help explain how we use the term on this blog, here is a set of quotes from Three Way Fight contributors and people who have influenced us. The quotes don't all agree with each other, and none of them should be considered an "official" position. Rather, they are intended to sketch out a general perspective and set of issues we consider important.


Fascism is a revolutionary movement of the right against both the bourgeoisie and the left, of middle class and declassed men, that arises in zones of protracted crisis. (J. Sakai, "The Shock of Recognition")

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Fascism is a revolutionary form of right-wing populism, inspired by a totalitarian vision of collective rebirth, that challenges capitalist political and cultural power while promoting economic and social hierarchy. (Matthew Lyons, "Two Ways of Looking at Fascism")

Competing with the Left

Fascism is not a danger because it is ruling class policy or is about to be adopted as policy. Not even because it could have major influences on this policy. Nor is it a danger because of the "rahowa," racial holy war, that is advocated by some fascist factions. The policies of official capitalism carried out through the schools and the criminal justice and welfare systems are both a far greater and a more immediate threat to the health and welfare of people of color than fascist instigated racial attacks and their promotion of racialist genocide. The real danger presented by the emerging fascist movements and organizations is that they might gain a mass following among potentially insurgent workers and declassed strata through an historic default of the left. This default is more than a possibility, it is a probability, and if it happens it will cause massive damage to the potential for a liberatory anti-capitalist insurgency. (Don Hamerquist, "Fascism & Anti-Fascism")

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The left had better begin to deal with the fact that issues that are regarded a part of our movement; "globalization," working class economic demands, "green" questions, resistance to police repression etc. are now being organized by explicit fascists and others who might as well be. Nor do we have a patent on decentralized direct action. That is exactly what the fascist debate around "leaderless resistance" is about. Finally, the question of who and what, exactly, is anti-capitalist remains very much unsettled. Some of the fascists take positions that at least appear to be much more categorically oppositional than those of most of the left. (Hamerquist, "Fascism & Anti-Fascism")

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The assumption that in fighting fascism we would automatically enjoy majority support has crashed -- just look at India or Austria right now. As has the delusion that fascism built its movements solely on bigotry and violence. Even the Nazi movement not only strongly manipulated themes of social justice and restoring civic order, but built its mass base by a grassroots network of fighting squads, self-help groups and social services. What fascists did crudely in 1930 is being done in a much more sophisticated way today -- as we can see in the Muslim world. In place after place, the far right is drawing on the energy of "anti-colonialism" and anti-Western imperialism. (Sakai, "Shock of Recognition")

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We forget that fascism has always been mainly a movement of the young. That many youth in 1930s Germany viewed the Nazis as liberatory. As opposed to the German social-democrats, for example, who preached the dutiful authority of parents over children, the Hitler Youth gave rebellious children the power to keep their own hours, have an active sex and political life, smoke, drink and have groups of their own. Wilhelm Reich pointed out long ago that fascism in practice exposed every hypocrisy and internal cultural repression of the old left. (Sakai, "The Shock of Recognition")

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While it intensifies oppression and murderously attacks the left, fascism also appropriates leftist anti-elitism in distorted form. In place of a structural analysis that focuses on dismantling systems of power, fascists portray evil elites as an insidious cultural or racial threat to be purged. For example, fascism attacks bourgeois values and "parasitic" business elements (sometimes, but not always, defined as Jewish) while defending the underlying institutions of private property and class exploitation. Historically, this approach has enabled fascism to tap into real social grievances, such as those of some middle-class groups who resent the power of big business but also have a stake in class privilege and feel threatened by working-class movements or oppressed communities below. (Lyons, "Is the Bush Administration Fascist?")

Totalitarian mass politics

Fascism doesn't just terrorize and repress. It also inspires and mobilizes large masses of people around a vision of collective rebirth in a time of crisis. Building a mass movement outside traditional channels is central to fascism's bid to win state power. As a regime, fascism uses mass organizations and rituals to create a sense of participation and direct identification with the state. Fascism celebrates the nation, race, or cultural group as an organic community to which all other loyalties must be subordinated. In place of individual liberties or social justice, fascism offers its followers a culture of action, virility, heroic sacrifice, cathartic public spectacle, and being part of a vast social organism. (Lyons, "Is the Bush Administration Fascist?")

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I think many people look at fascism and say, "What a load of crap. How could anyone really believe that stuff?" Even many antifascists look at the fascist movement as a joke, violent, but a joke. No doubt the fascist movements have their share of the knuckle-draggers, idiots, and the politically inept, but don’t all movements have these types? I would actually say that in a real fascist movement, the more inept and foolish would be eliminated from the ranks. Fascism prides itself on ability, commitment, and sacrifice.

Fascist movements of the past were popular because they offered a total ideology with accompanying programs for action. Millions embraced fascism not because these people were stupid but because fascism provided a vision for social transformation amidst a time of international crisis. Fascism was able to mobilize masses of people.

I think this is important. The perspective I hold essentially sees fascism as a real movement of ideas that can draw people in and motivate them. It is an ideology and world view we are gonna have to compete with on more than a physical or military level. (Interview from Beating Fascism: Anarchist anti-fascism in theory and practice)


[B]y "revolutionary" the left has always meant overthrowing capitalism and building a socialist or communal or anarchist society. Fascism is not revolutionary in that sense, although it may use those words. Fascism is revolutionary in a simpler use of the word. It intends to seize State power for itself. Not simply to sit atop the old pile, but in order to violently reorder society in a new class rule. One cannot read "The Turner Diaries" seriously or understand Timothy McVeigh's politics (he was slaughtering the federal government not the Black Radical Caucus) without facing this. The old left propaganda that fascism is "a tool of the ruling class" is today just a quaint idea. (Sakai, "Shock of Recognition")

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Fascism overthrows old political elites and sweeps away established forms of political rule. It posits society as an organic hierarchy and rejects the Enlightenment principles of pluralism, equality, and individual rights. In the name of a fascist cultural revolution, it tries to reshape all institutions to embody a unified ideology imposed from above. Some kinds of fascism go further and revolutionize the socioeconomic order, too, as when German Nazism restructured the industrial heart of Europe with a system of exploitation based largely on plunder, slave labor, and genocidally working people to death. (Lyons, "Is the Bush Administration Fascist?")

People of color and the global south

Two points: First, there is a real potential for working relationships and alliances between white fascist movements and various nationalist and religious tendencies among oppressed peoples. In no way does this potential involve the denial of the reality of white supremacy and racial and national oppression. It only means that the left cannot count on the responses to this pattern of oppression, privilege and domination fitting into its neat and comfortable categories.

Second, there is no reason to view fascism as necessarily white just because there are white supremacist fascists. To the contrary there is every reason to believe that fascist potentials exist throughout the global capitalist system. African, Asian, and Latin American fascist organizations can develop that are independent of, and to some extent competitive with Euro-American "white" fascism. (Hamerquist, "Fascism & Anti-Fascism")

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[T]he critical turning point now for fascism is not just in Europe. With the failure of State socialism and national liberation parties in the capitalist periphery, in the Third World, the far right including fascism is grasping at the leadership of mass anti-colonialism. (Sakai, "Shock of Recognition")

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Mass movements based in religious fundamentalism and various types of warlordism exist everywhere in the third world. They often have anti-capitalist features and frequently these have a quasi-fascist aspect. This should not be surprising. The crumbling structures of the national liberation states and the fragmented and demoralized elements of the communist movements in these areas are more likely to be fertile grounds for fascist development rather than a force against it. The foreign control of capital, labor, and commodity markets distorts the development of parliamentary and trade union traditions. The form of global capitalism that dominates in the periphery of the world capitalist system is not healthy terrain for the reformist leftism that predominates in capital’s historic center. (Hamerquist "Fascism & Anti-Fascism")

Men and women

[Fascism] exults in the violent military experience that is said to be "natural" for men, while scorning the soft cowardly life of the bourgeois businessmen and intellectuals and politicians….

It was early 18th century euro-capitalism itself that first redefined women not as free citizens and "not as patriarchal property of individual men, but as a natural resource of the nation-State". Fascism exalts this, and makes of women a semi-slave resource of the State restricted to the margins of an essentially male society.

One part of this discussion is whether political movements or social phenomenon can be said to have gender. Yes, fascism appeals to women as well as men. Yes, Nazism owed much to German women, no matter how unwilling feminists now are to admit that. But we have said "men" so often when discussing fascism because we are being literal. It is a male movement, both in its composition and most importantly in its inner worldview. This is beyond discrimination or sexism, really. Fascism is nakedly a world of men. This is one of the sources of its cultural appeal. (Sakai, "Shock of Recognition")

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In an emerging fascist culture, the traditional forms of oppressing women become exaggerated beyond the point of recognition. The patriarchal nature of fascism places women in a particular class, or sub-class. Women become mere property, dominated and exploited by a male authority.

But herein lies the contradiction…. A fascist movement will draw its strength from both men and women. Hitler's rise to power wasn’t merely the work of stormtroopers in the streets, it was made possible by the mass support of women. Hitler promised the creation of a cultural value system in which the contributions of "Aryan" women to the fascist German society would simply be child rearing and care of the home and hearth. A new proletarian slave class of gypsies, Jews and North Africans -- made up of men, women and children -- would handle the work previously done by "Aryan" women. All sexual elements outside of conceiving for the master race would be handled by state-promoted brothels. (Xtn, "Introduction" to Confronting Fascism: Discussion Documents for a Militant Movement)

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While all far-right movements are male supremacist, they embody a range of doctrines and policies on women and gender issues -- including some drawn from the left and even feminism. (Lyons, "Notes on Women and Right-Wing Movements")


Fascism grows out of the masses of men from classes that are abandoned on the sidelines of history. By transforming men from these classes and criminal elements into a distorted type of radical force, fascism changes the balance of power. It intervenes to try and seize capitalist State power -- not to save the old bourgeois order or even the generals, but to gut and violently reorganize society for itself as new parasitic State classes. Capitalism is restabilized but the bourgeoisie pays the price of temporarily no longer ruling the capitalist State. That is, there is a capitalist state but bourgeois rule is interrupted. (Sakai, "Shock of Recognition")

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The new fascism is, in effect, "anti-imperialist" right now. It is opposed to the big imperialist bourgeoisie (unlike Mussolini and Hitler earlier, who wanted even stronger, bigger Western imperialism), to the transnational corporations and banks, and their world-spanning "multicultural" bourgeois culture. Fascism really wants to bring down the World Bank, WTO and NATO, and even America the Superpower. As in destroy. That is, it is anti-bourgeois but not anti-capitalist. Because it is based on fundamentally pro-capitalist classes.

Fascism, in this slowly accelerating global crisis of transformation, believes in what we might call basic capitalism, o.g. capitalism. It is the would-be champion of local male classes vs. the new transnational classes. Enemy of emigrant Third World labor and the modern supra-imperialist State alike, fascism draws on the old weakening national classes of the lower-middle strata, local capitalists and the layers of declassed men. To the increasing mass of rootless men fallen or ripped out of productive classes -- whether it be the peasantry or the salariat -- it offers not mere working class jobs but the vision of payback. Of a land for real men, where they and not the bourgeois will be the one's giving orders at gunpoint and living off of others. (Sakai, "Shock of Recognition")

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In or out of power, fascism is not a capitalist puppet but an autonomous force, whose agenda sometimes clashes with capitalist interests in important ways. Business support was crucial to both Italian and German fascists in their drives for power, and they in turn aided big business by smashing the labor movement, imposing top-down stability, and promoting centralization of capital. But as these fascist regimes consolidated themselves, big business increasingly lost political control: it lost the power to determine the main direction of state policy. In Germany, the Nazi program of conquest and genocide simply overrode capitalist priorities -- such as exploiting scarce skilled workers instead of slaughtering them -- even if big industrialists made millions along the way. (Lyons, "Is the Bush Administration Fascist?")

Transforming class society

While usual classes are engaged in economic production and distribution, fascism to support its heightened parasitism is driven to develop a lumpen-capitalist economy more focused on criminality, war, looting and enslavement. In its highest development, as in Nazi Germany, fascism eliminates the dangerous class contradiction of the old working class by socially dispersing & wiping it out as a class, replacing its labor with a new unfree proletariat of women, colonial prisoners and slaves. The "extraordinary" culture of the developed fascist State is like a nightmare vision of extreme capitalism, but the big bourgeoisie themselves do not have it under control. That is its unique characteristic. (Sakai, "Shock of Recognition")

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Fascism de-proletarianized Aryan society. Or to put it more precisely: it created an Aryan society that had never existed before by de-proletarianizing and genociding the former German society. The Nazis pursued Adolf Hitler's evolving strategy, which was to simultaneously promote both techno-industrial development and the Aryan re-organization of classes. If it is the superior race man's destiny to be both a fierce soldier and ruler over others -- as the Nazis held in a core belief -- then how can this superior race man at the same time be packing groceries for housewives at the supermarket or bucking production on the assembly line?…. By the millions, newly Aryanized men were shifted into military & police service and into being supervisors, office workers, foremen, straw bosses and minor bureaucrats of every sort. The new proletariat that started emerging was heavily made up of involuntary foreign & slave laborers, retirees, and -- despite Nazi ideology about women's "natural" place in the kitchen and nursery -- women. (Sakai, "Shock of Recognition")

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The German left communist, Alfred Sohn-Rethel… thought that the German fascist state and society were developing features that foreshadowed a new "transcapitalist" exploitative social order. The most important of these features was fascist labor policy where, in significant areas of the economy the distinctively capitalist difference between labor and other factors of production was obliterated. Labor, not just labor power, was consumed in the process of production just like raw materials and fixed capital. The implications are barbaric and genocidal and genocide was what occurred. But this was not the genocidal aspect of continuing primitive accumulation that is a part of "normal" capitalist development. That type of genocide is directed mainly against pre-capitalist populations and against the social formations that obstruct the creation of a modern working class and the development of a reservoir of surplus labor. The German policy was the genocidal obliteration of already developed sections of the European working classes and the deliberate disruption of the social reproduction of labor in those sectors -- all in the interests of a racialist demand for "living space." (Hamerquist, "Fascism & Anti-Fascism")

Classical versus neo-fascism

Classical fascism took shape in an era of European industrialization and nation-building, competing colonial empires, and an international Communist movement inspired by the recent Bolshevik Revolution. Now both old-style colonialism and state socialism have almost vanished, while corporate globalization is shifting industries across the world and reshaping nation-states. Far-right movements are responding to these changes in various ways. They promote nostalgia for old empires but also right-wing anti-imperialism, old-style nationalisms but also internationalist and decentralized versions of authoritarian politics. They tap into a backlash against the left but also grow where the left’s weakness has opened space for other kinds of insurgent movements. And they promote different versions of anti-elitism, often targeting U.S. or multinational capital but sometimes focusing more on local elites. (Lyons, "Two Ways of Looking at Fascism")


Carsie Blanton said...

Thank you for this, finding it very useful. Am looking for a succinct working definition of fascism to help us identify it in early stages. Can you recommend any readings other than those referenced here?

Matthew N Lyons said...

Carsie, in terms of theories of fascism, most of the authors and works I have found most helpful are cited in my essay "Two Ways of Looking at Fascism" (see above for a link): Among Marxists, August Thalheimer, Tim Mason, Jane Caplan, Mihaly Vajda, Don Hamerquist, and J. Sakai. Among non-Marxists, I have found Roger Griffin's approach most helpful; maybe Zeev Sternhell as well.

But I also want to quote something I said in talk about Trump last year, which is available on Three Way Fight under the title “Making America Worse”:

“The question of ‘what is fascism?’ is a complex, emotionally loaded topic that we could talk about for hours. Even among leftists, there’s no consensus about how to even go about defining fascism. Is it based on certain ideological characteristics, or a particular relationship of class forces? Is it a political process? Is it stage of capitalism? So let’s talk about fascism, but let’s not get too fixated on the word. Because what’s more important is how we analyze the situation, and what we decide to do about it.

“As a political category, fascism isn’t an objective thing — it’s a tool for analysis, a tool for making connections and distinctions between different political movements or regimes. Definitions of fascism aren’t objectively true, they’re just more or less useful in helping us understand political developments, and helping us choose a course of action.”