In modern America, the terms “fascism” and “fascist” have come to take on a vague meaning to describe anyone whom one considers abhorrent or disagreeable, and any technical understanding of the terms appears now to almost exclusively be held by scholars in the fields of history, political philosophy, and economics. Not only has these terms long lost their meaning among the public, but given the frequent comparisons with Hitler directed against politicians or other figures, it appears that the memory of the horrors of Fascism in the 20th century has been numbed down so much that it to many merely amounts to the minimum surface-level of Fascism = Bad.
To be fair, there wasn’t a widespread understanding of the term in Allied nations even during WWII. In 1944, John Flynn published the book “As We Go Marching“, in which he noted that even at that time there was a very limited understanding of what Fascism actually means, and ventured to clarify the history and the theory to the best of his ability. This investigation was not conducted to try to stimulate sympathy for the Axis powers, nor to provide superfluous criticism to the already despised enemies of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, but rather to document the foundations of Fascism, i.e. how and why it managed to prosper in the culture and politics of these nations, and to warn against similar developments taking place in the United States.
The book is divided in three parts: Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and the United States. Flynn frequently emphasizes here that neither Mussolini nor Hitler could’ve arisen to power like they did in a vacuum, nor would it be guaranteed that Italy and Germany wouldn’t respectively have become dictatorships had they not come to power (how’s that for the “killing baby Hitler” thought experiment?). In the mid-19th century, hardly anyone could’ve foreseen that Italy and Germany would become dictatorships in just over half a century – relatively tolerant and laissez faire societies, both of which were long composed of independent city states. But one brick at a time, the foundations were set, and the symptoms of this cancer manifested itself and spread far and wide.
In Italy, the political precedents were largely set by the Prime Ministers prior to Mussolini, such as Agostino Depretis and Francesco Crispi. As Flynn portrays it, Depretis started massive deficit spending for public works and welfare programs, while Crispi established justifications for militarism and imperialism. Regarding the philosophical aspects, Mussolini was very much inspired by Niccolò Machiavelli in the sense of using any means necessary to attain and hold on to power, and many associates and party members of his were captivated by Vilfredo Pareto’s so-called “elite theory”, which, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, claims that
(1) a community’s affairs are best handled by a small subset of its members and (2) in modern societies such an arrangement is in fact inevitable.
To Mussolini, however, philosophical justifications was considered unnecessary. He held no shame in being shown contradictory or hypocritical. Flynn cites him to have asserted that “Every system is a mistake and every theory is a prison.”
Similarly in Germany (then the Weimar Republic), massive deficit spending on welfare spending was initiated by Otto von Bismarck, as was advocated by Johann Gottlieb Fichte (along with militarism and imperialism), who also became the founder of nationalism. Longer back in time, the philosophical basis of Nazi Germany has often been associated with the teachings of the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, who, among other things, praised the State as being “the Divine Idea as it exists on earth”:
All the worth which the human being possesses – all spiritual reality, he possesses only through the State. […] For Truth is the Unity of the universal and subjective Will; and The Universal is to be found in the State, in its laws, its universal and rational arrangements.
Furthermore, similarly to Vilfredo Pareto’s “Elite Theory”, the reflections of Friedrich Nietzsche on morality as bastardized by his Nazi sister fueled the oligarchical mindset of Nazi party members. Having been devastated by hyper-inflation and being severely pressured militarily by the Treaty of Versailles further provided the Nazis with an external enemy they could use as a scapegoat to cover for their own misdemeanors and simultaneously rallying support for their doctrine as being a way out of Germany’s predicament.
Having briefly explained some of the foundations for Fascism that Flynn delineates, what does he conclude the term to mean? He lists up eight points which he calls the “essential ingredients of fascism”:
[Fascism] is a form of social organization
- In which the government acknowledges no restraint upon its
- In which this unrestrained government is managed by a dictator
—the leadership principle.
- In which the government is organized to operate the capitalist
system and enable it to function-under an immense bureaucracy.
- In which the economic society is organized on the syndicalist
model, that is by producing groups formed into craft and professional
categories under supervision of the state.
- In which the government and the syndicalist organizations
operate the capitalist society on the planned, autarchial principle.
- In which the government holds itself responsible to provide
the nation with adequate purchasing power by public spending and
- In which militarism is used as a conscious mechanism of government
- In which imperialism is included as a policy inevitably flowing
from militarism as well as other elements of fascism.
“Wherever you find a nation using all of these devices,” Flynn contends, “you will know that this is a fascist nation.”
Some further elaboration of the list is due for those who’ve not yet read the book. The two first points is based on Flynn’s distinction between totalitarianism and dictatorship. Though the two are often conflated, he explains that he perceives “The totalitarian
government [to be] one which possesses in itself the total sovereignty of the nation,” and “We have a dictator when the unlimited powers of a totalitarian government are deposited with the executive or an executive council.” Points 3-5 further elaborates how the Fascist government interacts with the market, which relate to the often-cited economic definition of fascism as an “economic system in which the government controls the private entities that own the factors of production.” You may recall Pareto’s Elite Theory, as mentioned earlier, and now it’s clear that we can understand Fascist government as a bunch of oligarchs trying to centrally plan the economic system by controlling the means of production without explicitly owning them.
The seventh and eight points relates to another distinction in terms Flynn makes in the book, namely one between militarism and imperialism. “By militarism,” he explains,
I mean that institution in which the nation maintains large national armies and navies in time of peace, usually raised on the principle of conscription. It cannot be too much emphasized that you do not have militarism until you have the principle of universal military service or some form of conscription in time of peace as a permanent institution of national policy.
Imperialism is an institution under which one nation asserts the right to seize the land or at least to control the government or resources of another people. It is an assertion of stark, bold aggression.
Having gone through some of the foundations of Fascism in Italy and Germany, as well as Flynn’s definition thereof, how does he tie this to the political developments in the United States by 1944? Of the points that match with the list above, he listed the following to already have been introduced by the time he wrote the book:
- The institution of planned consumption or the spending-borrowing
- The planned economy.
- Militarism as an economic institution, and
- Imperialism as the handmaiden of our militarism.
Most of the points seemed to have been experimented with by then, and even more so by today, but the lack of the two first makes “a world of difference”, according to Flynn. So thought John Maynard Keynes, the main economist (along with Alvin Hansen) who popularized the ideas of deficit spending and “economic stimulus”, admitting that the system he advocated
can be much easier adapted to the conditions of a totalitarian state than the theory of production and distribution of a given production put forth under conditions of free competition and a large degree of laissez-faire.
“It is impossible,” Flynn elaborates,
to operate a public-debt-supported autarchy save by means of a totalitarian government. The system of planning calls for interferences and intrusions into the private affairs of business organizations and of private citizens. It implies of necessity the multiplication of rules and regulations upon an oppressive scale. It involves endless improvisation of these regulations and the administration of them by vast bureaucratic organizations. All this must be on a scale that will inflict so many irritations and annoyances and oppressions that men will not submit to them save in the presence of overwhelming and ruthless force. No democratic society will submit to them.
The Constitution was designed to prevent against the United States government ever becoming totalitarian, and Flynn calls it “the antithesis of the totalitarian government” due to “the people” possessing that “total sovereignty” and that only a few activities had been delegated to the federal government. They have, however, taken on increasingly more tasks outside the scope delegated by the Constitution, and not infrequently are they directly violating the Bill of Rights, already by 1944 but exponentially more by today. There are over a hundred thousand pages of laws in the Federal Register (state and county laws are added on top of that), and in combination with a corrupt, unaccountable police force, pretty much anyone could become arrested or attacked based on the whim of the officers lest they know their rights and how to handle such encounters.
Franklin Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration (NRA) was struck down as unconstitutional, and he threatened ousting the responsible judges for it. Hitler and Mussolini had praised Roosevelt’s programs as Fascist, but he had a lot more barriers for implementing them than they did. He did last three terms, and not only lengthened the Depression with his programs up until he could start war planning, but also caused lasting damage with Social Security having amassed great deficit spending ever since. It’s not difficult to imagine the pessimism Flynn may have had in seeing the exponential rate of government growth under FDR and fearing that it may continue as such under suceeding presidents. Government control of business was later compounded by Lyndon B. Johnson establishing Medicare and Medicaid – giving the government a strong grip over the healthcare sector – as well as lending programs for higher education that we now see the legacy of in the form of what is now called the “student loan crisis”. A further list of expansions of power by American presidents can be found in my article Why the State Revels in Crises.
In the end, Flynn concludes that
despite many differences in the character, customs, laws, traditions, resources of the peoples of Italy, Germany, and America, we have been drifting along identical courses and under the influence of the same essential forces.
Warning that being against Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany – as well as those supporting those regimes – does not necessarily exclude you from fitting the description of a Fascist, he asserts,
Fascism will come at the hands of perfectly authentic Americans, as violently against
Hitler and Mussolini as the next one, but who are convinced that the present economic system is washed up and that the present political system in America has outlived its usefulness and who wish to commit this country to the rule of the bureaucratic state; interfering in the affairs of the states and cities; taking part in the management of industry and finance and agriculture; assuming the role of great national banker and investor, borrowing billions every year and spending them on all sorts of projects through which such a government can paralyze opposition and command public support; marshaling great armies and navies at crushing costs to support the industry of war and preparation for war which will become our greatest industry; and adding to all this the most romantic adventures in global planning, regeneration, and domination all to be done under the authority of a powerfully centralized government in which the executive will hold in effect all the powers with Congress reduced to the role of a debating society.
“There is your fascist,” he continues, “And the sooner America realizes this dreadful fact the sooner it will arm itself to make an end of American fascism masquerading
under the guise of the champion of democracy.”
Now that the main points and message of the book have been explained, I’d like to mention that it also provides some context to the controversy of whether Fascism is to be meaningfully categorized as a type of Socialism. Nazism, i.e. National Socialism, has it in its name, so its followers viewed that as a type competing with the Marxian versions. When asked why he called himself a Socialist, Hitler answered that,
Socialism is the science of dealing with the common weal. Communism is not Socialism. Marxism is not Socialism. The Marxians have stolen the term and confused its meaning. I shall take Socialism away from the Socialists.
Furthermore, Mussolini was long a fierce Syndicalist, but was thrown out of the Socialist Party before setting up his own party. With regard to the platforms of the Fascists and the Nazis, they had no practical significance when the parties got into the government, so arguments on the matter based on those points aren’t very convincing. In terms of economic definitions, a Socialist government means one in which capital goods are “publicly owned” (in practice owned by the government), while a Fascist one controls what the private owners of them are allowed to do with them. Whether we, as Ludwig von Mises, classify Socialism in terms of a “German” (Fascism) and a “Russian” variety, or as distinct concepts, we should seek to understand these ideologies and systems so we can recognize foundations and symptoms of them in our own societies, and figure out what our role in our historical context may be, as “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
To Americans, consider this book your warning against unintentionally being part of establishing Fascism in America; and to everyone else, note the developments in your respective countries in regard to the eight points of Flynn’s definition of Fascism. As we go marching, whither will we end up? If the answer is serfdom and tyranny, we cannot say that we weren’t warned.
P.S.: I’ve tried to get a lot of great content from the book into this review, but I hope you will still consider reading it if you’re interested in this topic and want more elaboration.