I’m writing this article primarily for and from my own understanding. For a long time I believed the outrageous and frustrating ideology of fascism was a far-right conspiracy-fuelled ideology, and then for a while I believed it was a far-left conspiracy-fuelled ideology. Now – I don’t believe fascism can accurately be characterised as either left or right-wing, and I think the term ‘conspiracy-fuelled’ could be used to describe virtually all other political ideologies as well. This article revises my understanding of the ideological roots of fascism, and critiques the false dichotomy of the left-right paradigm in politics.
The Ideological Roots of Fascism
Fascism is arguably itself less of a philosophy as it is a means of attaining and holding power. Prominent and popular in Europe during the interwar period, fascism is generally characterised by its emphasis on authoritarianism, nationalism, and the primacy of the state over the individual.
The movement is primarily associated with the Italian worker’s revolution and the Nazi regime, but is also attributed to other key figures during the 20th Century, such as Franco and Oswald Mosley. Strong populist leaders in modern times such as the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, and the President of the Republic of Türkiye, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have rightly or wrongly also been labelled as fascists.
The ideological roots of fascism can be traced back to a number of different sources, including marxism, social Darwinism, nationalism, and anti-liberalism. This handily provides fascists with a wide plethora of groups to hate and blame for society’s ills. Fascism comes from the Latin word ‘fascio’, which means ‘bundle’, as in a bundle of rods tied together. This illustrates the populist nature of fascism, as sticks bundled together are harder to bend and break – a far cry from the individualistic morality of mainstream left or right-wing politics.
Fascism as an ideology is generally attributed to Benito Mussolini who reportedly coined the term in 1919. Fascism’s ideological roots, however, come from a student of Karl Marx – Giovanni Gentile, the philosopher of fascism – who believed the only workable form of socialism was for all individuals to completely subordinate themselves to the will of the state. Despite their ideological differences, fascism and liberal socialism echo the same “we’re all in this together” and “the government is the only thing we all belong to” slogans, and ultimately they come from the same critique of liberal capitalist economy and culture.
One of the key intellectual influences on fascism was social Darwinism, holding the belief human society is wholly subject to the same laws of evolution as the natural world. This theory pontificates about some individuals, groups, and races inherently being superior to others and attempts to justify a world where the strong dominate the weak. This was adapted by fascist thinkers who believed the state had a duty to promote the interests of the victimised and castrated “national community” and this could only be achieved through a strong, authoritarian government with a strong, unifying, authoritarian leader.
Nationalism was another important influence on fascist musings. Many fascist leaders believed the nation was the highest form of social organisation and individuals should be willing to sacrifice their own interests for the good of the nation. This emphasis on national identity and loyalty to one’s own nation often led to aggressive and expansionist foreign policies, as well as violent and exclusionary racist and xenophobic policies within the nation itself.
Anti-communism also played a significant role in the development of fascist ideology, particularly its propaganda. Many fascist leaders saw communism as a threat to their vision of a strong, unified nation and viewed it as a tool of international Jewish conspiracies. They believed the only way to prevent the spread of communism was to suppress all forms of dissent and establish a totalitarian state. It’s worth noting how modern history and even warfare has been influenced so heavily by the words of different schools of academic thought – to an extent similar to the effect of religion. The impact of the work of Karl Marx is beyond calculation – and if you do begin to calculate his impact, you start down an incredibly depressing and morbid road. The communists and the fascists weren’t natural allies, they were in competition, each using the other to justify oppressive ideologies and violent calls to action, despite simply being different interpretations of the same scripture – the marxist critique of society and economy.
Fascists disavowed the success and wealth of Jewish capitalists, on the one hand, and then other fascist anti-semitic conspiracies pose Jewish people as Cultural Bolshevist revolutionaries attempting to inspire an uprising against the state and to install a communist regime. Being communist revolutionaries while simultaneously swindling the good and proper working people by setting up a successful business enterprise – what an achievement. Please, tell me more. We see the same conspiracy theory peddled in the media today, being parroted by the likes of Kanye West mid-breakdown.
Overall, the ideological roots of fascism were complex and multifaceted. They drew on a variety of different intellectual traditions and were shaped by the political, social, and economic conditions of the time. The common themes of authoritarianism, nationalism, and state control, however, remained constant throughout the history of fascist movements. Fascist regimes were characterised by strict social hierarchies, often based on race or ethnicity, and an emphasis on national identity and pride. They also rejected the individualism and liberalism associated with democratic and capitalist movements and culture.
Fascism is generally considered to be a right-wing political ideology (by people on the left), although it is not so easily categorised within the traditional left-right political spectrum, and a movement which mobilises based on class relations to institute ‘National Socialism’ would be more accurately described as far-left. Fascism originated as a response to the perceived failures of liberal democracy and capitalism, and its adherents rejected both Marxian socialism and capitalist conservatism as inadequate. Instead, fascism emphasised the importance of a strong, authoritarian government that would control all aspects of society, including the economy.
It is important to note, however, the precise definition of left-wing and right-wing can vary depending on the context and the country in question. Some scholars have argued fascism shares some characteristics with both left-wing and right-wing ideologies, while others have suggested that the terms left-wing and right-wing are not particularly useful for analysing fascism. I believe fascism can be viewed as a superposition of the left and the right-wing – it says and promises whatever it needs to at the time, only to have you pinned against the wall with a gun in your face later. Some academics also position fascism as more of a means of attaining power, rather than what drives those already in power. Ultimately, the ideological position of fascism is a matter of ongoing debate and discussion.
The Inadequacy of the Left-Right Paradigm
Left-wing and right-wing are terms used to describe opposing political ideologies which differ in their beliefs about the role of government, the distribution of resources, and social issues. While the exact definitions of left-wing and right-wing can vary depending on the context and country, the following are some general differences between the two.
Left-wing politics generally favours a larger role for government in society and the economy. People on the left believe government intervention is necessary to address social and economic inequality, protect workers’ rights, and provide essential services like healthcare and education. They tend to support policies such as progressive taxation, universal healthcare, and minimum wage laws. Left-wing politics also tend to be more liberal on social issues such as LGBT rights, women’s rights, and racial justice, though not exclusively and certainly not always.
Right-wing politics, on the other hand, generally favours a smaller role for government in society and the economy. People on the right believe in the power and efficiency of the free market. They believe government intervention can hinder economic growth and stifle individual liberty. They tend to support policies which lower taxes, deregulate the economy, and provide a limited social safety net. Right-wing politics also tend to be more conservative on social issues such as traditional values, law and order, and national security – although this is not the case universally (particularly in recent years).
While left-wing and right-wing politics are often portrayed as diametrically opposed, there is actually a spectrum of political ideologies which fall somewhere in between. For example, centrist politics might combine elements of both left and right, favouring moderate policies which seek to balance individual liberty and the public good. Libertarian politics might take right-wing ideas to their extreme, advocating for minimal government intervention in all aspects of society. Social democratic politics might take left-wing ideas to their extreme, advocating for a highly regulated market and extensive social welfare programs.
The terms “left-wing” and “right-wing” come from the French Revolution, where governance was organised around a chamber with opposing sides much like it is in the UK today. On the right you had supporters of the King, and on the left you had supporters of the revolution. This is where the idea of left and right-wing relating to liberalism and conservatism came from, but provides an insufficient definition of all four terms.
Being conservative (uncapitalised, not referring to political parties) is not necessarily in opposition to being liberal. On the contrary, if you live in a liberal democracy and you want to continue living in a liberal democracy then you’re effectively a conservative. At the very least, you would take a conservative stance if someone proposed we ought to give up our democratic rights to vote, stand for election, and participate in politics. Many Conservative MPs and PMs over the last fifty years have favoured some form of liberalism, certainly in their approach to the economy. Let us not forget, gay marriage was legalised under a Conservative government.
To be a conservative or a liberal is on a different spectrum to being left- or right-wing. Conservatism is not inherently right-wing, and liberalism is not inherently left-wing. A conservative is simply someone who wants to conserve, someone who stands for things remaining the same as they are or have been for some time (supporters of the French monarchy). Someone who holds onto a set of established and practised principles. The “if it ain’t broke…” attitude, which is rather ironic in the case of King Louis XVI.
A liberal (in the socio-political not economic sense) is someone who wants change, who wants progress, who wants more freedom to do things the establishment doesn’t allow or condone, and has a different approach to justice than the current establishment offers (the capitalists of feudal France). It’s possible, and indeed highly likely, most people will shift to and from different forms of conservatism and liberalism throughout their lives, or even throughout the day. Personally, I think it has little to do with age, wealth, or intelligence, and far more to do with context and culture. It’s likely emotions such as nostalgia, anxiety, or discomfort, and personal experiences play a role.
For every new radical idea there will be conservatives who oppose, and for every long-held set of values, beliefs, or institutions there will be liberals who want change. It’s therefore irresponsible to make blanket judgements about all liberals and all conservatives.