Fascism and Fundamentalism – Two Sides of the Same Coin?
The political instability across the globe in the twentieth century saw a number of different reactionary political affiliations and ideologies form. Some were radical, some were conservative, and a number were progressive. Here we will take a look at two ideologies which desire a cementing of traditional, or a return to historical, social structures.
Fundamentalism and fascism are both relatively new phenomena and are responses to globalisation and modernity but to what degree are the two belief systems related and is fundamentalism little more than a new variant of the fascist ideology? To answer this, we will first explore the history of both systems and the social conditions which have helped them to thrive before we examine if there is a direct link between the political ideology of fascism and the religious core of fundamentalism.
The origins of fascist thought can be traced back to the nineteenth century although it took the global turmoil caused by World War One to help propel it into mainstream politics, with Italy seeing a wave of fascist writings start to appear before the end of WWI with a sentiment of nationalism and racial superiority at the centre of the thought. Established writers such as Giovanni Papini started writing about the need for a “new aesthetic sensibility and the emergence of a new political class of homines novi [men].”
The rise of fascism was inspired by several factors linked to the war. The first was increased social turmoil and the economic hardships that were caused by the war to end all wars (as the people thought at the time). People became impoverished and found themselves having to work harder for a smaller return. The second factor was the growing influence of liberal thought which saw the artificially imposed standards of behaviour dropping, leading to what some people believed to see as decadent behaviours.
There were two revolutionary responses to these conditions which where ideologically opposed. The rise of different forms of socialism was the alternative sought by progressives. Those that were more conservative saw the answers in the past and these provided the nucleus that moved fascist ideology into the mainstream.
Going back to Papini he wrote of the Italian rulers of pre-1918 “We abandoned you because, in our puerile fantasies, you were not pure and perfect like in the apocalypses painted by old masters.” Fascism was an ideology which sought a return to a glorious historic ideal, either of national or racial identity. They wanted to use the romanticised histories to inspire a new society based on the old. At its most basic fascism is the radical ideology of a “new man” motivated by a duty to what he perceives as his nation or race while, ultimately, giving total obedience to a leader. The “new man” is often created by society’s perception that decadence is increasing and community is falling apart.
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Fascism in Italy and Germany
While there were many other countries which embraced fascism to one degree or another (Franco’s Spain, for example) the two countries which were most associated with fascism are Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany – largely due to their involvement and ultimate defeat in World War Two.
Mussolini was not originally a part of the fascist movement but he changed his colours before the end of World War One when he saw an opportunity for more personal power and influence. In Italy fascism took the form of extreme nationalism with the idea that the nation and the people of Italy were most important and all policie were to make Italy stronger and more unified in the manner that the ruling elite thought was most Italian. The strong, authoritarian nationalism saw dissenters imprisoned or worse and saw the creation of a strong police force to enforce the governments will and a secret police (called Organization for Vigilance and Repression of Anti-Fascism) with other 5,000 agents infiltrating all aspects of society to root out those that didn’t subscribe to fascist ideas.
In Germany fascism took a different form. German fascism, also known as Nazism, shared ultra-nationalist views but also incorporated a much stronger beliefin racial supremacy. Nazi’s believed that the Aryan man (first European man) was dominant and purer than others. Following on from research by several prominent scientists German fascists believed in the genetic supremacy of the Nordic races.
“After the turn of the century a particular way of thinking came into being…that of a possible renewal of the West by maintaining the integrity…of the Nordic race within the racial mixture of Western people” (Hans Gunther).
The Germans identified themselves, Scandinavians, the Dutch and the English as genetically superior as they were all suitably descended from the Teutonic races while Jewish people, Russians and the Slavs were all considered to be untermenschen (sub-human) as they did not share this common ancestry. These beliefs ultimately led to the holocaust but even before that horrific period in history began the Nazi’s were practicing both forced migration and forced sterilisation in an effort to reduce the “lesser” bloodlines. The discredit practice of eugenics also made a significant contribution to Nazi policies.
Fascism should rightly be called Corporatism, as it is the merger of corporate and government power.— Benito Mussolini
1789 Is Dead
Fascism itself can be difficult to define as it comes in many forms but there are always shared traits. Fascism is always anti-liberal, holding values such as pluralism, individual freedoms and diversity as harmful to society. Indeed fascisms rise can be seen as a direct reaction to modernity and to the ideas that the Enlightenment bought to western political arena’s as demonstrated by the Italian fascist slogan “1789 is Dead”, a reference to the French Revolution.
Since the end of World War Two saw the collapse of the fascist regimes in Italy and Germany, fascism as a large organised movement has been effectively finished in the Western world due to a combination of generally more stable economic and political conditions and the the concerted efforts of governments to suppress the fascist ideology. Despite this fascism is still enjoying popular support in many of the old Eastern Bloc countries following the collapse of communism, there have also been active movements across western world which have enjoyed varying degrees of success, groups such as the British National Party in the UK, the USA’s Ku Klux Klan and Russia’s ironically named Liberal Democratic Party, who managed to get twenty three percent of the popular vote in the Russian elections of 1993 while creating a rhetoric of white supremacy. Fascism is still seen as suspect by many but political figures such as Nick Griffin and Vladimir Zhirinovsky (of the LDP) are attempting to legitimise fascist and ultra-nationalistic ideas in the political arena and it still represents a threat to all forms of democracy.
Osama Bin Laden
Fundamentalism has been around very nearly as long as fascism, but when you say ‘Fundamentalist’ to most people they will see an Islamic extremist such as those that perpetrated the world’s most famous, and devastating, terrorist attack in September 2001. The nature of the attacks shook the world led to Islamic fundamentalists becoming the focus of the world over the next few years.
While Islamic fundamentalism became a global threat following the collapse of the Soviet Union the term Fundamentalist was actually created to refer to Protestant America in the 1920’s. journalist H.L.Mencken famously wrote in the mid 1920’s: “Heave an egg out of a Pullman window and you will hit a fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today.”
There are now many fundamentalist groups across the world with well known groups such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hezbollah in Lebanon providing examples of Islamic fundamentalism but they are not alone. Christianity has its own groups of fundamentalists such as the Christian Right in America, with its anti-abortion, anti-homosexuality and anti-divorce stance and Judaism also has fundamentalists in the form of Militant Zionists amongst others. No organised religion is entirely safe from the threat of fundamentalism.
From its Christian origins the term fundamentalism has grown to incorporate all groups who follow a religious text and favour a literal interpretation, or heavily idealised version, which promises a better world to its followers often at the expense of others who don’t follow the chosen path. Intolerance of other faiths and less “committed” members of the same faith is a common trait amongst fundamentalists. Usually fundamentalists “rest on the claim that some source of ideas, usually a text, is complete and without error” (Steve Bruce, 2008).
In his book Fundamentalism Steve Bruce tries to separate religious conservatives from fundamentalists by suggesting that the latter term should be reserved for groups which “…are self-consciously reactionary, that respond to problems created by modernization by advocating society-wide obedience to some authentic and inerrant text or tradition…by seeking the political power to impose the revitalised tradition” (Bruce, 2008, p. 96). So while fundamentalism is a religious construct it is also usually very much active as a political movement too.
Fundamentalists of all faiths commonly believe either in a church controlled state or in a state which is heavily influenced in its policies by the words of god. Religious fundamentalism is most often characterised by the refusal to distinguish religion from politics and often sees fundamentalists wanting religion to dominate both the private and public spheres as well as legal and social systems.
Heave an egg out of a Pullman window and you will hit a fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today.— H.L.Mencken
Fundamentalism and The Glorious Past
Almost all fundamentalists also share the belief that there exists a perfect period sometime in the past which embodies the true form of the religion. Like fascism, fundamentalism can be seen as a rejection of modernity, the ideals of pluralism and liberalisation which have been spreading across the world rapidly. The collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989 saw the collapse of many communist governments and led directly to political instability, opening the doors to capitalist and liberal ideals to threaten the more conservative ways of life. This was true particularly in Islamic states.
Very similar to fascism which in the 1930’s has been argued to have found its roots from a perceived “…moral and religious crisis or malaise in Western civilisation” fundamentalism is a response to encroaching liberal values which Islamic countries feel are creating a conflict with traditional moral and religious values.
I do not wish to imply that modern fundamentalism is in anyway limited to Islam, or that the motivating forces are significantly different across religions, in Christianity the Christian Right preach that morality is the code of Christian fundamentalism with every word of the bible to be read literally as a moral guide. It is very tempting, with all the news stories about Islamic fundamentalists, to suggest that Christian fundamentalism is insignificant but a recent survey suggests around a quarter of Americans believe the 9/11 attacks were predicted in the bible with a similar number believing Jesus will be reborn during our lifetimes, a group which, according to Valley in 2003, includes former US President George W. Bush. The point here is that fundamentalism is not limited to a small number of Islamic terrorists.
Fascism, Religion and Authority
One telling difference between fascism and fundamentalism comes in the secular nature of the former. Fascists have often used the church to spread their word and to help legitimise them, yet it ultimately sees the power of the church to be beneath the power of man.
Fascism in Italy started out as anti-clerical but in 1929 the Lateran Pacts saw the Vatican support Mussolini and this is seen as a significant step towards legitimising fascist rule. Fascist advocates in Italy used religious language and imagery to spread their message to a largely religious population but this was just a form of rhetoric designed at adding legitimacy to the fascist party using the established religious authorities.
Fundamentalists take the opposite position- reducing the power of man and man-made organisations below those of the holy words of God, the holy texts is the ultimate arbitrator and power is gained through staying most true to the literal words of God.
Reactions to Modernity
Although they disagree on the role of religion both fascism and fundamentalism share a common heritage in terms of how they begin. Both are reactionary movements against modernity and both represent “…resistance to the decay of “traditional” communities bound together by unquestioned beliefs and certainties” (Brasher in Encyclopedia of Fundamentalism). Both ideologies share the belief that they are crusading against decadence and seek a return to a more perfect past, fundamentalism through the sacred texts and fascism through hero myths and a rose-tinted view of a nation’s history. Fascism, in this way, is limited in scope to the geography and timeline of a nation or people, while fundamentalism knows only the boundaries of the text or religion which is the inspiration for it.
Fascists create a mythic world around the life and the idea of nation which has led one expert on fascism to suggest that fascism is, in fact, “an indeterminate secular otherworld, "immortal" yet of this world” (Griffin in Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of a Beginning Under Mussolini and Hitler) and as led others to refer to fascism as a secular, or political religion. Indeed there have been blurring of the lines between fascism and religion notably in Italy after the Lateran Pact. Fundamentalist already have the divine world to inspire them.
Social cleansing is a prominent feature in the practice of both ideologies, fascists through a “total state with draconian powers to carry out a comprehensive scheme of social engineering” (Griffin in Fascism) and fundamentalists through a kind of religious nationalism, where the nation is made up of followers who share religious beliefs rather than by national borders or by race and allowing for the chance of converting. In both fascism and fundamentalism violence and propaganda are among the tools available amongst others.
Fundamentalism is usually more conservative than fascism. Fascists want to achieve an overall social reformation to return to a better, mythical golden age- it is both reactionary and revolutionary. Fundamentalism is also reactionary but it is much more conservative than fascism and does not have the radical elements. Usually seeking to preserve existing social conditions and beliefs amongst followers against encroachment, although by seeking to spread this message it can cause just as much conflict and resistance as fascism among liberals and the modern western civilisations.
Perhaps it is best to see them as two sides to the same reactionary coin, both reacting to the encroachment of liberal values (or modernity), one side of which is secular and the other religious in its beliefs but both wishing to achieve similar ends through an authoritarian community while rejecting pluralism and liberal values.
Ball and Dagger, T. a. R., 1995. Political Ideologies and the Democratic Ideals. New York: Harper Collins.
Brasher, B. E., 2001. Encyclopedia of Fundamentalism. London: Routledge.
Bruce, S., 2008. Fundamentalism. Camberidge: Polity Press.
Griffin, R., 1995. Fascism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
While writing this article every effort was made to give an objective view of how the two positions are formed. However, at this juncture I feel it is important to tell you, the reader, that I find both of these positions to be equally repugnant. With that in mind I will be writing a follow up to this article exploring the rise of the more progressive ideologies which were also prevalent in the period around the first world war- more specifically it will be looking at forms of socialism and anarchism.