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Fascism and Fundamentalism – Two Sides of the Same Coin?

Updated on March 22, 2017

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.

Gaetano Mosca

Gaetano Mosca -One of the founders of Elitism, a significant influence on fascist ideology
Gaetano Mosca -One of the founders of Elitism, a significant influence on fascist ideology | Source

Fascism

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

Mastermind of 9/11?
Mastermind of 9/11? | Source

Fundamentalism

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.

Recommended Reading

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.

Author's Note

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.

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    • Mark Lees profile image
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      Mark Lees 2 years ago

      Thank you for the long reply. Very interesting.

      I had considered exploring the origins of fundamentalism amongst American Christians in much more detail but I think that is a whole new article in its own right.

      I didn't explore the nature of liberal democracy's in the hub (at least I don't remember doing so) but there is a strong argument that liberal democracies only represent the interests of a privileged few. What is certainly true is that when liberal movements try to force their ideas of liberalism on people who reject them this often causes a regressive and reactionary response.

      Thanks again for the read.

    • adagio4639 profile image

      adagio4639 2 years ago from Brattleboro Vermont

      I think this statement is really telling of the nature of fascism in America;

      "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."

      Both are very conservative in their aims. Fundamentalism is extremely rigid. Fascism is as well but it really uses Fundamentalism to achieve it's political goals. We can see that clearly in America with Conservatism's appeal to the religious "right". The Christian Conservatives are a voting bloc in American. There is no such bloc called Christian Liberals. Every conservative appeals to a Christian ideal whether they actually believe in it or not, because there is a common thread that runs through both ideologies. The crossover from Fundi to Conservative politics is easily achieved. Liberalism challenges fundamentalist views, so the Fundi will find common ground with the conservative in his political orientation. Both look to the past as the answer to problems of any social nature. They reject moderity. The liberal embraces it, so they become the defacto enemies of the Fundamentalist and the Fascists. I disagree with "Wrench Biscut" on this; I don't see at all how that functions as an important component of American Democracy. They are both anti-Democratic movements at their core. There is nothing democratic about them. How Liberal Democracy is a farce is not indicated in anything that I read in your Hub. Maybe I missed something.

      You say this about fascism: "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."

      I totally agree with you on this. It also describes what we see as conservatism today in America. Situationally, conservatism is defined as the ideology arising out of a distinct but recurring type of

      historical situation in which a fundamental challenge is directed at established institutions and in which the supporters of those institutions employ the conservative ideology in their defense. Thus,

      conservatism is that system of ideas employed to justify any established social order, no matter where or when it exists, against any fundamental challenge to its nature or being, no matter from what

      quarter. Conservatism in this sense is possible in the United States today only if there is a basic challenge to existing American institutions which impels their defenders to articulate conservative

      values. The Civil Rights movement, for example, was a direct challenge to the existing institutions of the time, and conservatism as an ideology is thus a reaction to a system under challenge, a defense of the status – quo in a period of intense ideological and social conflict.

    • wrenchBiscuit profile image

      Ronnie wrenchBiscuit 3 years ago

      Very well done,and a great idea; comparing two very dangerous -isms.Your question mark beneath Bin Laden's picture was also appropriate.My take on 9/11 has always been that this supposed " terrorist act" was nothing more than a modern day Boston Tea Party.Instead of dressing like "Indians",this time the perpetrators took on the persona of Muslim extremists.I also strongly agree with your comment about liberal democracies being a farce.Fundamentalism and Fascism have always functioned as important components of American Democracy; adversely affecting the white working class as well as minorities.

    • Mark Lees profile image
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      Mark Lees 3 years ago

      The "Liberal" democracies we live in (I am in the UK) are a farce and we have a choice between two or three groups who are protecting their own interests and are more interested in manipulating public opinion than in working in the public interest.

      The crisis in the Ukraine is evidence of this, while the old regime was corrupt the new group being endorsed by the EU and most global powers are openly fascist, yet the mainstream media is not reporting this at all.

      Thanks for reading CreeViking.

    • CreeViking profile image

      Robin Olsen 3 years ago from Rural Canada

      Excellent point Mark. Funny how all seemingly good political systems get manipulated in the end. Democracy today is used to select which specific member of the ruling 'elite' is going to take office over the next four years. Democracy is supposed to be about the voice of the people and is supposed to be open to all. But it is the same family groups time and time again we select from. And now another Bush is priming himself for the job as president, would have thought the last one was enough. Over the last 28 years America has had two members from the same family rule for at least 12 of those years. The last one lied through his teeth and started all kinds of phoney wars and left America heavily in debt. Wonder what the next one will do?

    • Mark Lees profile image
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      Mark Lees 3 years ago

      I think you are absolutely right that fascism is used by the ruling class to maintain control, even though on the surface it often appears to be a working class ideology. It is one of the greatest tragedies that just when progressive working class ideas started to get some traction fascism created a new false consciousness for the working class, one which played on prejudice and pride to maintain the ruling classes interests.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 3 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      Interesting historical overview

      What you say is so as best I know. Another description of fascism I've seen is that fascism is what happens when the privileged class of owners of corporations and financial institutions in an imperialist country become fearful of reforms that would limit and decrease their power and wealth. They then influence state power to treat targeted peoples in their own country as though they were peoples in colonized countries. Nazi Germany enslaved (forced to labor without pay) not only workers from conquered eastern European countries but also able-bodied German Jews and various (to Nazis) undesirables, such as leftist activists. In the USA, the response to the Black Power and the Poor People's Campaign and such reform movements has been "the new Jim Crow" as described in Alexander's book with that title--using prejudiced enforcement of phony "crimes" and insanely extreme punishments to imprison, force to do free prison labor, and take away the civil rights of millions of poor, predominantly African-American and Hispanic-American, citizens and to rati0nalize the brutal occupation by militarized police of racial ghettos. To put it another way, the privileged ruling class abides democracy so long as it keeps the populace content while protecting owner class privileges and wealth. When that is threatened, then oppression replaces democracy, beginning with minority communities. Seen thus, fascism can be a tendency (among others) within a country's ruling class and the state rather than necessarily the dominant outlook with a dictator and a one-party government. The question ever is, democracy for whom and fascism for whom.

      Or am I over-generalizing the definition of fascism?

    • Mark Lees profile image
      Author

      Mark Lees 3 years ago

      Thanks for the comment Sheri.

      It would be lovely if the world was black and white, so much easier for everybody, but for now we have to deal with those damn shades. :)

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 3 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Very well written , informative and professional. So many people see the world in black and white, so very sure they are right, when undulating shades of grey are really the truth.

    • Mark Lees profile image
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      Mark Lees 3 years ago

      Thanks HSchneider, I hope I do them justice.

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      Howard Schneider 3 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      I agree that both "isms" are equally repugnant and seek to subjugate the population to their views. Mark, I look forward to reading your future Hubs on progressive movements that want to empower people and not subjugate them. Great work.

    • Mark Lees profile image
      Author

      Mark Lees 3 years ago

      I think you are largely right. There are radical positions which are more humanist but the reason they are considered radical is they go against the current cultural hegemony - in time they may become normatised and less radical.

    • CreeViking profile image

      Robin Olsen 3 years ago from Rural Canada

      Yes, I believe so

      They are both extremist views in that they are uncompromising in their ideology and deal with dissenters violently (as these types don't really have 'counter-arguments' and usually their extremism cannot be justified through normal communications and debate).

      Too much of any one system is not good. Full blown communist? Society collapsed. full blown Socialist? Bankruptcy and under production. Full blown capitalism? Run-a-way national and household debts leading eventually to economic collapse.

      I think Fascists, fundamentalists and other ideological radicals are quite dangerous to any society that is unfortunate enough the have them as leaders.

      How do you tell a radical from a moderate? If you disagree with them for any reason 99% of ALL radicals will instantly resort to silencing the speaker outright or shouting out personal insults and constantly interrupting the speaker so that opposing points cannot be properly discussed. Moderates tend to debate more and can usually speak to their position directly and not resort to personal insults.