100 years of fascism, here and abroad

My latest essay for the Minnesota Reformer is out today: “Fascism from Italy to Hibbing and back again.”

In recent years I’ve avoided the hyperbole and repetition of our national political debate. My thinking has been that you don’t really need another Trump/Biden screed that only reinforces what you already believe. I seek instead to only write what I am uniquely able to write, perspectives that might be unlike other material in the marketplace.


PHOTO: Dark Dwarf, Flickr CC-BY

Watching the election of a far-right government in Italy this weekend, coupled with the revelations about the activities of President’s Trump’s supporters on Jan. 6 and beyond, jarred a memory of something from my recent book research.

It’s been exactly 100 years since the Fascists took power in Italy. Their philosophy mutated and spread elsewhere, most notably in Germany. But before the world knew the movement’s true danger, it was a popular, mainstream ideology in many communities, including among Italian-Americans in Hibbing, Minnesota. Good, upstanding citizens welcomed the order and efficiency of fascism, even as it restricted democracy and encouraged political violence — even as it failed to deliver on its most important promises.

That all seems familiar. Too familiar. It cannot be ignored.

Read the full essay at the Reformer.


  1. Maybe the most incredible essay on the present conditions I have read. Excellent. Thanks so much for obviously hunkering down and carefully tying one word to the next to create a powerful statement. Constitutional sheriffs are an aberration and clearly a threat. One party is a threat in that it is nurturing this manically joy to gain as much power as they can which is clearly their motivation. Power for powers sake alone. Nothing more. If the residual side effect is that is helpful for the people it is only because of fortunes of luck and not intent. The warning is for us to not buy easy answers for the problems of the day.

  2. Great article! The recent PBS/Ken Burns documentary series “The U.S. and the Holocaust” did a lot to remind us of the history of many fascist ideas, especially “white replacement theory,” in the US.

    A couple of points.

    First, good job in focusing on Italy, where fascism was invented. When modern people talk about fascism, they tend to focus on Hitler. The German fascists set back fascism by 80 years, but fascism was a popular political movement prior to 1945. Fascist governments existed in Spain, Portugal, Romania, Argentina, Dominican Republic, China, as well as Italy, Japan, and Germany. Strong fascist movements and parties existed in Norway, Sweden, Poland, Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Nicaragua, France, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, the Balkan states, and Greece, and small but significant movements existed in Britain, Mexico, and elsewhere, including the US, where several prominent figures espoused fascist ideas, including Minnesota’s own Charles Lindbergh.

    The central elements of fascism run like this: “Our country and people are the greatest country and people in the world, and once had a world position that fit with that. But internal and external enemies have sabotaged and weakened us. In order to restore that position and make our country what it deserves to be, we need to unite — all of us, including the government, the police, the courts, the military, the media, economic forces, religion, education, and even the family — behind a strong leader who will restore our glory and punish, contain, and destroy the forces that have damaged us.”

    Please note that fascism does not inherently mean anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism and the identification of the Jews as a key enemy of the state was an important part of fascism in areas of the world that were traditionally anti-Semitic: Scandinavia, Germany, most of the rest of Northern Europe, and France and Britain, as well as the United States. Other fascist parties chose other enemies, most notably Marxists and labor movement people in Spain, Italy, and elsewhere. The Italian fascists were unenthusiastic in their pursuit of Jews and only joined in more fully when forced by the Germans, and a good share of persecution of Jews in Italy had to wait for the German occupation following the surrender of Italy and the killing of Mussolini. Francisco Franco in Spain and Salazar in Portugal actually worked to save Jews from the Holocaust. Perron and Trujillo had significant numbers of Jews in their governments.

    The term I prefer for describing the forces that are espousing many of these ideas today is “Neo-Fascism.” I particularly reject the term “populist,” since populism can refer to movements on both sides of the spectrum, and fascism quickly jettisons any populist tendencies as soon as it attains power.

    Just one quibble. The imbalance between the rich and the rest is not at all-time highs. It is at an all-time high for the post-1930 era, and is especially imbalanced compared with the 1950’s if you choose to ignore the rural non-white and even white poor in the South, the West, and Appalachia, which most fans of the 50’s do. That imbalance was even worse in the 19th century and before, and certainly worse in the era of agricultural economies of Europe prior to 1750, when both rural and urban poor lived constantly on the brink of starvation and in conditions that we would find unacceptable for animals. It took the arrival of the income and the estate tax and the rise of the unions to end that, and the reversal of strongly progressive taxation and of large parts of the government regulation of business and industry to re-establish it.

    And a hat tip to your reference to Brad De Long. De Long, an economist at University of California Berkeley, writes a blog that is well worth reading for its erudite comment on both economic and non-economic issues. Feel free to skip the articles devoted to arcane aspects of economic theory — no need to eat the bones to get the nutrition.

  3. Wiebe Pipe says

    Next you can speak to Marxism, which fuels the radical left’s ideology.

    • Interesting point.

      However, most of what people call the “radical left” in the US are not Marxists. Marxism itself is actually an economic theory, not a political system, that sees economic history as a struggle between working people who, in its opinion, create value and capitalists, who, in its opinion, siphon off value. Its political offshoots, socialism and communism, require the public or state ownership of the means of production — businesses all belonging to either the state or the workers. There is pretty much nowhere and nobody except a few oddballs, all out of power, who actually endorse that any more. The dual state and private systems that exist in China and some other states are the closest remnant, but Marx and Lenin are rolling over in their graves when these highly capitalized societies in which the state is another player in the capitalist system are called communist or Marxist.

      What the US left subscribes to today, as do most of the European left, is what is correctly called “Welfare Capitalism” and more commonly is incorrectly called Social Democracy, the name having been changed due to the unpopularity of the term “welfare.” Some of its opponents and even some of its supporters call it socialism, but since there is never a suggestion of state ownership of businesses by even its most avid supporters like Sanders, Omar, and Ocasio-Cortez this name is a misnomer, most likely arising from the fact that Sanders was at one time, back in the 60’s, a real socialist, but has moved far away from that today.

      Welfare capitalism is a political and economic system that arises mostly from the teachings of people like David Hume and other late 18th and 19th century social philosophers, and as a response to the severe economic and social problems of the day. Far from being Marxist, it was created by people who were trying to preserve the capitalist system from the danger of revolution in response to its severe failures.

      Its basic beliefs go like this:

      Capitalism is the most effective and efficient, and probably the fairest, way of organizing an economy. However, due to the inherent nature of capitalism to put the need of the corporation and the capitalists ahead of the needs of the public, the environment, and the country, it can spiral into destruction. It is correct behavior for the managers of businesses in capitalist systems to have those priorities, since their primary responsibility is to the corporation and its shareholders or owners. Left to their own devices, an unrestrained capitalist system will create a society that is characterized by severe inequality, abuses of all sorts, unlivable lives for a majority of the population, and total destruction of the environment. This is by no means theoretical, since in the mid-to-late 1800’s we actually saw unrestrained or minimally restrained capitalism do exactly that.

      In order to protect the people from capitalism and capitalism from itself, it is the role of the government to intervene by passing laws and regulations that restrain the most sociopathic tendencies of capitalism, by protecting the environment and other “commons,” by protecting the rights of workers and encouraging the creation of strong uinions, and by creation of a social safety net that provides for a set of rights for all people, including food, clothing, housing, education, health care, care for the disabled, and care for the elderly. This is paid for by taxes, but taxes also provide a further virtuous impact, especially income tax and inheritance tax, in short circuiting the natural tendency of capitalism to lead to severe maldistribution of wealth and income.

      These systems are pursued to a greater or lesser extant by all developed nations, and are particularly strong in Northwest Europe and in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

      One note regarding Welfare Capitalism and today. One of the principles of Welfare Capitalism, one which they borrow in full from the theories of Adam Smith and the liberal economists, is opposition of monopolies. In the US and Western Europe we are seeing a rebirth of monopolies, cancelling out the heavy lifting done in the first half to the 20th century to destroy monopolies, Some modern monopolies are de facto, based on a technically more desirable product controlling the market (Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon,) others are de jure, based on mergers and acquisitions (banking and finance, food processing and distribution, and so on.). Some of the problems we are having today are due to the natural capitalistic tendency of these monopolies to act in ways that hurt people and the country itself.

      One important note. There is a rivalry for supremacy in political thought between two definitions of human rights. The first is the idea of human rights that emerged in the 17th and 18th century and that were central to the thinking of the American Founding Fathers. These were primarily civil rights: protection from and control of the government as originally represented by the absolute monarch and his noble henchmen. These were primarily of concern to a then new category of wealthy people who had become rich by exploitation of land ownership, slavery, and control of the new engines of production and transportation. The Founding Fathers, almost all very rich men of inherited wealth, put these rights central in our government. The competing set of rights are a set of human rights that were codified in the late 18th and the 19th centuries and are primarily economic and can be characterized as the right to life in the true sense of the word. As I said above, these include rights to food, shelter, clothing, education, health care, and the opposition to systems like slavery and mass punishments for “crimes” that frequently meant trying to live. It is these two ships passing in the night that form the basis of the theoretical conflict between “conservative” and “progressive” governmental philosophies, although it should be noted that leading “conservative” thinkers, including even the Austrian economic thinkers who are the intellectual underpinning of Ayn Rand’s books, endorse government spending for and involvement in social safety net programs. This is, in fact, an example of the fact that Marxism and its opponents are a different thing from Welfare Capitalism.

      These competing rights, of course, collide in the famous “self-evident” rights of the Declaration of Independence, which neatly manages to describe both sets of rights using the same few words.

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