WORLD AFFAIRS. Ukrainian “nationalism” has been in the news these last few years. As usually happens with words that have seeped into our daily vocabulary, nationalism in general and Ukrainian nationalism in particular have come to mean just about anything. Its detractors, many of whom believe that Adolf Hitler’s National Socialism demonstrates that nationalism and fascism are inextricably connected, insist Ukrainian nationalism is a form of fascism. Its supporters, who often invoke Giuseppe Mazzini, say it’s noble and empowering.

Compounding the problem, many of the historians who study Ukraine show little interest in conceptual clarity. How we define things matters enormously, because definitions enable us to group similar things together and explain them systematically. The alternative, a habit of sloppy scholars, is a seat-of-the-pants approach that permits flawed comparisons. So please bear with me, as we go through some conceptual exercises.

Let’s start our enquiry by asking what fascism is not. Well, for starters, it’s not any of the things that casual users of the term appear to mean when they apply it to people they dislike. Intolerance may be a bad thing, but it is not fascism. Violence may be abhorrent, but it too isn’t fascism. Nor is conservatism, xenophobia, or racism. Richard Nixon may have been soft on all these features, but it would be absurd to suggest, as many on the left do, that he was a fascist. The term fascist is not and cannot and should not just be shorthand for stuff we don’t care for, if only because everybody soon becomes a fascist.

So how do we define fascism? Fascism, I suggest, is best conceived of as a type of regime, political system, or state on the same order as democracy, authoritarianism, dictatorship, oligarchy, totalitarianism, and the like. That is, fascism, like other types of regimes, political systems, or states, is fundamentally concerned with how regimes, political systems, or states are structured and organized. Fascism is thus “about” the political institutions of regimes, systems, and states.

Fascism may also be conceived of as an ideology or as a movement, group, or organization. Fascism as an ideology is a set of core beliefs that justify and promote fascism as a type of regime, political system, or state, while fascism as a movement, group, or organization is a human collective that shares a fascist ideology. A fascist individual would obviously be someone who believes in such an ideology.

Fascism as a type of regime, political system, or state; fascism as a set of beliefs about the correct organization of a regime, political system, or state; and fascism as a human collective with a fascist ideology all presuppose an existing state that should be transformed into one that corresponds to fascist ideals. Fascism and fascists aspire to change existing non-fascist regimes, political systems, or states into fascist regimes, political systems, or states. Fascism and fascists may aspire to do so legally, democratically, and constitutionally or they may aspire to do so illegally, undemocratically, and unconstitutionally, but their end goal is always anti-democratic.

The type of regime, political system, or state that fascism and fascists aspire to create is generally acknowledged to be a variant of authoritarianism or totalitarianism. Fascist regimes, political systems, or states are thus invariably anti-democratic, but, in contrast to run-of-the-mill authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, political systems, or states, fascist regimes, political systems, or states exalt “the leader.” In turn, fascist leaders in fascist regimes, political systems, or states are, or attempt to be, charismatic, and they usually view themselves as spokesmen for “the nation,” an entity that fascism treats as a monolith.

As the quintessential fascist, Benito Mussolini was the charismatic leader of a movement with a fascist ideology that proceeded to establish a fascist regime within an already existing Italian state. Adolf Hitler, if you consider Nazism to be an extreme variant of fascism, acted in the exact same manner as Mussolini, the only difference being that the former won power in an election while the latter seized it. Francisco Franco came to power by winning a civil war. Vladimir Putin, whose regime I’ve called quasi-fascist, came to power both legally and illegally. The way in which fascists seize power may therefore vary, but where they seize it (within an existing state) and what they then do (transform it into an authoritarian state with a charismatic leader) is pretty much constant.

To summarize: Fascism’s two preconditions are an already existing state and an already existing non-fascist type of regime, political system, or state. Fascists do not build states de novo; nor do they build types of regimes, political systems, or states de novo. Unsurprisingly, it is in fact the case that fascism and fascists are always found in already existing states with already existing non-fascist types of regimes, political systems, or states.

This post is the first in a series of three. The next part will appear next week.

Alexander J. Motyl's blog

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