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What Is Fascism? An Excerpt From “Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It”

Shane Burley discusses what exactly fascism is beyond the hype and misinformation.

Donald Trump, flanked by Republican lawmakers, celebrates Congress passing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act on the South Lawn of the White House on December 20, 2017, in Washington, DC. The tax bill is the first major legislative victory for the GOP-controlled Congress and Trump since he took office almost one year ago. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Donald Trump, flanked by Republican lawmakers, celebrates Congress passing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act on the South Lawn of the White House on December 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. The tax bill is the first major legislative victory for the GOP-controlled Congress and Trump since he took office almost one year ago. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)Donald Trump, flanked by Republican lawmakers, celebrates Congress passing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act on the South Lawn of the White House on December 20, 2017, in Washington, DC. The tax bill is the first major legislative victory for the GOP-controlled Congress and Trump since he took office almost one year ago. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Shane Burley’s Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It looks at the rise of fascist politics in the US, how the different strands work, and the different, intersecting movements that have arrived to confront fascist violence. In the below excerpt, Burley discusses what exactly fascism is beyond the hype and misinformation.

Building on a wealth of scholarship and research, Burley analyzes the foundational principles of fascism that tie together the battles of World War II to the neo-fascist “alt-right” insurgency.


The search for what is called “generic fascism” has been ongoing since the Second World War. Does the Third Reich serve as a model even though it gave in to suicidal imperialism and a genocidal flurry of ethnic rage? Is the Iron Guard the perfect example even though it suppressed all other points to their prime enemy, “the international Jew?” Does Mussolini define the term since he invented it, though his racial policies were less pronounced than most? Does National Shinto in Japan provide a proper model even though its religious nature and distinct cultural landscape makes it unique?

The journey, instead, has been to find a clean definition that would encompass all historical instances and, by virtue of its descriptive qualities, begin to rope in more recent movements, putting small insurrectionary movements on the same ideological footing as those that terrorized Europe. Many want to define fascism as a specifically interwar project, describing it in terms of its state policies, aesthetics, and particular aims — a definition that presumably leaves it in the past as no movements of any consequence match the NSDAP) or Italian Fascist Party directly. For many far-right philosophers, like Alt Right co-founder and former paleoconservative professor Paul Gottfried, fascism was merely a brief political project that attempted to reclaim the “True Right.” That right, he asserts, is in opposition to the “false right” that makes up much of American conservatism. Gottfried would agree with Hawley that American conservatism has been made up, primarily, of three elements: hawkish foreign policy, free market economics, and conservative social ideas defined, largely, by Christianity. But how does conservatism relate to human equality?

Roger Griffin presents a concise, intensely ideological term to define fascism: “palingenetic ultranationalism.” His definition, which was taken up broadly by what is referred to as the “new consensus,” rejected the view popular in academia that fascism is defined by its structural qualities, those unique to World War II, instead of its ideological core. Instead of having a perfect generic example, Griffin identified the ideological types that are shared across cultures and time periods, using the theory of “ideological morphology.” Originally proposed by Michael Freeman, ideological morphology looks at what defining features a broad set of specific ideologies needs to be “recognizable.” This means the aesthetics, style, and organizational form does not define it, but rather the ideological qualities that can be shared broadly, in entirely different contexts. Fascism then is a form of extreme nationalism, broadly defined, that bases itself on a mythological past that a group intends to return to. This term does not reflect state policies, whether authoritarian or libertarian, because all of those are subservient to its meta-politics. The fascist project is not about achieving totalitarianism, it is about reclaiming the mythological identity and order, and if totalitarian means are the way to get there then so be it. The fascist projects of the past have used authoritarian political parties as their avenue to power as well as command economies to see a vision through, but all of that was due to their situation and political climate. In the modern fascist movement, a whole range of political possibilities are welcome, as long as they share a (somewhat) agreed-upon vision of the essentials.

Fascism Viewed From the Left

I present an alternative to the popular and innacurate view of fascism: Fascism is what many on the right have argued is the “True Right.” While many movements on the ostensible right make equality a lower priority, such as the submission of equality to market liberty — whether as plain market fundamentalism or the extremes of “anarcho-capitalism” — they rarely agree that inequality is a sacrament. In contrast, inside of fascism inequality is explicit, as is identity. At the same time, I define fascism not from the center but from the left. A definition of fascism needs to remain vital and evolving and must provide examples and understanding that is useful not only for historical tracking, but counter-organizing and resistance. To do this I develop a definition of fascism that is broader, one that includes the various strands that connect to each other. Proto-fascism, para-fascism, right populism, and others, can be identified as movements that do not meet the definitive rigor of fascism but are aptly targeted by antifascists since they are a proven part of the fascist progression. For those who identify as antifascists, these groups can be thought of as concentric circles, movements that are using the same logic as fascism without filling out its entire ideological checklist. While most movements that I discuss do not use the term “fascism” to define themselves, they either fit its definition perfectly (the Alt Right) or flirt with it so openly (the militia movement) that they can be seen as ideological allies.

In keeping with Roger Griffin’s project to outline a key rhetorical definition for fascism, I offer one that, though seemingly universal, does have its own problems, as finding the perfect terminology to define all fascist movements may be a quest without end: “Inequality through mythological and essentialized identity” is an attempt to sum all of these threads up, hitting the various points that fascism uses to define itself.


Standing before the London Forum in 2012, Richard Spencer said that the defining characteristic of the Alt Right was inequality. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men were created unequal,” he said, making a clear break with the foundational document of American political independence that the conservative movement clings to as their moral authority. For fascists across the board, the defining factor of their ideology is more than the conservative de-emphasis of equality: inequality, for them, is critical, crucial, and correct. They believe that people are of different abilities and skills, qualities and characteristics, and that those differences should be ranked vertically, not horizontally. How this inequality is interpreted often shifts between different schools of thought and political movements, but they often take antiquated notions about race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, body type, and other qualities to show that groups of people, defined in a myriad of ways, can be ranked as “better or worse.” Even between those groups, such as inside of the “white race,” people are not seen as fundamentally equal. Equality is a social lie that leads to an unhealthy society where the weak rule over the strong through democracy. In a properly stratified society an elite of some kind would have authority over the unwashed masses, though the way this authority plays out is so radically diffuse in contemporary fascism that there is no universally agreed upon blueprint. While identity is central to this constructed inequality, there is a heavy focus on analyzing and ranking abilities, from the size of biceps to the numbers generated from outdated IQ tests.


It is impossible to have fascism, either as a semi-coherent ideology or a movement, without some element of right-wing populism. This could take the form of anti-elitism, ranging from opposition to international banks to perceived tribal elites as is true in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. This anti-elitism plays into the revolutionary character of fascism, adds to its appeal to the working class, and is an attack on the left and the bourgeoisie. As will be mentioned later, this attack on elites is not an attack on elitism as such, as fascism, in the way we define it here, requires an elite caste of some sort. In the political sense, populism is the force by which hard fascist ideologues gain traction to move their political voice onto the national stage, often riding the same inspiring forces that the left does, such as labor issues, environmental catastrophe, and war. While this may seem a force used opportunistically by the ideological fascist contingent — such as explicit neo-Nazis or the Alt Right — there is an element of this right populism, the “common man against the elites,” that is present even in the most reasoned and consistent fascist political thought, from the German Conservative Revolution to the French New Right. Fascism is particularly modern this way, even though it is a repudiation of that modernity, since it requires a mass movement and could not have been possible in an age before mass politics.


Identity is the second part of our proposed definition, in which I use the amorphous qualifier “essentialized.” Identity is a crucial part of the fascist project, but it is primarily not a chosen identity. Instead, they argue, identity is something that moves far beyond nominal politics, social signifiers, and cultural attitudes. Identity can be something that echoes from deep in your past, the “story of your people,” a national myth, a tribal uniform. This is why race has been the most common form of identity that fascists consider crucial and also underlines the importance that racism still has in Western society. For identity adherents, race informs their past, who they are related to, who they should have allegiance to, and it drives their personality, intelligence, and vices. Gender, in the same way, should also be seen as essential, and traditional gender roles are not social constructs but universal truths that dictate our path. To reject our racial and gender identities as guiding forces is then to reject nature. While fascism, as an invention of the modern world, has often relied on vulgar scientism to define these racial and gender arguments, there are spiritual and metaphysical ones that run parallel as well.

Inequality has to be pinpointed through identity: who you are, rather than what you do. You are a certain race, gender, and national ethnicity, and so those should define your place in a hierarchy and in the groups with which you have affinity. While race is often a major fault line for the boundaries of this identity, there are broader cultural-linguistic ethnocentrisms that can take hold of this, especially when a multicultural nation lacks any central history of monoracial uniformity.


The term “revolution” shares the same troubling confluence of definitions, finding little commonality beyond the fact that it is a great “shuffling off” of the past. This is a good place for us to start and to suggest that we define revolution as any attempt to undermine, destroy, and replace fundamental social institutions. In the traditional -Marxist-Leninist understanding this meant the taking over of one class by the other, a forced proletarianization of the ruling classes, and a destruction (to a degree) of state infrastructure so a -counter-state can be built and run by — and for — the workers (in theory, at least, to increase equality). As J. Sakai says, the fascist revolutionary project is less about the fundamental change in the functions of society and more about how they can use those functions, or replacements, as a vessel for themselves.

By “revolutionary” the left has always meant overthrowing capitalism and building a socialist or communal or anarchist society. Fascism is not revolutionary in that sense, although it may use those words. Fascism is revolutionary in a simpler use of the word. It intends to seize State power for itself.

Fascists have less ideological consistency because no fascist thinker has created a grand hegemony in thought that defined the movement henceforth. Instead, we can comfortably say that fascism is a revolutionary project, but how that revolution plays out is fiercely debated. At the bare minimum, it is an undermining of the foundational ideas of Western democracy, rejecting the idea that the people, generally, can rule themselves. If the fascist project intends to see imperial state power as a mechanism for achieving their ends (inequality through essentialized identity), then it could have more in common with the Marxist-Leninist conception of revolution. In this case, it would be destroying the elements of the liberal state in order to further embody a state created to enforce tribal interests and inequality. For non-state fascists, whom I will get to later, it may mean a revolution to destroy the current order and make space for the creation of ethnocentric tribal communities that can then battle for hegemony (or trade, depending on who is in charge). Whatever the distinct vision, the fascist idea is radical; it wants to see systemic change. It does not just want to reinforce the tacit inequality and structural oppression that exists inside of capitalist states; it wants to build a society where inequality and bigotry are explicitly endorsed. This requires a complete reordering of society, even if it is simply giving in to ideas that have been implicit to Western colonialism and white supremacy for centuries.


While the “führer” principle is part and parcel of a fascist movement, it can be leadership outside of state or party functions. This brings us back to the idea of institutionalized hierarchy, with an aristocratic elite forming in a variety of ways. In the work of -proto-fascist jurist and Nazi-sympathizer Carl Schmitt, liberal democracy must “suspend democracy” in order to continue the project of democracy. Figures of supreme importance move through liberal modern societies past its laws and regulations so as to prop up the illusion that mass rule is maintained, but if democracy were to remain pure, it would collapse under the weight of its own inherent inequalities. Fascism drops the illusion that extralegal authority needs to be banned and instead concludes that the actions of dominant figures should be done by virtue of their superior spirit rather than the mandate of the common man. The central idea here is that some people are superior and that a ruling caste must be established in all levels of social arrangement.

Cult of Tradition

From the fascist view of history, identities are only forged through the mythological belief that there is a tradition that must be returned to. In author Umberto Eco’s quest to find the principles of “Eternal Fascism,” he identifies the “Cult of Tradition” as the most essential quality of fascism, where a desire to return to a “tradition,” which may or may not be true in the literal sense, is a reaction to modern developments like logic, science, or democracy. As we will see with the esoteric spiritual beliefs that color fascist movements, far-right authors like Julius Evola have outlined the idea that there is an underlying tradition of hierarchy inside all of the world’s societies and religions. The belief that there is a tradition that must be reclaimed is essential to the revolutionary rightist mission. Fascism is a particularly modernist concept, one that attempts to take the ideas of industry, technology, and futurism, and apply a reactionary understanding of society to it. Fascists often see themselves as trying to reclaim something that is natural, normal, and ever-present throughout history. This means theorizing how a proper society works after all of the modern “degeneracies” are cast off.

The Colonization of the Left

While this is discussed more thoroughly below, one key element of a fascist project is the adoption of politics associated with the left. From deep ecological mysticism that motivated aspects of German nationalism through the takeover by the NSDAP to the anti-imperialist rhetoric of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, fascist ideologues need this left-right crossover in order to develop a “new synthesis” that does not play by the conventionally understood left-right political spectrum. This should more appropriately be seen as a right takeover of the left: the use of leftist political tactics and strategies to push the core right-wing meta-politics of inequality and essential identity. If the left uses “state socialism” to enforce equality, the tools of which are command economics and state intervention, then fascism will use a mirror of those state systems to sanctify inequality and tribal privilege. If the left uses anti-colonial struggle to confront the ongoing attack on indigenous communities, then the right will use parallel ideas like indigenous sovereignty and the reclamation of ethnic identity as an argument for white separatism and racial advocacy. While the left develops tools to meet certain larger goals, fascism uniformly attempts to capture those methods for far different results.

Violence and Authority

Violence is often cited as a defining feature of fascism, by combining the immediatist nihilism of Mussolini’s early movement with the sober revelations of Nazi extermination plans into a coherent understanding. Violence is and remains a significant component of fascism, but much of this derives from the idea that the alienating effects of modernity must be smashed, and that mythic warrior societies show a path forward, especially for the veneration of “masculinity.” It is this discontent with the pathological boredom of industrial capitalism that has historically created some of its broadest appeals to the left, as well as some of its most pernicious sacrifices of human life and dignity. At the same time, while political authoritarianism may not be a defining feature of fascism, the appeal to some sort of authority, from aristocratic rule to physical “Übermensch,” is essential to guiding the unwashed masses.


Another defining feature of fascism is that it will constantly redefine itself. It will not resurrect (successfully) the fascist movements of the past, but it will always appeal to the uniqueness of countries, cultures, and contemporary technological and scientific developments. It adapts to religious perspectives, the drive toward ecological conservation, the fear of imperial domination, the regrets of Western colonialism, and the leftist language of national liberation, cultural appropriation, and anti-racism. Fascism necessitates the adoption of elements of the left, as mentioned, and as its opposition shifts and the colors of art and human expression evolve, it will find new vessels for its mission to reimagine the human experience. Fascism is not about politics, it is about consequences, the results of the choices that people make, whether in the halls of power or in the quiet musings where people determine who they are. Fascism grows in the arts, in poetry, in philosophy, in spirituality, in the formation of community bonds, and the ways we see ourselves. Politics is only the public manifestation of a cosmic shift in attitudes and values. In all the ways that inequality is sanctified, that boundaries are made dividing personhood and the struggle for democracy and equality are undermined, a tradition of the “True Right” is establishing its grip on society.

Copyright (2017) by Shane Burley. Not to be reposted without the permission of AK Press and Shane Burley.

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