Fascism: the Potemkin Village of Ideologies

by psjoberg

To describe fascism as an ideology, as so many often do, is a fallacy. In fact, as Ruth Ben-Ghiat identifies in her book Fascist Modernities: Italy, 1922-1945, fascism is a pragmatically driven, ideologically incoherent movement, utilized primarily as a method or a tool for the acquisition of power. To conceptualize fascism in this way is significant, because it explains the diversity of behaviours exhibited by fascist regimes.

The innate disunity and ideological disorientation of all fascist movements, as is particularly evident in Italy under Mussolini and in Germany under Hitler, is precisely the reason for their ultimate failure. However, fascism’s resulting adaptability is precisely the attribute which enabled these movements to gain such rapid and zealous support.

As Ben-Ghiat identifies in her text, Mussolini found no problem proclaiming himself that he “didn’t intend to clarify his movement’s ideological identity,” and this approach proved fruitful as the Italian Fascist regime frequently contradicted itself during its twenty-year period of power: Mussolini initially sought to establish his fascism through creative autonomy of Italian intellectuals, but his regime latently sponsored pro-fascist intellectuals by showing them favouritism through grants and scholarships; the Italian fascists seemed at first to advocate for a “culture of concreteness” (which involved the demonization of ‘decorativism’ and decadence) but later criticized communism for privileging uniformity over creativity and thus turning human beings into “automatic puppets”; and Italian fascists held the desire to brand themselves as a youth movement, but then reacted to images of life in America by advocating for models of modernity that might maintain patriarchal traditions and strong family identities.

In addition to its strategic adaptability, Italian fascism also seemed to possess a sort of ignorance of its own disorientation. Evidence of this can be seen in the way in which Mussolini, feeling insecure about his alliance with Nazi Germany, attempted to establish more of a leadership role for Italy within the fascist world by, ironically, replicating Nazi practices such as the Goose Step and Aryanization.

Fascism, thus, is evidently a tool for political manipulation than any sort of coherent ideology. Once this term is understood in such a way, it is somewhat easier to comprehend the tendency of fascist movements to utilize historical anti-Semitic sensitivities in Europe to further their own political aspirations. As Paul Hanebrink describes in his article, “A Spectre Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism,” fascists used identity-based manipulation to tie historical anti-Semitic paranoia with contemporary anti-Bolshevik paranoia to unite masses of supporters against a common scapegoat.

Therefore, fascism’s ideological incoherence allowed it to adapt to different developments in order to reach its goals. However, this ideological incoherence also likely played a major role in all fascist movements’ ultimate failure. As mentioned in Ben-Ghiat’s text, the fascist movement of the 1920s and 1930s was a revolution manqué: every had a fascist label on it, but it all lacked true ideological substance beyond shared racist and xenophobic sentiments.


Ruth Ben-Ghiat, “Conquest and Collaboration” in Fascist Modernities: Italy, 1922-1945 (University of California Press, 2004), pp. 17-45 and pp. 123-170.

Paul Hanebrink, A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism (Harvard University Press, 2018), pp. 1-10, 11-45.

One Reply to “Fascism: the Potemkin Village of Ideologies”

  1. Arg! You beat me to the punch on the “Potemkin villages” reference! I was hoping to break that one out soon.

    I agree with your characterization of the hollowness of Mussolini’s ‘ideology’. In fact, if he were honest (and, you know, alive), HE would also agree with that characterization. Particularly in light of his own “Doctrine of Fascism”, in which he readily admits that Fascism emerged not as a an “ordered expression of doctrine, but as a series of aphorisms, anticipations, and aspirations…” And you’re right that that lack of a chewy ideological centre made Italian Fascism ‘adaptable’. But I think this is where we run into the problem of conflating Nazism with Fascism (rather than the small-f, catch-all “fascism”).

    What little philosophical and ideological underpinnings that Fascism had were largely external to Mussolini (remember how much was cribbed from Sorel, among others). The ‘doctrine’ got assembled piecemeal, in a reactionary manner and out of expediency. Hitler, on the other hand, developed a good deal of the Nazi Weltanschauung himself, even if it was laid down on a wonky foundation of conspiracies, myths, and outright lies. There’s very little change in a number of the core messages (antisemitism, anti-communism, rearmament, lebensraum) over the entire duration of the Nazi party; they were in place during the Beer Hall Putsch, and they lasted until the fall of Berlin. All I mean to say is that Nazi ideology was significantly ‘firmer’ than Fascist ideology, even if doctrinal adherence broke down as World War II wore on.

    Which… whew… I realize that was a long-winded response considering how small the nit was that I chose to pick…

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