The Words and Deeds of Fascism – econlib

What is fascism?

In 1968, historian SJ Woolf wrote:

Perhaps the word fascism should be banned from our political vocabulary, at least temporarily. Democracy, reactionary, radical, anarchy – like other big words it has been so misused that it has lost its original meaning; Or, at least, it has been imbued with such a new and broader meaning that an almost apologetic inverted comma seems to be necessary in the narrow, historical sense.

This will remain true in 2022.

Fascists themselves are partly responsible for this. “[W]Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini explained:

…we allow ourselves the luxury of being elitist and democratic, conservative and progressive, reactionary and revolutionary, legalistic and illegal, according to the circumstances, place and environment of the moment.

At one point he claimed that “we are libertarians above all, loving liberty for all, even for our enemies,” at another, that:

…the individual exists only in so far as he is subordinated to the interests of the state, and as civilization becomes more complex, the freedom of the individual must be increasingly limited.

If we cannot find fascism in the words of fascists, we can find it in their works. what did they do to do?

Corporatism – Economic Fascism

Political scientist Andrew Heywood writes that the “distinguishing feature” of fascist economic thought,

… is the concept of corporatism, which Mussolini proclaimed the ‘Third Way’ between capitalism and socialism… Corporatism opposes both the free market and central planning: the former leads to the free pursuit of profit by individuals, while the latter is associated with it. The divisive concept of class warfare. Corporatism, in contrast, is based on the belief that business and labor are bound together in an organically and socially integrated whole.

To this end, in 1926, what historian Dennis McSmith called “a limited number of ‘fascist strikes'”. [which] Industrialists were allowed to press for taking state control.” In July of that year:

Mussolini created a special Ministry of Corporations and explained that a new cooperative apparatus, as well as setting wages and working conditions, would eventually control the entire economy. He thought it possible that one day the corporations would influence the extent of the compulsory conscription of all Italian citizens for civil service.

The following year 22 corporations were established representing employers, workers and the government and charged with overseeing the development of all major industries in Italy. Political scientist Roger Eatwell describes how:

A National Council of Corporations was formed in 1930, consisting of seven major labor and employers’ organizations. It had no legislative powers, but could issue binding orders on matters relating to wages and conditions. By 1934 it had expanded to include 22 sectors of the economy and social life.

In 1939, a Chamber of Facades and Corporations was created to replace Parliament.

Fascism in action, not in words.

That is fascism did. That a program has failed significantly reflects the impossibility of the goal more than a lack of will.

Corporatism was essential to Italian fascism, which “in almost every sense,” according to historian RJB Bosworth, “constituted the first and true fascism…”. Mussolini wrote that “the fascist state is corporative or it is nothing” and called corporations “fascist institutions par excellence”. Fascists in Britain and France embraced corporatism.

We should treat Mussolini as anything said with suspicion, but his works show that he was no libertarian and sincere when, on the contrary, he argued that:

…The Fascist conception of life emphasizes the importance of the state and accepts the individual only insofar as his interests coincide with those of the state…

Fascists’ frequently contradictory statements have enabled others to pin the label on almost anyone. And, beyond the pale of polite politics, such as fascists, it enabled almost anyone to push past the pale.

It is important to understand what fascism really is and what its actions reveal. In economic policy, as seen in corporatism, it is the ideal of the omnipresent state. Not all who believe in massive state intervention in the economy are fascists, but all fascists believe in massive state intervention in the economy. You can’t be a fascist if you don’t believe that.


John Phelan is an economist at the Center for the American Experiment.

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