Is Fascism irrational?
In order to assess the rationality or otherwise of fascist ideology some consideration of the concept of political rationality is required. An ideology may in principle be considered rational insofar as its assumptions about human nature are considered accurate, its objectives are considered "reasonable", realistic and consistent with each other and its methods appear likely to achieve its stated objectives. However in practice insurmountable difficulties arise because there are disputes between and even within different ideologies as to "the nature of human nature" and as to the reasonableness, realism and consistency or otherwise of objectives and as to the appropriateness or otherwise of differing political methods. Thus ,for example, socialists and conservatives would disagree as to the basic characteristics of human nature, as to the relationships between economic equality, equality of opportunity and liberty and as to the relative desirability of private enterprise and centralised state ownership and control of the means of production. Analysts of ideology argue that all ideologies are interrelated sets of ideas several of which cannot be proven scientifically to be true or false but which are designed to support either the maintenance, gradual change or radical change of a given set of political arrangements. It is entirely likely therefore that all ideologies are to some extent irrational.
However I shall argue that fascism ,and especially the National Socialist variant of fascism, is the most irrational of all ideologies. Its ultimate goal of ultranationalist expansion through war and conquest of other nations cannot be considered reasonable; its extreme social Darwinism overstates the benefits of competitive and often violent struggle at the expense of compassion for the less fortunate; its emphasis on the importance of human irrationality especially of the masses is grossly overstated; the extreme racism and anti-Semitism of Nazism is morally abhorrent and based upon a concept of biological race which has been shown to be scientifically meaningless; its support for the principles of leadership and elitism understates the potential of the masses; its support for dictatorial and totalitarian forms of government understates the usefulness of the checks and balances of liberal democratic regimes and the likelihood of awful consequences if a dictatorial political system falls under the control of an essential irrational political elite; its claim to have blended the ideologies of nationalism and socialism is logically flawed because its perception of human nature, its elitism and its foreign policy objectives are inconsistent with the ideology of socialism and its practical attempts to improve the situation of the working classes through corporatism and/or other social reforms achieved very little in practice.
Analysts of fascism have often distinguished between "generic fascism" which contains all of the elements of fascism assumed to be common to all types of fascism and particular variants of fascism such as especially Italian fascism and Nazism but also fascist or near fascist movements in countries such as Spain, Portugal and Romania. All fascists adopt a pessimistic view of human nature and the core elements of generic fascism include extreme nationalism, social Darwinism, authoritarianism and elitism. It is then argued that Italian Fascists gave relatively more theoretical emphasis to the totalitarian state and corporatist economic institutions than did German National Socialists but that in practice Nazi Germany could be described as more totalitarian in practice than fascist Italy. Racism and anti-Semitism are central to Nazism but not to Italian fascism. Fascist ideologies, movements and regimes have also been defined partly by what they are against. Despite the claims by fascist ideologists to have constructed a synthesis of nationalism and socialism and the existence of some mildly socialist elements within fascist ideology, it is argued that fascism is essentially anti-liberal, anti-socialist and anti-conservative: these are the so-called "fascist negations." Fascism has often been describe as an irrational ideology but it seems clear that some elements of the fascist ideology [such as extreme nationalism and especially anti-Semitism and racism] are more irrational than others such as corporatism and, possibly elitism.
Fascism and Enlightenment Rationality
The claim that fascist ideology is essentially irrational is linked to the clearly stated opposition of fascist ideologists to core elements of Enlightenment thought of the mid-late C18th. Enlightenment thinkers argued that individuals were essentially rational beings who could transcend traditional, often religiously based modes of behaviour and use their powers of rational thought to promote scientific development and social and political reform and thereby improve their societies and the quality of their own individual lives. These Enlightenment thinkers were primarily liberals who believed that because individuals were rational they should have the freedom to organise their own affairs but also that rational individuals might also be excessively self-interested so that a limited state would be necessary to prevent this excessive self-interest from harming others. In summary Enlightenment liberals believed that human progress was to be promoted via the liberty of rational individuals constrained by a limited "night watchman" state.
Fascists rejected the Enlightenment assumption of universal human rationality. Instead they distinguished between an intellectually limited, uneducated , irrational, apathetic mass of people who were ruled primarily by their emotions and an intellectually gifted political elite which alone could perceive a country's real national interest and which therefore had the right to call for the strict obedience of the otherwise disorganised masses. However the fascist claim that human beings are influenced to some extent by irrational, emotional forces is not itself necessarily an irrational claim. Within the Romantic movement it had earlier been suggested that human happiness derives much more from our emotional lives than from improved material welfare achieved by the scientific advances emphasised by Enlightenment thinkers and the political theorist Sorel pointed to the importance of political myths as important determinants of political behaviour while Le Bon discussed the ways in which crowds might be influenced by political propaganda. Most importantly of all the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud would emphasise the importance of the unconscious mind on human behaviour although, for other reasons, Nazis in particular rejected most aspects of Freud's theories. Thus, as stated it was not necessarily irrational for fascists to claim that individuals were influenced by irrational forces but critics of fascism would argue that it definitely was irrational for fascists to overstate the irrationality of the masses and to understate the potential for all humanity to increase their capacity for rational action.
Fascism , Elitism ,Totalitarianism and Corporatism
Meanwhile in any case fascist leaders and their immediate supporters in the fascist elite were assumed to have the capacity for rational thought and action and, according to fascists, this helped to justify the existence of the totalitarian state which would severely weaken all liberal constitutional restraints on the powers of the leader and the political elite. According to fascists there was nothing irrational here: the elitist elements of their ideology appeared to be supported by the philosophical ideas of Nietzsche and by the elite theories of the famous early C20th political scientists Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca whose theories were believed by many to be based upon a careful political scientific evaluation of historical evidence leading to the conclusion that elite rule was inevitable.
However the famous historian Richard Evans has pointed out that before 1914 Nietzsche's ideas were often interpreted as "a call for the individual to be freed from the conventional restrictions of his time" and that "his most famous concepts - the will to power and the Ubermensch were intended to apply on to thought and ideas, not to politics and action." Furthermore Nietzsche was not a German nationalist; he was not anti-Semitic; he supported rather than opposed racial intermarriage all of which suggests that Nietzsche would certainly not have supported extremely dangerous leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini or the policies which they implemented.
Pareto believed that historical change involved the replacement of one elite by another elite, a process which Pareto called "the circulation of elites". In this process Pareto distinguished between political elites dominated by "foxes" who ruled primarily by manipulation and propaganda and "lions" who were prepared to use force to achieve and retain political power. As he became increasingly disillusioned with Italy's liberal political elite[ which he would have described as foxes] he was apparently to some extent drawn to the idea of a government dominated by "lions" and to support for Mussolini and the early fascist movement. Mussolini appointed Pareto a senator in 1923 [shortly before his death] but the historian James Joll argues that if he had lived longer Pareto would soon have criticised "the emptiness of Mussolini's political ideas. Furthermore Mosca espoused liberal-conservative rather than fascist political views and he spoke out bravely and strongly against Mussolini in 1925. In summary , therefore although the ideas of Nietzsche and Pareto were used in support of fascism this was achieved only via a distortion of their views while the views of Mosca had even les in common with fascism.
Fascist ideologists claimed to have provided a rational critique of liberal democratic political ideology which justified totalitarian rule although the concept of totalitarianism was given far more theoretical importance in Fascist Italy than in Nazi Germany. Since the masses were assumed to be essentially irrational political decisions should be taken on their behalf by the political elite which should operate within a totalitarian one party state because the institutions of liberal democracy undermined national unity and inhibited the strong government necessary to secure the national interest. Unregulated laissez faire was based excessively on economic self -interest and resulted in the exploitation of the workers; liberal multi-party politics, independent trade unions and other pressure groups and independent mass media intensified social conflict which undermined national unity and liberal democratic constitutional principles such as the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary served only to impose undesirable restrictions on the totalitarian state which would prevent it from pursuing the national interest. In summary fascists argued that the totalitarian state represented the national interest and therefore the interests of the people more effectively than did liberal democracy which ,according to the fascists actually meant that totalitarianism was more democratic than liberal democracy.
The Italian fascists argued also that the economy could be run on principles which amounted to a so -called Third Way intermediate between laissez-faire capitalism and centralised state socialism in which corporatist institutions would ensure that workers' interests were protected within a basically capitalist system which was to guarantee overall economic efficiency. Once again fascists could argue that such arrangements looked extremely rational on paper but in practice the system operated so as to protect the interests of capitalist employers rather than the workers. Nevertheless as a system this was no less rational than the organisation of industrial relations which currently occurs in all advanced western capitalist economies.
Opponents of fascist totalitarianism argued that these ideological arguments were seriously misguided and that in practice fascist totalitarian regimes, and especially Nazi Germany introduced policies which were without any doubt irrational Non -fascists argued that the fascist defence of totalitarianism neglected the facts that the fascist leader and his closest supporters were subject to none of the political restrictions which operated under conditions of liberal democracy which meant that fascist regimes could not be criticised constructively and held to account and that non -fascist politicians were denied the opportunity to influence political developments in a non -fascist direction. In practice the extent of totalitarianism was greater in Nazi Germany than in Fascist Italy and it was in relation to Nazi Germany that the irrationality of the fascist defence of totalitarianism became clearest: it had not addressed the possibility that elite power might be attained not by an insightful leader with a realistic understanding of the national interest but by a racist, anti-Semitic madman intent on world domination.
Fascism , Nationalism and Socialism
Ideologists of both Italian Fascism and German Nazism have claimed that their ideologies combined important elements of nationalism and socialism. It is true that some traces of Socialist ideology can be found in Italian Fascist ideology most notably in its support for corporatism although the Marxist variety of socialism was completely rejected because of its emphasis on class conflict rather than national unity and because of its support for international working class solidarity rather than nationalist self-interest. In any case it has been argued also that the fascist conception of human nature, fascist ultra-nationalism and fascist elitism all combine to ensure that fascism and socialism are essentially incompatible ideologies while the alleged similarities between fascist and communist so-called "totalitarianism" have been much overstated. It may well be, as many have claimed, that the fascist attempts to combine nationalism and socialism in one political ideology amounted to no more than a cynical and obfuscatory strategy designed to unite disparate sources of support for fascism rather than a careful extension of political thought. It could be argued that fascists attempt to reconcile irreconcilable elements of nationalism and socialism and that this does contribute to the irrationality of fascism.
Fascism, Nazism, Social Darwinism, Ultra-Nationalism, Racism and Anti-Semitism
Charles Darwin [1809-1882] had argued that the survival of some animal species but not others could be explained by their relative abilities to adapt to their environments such that adaptable species would survive and unadaptable species would gradually become extinct. The UK liberal theorist Herbert Spencer [1820-1903] adapted Darwin’s theory to generate his own theory of Social Darwinism in which he claimed that human life amounts to a competitive struggle in which long term human progress depends crucially on the survival of the fittest who should be encourage to reproduce whereas weaker individuals ideally should be discouraged from passing on their various defects to future generations. For Spencer the implications were that social welfare expenditures on the weak and disadvantaged were counter-productive because they would only impede long-term human progress so that his views can be seen to represent a classical liberal critique of the expansion of the state which was proposed by social liberals from the late C19th onwards.
Social Darwinist theory was also used as a justification of the substantial patterns of economic inequalities which existed in the UK in the late C19th on the grounds that they merely reflected differences in talent and ability and were the outcome of a natural competitive struggle which would accelerate human progress. Furthermore the theory could be combined with racist theories to justify imperialism via the claims that international human progress was most likely if the allegedly superior white races were permitted to dominate the other races of the world or, more sympathetically, to share with them the benefits of white culture while nevertheless exploiting their natural resources.
In Fascist ideology in order to secure the dominance of Nazism and Italian Fascism a fundamental, uncompromising, violent struggle against all potential opponents would be necessary: against the communists especially but also against more moderate socialists and against liberals and Fascists saw international political relationships among states as essentially based upon a competitive struggle in which each state was aiming to pursue its own national interest. This explained, for example, why the British and the French had expanded their own empires and why the USA intervened in the political and economic affairs of Latin American countries. It followed that the German and Italian states should aim first to increase their domestic economic efficiency and social cohesion, then engage firstly in diplomatic negotiation and then in the expansionary military struggle of war to achieve territorial expansion to advance their national interests.
In Nazi Germany theories of social Darwinism, racism and anti-Semitism were combined and used to justify compulsory sterilisation and euthanasia of thousands of people deemed unsuitable for reproduction, inhuman persecution of the Jews and ultranationalist expansion leading to the death of millions and to the near destruction of Germany itself. In Germany the Aryan Germans were seen as the master race locked in a struggle for survival with other inferior races and in particular with the Jews. Hitler saw the British and Scandinavian peoples as having much in common with Aryan Germans but believed that coloured peoples , Slavs and in particular Jews were inferior races which could justifiably be exploited and if necessary eliminated in order to ensure the survival and progress of the Aryan Germans. The Jews, according to Hitler, represented an extreme danger to the German Aryan race because they were disproportionately represented in both the international communist movement and among the leaders of international capitalism each of which in different ways threatened German survival. Furthermore German survival was to be ensured primarily by territorial expansion into Eastern Europe and Russia in order to secure German Lebensraum [=living space] at the expense of the Slavic and Russian peoples who were considered expendable.
Racism and anti-Semitism have a long history and are still widespread throughout the world. They were certainly not confined to Nazi Germany but it was in Nazi Germany that their consequences were most appalling. Racist ideology appeared superficially to have been provided with intellectual support as a result of the theories of so-called "scientific racism" developed in the C19th mainly by Arthur de Gobineau. In these theories it was argued that humanity could be divided into discrete races according to biological characteristics such as skin colour, hair texture and shapes of noses and/or eyes. It was further claimed that these biologically determined physical characteristics were correlated with biologically determined differences in intellectual and cultural attributes which indicated that the "white race" was intellectually and culturally superior to all other races. Anti-Semitism was originally based upon cultural, mainly religious prejudices against the Jews who were not originally defined as a separate biological race but the British writer Houston Stewart Chamberlain , among others, did in the late C19th and early C20th define the Jews as a separate race and this notion became increasingly popular with anti-Semites including Hitler and other members of the Nazi political elite. Mussolini derided Hitler's biological racism and anti-Semitism and discrimination against the Jews was limited in Fascist Italy until the alliance with the Nazis was solidified but even then actual anti-Semitic practices were limited and in no way comparable to those used by the Nazis. Italians hid and protected Jews from the Nazis once German forces entered Italy but it has also been suggested that when Mussolini found out about plans for the Holocaust he did nothing to try to prevent it.
Racism and anti -Semitism are morally sickening but also totally irrational. They are totally irrational because they are based upon a concept of "race" which has been shown scientifically to be meaningless. The overall genetic make up of human beings is such that it is perfectly possible that if say two black people and one white person are chosen at random there may be a greater overall genetic similarity between the white person and one of the black people than between the two black people. Scientists therefore either reject the concept of race entirely or argue that so-called "racial differences" are actually genetically insignificant. To repeat Nazi theories of race are totally irrational..
Conclusion: Is Fascism Irrational?
As a conclusion I shall simply cut and paste parts of my introduction hoping that the intervening paragraphs have clarified some of the general points made in the introduction!
In the introduction I argued that all ideologies are to some extent irrational but it can be argued that fascism ,and especially the National Socialist variant of fascism, is the most irrational of all ideologies. Its ultimate goal of ultranationalist expansion through war and conquest of other nations cannot be considered reasonable; its extreme social Darwinism overstates the benefits of competitive and often violent struggle at the expense of compassion for the less fortunate; its emphasis on the importance of human irrationality especially of the masses is grossly overstated; the extreme racism and anti-Semitism of Nazism is morally abhorrent and based upon a concept of biological race which has been shown to be scientifically meaningless; its support for the principles of leadership and elitism understates the potential of the masses; its support for dictatorial and totalitarian forms of government understates the usefulness of the checks and balances of liberal democratic regimes and the likelihood of awful consequences if a dictatorial political system falls under the control of an essential irrational political elite; its claim to have blended the ideologies of nationalism and socialism is logically flawed because its perception of human nature, its elitism and its foreign policy objectives are inconsistent with the ideology of socialism and its practical attempts to improve the situation of the working classes through corporatism and/or other social reforms achieved very little in practice.