What is Fascism?: A Research-Grounded Definition of 15 Elements of Fascism

By Adam J. Pearson (2021)

A. Introduction: Demystifying and Clarifying an Essential Term of Contemporary Discourse

In the current political climate, both people on the right and people on the left are increasingly referring to each other as Fascists.  Ironically, however, despite their well-meaning intentions, many people tend to use the term so loosely that it loses nearly all meaning. 

Commenting in this tendency, which reaches all the way back to the 1940s and 1950s when people were attempting to analyze the events of WWII, George Orwell wrote that “the word ‘Fascism’ [as commonly used has become] almost entirely meaningless … almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist.”

Commenting on the same tendency, which was still very much alive in 2015, Professor Richard Griffiths of the University of Wales wrote that “fascism” is the “most misused, and over-used word, of our times.”

Our contemporary concern about Fascism in 2021 is a valid one, however, for we are seeing a global rise of Fascist rhetoric and tendencies, which should concern us. Authentic Fascism is a threat on both the national and global stage and must be curtailed if rights and freedoms are to be preserved in uncertain times.

However, we cannot counter or oppose what we cannot define. Indeed, if we have no clear definition of what exactly Fascism is then it can be very difficult to properly identify.  Without such a definition, we may also risk overusing or misusing the term.  Therefore, to clarify public discourse and political analysis, it is worth clearly delineating the major  elements of Fascism so that we can recognize them in particular cases.

In the course of my own research on definitions of Fascism in a survey of the political science literature, and drawing also on the framework used in the the RD Labs Fascist Elements Test (2020), I have arrived at the tentative list of 15 elements of Fascism below. Please see the detailed Bibliography below for the academic sources from which I developed this list, which I hope will prove as helpful to others as I have found it to be in my own research.

As a prefatory note, please note that it is the relationship of these elements when combined together that defines a Fascist leader, government, or individual and not any one of them alone, as Professor of Politics Andrew Vincent and the creators of the RD Labs Fascist Elements Test (2020) have noted.

For instance, conservatives tend to believe in traditional values, but this fact alone does not make them Fascist. Similarly, liberals tend to favour firms of corporatism, but this tendency alone does not constitute Fascism.

Bearing in mind these preliminary concerns, here are top 15 elements of Fascism that have repeatedly arisen in contemporary research.

Bonito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, two Fascist dictators.

B. 15 Elements of Fascism

1. Hypernationalism: Strong, patriotic emphasis on the importance of and supremacy of the Nation over other Nations and requiring strong control of the rights and freedoms of citizens in the name of the “order of the State.”

2. Religionization of the State: The tendency to glorify and publicly praise and adore the ruling leader, Party, and State with elaborate pageantry, propaganda, ritualistic, and displays of symbols. Personality cultism surrounding the leader is central to this religionization.

3. Corporatism: The belief that the state should step in to guide, coordinate, and control production, as well as coordinate negotiations between employers and labor unions.

4. Strongman Leader: The belief that society functions best when it is governed by a strong and inspiring leader in whom the people can put their trust completely. This leader should show dominance, assertiveness, and intimidation on the global stage.

5. Militarism: The belief that the military mode of organization should be extended into other areas of society, such as schools, politics, police, and the workplace.

6. Dissident Suppression: The belief that people who disagree with the reigning orthodoxy should be monitored, surveilled, and repressed by the state through deplatforming and censorship.

7. Natural Hierarchy: The belief that people of certain races, genders, political observations, and/or religious affiliations are naturally superior to others.

8. Press and Speech Control: The belief that certain ideas and standpoints are so odious that the state is justified in taking strict measures to hinder their propagation in thought and speech.

9. Rebirth of National Greatness Myth: The belief that the nation has digressed so far from the path of greatness, or from a hypothesized past Golden Age of the Nation, that only extraordinary political measures can restore it to its former glory.

10. Denunciation of Enemies: The belief that certain groups are the collective enemies of the people, and that these enemies are responsible for many of the nation’s troubles.

11. Political Tough-mindedness: A personality characteristic that predisposes one towards being cynical, confrontational, and uninterested in the well-being of out-groups.

12. State Enforcement of Traditional Values: The belief that traditional values and morality are worthy of preservation and that society works better when people conform to these values in a way that is enforced by the State. In other words, Fascist regimes tend to be marked by State-enforced social conservatism.

13. Regimentation: The rigidly state-controlled organization of all aspects of society based on the vision of the leader or ruling Party. Martial law may also be used to control all areas of society.

14. Totalitarianism: A conception of a form of government or political system that prohibits opposition parties, restricts individual opposition to the state and its claims, and exercises an extremely high degree of control over public and private life. It is regarded by most political scientists as the most extreme and complete form of authoritarianism. 

15. Dictatorship and Autocracy: A form of government characterized by a single leader or group of leaders and little or no toleration for political pluralism or independent programs or media.

To summarize, Fascist Totalitarianism is often characterized by “extensive political repression, a complete lack of democracy, widespread personality cultism, absolute control over the economy, massive censorship, mass surveillance, limited freedom of movement (most notably freedom to leave the country) and widespread use of state terrorism.

“Other aspects of a totalitarian regime include the use of concentration camps, repressive secret police, religious persecution or state atheism, the common practice of executions, fraudulent elections (if they take place), possible possession of weapons of mass destruction and potentially state-sponsored mass murder and genocides. Historian Robert Conquest (1999) describes a totalitarian state as one which recognizes no limit on its authority in any sphere of public or private life and it extends that authority to whatever length is feasible.”

C. Conclusion: Fascism as Characterizable Along A Non-Binary Spectrum

In conclusion, Fascism is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that defies simple binary classification. A leader, regime, or individual can be more or less Fascist to the degree and intensity that they embody the above elements.

That is, contrary to popular parlance, Fascism is not black or white or all-or-nothing in definition. Rather, there is a spectrum from less Fascist to more Fascist and any given individual, leader, or regime will fall somewhere along it.

I hope that this article will prove helpful for clarifying future thinking, discussion, and self-reflection and for empowering ourselves against Fascist tendencies and movements.

D. Bibliography

Conquest, R. (1999). Reflections on a Ravaged Century. p. 74.

Eysenck, H. J., & Coulter, T. T. (1972). The Personality and Attitudes of Working-Class British Communists and Fascists. The Journal of Social Psychology, 87(1), 59–73.

Eysenck, H. J. (1956). The psychology of politics and the personality: Similarities between fascists and communists. Psychological Bulletin, 53(6), 431–438.

Forscher, P. S., & Kteily, N. (2019, June 7). A Psychological Profile of the Alt-Right. Retrieved from osf.io/xge8q. Preprint DOI: 10.31234/osf.io/c9uvw

Gentile, G. (2002): Origins and Doctrine of Fascism. Transaction Publishers.

Griffin et al. (2004): Fascism: Post-war fascisms. Rutledge.

Griffiths, R. (2005). “About the Author: Richard Griffiths”. University of Wales Press. Archived from the original on 12 November 2016.

Hetherington, M., & Weiler, J. D. (2009). Authoritarianism and polarization in American politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Orwell, G. (1944). ‘What is Fascism?'”. Orwell.ru. 8 January 2008. Archived from the original on 23 June 2018. Retrieved 2 December 2006.

Paxton, R.O. (2011): The Anatomy of Fascism. Penguin Books.

Rejai, M. (1994). Political Ideologies: A Comparative Approach. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe.

RD Labs (2020). Elements of Fascism Test. https://www.idrlabs.com/fascist-elements/test.php

Schäfer, M. (2004). Totalitarianism and Political Religions. Oxford: Psychology Press.

Vincent, A. (2010): Modern Political Ideologies. Wiley-Blackwell.

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