The term fascism really needs reviving, not as a swear term but an actual description of an idea. This is because the idea is real, has a deep history, and taps into a political agenda very much alive in the world today.

Sadly, when any word gets unpopular enough, it just becomes an epithet. It then begins to lose its substantive meaning.

It’s this way with the the term racist, for example. Today it is just a term used to insult people. It’s easy to forget that racism is actually an ideology, a body of ideas that makes specific claims about people, the social order, the political system, and the way all should be managed toward specific social goals. Racism as an ideology has had a gigantic role in the course of world events. It led to state-run eugenics programs, sterilization campaigns, exclusionary laws, wars, and attempted exterminations.

Fascism is an example of the same. When was the last time you heard the term used with any purpose other than to call someone a generalized bad guy? It has lost its actual meaning, and this is deeply regrettable. The term has been hijacked as little more than a generalized insult, and its actual significance has been lost.

To the extent that we fail to take fascism seriously as an ideology, we lose the capacity to recognize it when it appears before us. It would be far better if we could discuss fascism (and racism, for that matter) dispassionately as a serious body of ideas. Only then can we clearly see its actual evil and its continued dangers to the cause of human liberty.

I know of no better source for understanding its origins, implications, and meaning than John T. Flynn’s remarkable 1944 book As We Go Marching. Flynn provides a rigorous history of the birth of the idea in Italy, and attempts to map out its main features.

He turns to the “bad form” of fascism as it emerged in Germany. He covers its realization in Spain, Greece, Portugal, Romania, Poland, Slovakia, Turkey, and Latin America.

Then he turns to the “good form” of fascism that inspired the New Deal — and it is because he called it what it was that this book is mostly unread today. His analysis is rich with detailed, and his documentation of the parallels between fascism in Europe and fascism in America are overwhelming.

We don’t use the term to describe what happened in the U.S. in those years, simply because we like to congratulate ourselves for fighting and wiping out fascism in World War II. But did we really? The leaders of those systems are long dead but the ideas that brought them to power and kept them there are as alive as ever.

Fascism is a specific political and economic idea that arose in the 1920s, beginning in Italy, both from within the socialist ethos and as a response to it. It came from within socialism because it opposed market forces and laissez faire as a model for social order. It embraced the state as a unifying and competent manager of society.

But it rejected many ideas held by Marxists-Leninists and arose in political opposition to them. To that extent, it is a specifically non-leftist theory of politics with its own cultural, religious, and economic ideas. This is why it’s incorrect to call fascism either right wing or left wing. It is both and neither.

Unlike full-blown socialism, fascism does not seek to overthrow institutions like commercial establishments, family, religious centers, and civic traditions. It seeks to control them by digging into this organic matter of the social order, celebrating it, uplifting it, centralizing it, cartelizing it, politicizing it, and using it in the glorification of a central father figure who works to make them work together toward the unified goal of building the greatness of the national identity and mission.

This is why fascism — unlike socialism — has an appeal to the bourgeois middle class, even to the corporate class, and why it is tolerated by religious establishments and trade unions. Unlike socialism, it preserves most of what people hold dear but promises to improve economic, social, and cultural life through unifying their operations under government control.

In terms of political influence on the twentieth century, you can make an argument that it was far more influential than socialism at least as regards Europe, Latin America, and the United States. Socialism, despite all the red baiting and frenzied debate for and against, was probably never much of an authentic threat. Fascism, on the other hand, absolutely was such a threat.

You can know this just by reading the mainstream periodicals from the early 1930s. Free markets were widely considered failed, old fashioned, and absurd. Socialism, at least in the American press, was regarded as dangerous to all that we hold dear.

Fascism, on the other hand, received a respectful and broad hearing. The New York Times profiled Benito Mussolini as a genius of central planning. Churchill praised him as the man of the hour. Fascist theorists wrote for American books and were lovingly interviewed by all the major journals. Even as late as 1941, Harper’s Magazine was praising the glories of “the German financial revolution” and the magic of the fascist system.

The idea was in the air because fascism seemed like a viable alternative to both the presumably failed system of laissez faire and the scary and creepy idea of socialism.

What was this idea? It can be summed up in the much nicer phrase “planned society.” It is based on the leadership principle and the conviction that industrial enterprise, if it was to work at all, had to be guided from the top by experts with an eye to maximum efficiency and social/political priorities.

It did not seek to nationalize industry much less disrupt family life or abolish religion, as the crazy socialists imagined that they might do. It preserved that which was politically valued by the population, and to this extent, fascism did not set itself apart from tradition. It sought only revolution within the form, a new and more scientific way of managing national life.

FDR’s chief economic adviser, Rex Tugwell, summed up the entire philosophy, and in so doing, spoke for an entire generation of economists, planners, political pundits, and social scientists:

“From what I know of human nature I believe the world awaits a great outpouring of energy as soon as we shall have removed the dead hand of competitive enterprise that stifles public impulses and finds use only for the less effective and less beneficial influences of man. When industry is government and government is industry the dual conflict deep in our modern institutions will have abated.”

Flynn explains that fascism is nowhere near as clear as socialism in its agenda for society. Expediency itself is upheld as a principle — the state would do what it had to do no matter what. But after examining its operation in history and the moment in which it arose, along with the expressed principles of every fascist theorist and practitioner, he did come up with eight points that he regards as as the core of the fascist creed.

According to Flynn, the fascist system is one:

1. In which the government acknowledges no restraint upon its powers—totalitarianism.

2. In which this unrestrained government is managed by a dictator—the leadership principle.

3. In which the government is organized to operate the capitalist system and enable it to function-under an immense bureaucracy.

4. In which the economic society is organized on the syndicalist model, that is by producing groups formed into craft and professional categories under supervision of the state.

5. In which the government and the syndicalist organizations operate the capitalist society on the planned, autarchial principle.

6. In which the government holds itself responsible to provide the nation with adequate purchasing power by public spending and borrowing.

7. In which militarism is used as a conscious mechanism of government spending, and

8. In which imperialism is included as a policy inevitably flowing from militarism as well as other elements of fascism.

Flynn concludes: “Wherever you find a nation using all of these devices you will know that this is a fascist nation. In proportion as any nation uses most of them you may assume it is tending in the direction of fascism.”

Flynn wrote in 1944, and his book’s title had a double meaning. We were marching to fight fascism abroad. But at the very same time, the U.S. economy and society had fallen under complete government control: price and wages controls, the draft, rationing, corporatism, perpetual spending and debt, plus militarization and war. The irony was intense, and Flynn called it out. It’s a wonder this book got through the wartime censors.

It deserves a close reading today, especially as we look around at government policy. Every industry is regulated. Every profession is classified and organized. Every good or service is taxed. Endless debt accumulation is presumed. Immense doesn’t even begin to describe the bureaucracy. Military preparedness never stops, and war with some evil foreign foe, remains a daily prospect.

All institutions of government originate with an idea. That idea has a name. It’s not socialism. It’s not laissez faire. It’s the third way that became all the rage in the 1930s. That few dare use the term correctly and accurately changes nothing about the reality.

Read more:
Marginal Steps Towards a Better Life
Economics Is What We Live
Five Ways To Think Like a State
Why Imagining Freedom is Essential
The Peer-To-Peer Economy: Death Blow to the State
Commerce and the Happiness of the Human Heart