The term ‘fascism’ derives from the Italian word fasces, meaning a bundle of rods with an axe-blade protruding that signified the authority of magistrates in Imperial Rome. By the 1890s, the word fascia was being used in Italy to refer to a political group or band, usually of revolutionary socialists. It was not until Mussolini employed the term to describe the paramilitary armed squads he formed during and after the First World War that fascismo acquired a clearly ideological meaning. The defining theme of fascism is the idea of an organically unified national community, embodied in a belief in ‘strength through unity’. The individual, in a literal sense, is nothing; individual identity must be entirely absorbed into the community or social group. The fascist ideal is that of the ‘new man’, a hero, motivated by duty, honour and self-sacrifice, prepared to dedicate his life to the glory of his nation or race, and to give unquestioning obedience to a supreme leader. In many ways, fascism constitutes a revolt against the ideas and values that dominated western political thought from the French Revolution onwards; in the words of the Italian fascists’ slogan: ‘1789 is Dead’. Values such as rationalism, progress, freedom and equality were thus overturned in the name of struggle, leadership, power, heroism and war. Fascism therefore has a strong ‘anti-character’: it is anti-rational, anti-liberal, anti-conservative, anti-capitalist, antibourgeois, anti-communist and so on. Fascism has nevertheless been a complex historical phenomenon, encompassing, many argue, two distinct traditions.
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