As the political atmosphere in the United States has become increasingly heated and divisive, a prominent strategy of debate is to reveal that an opponent’s beliefs are somehow un-American. The labels employed in doing so are often quite broad and not given much thought; usually, they serve as a rudimentary exaggeration of a moderate standpoint. For instance, someone arguing for better government regulation can be attacked as a communist, grasping at a link between the oversight of government to the beliefs of Karl Marx and practices of Soviet Russia.
One of the more common political insults, the modern usage of “fascist” is a particularly vague label. Referring to someone as a fascist is often a condemnation of support for egregious government power and force. Such accusations, however, are problematic as the same messages are to be drawn from supposed communist sympathies, and yet the two systems of governance were diametrically opposed. Equating the term “fascist” with others such as “communist” and “socialist” is complicated and detrimental to political discourse.
So, why is the nature of the word fascist so misguided and unclear? In search of an answer, this installment of The Public Humanist will analyze the modern meanings of fascist and their historical roots in an attempt to rein in wanton usage towards more concise definitions. Providing such answers will hopefully generate a greater public awareness regarding the words we use, and the history behind one of our more vitriolic labels.
“Ecofascist”, “Islamofascist”; these are just a couple of the modern epithets found when conducting a Google news search. These recent creations suggest that the green movement in America and Muslim governments abroad are inflexible groups willing to go to extreme lengths to pursue their respective causes. One gains a sense of militancy upon hearing these terms, a frightening concept that is bound to the historic Italian Fascist regime of the early twentieth century.
This inferred militancy is valid as Fascism, the movement led by Benito Mussolini in Italy, was essentially the progenitor of the stereotypical totalitarian government. One of the key tenets of the Fascists was that war was a natural phenomenon of man and, as such, was to be celebrated. Mussolini’s penchant for violence inspired others of the same period: Hitler’s Nazi movement, Peron’s government in Argentina, and Franco’s in Spain. Although each totalitarian nation was unique in its laws, practices, and beliefs, they all shared a certain aesthetic of war that was a conscious decision.
But to label someone a fascist can go beyond the mere willingness to use force. For instance, the modern American Right uses the term to describe the Left’s tendency to support government oversight of business. But, as stated before, Fascism was committed to the destruction of both socialism and communism, so how could government oversight be fascist? Essentially, the American Right is suggesting that laissez faire capitalism is a contrast to all economies where government plays a major role.
Although very publicly committed to corporatism, a system where unions and guilds determine the nation’s wages and prices, Fascism sought to appeal to as many Italians as possible. Liberal capitalists, corporatists, and centrists were all welcomed to be Fascists. There were leftist Fascists as well, provided that they didn’t place the welfare of class over the advancement of the Italian state, and saw to the elimination of those who did.
Confusing matters further, the modern American Left employs the word to describe the Right’s jingoistic stance on immigration, purported to have racial motives. Fascist, in this instance, assumes Mussolini’s movement to be synonymous with Nazism in its beliefs about racial superiority. The link between Fascism and racism is very murky; there are endless amounts of research exploring the extent of genuine racial policy in Fascist Italy. Undoubtedly, Mussolini enacted similar policies to that of Nazi Germany after his treaty with the Hitler. But it’s important to consider that the Fascists were in power for over 15 years prior to that allegiance and that, for several of those years, Mussolini was Hitler’s enemy.
At the beginning of the Nazis’ rise to power, the Fascists had long been entrenched in Italian politics. The two respective leaders were at odds regarding the fate of an independent Austria: Hitler wanting to annex the nation into the Nazi sphere and Mussolini wishing it to remain free under Engelbert Dollfuss, a Fascist sympathizer. Furthermore, prior to the war, Mussolini was the hero of the Western world as the foil to Hitler. The Nazis were routinely criticized by the Fascists as a barbaric and rudimentary version of their totalitarian creation; the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany being contrary to Fascist Italy’s multi-ethnic Roman revival. The Fascists initially embraced Italy’s racially varied history; prior to the Pact of Steel between the two nations, Italian Jews held important positions as Fascists. It was only after the League of Nations and the West condemned Mussolini’s expansionist agenda in Africa that he found an ally in Hitler and, as such, ultimately became a Nazi puppet and fellow racist. Simply put, the West desired to preserve the geographic status quo, and Hitler was the only one in the world pushing for a dramatic change of borders. In a tragic and ironic twist in policy, Mussolini saw his opportunity with Hitler at the cost of his own nation.
The methods and beliefs of the Fascists were highly erratic, and do much to explain the ambiguity of the term today. But this ambiguity was evident during Fascism’s existence. George Orwell wrote in 1944 that “Of all the unanswered questions of our time, perhaps the most important is: ‘What is Fascism?’ . . . It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley's broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.” It would seem that the same problems in the usage of fascist today troubled the past as well.
In conclusion, the roots of all of the confusion regarding the meaning of “fascist” lies with Mussolini, and his methods for advancing Fascism’s popularity among the Italian people. The truth of the matter is that Fascism never had a defining system or structure. Fascism never knew what it was: it only knew what it wanted, and that was Italian hegemony. Ironically, Fascism gave up this very hegemony to continue its own existence. That said, Fascism was consistent in its invocation of Roman sentiment; there was never a lack of imperial propaganda in Italy. As for the minutia of Fascism, that was never really important to Mussolini, as long as he retained power and achieved global notoriety. Alas, Fascism remains a forgotten ghost in politics, as ambiguous today as it ever was.