In 1944, with the Second World War raging around him, George Orwell authored a little known essay entitled “What is fascism?”
“If you examine the press,” he writes, “you will find that there is almost no set of people — certainly no political party or organized body of any kind — which has not been denounced as Fascist during the past ten years.”
As is often the case with Orwell, his observation continues to resonate today. Indeed, such is the breadth of the word’s modern use that it risks being deprived of all meaning. Perhaps it is only proper that the word is abandoned by anyone engaging in intelligent conversation. Or at least it would be, had its constant overuse not resulted in a ‘boy who cried wolf’ scenario in which the world now ignores fascism where it really exists.
What actually is fascism?
“It would be so much easier for us if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Blackshirts to parade again in the Italian squares.”” So said Italian author Umberto Eco in his essay ‘Eternal Fascism’ in 1995. Unfortunately fascism is not such a simple ideology to define, and the debate over its meaning began long before the corpse of its creator, Benito Mussolini, was hung upside down outside a Milanese service station.
Fascism was the child of the violent patriotism inculcated in the First World War. Robert Paxton, a historian at the University of Columbia, gives the following interpretation of the ideology:
“Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party … abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
In practice, twentieth century fascist states – that is to say the regimes of Mussolini, Adolf Hitler and, to a slightly lesser extent, Francisco Franco – shared a number of characteristics: they were all authoritarian; censorious; nationalist; sexist; militaristic; disdainful of human rights; scapegoated minorities (be they minorities in terms of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or political beliefs) and created a personality cult around the leader. They also, with different levels of enthusiasm, pursued an intimate relationship with the Catholic Church.
Today fascism has become a byword for ‘evil’ whose use is so pervasive that it has long since desensitised people to its historical specificity. More than anything, it is used as a rhetorical device to discredit or silence an opponent by deeming their views unfit for modern political discourse.
A textbook example came in an article written by former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, before the French presidential election earlier this year. In it he called on the Left to unite behind Emmanuel Macron, stating that he “[refused] to be part of a generation of leftists who allowed a fascist and racist to win the French presidency.”
This is one case among many. On the eve of Trump’s inauguration ceremony Refusefascism.org took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, proclaiming, “No! In the name of humanity we refuse to accept a fascist America!” Indeed, protests against the current US administration are riddled with those decrying the president as a fascist – or even a Nazi.
Such connotations have even been drawn by respectable sources; The New Republic, Newsweek and Britain’s Archibishop of Canterbury have all deemed it prudent to use the word to describe Le Pen, Trump or Dutch politician Geert Wilders. The former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage, is often heckled by those describing his anti-immigrant views as fascist.
This has inevitably led to a counter-attack. Right wingers including Fox News host Sean Hannity, Spectator columnist Douglas Murray, and Farage himself now accuse ‘the left’ of fascism for trying to shut down free speech – apparently “fascism” is now a synonym for “censorship”.
Such is the word’s tawdry prevalence, it is more interesting to explore the contexts in which the word fascist isn’t used. The one major country often in the news that fits the historical definition of a fascist state almost perfectly, the Russian Federation, is rarely described as such. This is somewhat perplexing, especially given that the Western media can hardly be accused of holding back when it comes to the Putin administration.
Contrary to the lazy tendency to compare Putin to Stalin, the modern Russian state is eerily reminiscent of those of Mussolini, Franco, and even pre-war Germany: it is authoritarian and militaristic; its economic model is that of oligopolistic, crony capitalism, with big business in cahoots with the State; the government has full control of the media; and the State supports “traditional” gender roles and persecutes those who think differently, especially the intelligentsia.
There is also an extremely close political relationship between church and state; while paramilitary organisations swear personal allegiance to the leader are prevalent at both federal and regional level; and there is even a cult surrounding its leader, with the ubiquitous figure of Putin raised by the media to one of omnipotence and credited with restoring the country’s former glory.
Nevertheless, the closest any notable Westerner has come to calling Russia a fascist state was then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in 2014, likening Russia’s annexation of Crimea to that of Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland in 1938. Those happy to wave the term around at Farage, Le Pen, Wilders and Trump do not do so when confronted with something that is far closer to the real thing. Why?
There are a few potential reasons. The first is Russia’s unique experience in defeating fascism in the Second World War, at the cost of over 25 million lives. Due to the slow-moving Soviet propaganda machine that had described fascism as an ideological enemy long before it became an existential threat, Russians to this day exclusively use the word “fascist”, not Nazi, to describe the Hitler’s armies.
Victory in the Great Patriotic War, as it is called in Russia, plays a huge role in the country’s national mythology – far larger than it does in Britain or the United States’ – and as such the idea that Russia itself can be compared to the ideology it fought so hard to defeat is considered positively perverse.
Nevertheless, while Russians might understandably avoid the word, the international community has no such excuse. It is likely that, given fascism’s inescapable association with the Holocaust, the Russian state’s conspicuous lack of racism spares it the epithet.
This may read strangely to those who have experienced the Moscow police’s conduct towards migrants from Central Asia, or Russian football fans’ behaviour towards black players, but on the level of state rhetoric it is very rare to hear individual ethnic groups being the target of state policies. The reasons for this are manifold, but owe much to Russia’s long history as a multiethnic empire. It suffices to say there will be neither a Muslim Ban nor a ‘Final Solution‘ under the Putin administration.
The assumption that to be a fascist one must be racist is understandable, but ahistorical: reflecting a political zeitgeist that increasingly plays to identity politics. Reclaiming fascism’s historical meaning as a distinct way of structuring a state, and eschewing it as a mere synonym for ‘evil’, ‘censorious’, or ‘racist’ could have an immensely beneficial effect on Western political discourse.
Umberto Eco finished his essay by warning that “our duty is to uncover [fascism] and to point our finger at any of its new instances — every day, in every part of the world.” This vigilance is admirable, but instead of constantly asking “Is Trump fascist?”, a more pertinent question would be “Is Russia fascist? – and for that matter is Turkey? … Or China?”