Having been at work on a book dealing with changing definitions of the “F word,” meaning in this case not the one-time obscenity but the ultimate evil in the world of political correctness, I find my comments on the subject have caused considerable irritation. Although I once assumed that only the conventional left was fixated on fascist dangers, I now know the fascist specter is scaring libertarians as well. My statements that fascism must be understood in an interwar European context, that it was a reaction from the right against the threat of Communist and other leftist revolutionary upheavals, that garden-variety fascism — for example, as practiced through the first 14 years of Mussolini’s rule in Italy — was neither really socialist nor totalitarian, have all elicited angry comments from libertarian bloggers.

Like the more conventional leftists, these libertarians seem grossly ignorant of 20th-century history. Right and left for my critics are what they are thought to be in the U.S. at this moment. The two reference points have always been the same, and for the right the eternal battle has been about fighting the “state,” which has been around since the time the pyramids were built. Those who have advanced state power have always been immutably on the left; and presumably the left includes Amenhotep, Henry VIII, Cardinal Richelieu, and Bismarck, just as the right has always featured such stalwart conservatives as Tom Paine and John Stuart Mill.

One hostile blogger was concerned that I couldn’t see this simple truth because “I am so blinded by my hatred for NRO.” This obviously referred to my amusement at how the one-time editor of that site had tried to link Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to the politics of both Italian fascism and German Nazism. Apparently all defenders of the welfare state were or are fascists and somehow implicated in Hitler’s crimes. For partisan reasons, Republicans on this telling are spared association with the F-term, even when implicated in the same welfare politics.

I was amused to see an essay on fascism by a Canadian Bill Gairdner in the New Criterion (October 2012) that resuscitates one of Jonah Goldberg’s assertions, that the multicultural left by supporting minority set asides is moving along the path of interwar fascism. Like Goldberg and like my hostile bloggers, Gairdner makes “fascism” fit anything he doesn’t happen to like. Thus the f-word is stretched to apply to such nuisances as Arab youth rioting in suburban Paris and gender studies at American universities.

Not to dwell overly long on my latest contact with partisan dishonesty and historical ignorance, let me state the following about fascism as a historical phenomenon. Already in 1946 George Orwell, who was definitely a man of the Left, noticed that after the Second World War “everyone in England is calling what he doesn’t like fascist.” Note Orwell was making this critical observation well before the 1960s, when the rise of the New Left and the emergence of Holocaust studies (which often equates all fascism with Hitler and the Final Solution) turned the F-word into the world’s greatest and most insidious evil.

Moreover, the anti-New Deal Right in the U.S. had added to the semantic and conceptual confusion by equating the New Deal with fascism. In this case however there was some justification. FDR and his advisor Rexford Tugwell both expressed admiration for Mussolini’s economic reforms in Italy, the extent of which however they vastly exaggerated.

Viewed contextually (which according to the historian Herbert Butterfield and Butterfield’s biographer Kenneth McIntyre is the way historians should be practicing their craft), fascism was a movement that prospered on the European continent between the two world wars. It was an imitation of the left that tried to pull along the working class, but it depended mostly on bourgeois support. Its economics were corporatist in theory but in practice usually left most of the economy in private hands.  Unlike the left, fascists believed in hierarchy and in the organization of the nation along organic and vocational lines. But these preferences led only to minimal change in the social structure, and except for their style and fondness for pageantry, it is hard to distinguish some fascist or quasi-fascist regimes from traditional authoritarian ones.

The regime of the Spanish Nationalist leader Francisco Franco was for the most part a military dictatorship that turned into a caretaker government practicing economic modernization. But Franco tried to integrate into his coalition the fascist Falange organization, which had helped him defeat the left in the Spanish Civil War. And so he adopted some of the trappings and personnel of the Falangists, before unceremoniously dropping both after the Second World War.

In Austria, the anti-Marxist and anti-Nazi regime of the “clerical fascist” Engelbert Dollfuss in the early 1930s glued onto a Catholic-bourgeois ruling coalition some of the rituals and rhetoric of his friend Mussolini, who for several years was Dollfuss’s protector against Hitler. The “Austro-fascist” experiment began to unravel when the Nazis killed Dollfuss in 1934, when Mussolini changed sides in 1936, and when Hitler occupied Austria in 1938.

Although the fascists were not “conservative” in any traditional sense, they were probably more so than my libertarian critics. In interwar Europe being “conservative” did not mean “being for markets,” legalizing addictive drugs, or distributing anarcho-capitalist leaflets. It meant favoring a traditional state that accepted a traditional social order and which was usually tied to an established church. In that bygone world my libertarian bloggers would have been considered hopelessly demented leftists. Although fascists were not particularly agreeable to traditional conservatives, philosophical libertarians would have been even less popular in these circles. European liberals may have been closer to the anarcho-capitalist mentality but only slightly. Unlike our libertarians, old-fashioned liberals held Victorian social and moral views and were highly suspicious of democracy.

Being a broadminded reactionary, I would allow for a broad understanding of the right as a counter-force to the left depending on how the two terms are understood at a particular time and in a particular place. In the present American context, being an advocate of minimal government means opposing leftist public administration and its multicultural and leveling policies. Libertarianism, viewed from this situational perspective, is a reactionary position, just as opposing Communist subversives was in Europe after the Bolshevik Revolution.  The right has a functional identity, in the sense that it stands athwart the left and tries to limit its destructive power. That is what defines the right operationally, certainly not faith in representative democracy or a belief that each person should be able to do his own thing. Although one may personally like those positions, they are only accidentally right-wing.

Paul Gottfried is a TAC contributing editor and the author, most recently, of Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal.