Having recently completed a book on fascism, the career of a concept, it seems that all my efforts to lessen the abuse of my key term may go for naught. Fascism will likely live on, not as a resurgent interwar European movement but as a freely bandied about epithet that can be applied to whatever journalists don’t like. The unsuspecting reader of our partisan media will go on being be made to believe that fascists are one or more of the following villains: anti-American jihadists, outspoken opponents of immigration here and in Western Europe, Democratic presidential candidates, Israeli soldiers, homophobic Christians, foreign-policy isolationists, or the nationalist governments of Viktor Orban in Hungary and Vladimir Putin in Russia. This “fascist” list continues to grow—a comprehensive one would be at least twice as long.
Almost all attempts to apply “fascist” as a dirty word entail comparisons that have little or no historical basis but evoke all too predictable responses. Put most simply, we are made to think “Fascism equals Hitler.” By associating what the speaker doesn’t like with the f-word or by making this association by indirection, one links the hated object of one’s attack to Nazi genocide. In his book Liberal Fascism, Jonah Goldberg does not even rely on this implicit equation of bad guys with Nazis. He just plunges ahead and makes the argumentum ad Hitlerum when he compares Hillary Clinton’s economic planning to the policies of Hitler and the Nazi Minister of Labor Robert Ley. We are thereby made to believe that the Democratic Party has turned Hitlerian, and any fool knows what that means.
Someone who should know better than to abuse the term, the Israeli Francophone historian Zev Sternhell, is undoubtedly the world’s greatest authority on French fascism. In an interview with Haaretz last August, Sternhell lashed out against the Israeli bombing of Gaza, which he compared to the behavior of interwar fascists. He asserted that the fascist danger “reached a new peak in Israel during the Gaza operation” and that Israel is now fraught with fascist thinking of the kind that permeated France when Hitler’s armies invaded in 1940. These comparisons are inexcusable for two reasons. One, whatever one may think of the Israeli military operation, those carrying it out were not “fascists”—one may disapprove of the violence unleashed by these soldiers without having to reach for the emotive, ill-fitting f-word. Moreover, France fell in 1940 because the Germans outmaneuvered French armies militarily. The country was not overthrown from within by fascists, and the group that collaborated with the enemy most blatantly during the invasion was the French Communists, who were taking orders from Hitler’s Soviet allies.
Mentioning these facts in response to Sternhell’s abuse of historical parallels seems redundant, given that the writer in question knows the history far better than I. This is what renders his rant all the more remarkable. We are talking about a distinguished historian of fascism who writes brilliantly about his subject when he is not wearing his political hat. Sternhell introduces a sober thought when he reminds us that “there are worse things than fascism.” The Italian fascist regime before it was taken over by Nazi Germany killed “no more than a few dozen” opponents, and those were mostly assassinations that occurred outside Italy, probably without Mussolini’s knowledge. (One might note that while the partisan use of “fascism” has grown exponentially in recent decades, the scholarship on this topic has not degenerated in the same way.)
Attempts to give fascism a presentist focus range from the serious and scholarly to the crassly opportunistic or abysmally ignorant. The historian A. James Gregor at the University of California, Berkeley, may be the most learned of those who treat fascism as a continuing problem, which Gregor identifies with the revolutionary left. According to this view, the influence of Italian fascism is still reflected in developing-world dictatorships that feature national solidarity, a socialist economy, and an authoritarian regime. These Third World regimes also exploit resentment against “plutocratic” Western states with corrupt parliamentary systems, a form of rhetoric that made an appearance in Latin fascist oratory of the 1920s.
The problem with this continuity thesis is that it makes too much of chance parallels, without noticing the radical differences in the societies that gave birth to the regimes compared. Gregor also makes too much of the selective borrowing engaged in by Third World developmental dictatorships that adorn their rule with Western ideological regalia. This borrowing does not mean that non-Western governments are becoming the same as the state or society from whence the borrowing comes. One may even challenge the ascription of the specifically Western reference points “right” and “left” to Third World political entities.
Once we leave the Ivy Tower, any attempt to demonstrate a continuing fascist threat plummets into the absurd. Thus we find parallels drawn between Obama and Hitler because both did favors for their friends, extended comparisons between the Nazis and the American Democrats because both advanced affirmative-action programs, and a juxtaposing of opponents of gay rights and the amnestying of illegals here and in Europe with the Third Reich.
A few facts about what fascism was may help explain what it wasn’t and isn’t. Fascist movements developed on the European continent between the two wars and were a reaction primarily to the revolutionary left but also to the perceived failure of liberal parliamentary governments to respond adequately to a devastating challenge from leftists. Fascist politics seems to have developed most naturally in Latin Catholic countries and drew on corporatist economic concepts that were extracted quite selectively from papal and neo-scholastic documents, as well as from Roman ideas about hierarchy and authority. Not surprisingly, fascist ideas did not resonate well in Protestant individualist societies, a fact that was related not only to the persistence in these places of orderly constitutional governments but also to certain obvious cultural differences. As the British Union of Fascists and its leader, Oswald Mosley, learned in the 1930s, marching around in London in Black Shirts singing the Italian fascist anthem with English lyrics while enjoying Mussolini’s subsidies created more of a curiosity than a powerful national movement.
Despite attempts by the Italian government to generate a fascist internationalism, their movements did not travel well. The fact that fascists stressed an organic national identity limited the outreach of a movement that aimed at the self-assertion of particular states. Unlike the communists and the current brand of American liberal democracy, fascism was never a truly international force. And its development in nations like Italy and Spain, which lagged industrially, made it even less appealing outside of places that claimed a great past but revealed a rather modest present. The idea that advanced nations such as the U.S. erected welfare states because fascist Italy did so borders on the hallucinatory. For better or worse, modern Western democracies tend of their own accord to give birth to huge bureaucratic states that dole out social programs. There is no reason to assume that those who built and expanded such enterprises were dependent on a Latin fascist model.
Nor does the organic nationhood preached by the fascists have anything in common with the appeals to American nationhood and an American global mission that now issue from Republican and neoconservative sources. Unlike American hawks, fascists did not appeal to human rights, nor did they associate their sense of solidarity with any kind of propositional nationhood. Mussolini invoked “Latinity” as the essence of Italian national identity, and to whatever extent he hoped to recreate an Italian empire, he saw himself returning to the Roman past. This effort to return to ancient greatness was a recurrent fascist theme, together with the reconstruction of a social hierarchy that would be adapted to present needs. By contrast, our advocates of American outreach justify their politics as helping to liberate backwards societies from the shackles of tradition. They wish to make other peoples more like late modern Americans—consumerist, individualist, and free of sexism. This distinction is not an attempt to justify either sense of nationhood or the expansionist foreign policy to which it could lead. It simply calls attention to unlike things.
The historian John Lukacs has made the observation that any comparison between German Nazism and Latin fascism should prove definitively that there was no generic fascism. Lukacs’s statement is half true. There was a veritable gulf between Nazism and the tradition of Latin authoritarianism into which fascism fitted as a counterrevolutionary movement pretending to be a radical revolutionary force. Despite the eventual conversion of some Latin fascists to Hitler’s murderous totalitarian ventures, the two were not the same, and most Nazi collaborators in occupied countries were not convinced fascists but opportunistic politicians or military governments that were willing to cooperate with the Third Reich as long as it was winning. Yet there was a generic fascism, and it was Latin, corporatist, and authoritarian and featured a mystical idea of the nation. This fascism was far less radical and less expansive than German Nazism, a movement and regime that borrowed from fascist organizational models but also from the socialist experiment then being tried in Stalin’s Russia.
The general view of fascism as retrograde seems correct, and so are comparisons between fascist rule and Latin authoritarian regimes. One is drawn to this conclusion even after reading all the literature—some of it very persuasive—that argues fascism was revolutionary as well as nationalist and authoritarian. The only way one avoids coming to the conclusion that the Italian fascist regime did not look particularly revolutionary is by distinguishing fascism as a movement from fascism as the interwar Italian government. The first is intellectually exciting but the second seems to have been a pretentiously labeled patronage system. It was tied to a class system and a political culture that became obsolete in the course of the last century.
Mussolini went hopelessly astray in his making of allies in the late 1930s, and by 1943 he became a German puppet. But his earlier rule had been a comic opera affair, hidden behind the ornamental hierarchy of offices that Mussolini had constructed under the supposedly supreme authority of the “State.” Actually, the Duce ruled with his legions of advisors, while trying to get along with all classes. The attribution to his administration of totalitarian qualities has been much exaggerated. And so was the mistaken judgment made by, among others, FDR and Churchill that Mussolini ran his country efficiently. He managed the Depression by paying off industry to keep the working class employed and the Italian government did so with increasingly devalued money.
Fascism depended on an almost classical Marxist division of classes, with the workers on one side and the owners of productive forces on the other, the lower middle class hovering in between while usually, as Marx predicted, joining the party of order out of a sense of respectability. Marxist analyses of fascism continue to throw light on generic fascism because the revolutionary left and the fascists faced the same social climate. Significantly, this climate and the stratification on which it rested have vanished since the 1930s, even if our media and political propagandists refuse to notice.
The question finally arises as to why we should care if the meaning of fascism remains in freefall. Three answers come to mind. One, it is bad practice to allow what words mean to be decided by semi-literate journalists and political advocates in accordance with their changing interests. Terms that once had clear meanings are reduced to throwaway labels once the wrong people get hold of them. Herbert Butterfield was right when he insisted that one can only begin to understand the reference points of the past by freeing them from the hold of politicians and party hacks.
Two, a questionable belief still reigns that all political evil is of the right. After considerable research, I concluded that fascism was an objectively rightist movement since it was a culturally determined reaction to the revolutionary left. But this does not mean that generic, essentially Latin fascism finds its fullest expression in Hitlerian genocide. The Nazis, who have been falsely turned into the quintessential fascists, were far more revolutionary and more totalitarian than generic fascists. What’s more, the left has been capable of producing its own wicked acts and totalitarian temptations without borrowing anything from the right or the Nazis. Philosopher John Gray has made this point eloquently in the Times Literary Supplement, when he attributes to a failure of the leftist imagination a lack of any awareness of the “radical evil that comes from the pursuit of progress.”
And three, bringing up fascism, which is meant to bring to mind Hitler, is a thoroughly dishonest way to approach our present-day political and social problems. It is an attempt to play on the emotions of the listener to incite us to political or military action. One does not have to like the individuals or groups being targeted to recognize that we are not dealing with the Third Reich in any of today’s examples. Even less when we look at contemporary cases are we dealing the Latin fascists of the 1930s, who were merely a footnote in modern history. Calling something or someone fascist has come to involve emotional blackmail that should no longer be tolerated by the public. It is related to the parallel attempt to compare every foreign-policy crisis to “Munich 1938” before insisting that we send in the U.S. military to handle the situation.
Citing and documenting these false parallels may have some effect, if more people begin to notice this outrageous misuse of the past.
Paul Gottfried is the author of Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America.