Vague, abusive, and indiscriminate use of language is common in political discourse, and currently is more ubiquitous than ever. In recent decades, one of the most popular terms of political abuse has been “fascist.” The practice of misusing this word quickly reached heights of hysteria during the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump in 2016. Its use has become so indiscriminate that some complain the word has lost any precise meaning save that of disapproval.
“Fascist” is particularly useful as a multipurpose pejorative because the term lacks any clear inherent meaning, however broad, as do other common words such as “liberal,” “conservative,” or “socialist.” The term was initially derived from the fasces symbol of the ancient Roman Republic, meaning “union” or “bundle,” and by the beginning of the twentieth century was a common appellation for several different radical Italian groups, at first more to the left than the right. The ultra-nationalist Fasci italiani di combattimento, founded in 1919, morphed into a mass movement and two years later rebaptized itself as the Partito Nazionale Fascista. Its members were the original Fascists. The adjective was then applied generally by friends and foes to the eighteen-year dictatorship of Benito Mussolini (1925-43).
The term was first adopted as a general political pejorative by the Communist International in 1921 and later applied by communist propagandists in numerous variants to all manner of groups—“liberal-fascist,” “conservative-fascist,” and so on—as well as to Italian Fascists. As authoritarian nationalism flourished in many European countries during the Great Depression, serious commentators and analysts began to extend the term, as well, to radical right-wing and authoritarian nationalists of diverse stripes, some more, some less, similar to Italian Fascists.
The National Socialist German Workers' Party never called either itself or Hitler’s twelve-year regime “fascist,” preferring not to be confused with Italians. After 1933, however, when people said “fascist,” increasingly they meant “Nazi,” and this implication became common during World War II. It has persisted.
In the later twentieth century, historians tended to conclude that, for purposes of comparative analysis, a “generic fascism” might be identified in Europe during the generation 1920–45, even though individual expressions of this tendency varied widely. What made generic fascism distinctive was neither dictatorship nor violence—both even more characteristic of and extreme in the Soviet Union—but rather its emphasis on the cultural and moral goal of an “anthropological revolution.” In Germany this took a racial form, but all fascist movements emphasized creation of a “new man” who would live by spirit and will more than reason—vigorous, bold, valiant, ready for combat, and firmly loyal to nation and leader. Fascists rejected materialism and egalitarianism in favor of doctrines of vitalism, nationalism, and the primacy of will power. The other most distinctive feature was a “therapeutic” doctrine of violence, which held that violence of the right sort could be a positive moral good, encouraging bravery, self-sacrifice, loyalty, and self-discipline. Doctrinally, this was the key respect in which fascism went beyond communism in rejecting the cultural and moral order.
The aggressive military expansion of the fascist powers doomed them to complete destruction by 1945, and Hitler’s Holocaust so discredited extreme nationalism in Western countries that fascist ideology could never be successfully revived. It was dissolved in an era of materialism, hedonism, partial democratization, and radical egalitarianism.
Yet the term never dies, for the sibilant and sinister sound of the word, together with its very indeterminacy of meaning, makes it ideal as an indiscriminate pejorative, particularly with regard to the more right-wing or conservative side of politics, and all the more with anything referring, however vaguely, to nationalism or a more traditional authority. Objective analysis of contemporary political expression in the contemporary West might readily conclude that in terms of the use of violence and the search for an anti-traditional anthropological revolution, the term might be more readily applied to the left than to the right of the political spectrum.
Whatever the usage, nowadays it has almost nothing to do with historical fascism, which featured specific characteristics of a preceding era. Due to a profound process of historical change, its direct equivalence cannot possibly be revived. Genuine neofascist groups do appear, but lack support and grow weaker with each decade. A valid rule of thumb is that the more important an extremist group, the less truly neofascist it is. Conversely, the more genuinely neofascist, the less significant.
The F-word has become such a popular epithet in part because its association with Hitler and the Holocaust gives it a special imprecatory power. It denotes something not merely bad or violent, but positively demonic. This confers a sort of metaphysical or spiritual force lacking in any equivalent term, and is all the more useful in the twenty-first century as progressivist politics more and more adopts a redemptive and salvific tone as a sort of substitute religion.
Though fascism has all but disappeared, antifascism has not. An antifascism without fascism makes it possible to create or imagine exactly the right kind of enemy, one that in fact does not exist. This has the further utility of seeming to justify an appeal to violence and the adoption of increasingly aggressive tactics, which impose ever greater centralized power and terms of censorship, and gain objectives less easily achieved through rational discourse and analysis. There is no simpler, easier way to stigmatize and to verbally assert power over an opponent.
This rhetorical tendency represents the present and possibly culminating phase of a growing current in Western culture and politics since the 1950s, best analyzed in Paul Gottfried’s new book, Antifascism: The Course of a Crusade, out very soon.
Stanley G. Payne is the Jaume Vicens Vives and Hilldale Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.