“France’s fascist uprising” screamed the front-page headline of a London newspaper following the National Front’s victory in the first round of the regional elections on Dec. 6. “Trump is a fascist,” asserts the combative neocon commentator Max Boot (adding “And that’s not a term I use loosely or often”). “We are here faced by fascists,” Hilary Benn, the Labour Party’s foreign affairs spokesman, declares to the House of Commons, by way of arguing for British intervention in Syria. “And what we know about fascists,” he went on, “is that they need to be defeated.”
Anyone who puzzles over these philippics isn’t alone, and the problem is not new. “Of all the unanswered questions of our time, perhaps the most important is: ‘What is fascism?”’ That was George Orwell, in 1944. He had heard the epithet “fascist” applied, he said, to fox-hunting, Kipling, Gandhi, homosexuality, “astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.”
His understandable conclusion was that if it could be used or abused quite so widely, “the word ‘fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless.” So has it acquired any more useful meaning in the 70 years since? The latest evidence suggests not.
By origin, fascism was a European name for a European phenomenon. The word comes from Italy, with a rather confused etymology, from armed gangs in Sicily called fasci, but also invoking “fasces,” the bundles of rods and axes carried in front of the Roman lictors to signify their authority. As the symbol of Mussolini’s regime, it was emblazoned on flags and military aircraft, although its recognizable silhouette can be seen in many places far from the Palazzo Venezia. Perhaps Mayor Rahm Emanuel has noticed the fasces carved over the portal of City Hall in Chicago.
When the word was first coined, fascism was a rather incoherent ideology, a response to — though bred out of — the carnage and social collapse of the Great War and the shock of the October Revolution in Russia. It might even be seen as a perversion or heresy of socialism. Hitler called himself a National Socialist, and Mussolini had in fact been a socialist of the extreme left.
If a thumbnail definition were attempted, fascism was a tendency combining extreme nationalism, a contempt for democracy, and a cult of violence. In the end that cult seemed to contain the seeds of its own destruction; by 1945 the ideology lay shredded on the battlefield, apart from a few holdovers in Spain and Latin America. Now we are told that it has reappeared in many guises, from ISIS to Marine Le Pen’s National Front to a loud-mouthed American demagogue. But is your fascism my fascism, or his or her fascism?
What Mr. Benn said in Parliament echoed the words of the late, much missed, if sometimes exasperating Christopher Hitchens. Some years ago he was writing with perplexity about the political situation he found in his native England, where “dyed-in-the-wool reactionaries” were warning against American hubris, while “leftist friends of mine from the 1960s are now on Labour’s front bench and staunchly defend the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as a part of the noble anti-fascist tradition.”
Since then we have been warned about “Islamofascism,” and Al Qaeda and ISIS are denounced by Western politicians and commentators as “fascists.” Although Mideastern zealots have picked up the hate-filled anti-Jewish rhetoric of European fascists — with the infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” enjoying a new lease on life in Arabic — some observers have questioned whether there is any real sense in applying such a specifically European concept as fascism to “the House of Islam.” ISIS fighters are bloodthirsty religious fanatics, but not nationalists at all. Their name supposedly proclaims a “state,” but something pan-Islamic, entirely unlike the central European definition of fascism as ultranationalism.
What is happening in the Middle East today is horrible, while what’s happening in Europe is ominous, from France to Poland and Hungary, where far-right governments tinged with xenophobia are already in power. Indeed, Donald Trump might have been listening to those governments, which have said that they only want Christian refugees, not Muslims.
But the whole Islamic world is in the throes of a vast crisis quite unlike anything Europe underwent in the past century. European political malformations should not be confused with the long and unlovely American tradition of no-nothing bigotry and nativism that Mr. Trump adorns. And we should take care not to wear the word “fascism” out with overuse, lest we fail to recognize the real thing, if it does reappear.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of The Controversy of Zion and The Strange Death of Tory England.