September 13, 2003


The Latest Obscenity Has Seven Letters: The word "Fascist" once meant Hitler or Mussolini, but it has become so elastic that it's used today for bin Laden or Bush. (ALEXANDER STILLE, 9/13/03, NY Times)

A few years after the end of World War II, George Orwell wrote that the "the word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies `something not desirable.' "

Since then the term fascist has gone in and out of fashion several times. In the late 1960's, the time of civil rights and Vietnam War protests, it was widely used to describe everything from police brutality to compulsory bedtime for children. With the waning of the cold war it seemed to go out of vogue: how could there be fascism without its historical adversary, communism?

But since Sept. 11, the term fascist appears to be making something of a comeback.

Not long after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Christopher Hitchens adopted the term "Islamic fascism" to describe Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and other forms of militant Islamic fundamentalism. More recently Paul Berman, in his book "Terror and Liberalism," uses the fascist analogy to defend the United States invasion of Iraq, applying the term to both the regime of Saddam Hussein and various manifestations of Islamic fundamentalism.

Meanwhile, in what many people see as a particularly far-fetched usage, some on the left are dusting off the political vocabulary of the 1920's and 30's to describe policies of the Bush administration that they find antidemocratic: aggressive unilateralism in foreign affairs, the doctrine of pre-emptive force and what they perceive as the abridgment of civil liberties in the war on terror. Just this week, protesters were flashing signs emblazoned with the word fascist during Attorney General John Ashcroft's speeches in favor of the antiterrorism laws.

The following seems like a pretty good discussion of fascism--though it seems more geared towards Nazism than toward other more benevolent forms such as those of Franco's Spain and Pinochet's Chile--and by its terms you can see both why Islamicism is referred to as an iteration of fascism and why it's idiotic to speak of the Bush administration as fascist, What is Fascism?: Some General Ideological Features (Matthew N. Lyons, Public Eye):
Fascism is a form of extreme right-wing ideology that celebrates the nation or the race as an organic community transcending all other loyalties. It emphasizes a myth of national or racial rebirth after a period of decline or destruction. To this end, fascism calls for a "spiritual revolution" against signs of moral decay such as individualism and materialism, and seeks to purge "alien" forces and groups that threaten the organic community. Fascism tends to celebrate masculinity, youth, mystical unity, and the regenerative power of violence. Often, but not always, it promotes racial superiority doctrines, ethnic persecution, imperialist expansion, and genocide. At the same time, fascists may embrace a form of internationalism based on either racial or ideological solidarity across national boundaries. Usually fascism espouses open male supremacy, though sometimes it may also promote female solidarity and new opportunities for women of the privileged nation or race.

Fascism's approach to politics is both populist--in that it seeks to activate "the people" as a whole against perceived oppressors or enemies--and elitist--in that it treats the people's will as embodied in a select group, or often one supreme leader, from whom authority proceeds downward. Fascism seeks to organize a cadre-led mass movement in a drive to seize state power. It seeks to forcibly subordinate all spheres of society to its ideological vision of organic community, usually through a totalitarian state. Both as a movement and a regime, fascism uses mass organizations as a system of integration and control, and uses organized violence to suppress opposition, although the scale of violence varies widely.

Fascism is hostile to Marxism, liberalism, and conservatism, yet it borrows concepts and practices from all three. Fascism rejects the principles of class struggle and workers' internationalism as threats to national or racial unity, yet it often exploits real grievances against capitalists and landowners through ethnic scapegoating or radical-sounding conspiracy theories. Fascism rejects the liberal doctrines of individual autonomy and rights, political pluralism, and representative government, yet it advocates broad popular participation in politics and may use parliamentary channels in its drive to power. Its vision of a "new order" clashes with the conservative attachment to tradition-based institutions and hierarchies, yet fascism often romanticizes the past as inspiration for national rebirth.

The defining features would seem to be its totalitarian statism--which makes it similar to communism, Islamicism, socialism, etc.--and its tendency to organize the State around a single race, ethnic group, or, more esoterically, the idea of the nation.

To the extent that we can say what Osama bin Laden seeks, it seems fair to say that he envisions a a future in which all Arabs are united in a single Islamic state with every aspect of life governed by Islamic law.

To the extent that George Bush's conservatism can be boiled down to a single idea, it is the devolution of power from the state back to individuals, with a resulting restoration of society and dimunition of the State.

-DEFINITION: fas┬Ěcism (
-fascism (The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001)
-Fascism (Wikipedia)
-Fascism in Europe (Internet Modern History Sourcebook )
-ETEXT: FASCISM -- What It Is and How To Fight It (Leon Trotsky's 1930-32)
-ESSAY: Revolution from the Right: Fascism (Roger Griffin, Oxford Brookes University)
-ESSAY: The New Fascism: Frightening extremist rhetoric from America’s critics. (Victor Davis Hanson, April 26, 2002, National Review)
-ESSAY: Economic Fascism (Thomas J. DiLorenzo)

So-called "corporatism" as practiced by Mussolini and revered by so many intellectuals and policy makers had several key elements: The state comes before the individual. Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary defines fascism as "a political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized, autocratic government." This stands in stark contrast to the classical liberal idea that individuals have natural rights that pre-exist government; that government derives its "just powers" only through the consent of the governed; and that the principal function of government is to protect the lives, liberties, and properties of its citizens, not to aggrandize the state.

Mussolini viewed these liberal ideas (in the European sense of the word "liberal") as the antithesis of fascism: "The Fascist conception of life," Mussolini wrote, "stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with the State. It is opposed to classical liberalism [which] denied the State in the name of the individual; Fascism reasserts the rights of the State as expressing the real essence of the individual."

Mussolini thought it was unnatural for a government to protect individual rights: "The maxim that society exists only for the well-being and freedom of the individuals composing it does not seem to be in conformity with nature's plans." "If classical liberalism spells individualism," Mussolini continued, "Fascism spells government."

The essence of fascism, therefore, is that government should be the master, not the servant, of the people.

-ESSAY: The 14 Defining Characteristics Of Fascism (Dr. Lawrence Britt, Spring 2003, Free Inquiry)
-ESSAY: Flirting with Fascism: Neocon theorist Michael Ledeen draws more from Italian fascism than from the American Right. (John Laughland, June 30, 2003, The American Conservative)
-EXCERPT: Rational Fascism: Excerpted from Chapter 1 of Blackshirts and Reds (Michael Parenti)
-TEACHERS' GUIDE: Nazi Fascism and the Modern Totalitarian State
-REVIEW: of The Fascist Revolution: Toward a General Theory of Fascism. By George L. Mosse (Brian C. Anderson, First Things)

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 13, 2003 7:09 AM

I found Mr. Lyons' "definition" of fascism to shal I say this...muddled? Lacking in focus? Slippery? Easily applied to almost anyone running a country. For a stripped down, no-nonsense definition, I urge your visitors to seek out "Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal" by Ayn Rand. I found it in paperback at a thrift store in who knows where. It's a collection of essays (with a couple thrown in by a young Alan Greenspan!) on capitalism and statism and she doesn't mess around. She is rather blunt and clear in her hatred of statist weasels. If Ms. Rand were alive today her opponents would no doubt call her...a fascist!

Posted by: Brian McKim at September 13, 2003 7:41 AM

Let's not forget that Whittaker Chambers almost DID call Rand a fascist (see this review [scroll down]). Nevertheless, I'm sure her critiques of Fascism are vigorous and compelling.

Anyway, OJ, I think it worth noting the antipathy Fascism has for Christianity, despite efforts by tendentious commentators to conflate the two. Paul Johnson in _Modern Times_ calls Franco, for example, a medievalist.

Posted by: Paul Cella at September 13, 2003 8:35 AM

Here's one to add to the list: ESSAY: Al Qaeda's Fantasy Ideology (Lee Harris, August 2002 Policy Review). Harris' thesis is that fascism, Marxism, and Wahabbi Islamicism are all specific instances of a "fantasy ideology:" "political and ideological symbols and tropes used not for political purposes, but entirely for the benefit of furthering a specific personal or collective fantasy."

Posted by: Mike Morley at September 13, 2003 9:55 AM

It seems to me that the defining element of fascism is the unity of race, nationality, ethnicity. A unity of purpose against "the other", that "other" which must be removed and destroyed.

It's also, of course, the defining element of communism with "the other" being an economic class or property owners or capitalists.

With both systems, power must be centralized in order to protect the weaker elements in society from "the other." Until that threatening other is defeated - and they are always on the verge of recapturing power - protection of the state must be given to an elite group.

Nothing in George Bush's policies remotely resemble either of the two qualities. It's remarkable that I even have to write that sentence.

But I guess our friend Mr. Shropshire will disagree.


Posted by: SteveMG at September 13, 2003 10:38 AM

The Harris quote, above, could reasonably include the recent Peace and Anti Globalist demonstrators.

Posted by: genecis at September 13, 2003 11:02 AM

If I understand the history correctly, the Ba'ath party of Syria and Iraq are descended directly from the Nazi party in Germany. So there is no "analogy" when it comes to Hussein's fascism.

Posted by: Timothy at September 13, 2003 2:55 PM

My understanding is that the Baathist Party is a mixture of Arab nationalism, secularism and Leninist organizational principles. It's a revolutionary party that must continually raise the specter of outside external enemies (Zionists, Westerners) threatening the homeland.

Nasser WITHOUT the (somewhat) human face?


Posted by: SteveMG at September 13, 2003 3:59 PM

Well, nothing says that "fascism," whatever it is or was, had to be coherent, and it wasn't.

This has confused a lot of people, like Orrin, who looks at the mystical and nutty Nazis and sees rationalists.

Probably the best description of fascism, though a very long one, is Denis Mack Smith's "Mussolini's Roman Empire," or one of his other books about 20th century Italy.

Favorite anecdote: Mussolini reveling in being Il Duce because he could get his sheets changed "three times a week."

Mike's on to something with that "fantasy" business.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 15, 2003 5:14 PM

All rationalism is mystical and nutty--it proceeds from faith while decrying faith.

Posted by: oj at September 15, 2003 6:37 PM

Odd to see you in bed with academic leftists, Orrin.

But see Allan Franklin's "Sensitivity and Discord."

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 15, 2003 10:14 PM