It is well know how eager the liberal left is at times to label their right-wing opponents as fascists. With the release of conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg’s new book, Liberal Fascism, the other side now fires back with the accusations that there is a traceable pattern in American liberalism from Woodrow Wilson’s war propaganda machine to the organic food industry today that has elements of fascist thought. I will abstain from judging how accurate this all is (although my gut tells me not very much at all). Instead I wonder what the ‘fascist’ connotation means in today’s usage, and whether this is still faithful to its historical meaning.
Fascism is a notoriously difficult term to define even historically because there is a lot of debate about the degrees of similarity between all its national instances. The prototypical fascist state that comes to everyone’s mind at first thought is Nazi Germany, but it was Mussolini’s Italy which first used the label as a reference to the fascio, the symbol for unity used by both socialist and nationalist groups in the country during the 19th century. In fact, the notion of there being a generic fascism in the same way as there can be a generic Marxism, for example, is doubtful. This is because while Marxism as a movement was preceded by an intellectual doctrine of the theory of international class struggle; this is in contrast to fascism, which was a general trend of nationalist movements, and so varied accordingly to the customs and ideologies of the people it represented. This is not to say that fascism did not have intellectual roots; but the social theory it presented was never as clearly defined as Marxism or liberalism, and therefore it remained more a particular set of movements, and not a universal doctrine.
Another reason to emphasize the differences among the fascists was the ideological conceptions of themselves which they created. For example, Mussolini’s Italy was modeled as a government in which all aspects of life involved and ultimately led to the state. It was precisely in this beneficent sense that Mussolini first described his government as totalitarian. This is contrast to Nazi Germany, which merely used the state and the party as a means to creating an organic volk community based on racial and cultural affiliation, not that of the state.
An interesting correlation that can be pointed out in the rise of fascism it originating predominantly in countries of Catholic heritage. This can be seen in the cases of Italy, Spain’s Falange, Croatia’s Ustase, and the derivative Latin American movements in Chile, Brazil, and Argentina; the origins of the Nazi party in heavily Catholic southern Germany and Austria apply to this as well. But there are exceptions with this too: Romania’s Iron Cross and Oswald Mosley’s British fascist party. Once again, any theory of generic fascism finds itself facing conflicting evidence.
What this all means is that the use of the fascist label today varies a great extent, not only in contemporary politics but in historical studies as well. Throwing around the term without caution is akin to using the totalitarian label to describe ideologically and structurally different governments like Nazi Germany and the USSR simply because they both present a clearly defined antithesis to liberal democracy. Instead of trying to provide a clear-cut definition myself, instead I just want to observe that in today’s usage the fascist description has a lot to do with the context: who is speaking, who the term is meant to describe, and what the overall structure of the argument is. Otherwise we are left with nothing more than a word that acts simply as a synonym for ‘bad guy.’