I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the term “fascist”, perhaps because it keeps coming up in political discussions or because of the bizarre media spectacle of having this term applied to our first black president. Sadly, the term is rarely used correctly. Even when leftists used the term in the 1960′s and 1970′s, it was more a derogatory euphemism than a real analysis of a political form.
And this seems to be the nature of use of the word in contemporary culture – everyone uses it and no-one seems to know for sure what it means. It is used to conjure up an image of total state control, of mustachioed leaders, of forced work camps and mass exterminations, of evil in a political sense. It has been applied not only to Obama, but to Saddam Hussein, Nixon, and really anyone powerful we don’t like. And I think this lack of understanding and analysis makes it easy to use in this way – as the verbal form of a rotten tomato to throw at a hated figure.
Some of the difficulty may lie in the movements that created it. Mussolini, who adopted the use of the Roman fasces, a symbol of political and legal authority, was not known as a systematic political thinker. He basically borrowed from where-ever he wanted to create an opportunistic political form. However, European fascist movements from their era of greatest power – the 1920′s, 30′s and early 40′s – have remarkably similar characteristics, and I think it is not only possible but important to recognize what fascism was.
Fascism as a potent mass movement is tied to a particular era and geography – a European political phenomenon from the inter-war period. This is not to say that fascist groups do not exist today, or that a resurgence of similar movements could not occur – in fact they may be occurring. But we don’t have true fascism yet, not as state power and certainly not as a potent international movement.
Much of my analysis of fascism comes from a study of the 20th century, and in particular I recommend Phillip Morgan’s Fascism in Europe, 1919-1945 (Routledge 2003), as the most comprehensive study of the phenomenon I’ve found. Morgan looks at fascist regimes in Italy, Germany, Hungary and Romania, as well as movements in Yugoslavia, France, England and other nations including tiny movements in Scandinavia – basically the entire range of European fascists at the time. It is important to note that all these movements have similar characteristics, and borrow from each other.
A definition of fascism
Given the lack of true consensus by scholars, I want to put forward a definition of fascism that I feel is most accurate – and if you disagree, feel free to comment. Fascism is a mass political movement and/or regime with three characteristics: 1. militarism, and an attempt to re-create society based on military norms and forms of organization, 2. overt racism, with a racialized “in-group” and persecuted “out-groups”, and 3. authoritarianism plus a mass political leader with a cult of personality. These characteristics were true of every major European fascist movement and regime, but also define our popular understanding of those regimes.
So are is the American Nazi Party fascist? They sure are trying to be, but with all due respect to their victims, they have always been a marginal force, not a mass political movement. Was Franco a fascist? Not really. As a brutal military dictator he resembled fascists of the time, and Morgan and I may have different reasons for not considering Franco a fascist, but my argument is that since overt racism was not a central part of Franco’s program he’s not really quite a fascist. Though this was probably no consolation to his victims.
Beyond those two clearly confusing cases, if we think of the number of people the term fascist has been inaccurately applied to, the list is quite long.
Let’s take a few examples. Was Stalin a fascist? No, he was the intensely brutal head of an extremely powerful 20th century Communist nation. He didn’t have to be a fascist to kill millions of Russians. However, Stalin was still prevented by the dominant communist ideology to allow racism to be a central feature of his regime. Militarism, authoritarianism and a slave system using the unpaid labor of political dissidents was enough for Stalin.
Now we get into more difficult terrain. Was Leander Perez, the mid-20th century political boss of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, a fascist? As an aggressively racist authoritarian political leader he sure was close. But Perez never tried to reorganize Plaquemines upon military lines. He didn’t need to. One main thing that makes brutal 20th century racist political leaders in the Deep South something other than fascists is that they didn’t need militarism. Informal violence against black individuals and communities worked fine for their ends. They never raised armies to invade Washington. Maybe they knew better.
A note on corporatism
Mussolini once stated that fascism is the union of corporations and the state. As I mentioned before, Mussolini was hardly a categorical political thinker, and I take such a comment (as much as I like to quote it) as a missive. It is true that corporatism was the economic program of European fascist regimes, and fit into the fascist schema. However, corporatism exists in many other systems that have nothing to do with fascism, and though inconsistent, in contemporary usage we tend to be talking about these other characteristics.
Lance Hill’s incorrect characterization of Huey Long
One reason I am writing this is that my work on Huey Long has been plagued by inaccurate representations of the man coming from many people who should know better. While I have tremendous respect for Lance Hill, particularly for his work on the Deacons for Defense, his description of Huey Long as a “bayou fascist” is particularly noteworthy for its flagrant substitution of euphemism for accurate terminology.
Long’s regime was authoritarian and he certainly was a mass political leader with a cult of personality. But since his political movement was not founded either on militarism (he didn’t enlist for the First World War; when asked about it he said he “wasn’t mad at anybody”) or overt racism, he is hardly a fascist. Using the national guard in New Orleans doesn’t count and it is a disrespect to the legitimate victims of fascism to use this term for a regime that started providing free school books to black students and didn’t kill anybody (Long’s assassination was the only political murder associated with his rule in the state). Long mobilized poor whites not against African-Americans but against the rich – hardly a fascist basis for a political movement.
Sure, Louisiana was (is) a racist state, and supporters including Perez were close to being fascists, but that hardly makes Long the equivalent of a Hitler or a Mussolini. One out of three – personal rule by a mass leader with cult of personality – does not a fascist make.
Fascists in America
I am not the only one to note that fascism never really caught on here. Perhaps it is our distrust of European political ideas. Perhaps it is because America has distinct if similar political forms to Europe, and we tend to use European political terminology.
However, movements similar to fascism can be found emerging in the American right. In particular, Arizona’s right-wing anti-immigration movement may be the closest thing we have seen to a real fascist movement in this country. The Tea Party also has fascist tendencies – though its messaging is notably unclear and inconsistent. The militarism – including the strong emphasis on bearing arms, even bringing them to demonstrations, the support of wars against the Muslim “enemy” and the militarized border – is a start. The racism and authoritarianism are absolutely there, with Arizona’s new legalized racial profiling, and the constant demonization of immigrants and Muslims, as well as appeals to restore order to the nation, which I can only guess would be the order of Gestapo and work camps, which immigrant detention centers resemble more and more.
The way that right-wing political leaders and agitators talk about immigrants in this country is very similar to Nazi anti-Jewish, anti-Roma (Gypsy) and anti-immigrant propaganda. In both cases, leaders mobilize masses, including small businesspeople and a downwardly mobile middle class, many of whom are suffering from very real economic crises, to blame racialized “out-groups” for their economic circumstances and the state of their nation. Under the Nazis, such propaganda was blatantly racially oriented. In the United States, white Anglo “Americans” are mobilized against overwhelmingly Latino immigrants and Muslim Arabs, with less overt mention of race – though religion is clearly mentioned. But the realities are clear, if nowhere else than in the racial profiling that Arizona is attempts to enshrine as law.
The only thing that keeps these groups from being real, bona-fide fascists is the lack of a charismatic mass leader. Sarah Palin is too much of a joke – like Alessandra Mussolini (grand-daughter of Il Duce), who broke up the far-right grouping in the European Parliament ranting about Romanians, she may be more of a liability than an asset to her movement. A real fascist leader would have at least held on to the governorship of Alaska to use as a springboard, but Palin seems to be more of a Paris Hilton than a Hitler. Even skilled agitators like Glen Beck fail to make the cut.
So perhaps this lack of leadership on the right (similar to the American left, frankly) is the only thing that keeps us from having a true, home-grown fascist movement. Thank God for small favors. However, it is important to note that many of those who are painting mustaches on Obama are, in fact, very close to being fascists themselves, with all the racism, militarism and authoritarianism, masquerading as patriotism and self-reliance, fueled by a frenzy of fear-based messaging. Do not underestimate them. Historically, that has been a fatal mistake.