You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Failure to Define Fascism Today

Having only a hazy idea of what, exactly, fascism consists of makes it hard to explain why fascist rhetoric needs to be excluded from public discourse.

Keystone/Getty Images

“You can’t define it as good or bad,” Caio Mussolini, great-grandson of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, told reporters on May 8, discussing fascism during his run for the European Parliament. Fascism was a “complicated, nuanced period.”

It’s not the first time the dictator’s progeny have defended him. Last October, granddaughter Alessandra Mussolini, a member of European Parliament, threatened on Twitter to “monitor” and “bring to court” anyone who disrespected the memory of her grandfather. In April, she tangled with Jim Carrey on Twitter after the actor posted a famous photograph of the bodies of Mussolini and his mistress as a warning about the dangers of fascism. “You are a bastard,” she tweeted at Carrey.

These incidents, and others, have exposed a peculiarity in how the Western world talks about history. It’s hard to imagine a serious public intellectual or politician of any stripe calling the Holocaust a “complex, nuanced period.” Nor are there many full-throated defenses of Hitler. But defending Italian fascism, while extreme, is still allowed in public discourse: Separated from the specter of Auschwitz, it seems, people have trouble defining what exactly about fascism is bad enough to make it indefensible.

The word “fascism,” as it’s used today, has been stripped of much of its specificity. Having an ugly debate? Smear your opponent as a fascist. Don’t like Trump? Call him a Nazi.

The stigma of fascism today comes mainly, in fact, through its association with the Holocaust and Hitler. But fascism and Nazism are not synonymous: Mussolini, for example, doubted Hitler’s belief in a master, biological race, and hired Jews as advisors in his early leadership. Nazi Germany, meanwhile, never identified itself as fascist. It called itself “national socialist,” a distinct but related brand that incorporated fascist thought, but with both more agrarian and more explicitly racist aspects to its ideology.

When historians use the word “fascism,” they’re usually talking about these types of political movements and governments particular to Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. The violent, nationalist juncture was the product of circumstances, beginning in Italy in 1919, when European conservatives, weakened by the upheaval of World War I, wanted tough allies to fend off leftist uprisings—Communism in particular. Demagogue Benito Mussolini set out to convert the workers to nationalism, violently shutting down leftist opposition with paramilitaries that would roam the streets, beating up socialists. Italian fascists called for a national renewal, founded on physical strength, a fusing of tradition and modernism, higher birth rates, and industrial and military might as the antidote to economic woes.

A simple definition of fascism remains challenging even today. Rather than a foundational text like Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, which communism could turn to, its markers were emotional—seen in its charisma, nostalgia and anger—or aesthetic, with enthusiastic crowds and goose-stepping soldiers cheering before a cultish leader, whose paramilitaries enforced loyalty through violence.

But various scholars have offered guidelines for understanding fascism’s essential features. Yale emeritus historian Robert Paxton’s classic 1998 identification of the “five stages of fascism” argued that we should look to processes, not cosmetic features like flags and uniforms, to understand fascism. Fascism was marked first by conservatives seeking to seduce farmers and industrial workers into the resistance against left-wing unions. The movement then escalated into militants being deployed to city streets to enforce the fascist ideology, eventually leading to total control. Specifically, it followed a particular progression: “(1) the initial creation of fascist movements; (2) their rooting as parties in a political system; (3) the acquisition of power; (4) the exercise of power, and finally, in the longer term, (5) radicalization or entropy.” In other words, mere fascist ideology on its own did not produce fascism.

Roger Griffin, political science professor at Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom, zeroed in on a different defining feature of fascism in his 1991 book The Nature of Fascism: the fusion of “populist ultra-nationalism” with a “mythic core.” Fascists sought to return to the past, to strengthen the nation by resurrecting it. Fascist leaders everywhere convinced their early followers that their nation had descended from a glorious heritage, hijacked and destroyed by a corrupt elite. The fascists, the heroes, could strengthen themselves into what were called the “New Men,” channeling a mythical tradition of knight-like strength, protecting community and tradition, but often, paradoxically, through powerful, modern militaries.

Today, we have no true mass fascist movement: We lack paramilitary squads roaming the streets, and a communist uprising that supposedly merits destruction by a one-party fascist state. But a number of leaders recently have been drawing on a mix of traditions that, jumbled together, begin to take on fascist-like appearances. “A crucial question to ask is, how do the conservatives deal with the populace?” Roger Griffin told me by phone. “In Austria and Poland and Hungary, the conservatives are in bed with the populists. And that produces a mishmash like in Italian fascism, between the Catholic Church and the revolutionary nationalists. It’s a sort of rerun in the way the far right can create coalitions with the center-right…you’ve actually got a very dangerous force.”

These current movements are fascistic rather than truly fascist, though, Griffin argued—a distinction many modern commentators ignore. “When you’re under the canopy in the Amazon, you look up and the trees all look the same, because they overlap and intersect,” he said. “But they’re different trees, and they have different DNA. In the same way, we get governments that end up looking like modern fascist regimes, even though their roots are different.”

Examples of such fascistic leaders abound. On May 13, President Donald Trump granted the first private audience with a sitting president to Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a fascistic leader who prefers to think of Hungary as the historic kingdom guarding the Christian world. His government has whipped up racist resentment of Middle Eastern migrants, European Union bureaucrats and, it’s implied (though never stated by Orban himself), a global Jewish financial conspiracy. Hungary has even rehabilitated controversial national hero Admiral Miklos Horthy, the World War II-era dictator who allied with Nazi Germany and deported a half-million Jews to be gassed.

The Chinese government, originally Maoist and then capitalist, Griffin said, is being “fascist-ized.” Increasingly, it meets the fascist characteristics of harkening to a glorious past of purity and empire, declaring victimhood at the hands of the British and U.S. imperialist who created a “century of humiliation,” rejuvenating the nation through technology and industry, setting up a personality cult under President Xi Jinping, and enforcing ideological conformity by housing 1 million ethnic Uighurs and Kazakhs in concentration camps, as well as sending out paramilitary-like units wearing red armbands in Xinjiang, in the far west.

Putin’s oligarchic Russia, Stephen Shenfield, author of the book Russian Fascism, told me, has meanwhile co-opted fascistic thinking called Eurasianism, a myth of common historical destiny of all Russians. Like the pan-German mythology of the 1930s, Eurasianism looks to the past to restore decrepit Russia, declaring that its people descended from a unique Slavic and Turkic ancestry, bent on reclaiming their history after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Eurasianism partially motivated Russia’s seizure of the Crimea in 2014 and the invasion of Georgia in 2008.

The forces and traits that gave rise to fascism—the desire to keep communists at bay, to avenge defeat in World War I—no longer exist. “There are ways of being authoritarian which are completely new,” Griffin said. Today’s fascistic leaders aren’t as aggressive and bellicose with their geopolitical expansions, because they aren’t responding to a single, global grievance. Nobody fears a global communist movement will topple governments one by one. The closest transnational threat, militant Islamism, is wavering after the routing of ISIS. So current authoritarian leaders have a harder time galvanizing their followers and justifying repressive policies. But softer and more sophisticated approach—a fascistic one, not a fascist one—can win a mob of angry followers. As today’s authoritarians have evolved with the times, they’ve found ways to incorporate fascistic thinking without discrediting themselves as outright fascists.

And as these governments take hold, we remain unable to articulate what’s really wrong with their fascist leanings. At its heart, fascism is an alliance of hardline and moderate conservatives seeking to repress left-wing sentiment. It’s a campaign to convert the working classes to nationalism, to make them angry and violent, to convince them that they’ve been betrayed by their global-elite leaders. It’s the resurrection of an illustrious past, an effort to propel the nation forward, to expand with industry, military weapons and technology.

The danger of fascism lies in its ability to coopt legitimate resentments resulting from inequality and refashion them as hostility towards outsiders. Instead of addressing working-class grievances, fascistic regimes offer their followers a different form of reward by redrawing the lines of inclusion and exclusion, mass-producing myth and arms in equal measure. Until moderates and leftists can identify these characteristics and talk, clearly, about their costs, fascistic thinking will be hard to challenge.