Orwell Watch #27: What is fascism? Does anybody know?

Da Man

Da Man

I was talking online with friend and fellow blogger Artur Sebastian Rosman about the current obsessions in the news. One thing we both have noticed: suddenly everything and everyone is being called a “fascist.” But what, exactly, does the word mean nowadays, other than an all-purpose pejorative, something pleasant to scream at your opponents?

We went back the expert, George Orwell. Here’s what he said: “Of all the unanswered questions of our time, perhaps the most important is: ‘What is Fascism?’ One of the social survey organizations in America recently asked this question of a hundred different people, and got answers ranging from ‘pure democracy’ to ‘pure diabolism’. In this country if you ask the average thinking person to define Fascism, he usually answers by pointing to the German and Italian régimes. But this is very unsatisfactory, because even the major Fascist states differ from one another a good deal in structure and ideology.”

Seems it stumped him, too:

It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.


Real fascism

Yet underneath all this mess there does lie a kind of buried meaning. To begin with, it is clear that there are very great differences, some of them easy to point out and not easy to explain away, between the régimes called Fascist and those called democratic. Secondly, if ‘Fascist’ means ‘in sympathy with Hitler’, some of the accusations I have listed above are obviously very much more justified than others. Thirdly, even the people who recklessly fling the word ‘Fascist’ in every direction attach at any rate an emotional significance to it. By ‘Fascism’ they mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class. Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathizers, almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’. That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.

But Fascism is also a political and economic system. Why, then, cannot we have a clear and generally accepted definition of it? Alas! we shall not get one — not yet, anyway. To say why would take too long, but basically it is because it is impossible to define Fascism satisfactorily without making admissions which neither the Fascists themselves, nor the Conservatives, nor Socialists of any colour, are willing to make. All one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.

You can read the whole thing here. It’s not very long. (Get this: it’s on a Russian website.) Alternatively, you can look at this equally befuddled website post, written at the time the Bush Administration was calling Islamic fundamentalism “fascist.”

Tags: ,

3 Responses to “Orwell Watch #27: What is fascism? Does anybody know?”

  1. George Says:

    Part of the problem is that Mussolini, who popularized the term, was not good at systematic thinking. He had at least as much right to define the term as anyone else had, but he made it up as he went along, and wasn’t bothered by contradictions–he may not have had the concentration to notice them.

  2. Bruce Cole Says:

    Two very good essays on how to think about these matters by John Lukacs: “The Universality of National Socialism (The Mistaken Category of ‘Fascism’)” (2002) and “Seventy Years Later” (2009). Both can be found fairly easily on the internet (the latter on The American Scholar website). [One good thing about being snowed in at home is having the time to make these recommendations!] I too, grew up hearing “fascist” as all-purpose term of abuse when other, more accurate words would would have hit the mark and lived to see in middle age Bush use “fascist” for Sunni fundamentalism. All very tiring, and even more so now with The Donald and what to make of him and his court……..

  3. Paul Says:

    I tried describing fascism in an article I wrote in The Toronto Star in 2005. Even dictionary definitions of the word have varied over the years – specifically to remove references to the role of business! My own view is that fascism has only ever got legs any place in the context of highly concentrated, private control of the economy. This is what connects Italy, Germany, Spain and Japan. Herein lies the lesson for America today. The stereotype of the all-powerful fascist dictator is only partly accurate. For example, it was only when big business and banking united behind Hitler that he was able to change his flakey fringe movement into a terminal threat to the Weimar Republic. There is a substantial body of scholarship that associates the concentration of economic power with the concentration of political power. This thinking was popularized by FDR and by his anti-trust chief Thurman Arnold. Unfortunately, it was all forgotten in the subsequent decades of hysteria about Soviet communism. Before the Red Scare, the link between monopoly capitalism and fascism was so well recognized that the US armed forces sent Department of Justice anti-trust staff into postwar Germany to break up the great German industrial trusts for the express purpose of removing the conditions in which fascism could regenerate. Today, America’s productive capacity is controlled by so few firms that we can no longer cling to the pretense that we have a free market system. We have oligopoly. Trump and his cabinet picks represent the political expression of the will of the oligopoly. Enabled by the constitutional fictions that corporations are persons and that money is speech, the oligopoly has become the oligarchy. If business now weds itself to the extreme, nationalist political right wing, then surely the comparisons to Nazi Germany will be too obvious to deny.

    As an aside, I observe that writers overusing the term “fascism” are far outnumbered by writers cautioning against such overuse.