How did an Italian term (facismo) used in a particular context in 1919 come to define an entire disjointed collection of nationalistic totalitarian-esque movements throughout the 1920s-1940s, and continue to be apparently misused to describe the resurgence of nationalist sentiments nearly a century later? The answer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, quite similar to the explanation as to why these movements were so explosively successful in the first place: the lack of a widely understood and accepted definition.
Prior to engaging with this collection of readings, I admittedly did not give much thought to the historical vagueness of the term “fascism.” In my mind, the term had always been associated with those common images discussed by Robert Paxton in his The Anatomy of Fascism: chanting crowds, exclusionary rhetoric, and orchestrated acts of violence. Now, though, I see there are broad differences between the various movements which have been described as fascist. Paxton discusses this at length – as do Gilbert Allardyce and Federico Finchelstein in their respective articles this week – but at the end of his eighth chapter he attempts to proclaim an all-encompassing definition for the term, and he ends up with a rambling run-on sentence which desperately tries to make sense of fascism’s many manifestations.
The issue with creating a singular definition for fascism is that this task has always been done with the assumption of fascism as an ideology or a political movement. The only commonality between all “fascist” movements is that their primary purpose was to exploit the passions of the people and use those emotions as fuel for their respective, culturally relevant goals. Thus, fascism can be much easier defined when viewed as a political strategy, not as ideology. This explains why fascism is so widely detested and commonly treated as an insult: the term describes a particularly immoral method for the acquisition of political power.
Comparisons between the 20th century fascist movements and 21st century populist movements stem, I believe, primarily from the common depiction of both movements as being immoral or in some way in opposition to the liberal societies against which each movement is situated. While the “fascist” and “populist” movements are drastically different, in that the former were more focused on the violent uprooting of the liberal system and the latter are still based within it, the terms “fascism” and “populism” themselves are similar in that they are both strategies for the attainment of political power, rather than political ideologies.
While fascism can easily be proclaimed an immoral strategy, because of the presence of systemic violence, populism cannot necessarily be labelled fundamentally immoral. In Cas Mudde’s article, he describes populism as a strategy which unites the common people against a corrupt elite. This hardly seems like an immoral sentiment. In fact, one could easily argue that Bernie Sanders utilizes a populist strategy. Much like fascism, then, the populist movement has a diversity of characters (from Bernie Sanders to Marine Le Pen) and is vague enough to draw mass followings.
Gilbert Allardyce, “What Fascism Is Not: Thoughts on the Deflation of a Concept,” American Historical Review 84 (1979): 367-98
Federico Finchelstein, “Introduction: Thinking Fascism and Populism in terms of the Past” in Federico Finkelstein, From Fascism to Populism in History (University of California Press, 2017).
Dylan Matthews, “I Asked 5 Fascism Experts if Trump whether Trump is a fascist. This is what they said” Vox May 19, 2016 https://www.vox.com/policy-andpolitics/2015/12/10/9886152/donald-trump-fascism
Cas Mudde, “Populism in the Twenty-First Century: an Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic Liberalism” The Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy, University of Pennsylvania, https://www.sas.upenn.edu/andrea-mitchell-center/casmudde-populism-twenty-first-century
Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York, 2004), pp 3-23, pp. 206-220