On Fascism and Right-Wing Populism, By Absalom Sink✢

In years past, when I was a much younger man of more active politics, I, like many of my peers, had the habit of leaning on a particular word when describing those deemed far to my political right. Fascist, I called them. Relatively ignorant of history, and certainly ignorant of pre-World War II Italian history, I had picked the word up from my older friends, my political mentors. This was the term to be used against as much to describe police and conservatives as it was for racists and neo-Nazis. I was an anti-fascist, opposed to bigotry, fighter-for-what’s-right.

Essentially, I fell into the trap that Gilbert Allardyce was lamenting decades earlier, writing in 1979’s “What Fascism is Not”. Allardyce argues that the term is so nebulous, so open to interpretation by sociologists, historians, and political scientists—let alone the public—that it becomes both difficult to take seriously, and all-but-useless as a focus of scholarship. The crux of his argument could be summarized by a quote he borrows from an earlier article by Stanley Payne titled “Spanish Fascism in Comparative Perspective,” in which Payne concludes that “the term fascism can be applied to the entire broad genus only at the cost of depriving it of any specific content.” Fascism to Allardyce is a term whose use as a descriptor ought to be confined to political movements from the period of 1919-1945 or so; anything outside that timeframe ought not be classified as “fascism,” much as the term “romanticism” is reserved for the artistic movement temporally bound to the early 19th century.

In the past few years, the term “fascist” has seen increasingly widespread use, as right-wing populism gains both in popularity and political clout. Questions swirl as to whether or not Donald Trump is a fascist, to say nothing of arguably still further-right figures like Viktor Orbán, Jarosław Kaczyński, and Marine Le Pen. Of course, even ignoring Allardyce’s exhortation to not apply the term “fascist” outside the early 20th century, there is a set of core characteristics of fascism, as Dylan Matthews argues*, few of which the above mentioned populists evince. For instance, none of them advocate an outright rejection of democracy, and few are fervent anti-individualists in the vein of Mussolini; indeed, as Matthews points out, Trump is fervently pro-individualist. And while today’s borderline mainstream populists may inspire violence, they rarely advocate for it directly. By contrast, as Zeev Sternhell explains, the early 20th century saw the proto-fascist Georges Sorel calling violence “something very beautiful and heroic,” not just a means to an end, but a worthy goal in itself. And Mussolini himself valorized violence while decrying pacifism, exhorting that “war alone maximizes to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have the courage to meet it” in his 1932 essay “The Doctrine of Fascism.” Peace is “thus hostile to the spirit of Fascism”.

It is crucial to recognize that Fascism arose in response to a particular set of historical circumstances in Europe in the post-WWI years. By contrast, as Cas Mudde argues, today’s right-populist wave—what he and others describe as “illiberal democracy”—arose from its own set of historical circumstances; in particular, as a reaction to inequality and feelings of disenfranchisement brought on by the undemocratic, technocratic implementation of liberal economic and political doctrine. Mudde argues that the neoliberalism that emerged in the US and Western Europe in the 1980s and its attendant increase in financial inequality and instability has inculcated a popular reaction, which opponents of liberalism have stoked through charismatic leadership and effective propaganda in order to gain power and enact illiberal agendas. But unlike Mussolini or Franco, they gain that power through democratic means; thus, definitionally, they cannot be fascists.

With age and education, I am better able to reckon with the mistakes of my youth. We are clearly facing a right-wing populist “moment” today. But even a salty, battle-scarred old radical like me recognizes that those ascendant populists and would-be authoritarians should be fought and denounced on their own qualities; fascists they are not—at least not at present—and to call them otherwise not only undermines the damage caused by the real fascists of the early 20th century (ie. “cheapens the term”), but also risks any criticism not being taken seriously (a sort of “boy who cried wolf” syndrome). There certainly are still fascists to be “anti-“—as Dylan Matthews makes clear, Greece’s “Golden Dawn” would qualify, as might any number of homegrown, anti-democratic “Western” chauvinists—but as for the more mainstream, right-wing pop-authoritarians like Donald Trump, better to find terms with which to criticize them without resorting to ahistorical, imprecise name-calling.

✢ This author has used a pseudonym.

*For a still more in-depth read of the characteristics of fascism, Umberto Eco’s 1995 article Ur-Fascism is an exceptional resource.

Works Cited

Gilbert Allardyce, “What Fascism Is Not: Thoughts on the Deflation of a Concept,” American Historical Review 84 (1979): 367-98

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

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

Benito Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile. “The Doctrine of Fascism.” Enciclopedia Italiana. 1932. http://facweb.furman.edu/~bensonlloyd/hst11/mussolinidoctrines.htm

Zeev Sternhell, The Birth of Fascist Ideology: From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution (Princeton University Press, 1994).

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