By Danielle Johnson*
Ever since its beginning in the early 30s, defining fascism has been a challenge for political scientists and historians. This, according to Gilbert Allardyce, historian and professor emeritus at the University of New Brunswick, is the reason for which the term has been loosely used in politics at the time he was writing his article What Fascism Is Not: Thoughts on the Deflation of a Concept. This was in 1979 and this thought interestingly still applies today in a contemporary setting. The tendency to reduce fascism to a general concept is a fallacy according to Allardyce and many more historians like Robert Paxton.
Consequently, this complex concept is used as an insult in the political sphere. But, how can one understand fascism as it is used today if it was a ghost of the past, an entity that was understood as never coming back to haunt this age’s political realm? Allardyce wrote that fascism should be “untranslatable” to other historical periods. Outside of its assigned historical frame, fascism becomes a generalization made by political candidates to serve their political agenda. Dylan Matthews proves this in his article I Asked 5 Fascism Experts if Trump whether Trump is a fascist. This is what they said. The use of the term fascism in the news and political sphere is used without its historical context reduces its meaning and destroys the plurality which defines it. It brings back the bipolar view of fascism as only existing in the Nazi state and Mussolini’s Italy, when in fact individual fascist movements rose everywhere with their own identities forged from the national needs and contexts. So, is it then possible to reapply these terms to a contemporary setting? Frederick Finchelstein and Matthews both refer to the fact that it is not in fact fascism represented in today’s global politics, but populism. They both understand a rejection of democracy as part of the defining aspects of fascism, rather than the rejection of said democracy for a certain minority only.
Thus, this use of fascism in a displaced context should warn us against the dangers of pulling historical elements from their place of origins. It should be clear that the vocabulary used to describe certain political systems around the world needs to be accurate, and that historians have a responsibility to point out the historical “shallowness” of the media.
*This author is using a pseudonym
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-and-
Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York, 2004), pp 3-23, pp. 206-220