Monday, October 26, 2009

What is a fascist?

It's a word much applied by opponents to the British National Party and other radical political movements, but what is a "fascist"?

"Fascist" and "fascism" are terms that one might suppose to be simple badges, but dig beneath the surface and there are myriad complexities and a morass of academic debate.

It is more than six decades since the end of World War II and the fall of Nazi Germany, but those events are the prism through which the word "fascism" is still viewed.

The first "fascist" movement to gain power was Mussolini's Blackshirts in Italy in 1922. Their movement could certainly be said to be nationalist and authoritarian, as well as accepting of violence in the struggle for political power, but much of the rest of its characteristics have been subject to academic dispute.

"Frustratingly, I can't give a simple definition," says Kevin Passmore, reader in history at Cardiff University and author of Fascism: A Very Short Introduction. "It depends on definitions."

If your definition of "fascist" is someone who holds beliefs that can be categorised as "fascism", the terms fascism still needs to be defined.

"You can say 'is fascism a movement that resembles what fascism was in Italy?'" says Mr Passmore. But for many users of the terms, fascist and fascism must be a blend of the common denominators between Italian fascism and German Nazism.

But in a letter to the Times on Tuesday, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne is keen to distinguish the terms. The 85-year-old former Sunday Telegraph editor confesses that like "most of my octogenarian generation of British... [I] believed in white superiority".

But that "in no way meant [we] were fascists," says Sir Peregrine, before adding he is "no longer a racist".

One of the problems in likening fascism to Nazism is that the two do not cross over as neatly as some people assume. Racism, and particularly anti-Semitism, was central to the ideology of Nazism, but the position in Italian fascism was far more ambiguous. So for some scholars, the mere presence of racism in a modern group's ideology might not be enough to earn the "fascist" label.

Fascism in Italy also had corporatism ingrained in is political make-up. Corporatism is usually defined as a political and economic system where individuals are organised into different groups - for example "plumbers" or "priests" - within the state, negotiating with other groups to make progress.

It is unlike a modern liberal democracy where the basic political unit is the individual. The corporatist model emphasises co-operation over competition.

Another characteristic associated with fascism is autarky - the self-sufficient economy. But by no means all modern autarkic states - Afghanistan under the Taliban, for example - have been widely classed as fascist.

Fascist symbols are also significant. The term derives from the "fasces" - the axe and bundle of rods used in ancient Rome - sported by Mussolini's fascists. Franco's Falangists, used arrows joined by a yoke, the symbol of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. The Nazis used a Swastika. Symbols that in some way echo these older motifs are common among some modern extremists.

Of course, another problem in refining a "fascist" label is that the stated ideology of the Italian fascists and the German Nazis often did not marry up completely with the political policies they pursued.

But the clearest problem in the definition of the word "fascist" is the very wideness of its application over the years. There is a plethora of uses from Rick in the Young Ones deploying it as an insult, to the Oxford English Dictionary's differing definitions "(loosely) a person of right-wing authoritarian views" and "a person who advocates a particular viewpoint or practice in a manner perceived as intolerant or authoritarian". So you have "body fascism".

Broadly speaking, in political discourse, it is a "boo word", a term used more for purposes of condemnation than precise categorisation. The Nazis were bad, and in this view their ideology was fundamentally linked to fascism, meaning that fascism is fundamentally bad.

"It is a useful political weapon to say a modern political movement is like fascism," says Mr Passmore.

And those groups often categorised by opponents as fascist, like the BNP, often choose not to use it to describe themselves.

"You can ask why don't they call themselves fascists given they admire several aspects. Why is it it remains a bad word? Anti-fascist movements have often said fascism is the same as Nazism," notes Mr Passmore.

There might be some who prefer an "elephant in the room" definition, believing that it is possible to know a "fascist" when one sees one, even if a precise definition is hard to come by. For them any nationalist political movement that is authoritarian, opposed to free speech, in favour of a one party state or dictatorship, and seems to have racist tendencies, is open to the "fascist" label.

But the debate over a precise definition will roll on.

"Students like to think this word means this," says Mr Passmore. "I lean towards the view that it's much more interesting to look at how the term has been used. History and life is about debate over what words mean." - BBC Magazine

1 Opinion(s):

Anonymous said...

So, the ANC must be "facists"!