The Italian fascio is best translated as “band” or “league,” a term shared by a variety of Italian activist groups in the early twentieth century. Benito Mussolini bound the “Fasci” indelibly to the modern understanding of “fascism” when he and about a hundred radical nationalists and syndicalists formed the “Fasci Italiani de Combattimento” in 1919 to “declare war against socialism” (Paxton 2004; Payne1995). Starting with an attack on the office of the Socialist party newspaper, the fascists grew in power as, backed by landowners, they attacked socialists across Italy, killing as many as 900 people between 1920 and 1922. After this violent campaign, Italy’s king invited Mussolini to lead the government, ultimately disbanding parliament and criminalizing opposition parties.
During the same era, the anti-Semitic German National Socialist (Nazi) party also attacked socialists and communists in the streets while forming political alliances with existing conservative nationalists, finally coming to state power in 1933. As uniformed groups spread across Europe, “fascism” became the generic term used to describe an international phenomenon of nationalist authoritarian mass movements, leaders and states. Although the word fascism originated with Mussolini, it was and is still used to refer to multiple movements and states, the most catastrophic version of which was the Nazi regime. For this reason, the words Nazism, Fascism, and references to Hitler often are used interchangeably. This usage suggests that the end result of unchecked fascism is aggressive war and genocide.
The first people in the United States to write about fascism were Italian, German, and Jewish immigrant socialists. Closely following events in European socialist newspapers, they shifted the meaning of the term by linking it to their own experiences of legal repression, anti-union thuggery, nativism, and racism in the United States. This experience, as well as the Marxist theory that class conflict is the driving force of history, led these socialist intellectuals to argue that fascism is an extreme version of capitalist repression. The Communist International of the Soviet Union (COMINTERN) codified a similar analysis with the statement that “fascism in power is the open, terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic, the most imperialistic elements of finance capitalism” (Passmore 2006).
This understanding of fascism has remained central to Marxist analysis emphasizing continuities among fascism, capitalism, and imperialism. Whether Marxist or not, African-Americans who had previously compared Eastern European pogroms against Jews to American lynching, also saw continuity between the U.S. racial regime and Nazi Germany (Gilmore 2009, 167; Whitman 2017). Both usages link racism, anti-Communism, and fascism in ways that question the degree to which fascism can be seen as an aberration in the history of capitalist governments. Anti-colonialist thinker and activist Aimé Césaire commented in 1950 that Hitler had “applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India, and the blacks of Africa” (36). Since the Vietnam War, a generation of anti-imperialist activists has continued this usage, criticizing U.S. support for brutally repressive authoritarian or “fascist” client states (Chomsky and Herman 1979).
At the same time, dissident leftists and right-wing commentators used the word fascism to describe tendencies within both the conventional left and anti-colonialist nationalist movements. Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James saw fascist tendencies in Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) noting the use of military uniforms, the language of racial solidarity, and especially Garvey’s own claim in 1938 that “we were the first fascists” (Gilroy 2000). Fascism also became a weapon in sectarian left conflict; the Soviet Communist Party described the Social Democrats as “social fascists” during the Weimar era and Socialist leader Norman Thomas and others deemed Stalinism “red fascism” during the Cold War (Weitz 1997; Adler and Paterson 1970). Today, many argue that India’s radical nationalist movement “Hindutva” is a form of “fascism wearing clerical garb, and speaking the language of religious fundamentalism” (Nanda 2003). Since the 9/11 attack on the United States by Al Qaeda, some commenters have described radical Islamic movements opposed to the West with the term “Islamofascism” (Hitchens 2007).
These varied uses of the term fascism indicate that with the exception of self-proclaimed fascists, nearly every political tendency – anarchists, liberals, communists, socialists, anti-imperialist nationalists, conservatives, and members of the far right – have described their opponents at some point as fascist and themselves anti-fascist, while using the word to mean different things. Anti-fascism was one of the few shared principles on both sides of the Cold War, and the United States and the USSR both deployed the term to define their national identities through the great war against Nazism. U.S. leftists continue to describe police actions, anti-labor laws, white racism, and far-right organizations as paving a road to fascism (Denning 1998; Hill 1998, 2014; Vials 2014). Early neoliberal thinkers identified a road to fascism by linking it to socialism, communism, and welfare states whose bureaucracy and collectivism they saw as limiting individual freedom (Hayek 1944; Von Mises 1944). Conservatives argued that fascism should be seen as just one form of “totalitarianism,” a word originating in fascist Italy, but which came into common usage for both liberals and conservatives in comparisons of Stalinism and Nazism, both of which were depicted as forms of government that sought to penetrate every aspect of individual life (Arendt 1950, Geyer and Fitzpatrick 2008, Snyder 2010). In one such example, Republican Howard Smith of Ohio argued during a congressional debate in 1939 that “bureaucracy, fascism, Nazism, and communism are one and the same with slight variations” (Hill 2014). Libertarians and conservatives continue to define fascism in this way, often claiming that it originated on the left rather than the right (Goldberg 2009; Gregor 2000). The majority of historians dispute this argument. (Paxton 2010).
One reason for the wide application of the word fascism to myriad aspects of politics, culture, and daily life is that fascism arose from within democratic states in ways that seem to have caught much of the West by surprise. To prevent such a recurrence, activists and scholars have sought to identify the seeds of fascism growing in ordinary places. Mid-twentieth-century critical theorists blended Marxism and psychoanalysis to locate the unconscious roots of fascism in the bourgeois family structure, sexual repression, conventional masculinity, and traditional conservatism (Reich, 1933; Adorno 1950; Pick 2012). New Left and liberal scholars critical of historical Communist Parties and conformist society in the late 1960s saw fascism as based in bureaucracy and imperialism. Fascism, they argued, was driven by a form of scientific rationality that lacked any ethical core, sometimes called “instrumental reason” (Adorno and Horkheimer 1947; Arendt 1963; Deleuze and Guattari 1987). In contrast, another group of thinkers argued that irrationalism was the seed of fascism, in the form of an anti-Enlightenment reaction influenced by Nietzschean philosophy. Such scholars feared that New Left critics of Enlightenment reason, far from preventing fascism, were unwittingly drawing from the same well as the early fascists whom they argued had formed their ideology by mixing left and right wing critiques of liberal capitalist modernity (Sternhell 1993; Wolin, 2006, Beiner 2018). In both cases, identifying ideas as seeds of future fascism raised the stakes of any debate, suggesting that each side was protecting the culture at large from an accidental slide into fascism.
Historians and political scientists have disputed these philosophical arguments as so broad as to render the word fascism meaningless. In contrast they seek a definition of “generic fascism” based on comparisons of interwar fascist movements. One influential definition describes fascism as “a political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism,” with “palingenetic” referencing a revolutionary “myth of national rebirth” that calls for the overthrow of existing state institutions (Griffin 1993, 26). Another argues that “fascism” exists in actions rather than ideology: an attack on the bourgeoisie as decadent or corrupt, followed by a compromise with the bourgeoisie to gain power. Fascism is understood in this framing not as a coherent ideology, but as a movement of “mobilizing passions,” preoccupied with “community decline, humiliation and victimhood.” Fascism, in this account, is typically built on a mass-based militant party allied with conservative elites in pursuing “with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion” (Paxton, 2004.pp. 41, 218).
Activist scholars have applied these definitions to a number of organizations in the United States including the Ku Klux Klan, racist skinheads, right-wing political parties and religious organizations, militant white supremacist anti-government groups, and the “alt-right.” (Niewert 1999; Zeskind 2009; Lyons 2018). While some refer to politician David Duke or French intellectual Alain De Benoist as “suit and tie Nazis,” others argue that it is more accurate to describe them as “right wing populist,” “far right,” or “white nationalist.” (Griffin et al 2006; Berlet and Lyons 2000,). Key to these debates is fascism’s relationship to capitalism, and the extent to which a right-wing movement must include both paramilitary violence and a revolutionary vision of a new society in order to be truly fascist. Since the Cold War, many scholars have argued that contemporary groups claiming to represent a “third position” between capitalism and communism are fascists. While claiming to be “beyond left and right,” these groups confound traditional left and right categories by mixing ultra-nationalism, mysticism, left-wing economic theories, environmentalism, and opposition to U.S. imperialism (Griffin 2004; Bale 2004; Lyons 2019). The most influential political group to adapt the language of the left in a battle against liberal democracy is the European New Right, whose U.S. acolytes include former Donald Trump advisor Steve Bannon and avowed white supremacist Richard Spencer. (Bar-On 2007; Shekhvostov 2017; Eco 1995). Responding to such appeals by the right to the left, activists have begun to warn against a “red brown alliance” of the left (red) and far right (brown) in the context of anti-war, anti-capitalist, and anti-globalization organizing (Sunshine 2014; Reid Ross 2017; Lyons 2019). The growth in the early twenty-first century of “Antifa” (short for the German Antifascistisk Aktion) is another sign of the concern about the revival of fascism as a result of neoliberal globalization. A decentralized global movement originating in opposition to racist skinheads in punk rock subcultures in the 1980s, Antifa groups do not share a single definition of fascism, though they share an anti-capitalist orientation (Bray 2017).
These definitional debates inform the discussion about whether U.S. President Donald Trump himself should be called a fascist, rather than a populist or a conservative. Those who deem that term appropriate note Trump’s disregard for truth and legality, support of violence against opponents at rallies, promotion of economic nationalism, and popularity among white nationalists, as well as his praise of international strongmen such as Vladimir Putin (Russia), Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), Kim Jong Un (North Korea), Recip Erdogan (Turkey), Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines), and Viktor Orban (Hungary). While scholars of fascism have resisted using the “F-word” to describe Trump, they have nonetheless identified many uncomfortable similarities between Trumpism and interwar fascist movements (Browning 2018; Paxton 2017). This debate points toward fascism’s own internally contradictory nature, as well as the political force that it continues to wield as an accusation. Both populist and authoritarian, it is grandiose in its claims to heroism, cynical in its rejection of truth, sentimental in its descriptions of victimization, and ruthless in its praise of strength – as were the Italians who wrote on their own bandages: “Me Ne Frego” (“I don’t care”). It may be that we have used the word fascism for so long to describe so many things, that when we see an avowed fascist who also happens to have a job, watch TV, and even play video games – like Tony Hovater, interviewed by Richard Forest for the New York Times in 2017 – we refuse to believe what is happening because it is all too normal, not at all like what we expected.