Christian Caryl

Dropping the Political F-Bomb

Nowadays, it seems, everyone's a fascist. Here's a handy guide to identifying the real thing.


Words are weapons. And when you’re taking aim at a political enemy, the word "fascist" is the equivalent of a howitzer. In the post-Auschwitz era, accusing someone of "fascism" is just about the most devastating charge you can make.

Yet rarely has the word experienced a comeback on the scale we’re seeing today. Godwin’s Law — which says that every exchange on the Internet will end up with someone comparing someone else to Hitler — clearly needs a bit of tweak. The biggest accelerant these days, of course, is the crisis in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin and Russia’s state-controlled media love describing the revolutionaries in Kiev as "fascist" (a term strongly rejected by defenders of the mass protest movement that brought down President Viktor Yanukovych). Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro uses "fascist" for the opposition protesters who have been taking to the streets to demand his overthrow. (Madonna, of all people, has responded by applying the same word to Maduro.) Left-wing Turks rallying against the Islamist government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan bemoan his "fascism," too.

In Asia, meanwhile, comparing countries to Nazi Germany has become something of a parlor game. The North Koreans have dubbed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe an "Asian Hitler." The Chinese are content to charge Abe with the sin of "veneration of eastern Nazis" for his visits to a controversial World War II shrine. (While we’re on the subject of World War II, by the way, Hillary Clinton didn’t actually apply the f-word to Vladimir Putin, even though she did draw an analogy between his move on Crimea and Hitler’s grab for the Sudetenland.)

When people are throwing a loaded word around with such abandon, it’s probably a good time for a reality check. Even though fascism is a somewhat elastic concept given its many progenitors, there is something of a consensus among historians and political scientists about how to define it. Here are six ways to tell a garden-variety bigot from a diehard Mussolini-lover:

1. It all starts with the chimera of racial purity.

Historically, fascism was born out of the anxieties of the late 19th century, when right-wing radicals in a variety of European countries began to see themselves as part of organic "nations" that faced existential threats from the powerful new ideologies of socialism and capitalism. For these people, late 19th-century racial pseudoscience and abstruse ethnic theories seemed to confirm the idea that "inferior" minorities (Jews or Slavs) were plotting to attack them (or subvert them from within). The collapse of ruling monarchies and traditional value systems in World War I opened up a spiritual vacuum that fascists rushed to fill.

And what about today’s world? There are plenty of racialist xenophobes out there. Some even describe themselves as "neo-Nazis." But racism alone doesn’t make you a fascist. (The photo above shows a member of Greece’s Golden Dawn party at a rally last month.)

2. The state reigns supreme. (Libertarians need not apply.)

"Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state." The quote comes from Benito Mussolini, who was one of the first people to speak (approvingly) of "totalitarianism." Proper fascists are firm believers in the state because they see as it the logical manifestation of the nation’s drive to assert and defend its collective rights. So trade unions, social clubs, and the press should all be subordinated to government control. Notions like "human rights" mean nothing outside the framework of the "people’s community." So fascists have very little in common, say, with some American white supremacists who are often profoundly suspicious of any kind of government. Fascists and anarchists occupy opposite ends of the spectrum.

These days not even nationalist strongmen like Putin or Maduro believe in the state controlling everything. Most modern autocrats prefer to assert their control strategically, not seamlessly.

3. A single strongman gives the orders.

It was fascism that gave us the notion of the charismatic, all-powerful leader — the duce or the Führer — who personally embodies the yearnings of the nation. (Communism also had its Great Helmsmen and its Gardeners of Human Happiness, but even these superhuman characters were still supposed to be following the lead of a particular German-Jewish philosopher.) Many post-1945 autocrats — Argentina’s Juan Perón comes to mind — learned from these models, but usually without achieving the same degree of all-encompassing power.

It’s worth noting that none of the protest movements in Ukraine or Venezuela have been fighting to install a particular leader. At the broadest level, indeed, they’re demanding democracy — the opposite of unchecked one-man rule.

4. Fascists place the military above everyone else.

Fascists celebrate the masses — but only when they’re tightly organized around the needs of the state. In this sense, the military offers a perfect image of how fascists see the world. (There’s a reason why the words "unity" and "uniforms" have a common root.) Visitors to Nazi Germany often remarked on the plethora of uniforms: for the uninitiated it was hard to tell bus conductors and civil servants from actual members of the armed forces. And aggressive, expansionist foreign policy has been a trademark of many fascist regimes — though not all of them. (Spain’s Franco and Portugal’s Salazar are perhaps the best examples of classically fascist regimes that preferred to keep a low profile.)

There’s a temptation, especially among leftists, to equate all military dictatorships — such as those of Suharto or Pinochet — with fascism. But, strictly speaking, that probably does more to confuse the issue than to clarify it. Just because an autocrat is wearing a Ruritanian fantasy outfit doesn’t mean that he believes in theories of racial supremacy or wants to subordinate all of society to his will.

5. Fascists sneer at rationality.

The roots of classical fascism go back to the Romantic period — a lineage that’s apparent in fascism’s stress on emotion, will, and organic unity and its rejection of the Enlightenment values of individualism and critical thinking. You can see the link in late-19th century "decadents" like the Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, who celebrated death, violence, and the enthusiastic destruction of "bourgeois values" (and briefly managed to establish what probably qualifies as the first real fascist regime in Fiume in 1919). Fascists always view the "nation" as inherently threatened, and their own seizure of power is characteristically depicted as a national rebirth that will sweep away the decadence and weaknesses of the preceding period.

This sort of thing has gone out of fashion in the 21st century, a period that seems to prize selfies and wealth accumulation more than whipping up the masses. For just that reason, this 2004 video, which shows Ukrainian nationalist Oleg Tyahnybok railing against "Jews and Muscovites," almost seems to hark back to an earlier time.

6. Fascist parties like to see themselves as the "third way."

Hitler and Mussolini both saw their own versions of "national socialism" as the only valid alternative to all other existing political ideologies. They violently rejected socialism and "bourgeois capitalism" while claiming to appropriate the best features of both systems. So, for example, they absorbed Marxist ideas of revolution and all-encompassing social engineering while dumping the divisive ingredient of class warfare. They also tried to preserve the competitive aspects of capitalism (which, to them, ensured the "survival of the fittest") while asserting state control over strategic sectors of the economy. But while it’s true that some fascists tried to incorporate the Catholic Church into their ideological systems, Hitler, a zealous anti-clericalist, dreamed of the day when the masses would hang the Pope by his heels in St. Peter’s Square.

* * *

"Fascism," in short, denotes a particular twentieth-century totalitarian mass movement that doesn’t really have many clear equivalents today. The 21st century is replete with racists, xenophobes, and authoritarian nationalists — but while some of these belief systems might overlap with certain aspects of fascism, none of them are synonymous with it. Our century’s dictators generally don’t wear uniforms, proclaim abstruse racial theories, or stand glowering over torch-lit midnight parades. In today’s PR-driven political world, autocrats know it’s better to pay homage to the language of competitive elections and human rights (even when the things they’re actually doing are quite different).

So do Ukrainian Freedom Party members or Venezuelan protesters qualify? Probably not. The former (see Tyahnybok, above) certainly qualify as ultra-rightwingers. The Freedom Party belongs to a European network of far-right organizations that includes France’s National Front. This doesn’t make them fascist, but it’s certainly worrisome (especially now that Freedom holds four posts in the current interim government) — and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to analyze and discuss such problematic political views without being accused of playing into the hands of Moscow’s propagandists. (If Ukraine truly aspires to be a part of the European political family, in fact, we should feel compelled to criticize such views just as we would those of any other European ultra-right parties. In 2012, well before the current crisis in Ukraine, the European Parliament denounced the Freedom Party for its "racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic views.")

As for the Venezuelan protesters, suffice it to say that the party of now-imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez is not even especially conservative (it defines itself as "centrist"). But that’s unlikely to stop the government in Caracas — or Moscow, for that matter — from throwing the term around. Russia, by the way, is rife with xenophobic groups, including outright anti-Semites, who never seem to get singled out by the state media for their views.

There is, however, at least one modern-day regime that might actually qualify as fascist (even though it’s rarely described in such terms). It remains unapologetically totalitarian in its outlook, and despite its presumed adherence to communist ideology it openly espouses its own people’s racial superiority while indulging in an extravagant führerkult that has no parallel elsewhere in the world. If anyone has got the fascist vibe down pat, surely it’s the North Koreans. Compared with them, everyone else are just dilettantes.

 Twitter: @ccaryl