As Trump names more and more overtly racist, misogynist and anti-LGBT old, white men to key positions in his administration, and gets pissy in a weekend morning twitter sulk over actors asserting their right to free speech, I thought now would be a good time to review what, exactly, is meant by the word fascism. Scholars have argued about it for decades. A few years ago, I wrote a paper about it. I never imagined then that I would soon live in a time when I had to worry about applying the word, in all seriousness, to the United States. Here’s the essay:
Fear beats at the heart of fascism
“Fascist!” It was the ultimate conversation-stopper during my undergraduate years in the late 1980s. (That, or “misogynist!” depending on the circles you travelled.) As an insult, it was flung at anyone with perceived right-wing leanings. Even Brian Mulroney was equated to Hitler. Today, publicly declared Nazi analogies are all too commonplace, from Glenn Beck comparing the National Endowment for the Arts to Goebbels in 2009, to Rush Limbaugh repeatedly comparing Barack Obama to Hitler. In other words, the term fascist has been gutted of all meaning. It isn’t surprising that since the emergence of fascism studies in the 1960s, scholars still haven’t reached consensus on a definition, despite Roger Griffin’s assertion to the contrary. Certain images immediately come to mind when we think of fascism. Perhaps Robert Paxton best envisions our collective perception:
“Everyone is sure they know what fascism is. The most self-consciously visual of all political forms, fascism presents itself to us in vivid primary images: a chauvinist demagogue haranguing an ecstatic crowd; disciplined ranks of marching youths; colored-shirted militants beating up members of some demonized minority; surprise invasions at dawn; and fit soldiers parading through a captured city.”
It’s the analysis of what lies behind these strong visual associations that flummoxes scholars. Categorizing fascism has been problematic since it first arose from the nebulous twentieth-century political miasma to take concrete form with Mussolini’s party in 1922. Or was that its first iteration? Some have argued the antecedents to fascism reach as far back as Rousseau. Some say there are only two authentic versions; the Italian and the German. Some argue for tossing 1930s France and Portugal into the European mix. Some say go further—why not include the Khmer Rouge, the Klu Klux Klan? Some have tried to define fascism via the back door; by telling us what it is not. Some insist that after 40 years of serious bickering, we all agree on the basics. Some want still to bicker. Some say fascism is primarily political, some that it’s cultural. Some say that to define fascism at all is an inherently biased process and therefore, counter-productive to scholarship. While broadening the definition of fascism to the point of rendering the term meaningless is clearly anathema to scholarship and common sense, I will argue for looking beyond the traditional Italian/German borders to redraw the totalitarian map.
Stanley Payne makes some headway in establishing what historiographical agreement does exist. He points out that the existence of a fascist ideology has been conceded and that historians now agree that fascist movements are revolutionary in nature. That is where a commonality in definition ends. Since the 1980s, the popularity of a cultural interpretation of fascism, as originally argued by George Mosse, has gained currency, like the theory promulgated by Roger Griffin. An argument for fascism as a cultural rather than an Eatwellian political movement does allow for the broadest definition of the term, and is consequently one that I argue here.
In any political or cultural analysis, the problem of even categorizing fascism within its traditional parameters, as strictly referring to Mussolini’s Italy or Hitler’s Germany, also presents considerable difficulties, as Robert Paxton points out. “How can we lump together Mussolini and Hitler, the one surrounded by Jewish henchmen and a Jewish mistress, the other an obsessed anti-Semite?” Paxton maintains that you can’t, that you must examine fascism as a system and not on a case-by-case basis. “One must understand it in motion, through its cycle of potential (though not inevitable) stages,” he says. Those five stages are specific: the creation of a fascist movement; the development of that movement into a political party; the party’s acquisition of power; the exercising of that power, and, finally, the radicalization or disintegration of the party. For Paxton, the question of whether or not fascism can exist today is a qualified yes, provided those movements achieve party status, gain power, and otherwise fulfill the criteria of his model. This is where Paxton’s analysis becomes too limiting to be useful.
Parsing a definition of fascism doesn’t further the scholarship. Robert Eatwell’s one-definition-fits-all approach, like Paxton’s model, is simply too narrow in scope. Eatwell’s argument for the fascist minimum is centred on one ungainly sentence supported by four meandering codicils. According to Eatwell, fascism is:
“An ideology that strives to forge social rebirth based on a holistic–national radical Third Way, though in practice fascism has tended to stress style, especially action and the charismatic leader, more than detailed programme, and to engage in a Manichaean demonization of its enemies.”
The annotations go on to explain what he means by nationalism, holism, radicalism and the Third Way. Eatwell concedes that one definition of fascism can never completely conform to the real world, which ironically, is an excellent argument against his own theory of the fascist minimum.
The most compelling cultural argument for a broadening of the definition of fascism is made by political scientist Michel Dobry. He begins by arguing against the scholarly impulse as evidenced by Paxton and Eatwell to classify and compartmentalize. When analysing fascism, Dobry suggests a four-pronged approach. Think of fascism first in relational terms, and reject what he calls the “fascist successes.” Next, “change the enigma,” or, more simply put, ask a different question. Finally, Dobry urges us to “compare the incomparable.” In other words, he advocates widening the definition to weigh other totalitarian movements against the considerable heft of the more widely accepted and “authentic” Italian and German examples. Dobry rejects many established notions about fascism, including the perception of it as a solely working-class movement. He argues that to study only the authentic “successful” fascist states (Italy and Germany) negates consideration of other totalitarian movements as fascist, such as inter-war France. “Centrality of successful fascisms is thus at the heart of most attempts to define or theorize so called ‘generic fascism,’” he says. Dobry consequently rejects Payne’s arguments in favour of a fascist minimum, and wholeheartedly renounces Paxton’s five-stage formula for establishing fascism, saying it is so limiting that it can’t even account for the original Italian version of fascism.
Ultimately Dobry argues for studying each potential case of fascism contextually, rather than comparatively against Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany:
Comparative studies of fascist phenomena that adopt the classification approach continue to treat fascism as a species apart, endowed with a radically different nature or essence from that of other authoritarian movements and, more specifically, movements of the extreme right. In their efforts to make this claim more plausible, they also tend to attribute to phenomena deemed fascist causes and effects that are supposedly specific to them. None of these claims has any foundation.
This case-by-case basis is not as limiting as Paxton’s systemic definitional approach. By Dobry’s method, for example, the British National Party of the 1980s and 1990s could also be categorized as fascist.
When considering fascism we must also consider the power of fear. This is the point made by Adrian Lyttelton in the concluding chapter of Pinto’s text Rethinking the Nature of Fascism: Comparative Perspectives. Lyttelton reminds us that WWI played an essential role in the development of Mussolini’s party. “Total mobilization and total war were the antecedents of totalitarianism.” Lyttelton goes on to insist that fear, as well as violence, is at the crux of every fascist movement. “The dialectic of fear–fear suffered and fear inflicted–needs to have a more central place in our vision of fascism,” he says. Lyttelton’s simple yet profound observation provides a perfect endnote to the discussion; that fear beats at the heart fascism.
 There are many online references to American television and radio personalities using Hitler analogies. I chose two from The Independent and Media Matters.org respectively:
 Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism. (New York: Random House, 2004), 9.
 Stanley G. Payne, “Forward,” in Rethinking the Nature of Fascism: Comparative Perspectives. Edited by Antonio Costa Pinto, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), viii.
 Ibid., viii.
 Robert Paxton, “The Five Stages of Fascism,” Journal of Modern History, March, 1998, 2.
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 22.
 Ibid., 10.
 Robert Eatwell, “On Defining the ‘Fascist Minimum’: the Centrality of Ideology,” Journal of Political Ideologies, October 1996, 313.
 Ibid., 315.
 Michel Dobry, “Desperately Seeking ‘Generic Fascism’: Some Discordant Thoughts on the Academic Recycling of Indigenous Categories,” in Rethinking the Nature of Fascism: Comparative Perspectives. Edited by Antonio Costa Pinto, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 75.
 Ibid., 56.
 Ibid., 57.
 Ibid., 69.
 Ibid., 75.
 Adrian Lyttelton, “Concluding Remarks,” in Rethinking the Nature of Fascism: Comparative Perspectives. Edited by Antonio Costa Pinto, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 273.
 Ibid., 273.
Adinolfi, Goffredo. “The Institutionalization of Propaganda in the Fascist Era: The Cases of Germany, Portugal and Italy.” European Legacy, 2012: 607-621.
Allardyce, Gilbert. “What Fascism is Not.” American Historical Review, April 1979: 367-388.
Dobry, Michel, “Desperately Seeking ‘Generic Fascism’: Some Discordant Thoughts on the Academic Recycling of Indigenous Categories,” in Rethinking the Nature of Fascism: Comparative Perspectives. Edited by Antonio Costa Pinto. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Eatwell, Robert. “On Defining the ‘Fascist Minimum’: the Centrality of Ideology.” Journal of Political Ideologies, October 1996: 303-319.
Griffin, Roger. “The Primacy of Culture: the Current Growth (or Manufacture) of Consensus within Fascist Studies.” Journal of Contemporary History, 2002: 21-43.
Lyttelton, Adrian, “Concluding Remarks,” in Rethinking the Nature of Fascism: Comparative Perspectives. Edited by Antonio Costa Pinto. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Mason, Tim. “Whatever Happened to Fascism?” Radical History Review, 1991: 89-98.
Passmore, Kevin, “Theories of Fascism: A Critique from the Perspective of Women’s and Gender History,” in Rethinking the Nature of Fascism: Comparative Perspectives. Edited by Antonio Costa Pinto. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Paxton, Robert. The Anatomy of Fascism. New York: Random House, 2004.
Paxton, Robert. “The Five Stages of Fascism.” Journal of Modern History, March, 1998: 1-23.
Payne, Stanley G, “Forward,” in Rethinking the Nature of Fascism: Comparative Perspectives. Edited by Antonio Costa Pinto. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Pinto, Antonio Costa, “Introduction: Fascism and the Other ‘-isms’” in Rethinking the Nature of Fascism: Comparative Perspectives. Edited by Antonio Costa Pinto. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Roberts, David et al. “Comments on Roger Griffin, “The Primacy of Culture: the Current Growth (or Manufacture) of Consensus within Fascist Studies.” Journal of Contemporary History, 2002: 259-274.
© 2016, Kate Barker. All rights reserved.