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Dumbing Fascism Down, Then And Now

Some historical movements fade into oblivion. (Meet any physiocrats lately?) But not fascism. Despite the fiery demise of the Nazi regime 75 years ago this month, the idea of fascism has retained its power to arouse fear and contempt—even in countries where it poses no realistic threat to the prevailing liberal democratic order. In the realm of US politics, the term has become common currency among detractors of Donald Trump—while on the other side of the spectrum, conservatives use it as a casual slur to attack COVID-19 lockdown policies they deem misguided. When protestors used the f-word to describe New Jersey’s pandemic response (on Victory in Europe Day, or VE Day, no less), state governor Phil Murphy properly replied that the malapropism created “a disgusting false equivalence.”

Books warning of “the new fascism” have become a cottage industry among academics. But at least one author, Dr. Paul E. Gottfried, professor emeritus of humanities at Elizabethtown College and editor of Chronicles magazine, takes a more historically informed view. He’s currently writing a book about the anti-fascist movement, a sequel of sorts to his 2016 book, Fascism: The Career of a Concept, in which he described how the term had mutated since Benito Mussolini founded the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento over a century ago.

Although Gottfried believes the term is now abused more by the Left than the Right, historical accuracy and scholarly integrity often fall to the wayside on both sides of the political spectrum. “As a historic phenomenon,” he wrote in Career of a Concept, “fascism has nothing to do with advocating an isolationist foreign policy, trying to restrict Third World immigration, or favoring significant income redistribution in order to achieve greater social equality.” Like most of us, he wants the term retired, at least as a shorthand slur “hurled at anyone who holds what are now unpopular opinions.”

Even in the 1940s, at a time when genuinely fascist dictatorships threatened to extinguish freedom over much of the world’s surface, George Orwell noted that misuse of the term had rendered it “entirely meaningless.” Decades later, American journalist Tom Wolfe would note the “morbid tendency” of his colleagues to apply the word to everything from Christian revivalist movements to hippies.

Among major ideological movements, fascism is unmatched in regard to the speed and decisiveness with which it was relegated to history’s ideological trash bin. And as historian James D. Forman has noted, this fact may help explain why its intellectual specter has long outlasted its influence as a mainstream political movement. “Both Fascist and National Socialist movements were defeated in [dramatic] circumstances which make an unprejudiced approach [regarding other threats] difficult,” he wrote. The triumph over Nazi Germany, in particular, marked such a profound moral victory that it “le[ft] little attention for similar phenomena,” such as totalitarian communism. While communism evolved in the Soviet Union, China and their various client states, assuming different forms that ranged from Stalinist repression to mere socialism, Nazi fascism was frozen in amber the moment World War II was won.

Moreover, Forman notes, there is no “source book” for fascism. Communists had Das Kapital, The Communist Manifesto and other seminal works, which helped set forth the theoretical goals of their movement even if the reality was one of gulags and show trials. But fascism really only had Mein Kampf, a turgid, paranoid rant that “is not so much a definition [of fascism] as a projection of what Hitler intended to do.”

Rexiste leader Léon Degrelle

Even in the interwar years, the definition of “fascist” was surprisingly vague. The various national movements that self-identified as fascist all could be said to have been authoritarian, nationalistic, anti-individualistic, and encouraging (to various degrees) of commercial enterprise to meet the needs of the state. But from there, things get muddled, including on such basic issues as the role of the proletariat (remember that Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei translated to National Socialist German Workers’ Party) and officially sanctioned forms of Christian worship. So called “clerical fascism,” sometimes described as a variant of Catholic corporatism, found support in Portugal, Spain, and Austria (led by Engelbert Dollfuss, who died resisting Hitler) and Belgium’s Rexistes; but not in Italy, where members of the Partito Nazionale Fascista often adopted forms of neo-paganism.

And if the definition of fascism was vague, so, too, by necessity, was the definition of anti-fascism. Stalin certainly found it easy enough to blame his problems on the machinations of “fascist power” and “fascist lackeys.” The 1934 assassination of politburo member Sergei Kirov, in particular, was blamed on a “fascist plot” purportedly involving dozens of conspirators, which formed part of Stalin’s pretext for sending millions to the Gulags and killing an estimated 750,000 in the Great Terror. Even members of the Polish Underground who rose up against the Germans in Warsaw toward the end of the war were (absurdly) labelled “Polish fascists” by Soviet propagandists.

Stalin publicly misused the term so often, in fact, that Princeton history professor Stephen Kotkin has suggested he lacked a fundamental understanding of the word’s meaning. But Stalin was a voracious reader, and it seems more likely that the Soviet leader knew quite well that he was mangling the term, but continued anyway as he found it to be an expedient catch-all for his demagoguery. 

According to Norman Davies, history professor at University College London, a well-founded fear of fascism was central to Soviet foreign policy during the 1930s. At the League of Nations, Soviet representatives pushed for a policy of collective security based on the then-new construct of antifascism. But it was hardly “a coherent political ideology,” Davies notes. “In terms of ideas, it was an empty vessel, [giving] the false impression that principled democrats believing in the rule of law and freedom of speech could rub fine with the dictators of the proletariat.” Unfortunately, “Western intellectuals fell for the ploy en masse.”

Once the war ended, social theorists of the Frankfurt School, many of them Europeans who’d immigrated to the United States, injected their fear of the fascist threat into emerging theories of mass communications and propaganda. Prepared in the United States by Theodor Adorno and others, the book series Studies in Prejudice (which famously contained Adorno’s landmark study, The Authoritarian Personality) provided an updated form of antifascism that was disconnected from its Marxist roots. As these authors saw it, the fascist threat still lingered in an abstract form, as evidenced by American resistance to democratic socialism and the propagandistic jingoism peddled by Hollywood and mass consumer culture more generally. According to Gottfried, Adorno used questionable methods to trace correlations between “those who did not share [his] socialist sentiments and those who wished to destroy Jews or degrade women or blacks.”

“Fighting fascism” always remained an attractive draw for the post-war American left, Wolfe wrote in a 2000 Harper’s essay, “In The Land Of The Rococo Marxists,” especially since the Left’s American cadres were never “catechism-drilled Marxists,” even if they remained “enveloped in a heavy Marxist mist.” Anti-fascism, he wrote, “became a universal ray gun, good for zapping anybody, anywhere, from up here… on the intellectuals’ Everest of Indignation.”

Gottfried notes that the target of this ray gun hasn’t just been those who oppose socialism and its variants, but, specifically, “all forms of Western or European identitarian politics, be it national, ethnic, or religious, and an expression of solidarity with an idealized world community.” Communism purported to be a universalizing creed, while fascism always manifested itself as nationalistic. In practice, there was little difference, since all totalitarian communist regimes have also created nationalistic cults. Nevertheless, it became a tenet of anti-fascism that nationalists often are presumptive fascists in disguise.

Even today, this kind of reductionist political attack remains popular, and not just among Antifa street marchers. The United States, like many other countries, does contain a genuinely radicalized right-wing political fringe, including some who call themselves fascist. However, these are not influential political actors. Yet that did not stop then-presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke from assailing Trump in October by declaring, “Outside of the Third Reich, give me another example of a Western leader who has called people of one faith inherently defective or dangerous or disqualified from being successful in that country.” Julian Castro, another 2019-era Democratic presidential candidate, declared that Trump advisor Stephen Miller is a “neo-Nazi.” Last June, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called migrant detention centers on the Mexican border “concentration camps,” language clearly intended to signal moral equivalence with the Nazi holocaust. Six weeks later, at a sentencing hearing for two Proud Boys who got into a street fight with Antifa extremists, New York Supreme Court Judge Mark Dwyer stated, “I know enough about history to know what happened in Europe in the ’30s when political street brawls were allowed to go ahead… We don’t want that to happen in New York.”

While judges and lawmakers may claim to be speaking metaphorically or speculatively, some of those listening seem to be taking the comparisons literally. Before he shot and killed nine victims in Dayton, Ohio, last year, 24-year-old Antifa supporter Connor Betts frequently decried political opponents as “Nazi” on Twitter, declaring, ominously, “Nazis deserve death and nothing else.”

The destruction of fascism in Europe 75 years ago should be remembered as a great victory. And fascism itself should be reviled—but not in a way that inflates false fears or smears conservatism, nationalism, and even patriotism as offshoots of Nazi ideology. The millions who died fighting actual fascism did so to preserve freedom of conscience and national self-determination. And their legacy should not be distorted by those who would seek to dress every political opponent up in Death’s Head cap badges and calf-high jackboots.


Bradford H. B. is an American writer and business owner.

Featured image: Stamp of charges and dues of the Fascist Party of Italy, founded in 1921.


  1. Great article. Stalin’s definition of Fascism in particular has proved its worth, since with this designation the progressives can easily push anything they do not like into the realm of absolute evil.

    Which is kind of funny, since Communism, Maoism, Fascism, National Socialism and the like are actually rivaling monsters from the same cesspool, only in different flavors.

  2. As I so often do these days, I checked the Wikipedia entry for fascism and this was the very first sentence:

    Fascism (/ˈfæʃɪzəm/) is a form of far-right, authoritarian ultranationalism[1][2] characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition, and strong regimentation of society and of the economy[3] which came to prominence in early 20th-century Europe.[4]

    Describes China pretty well, doesn’t it.

    Not the “far-right” bit, but everything else, including the ultranationalism.

    Such a useful word, fascism.

  3. The author presumes that people on the Right only recently started referring to left-wing behaviors as fascist. This is not true.

    The various national movements that self-identified as fascist all could be said to have been authoritarian, nationalistic, anti-individualistic, and encouraging (to various degrees) of commercial enterprise to meet the needs of the state.

    Pretty much settles the question of whether it’s left or right-wing, doesn’t it?

    New York Supreme Court Judge Mark Dwyer stated, “I know enough about history to know what happened in Europe in the ’30s when political street brawls were allowed to go ahead…

    The extraordinary irony…

    Fascism and socialism differ as follows:


    A father buys a car for his 16-year-old son to drive. He tells him, “This is my car.” You can only drive it under conditions that I set. You must tell me where you are going and who is riding with you, and I can always refuse you. You must honor curfew. You must wash it and fuel it and maintain it. If you misbehave, I will take it away from you. If I need to use it, you will let me use it. And you will run errands for me with it. Remember, it is my car!


    A father buys a car for his 16-year-old son to drive. He tells him, “This is your car.” You can only drive it under conditions that I set. You must tell me where you are going and who is riding with you, and I can always refuse you. You must honor curfew. You must wash it and fuel it and maintain it. If you misbehave, I will take it away from you. If I need to use it, you will let me use it. And you will run errands for me with it. Remember, it is your car!

  4. The idea that fascism is far-right is a myth perpetuated by leftists. How exactly does one get from the free market, God-given rights, and self-government (conservatism i.e. center right) to fascism (supposedly far right)? This would mean that conservatism and fascism are the same in kind and only different in degree.

    Contrast this with the other side, where it is easier to see how the ideology of the center left, with its concerns for equality and fairness over individual rights and its penchant for a larger, more centralized government, is a moderate version of the far left.

    Can someone please explain to me how conservatives got lumped in with fascists? Perhaps I’m misunderstanding something.

  5. That is not true.

    The choice is principles vs tribes. You can either align with people because of shared principles against those who oppose your principles, or you can align with a tribe characterized by something other than shared principles.

    The Left is tribal, the Right is principled.

    That the Right is tribal along racial or geographical lines is a left-wing smear, not an accurate characterization. Mislabeling the Right as “nationalist” is slander in service of this deception.

  6. Maybe, but we must remember that I am principled, you are rigid, and he is a fanatic. Those committed to one position find it difficult to see the obvious similarities between some of their acts and those of the other side, as Orwell pointed out in Notes on Nationalism.

  7. There were several conservative parties in Germany during the Nazi rise to power, the Nazis were obviously on the left with the Socialists and Communists, all trying to appeal to the same constituency. The Nazis were the most popular party on college campuses in Germany, which for me is the clincher. Where or when have conservative parties ever been appealing to college students? That makes no sense. Also, nationalism in Prussia was left wing during the 19th century, so to claim that nationalism in the 1920s was “right wing” is simply not accurate, although Marxists at the time had a universal message. This is why Stalin painted “fascism” as “right wing”. The goal of nationalists in 19th century Prussia and the other German principalities was similar to the goal of the European left today who want a centralized EU government in Brussels. It’s just that back then the German nationalists wanted centralized power in Berlin. Nationalism was for sure a left wing movement back then.

  8. Orwell does just that in “notes on nationalism”. He calls “nationalism” nationalism your first, negative sense - “my country should rule the world!”, while “patriotism” is his name for nationalism in your second sense.

    He perceptively notes that exaggerated patriotism usually leads only to silly jingoism - the belief your country is far better than it actually is, as in “USA #1!” kitch - but adds that this is usually silly, not evil. At worse, it might lead to isolationism and bigotry against “foreigners”, to Flanders and Swann’s “song of patriotic prejudice” type feelings, but not to starting wars of conquest.

    It is “nationalism” in the sense of “my side should rule the world” which is evil, and in that, notes Orwell, there is little difference between the Nazi and the communist.

  9. Fascism is socialism. As long as there is socialism, there will be fascism. They are one and the same. Not identical, but as similar as Maoism is to Leninism is to Stalinism is to … .

    Any socialist pretending to be against fascism, is fundamentally dishonest.

  10. Neither Fascism nor National Socialism really fit into today’s left-right spectrum. In Europe at that time, “right-wing” stood for those supporting monarchy and the church. Unlike in the United States, there was no libertarian movement.

    Mussolini was a former socialist who founded the Fascist party mainly because, unlike his former comrades, he was in favor of Italy’s participation in WWI. But he continued to stress that he remained a socialist at heart, while he aligned with the big companies and (rather unwillingly) with the Italian king and the church. Unlike socialism, Fascism typically promises to restore lost past national glory (ancient Rome, in this case).

    Hitler declared that National Socialism was a “third way” between socialism and capitalism. In order to come to power, he allied himself with the largely aristocratic German conservatives, although he considered himself a (nationalist) revolutionary and deeply despised the nobility. In fact, he even credited the Social Democrats with having deposed the Kaiser and ended the monarchy at the beginning of the Weimar Republic. Like Mussolini, Hitler regarded the Communists as enemies (and main competitors). Nevertheless, his policy towards the German population had many socialist elements that contributed to his great popularity. The collectivism of Nazi ideology in relation to das Volk (the German people) also had many typically leftist elements.

    Since today, for obvious reasons, neither side of the political spectrum wants to see Fascism and Nazism in their ranks and loves to place them with their political opponents, both sides find arguments for their version for the reasons mentioned. In any case, Fascism has nothing to do with right-wing in the sense of libertarianism or (American) conservatism.

  11. Well, I am in favor of small, weak government. According to leftists, that puts me on the right. Which, according to some leftists, makes me a fascist. So apparently I am a small government fascist. Go figure.

  12. “So apparently I am a small government fascist”

    Precisely. To a leftist, to be in favour of small, weak government is inherently suspect (I suppose I should say “problematic”). Within the domain of a small, weak government you will feel free to be selfish, to refuse to satisfy their needs by sharing according to your ability, to act according to your own idiosyncratic moral judgement, and what could be more fascist than that?

  13. As to whether fascism was or is “right wing”, as I have often pointed out in this and other fora, “right wing” has no coherent meaning beyond “opposed to the Left.”

    The Left does have a coherent meaning, which has remained more or less constant since the days when it got that name from the seating arrangement in the French National Assembly: at all times the Left is the dominant political tendency which seeks to establish an omnicompetent state under its control on the plea that doing so, and only doing so, will vindicate the interests of the downtrodden.
    The change in character of the Left over time has proceeded by changes to the identity of the downtrodden: from the peasantry, to the “workers of the world”, to women and a grab-bag of racial, ethnic, sexual and religious (got to include Muslims among the downtrodden) at this writing. In a century’s time doubtless there will be some new notion of downtrodden which the 22nd century Left will use as an excuse for giving a Left-wing controlled state extensive power over the economy and denying freedom of conscience to their opponents.

    Thus when “Left” was defined by the Comintern, fascism and Naziism were “right wing” simply because they opposed the Comintern, their similarity in methods and program and common opposition with Stalin’s Soviet Union to liberalism, monarchism, and Christianity (all of which were also “right wing” by virtue of opposing the Comintern) notwithstanding. Indeed, Naziism would have been perfectly left-wing (Hitler even said that Naziism was the German Left) had it not gotten the wrong notion of downtrodden – post-Treaty-of-Vesailles-Germans, rather than ‘the workers of the world’.

  14. The term FASCISM had a clear definition, there has been no need to change or alter it. Fascism is Statism, just like Socialism and Communism. The only difference between the 3 is the amount of individual rights allowed.

    *A communist wants to end private property, everyone is equally impoverished (except the rulers).
    *A socialist allows private property but wants to capture the gains of your labor to redistribute.
    *A fascist allows private property as long as it serves the State. The State consumes all, is above all. It is essentially a patronage system where only the Strongman’s supporters can exist in the marketplace, and even they are subordinate to the State.

    FASCISM is in no way “Right Wing” in an American sense. “Right Wing” is what is vague and ill-defined, usually it just means “opposed to Leftists.” If you oppose the Left, then you are “Right Wing” in the U.S.

    Calling people who desire small government, free markets, and who support individual liberties a FASCIST shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what that word means. The fact our bird-brained academicians routinely make this “error” is evidence that they’re ideologically biased – and so are many of their cohorts – who allow this “mistake” to continue unaddressed.

    If people were held accountable for their writings and words we wouldn’t have such muddled language. Stop ceding ground to Leftists. They have made such words as “fascist” and “racist” meaningless because no one stands up to their misuse of language. The clear and ever-present manipulation of words has cost us generations of intellectual energy and talent. Enough is enough.
    A = A.
    Fascism has a meaning, use it properly.

  15. Leftists are overgrown children. The total authority of the parent over the child is the only kind of power that they can wrap their underdeveloped intellects around, and so all their philosophy and platforms and strategies follow a childish understanding of government power. Part of the appeal of an all-powerful government is that when it arrogates power to itself, it also lifts the burden of responsibility from the people. These people feel so much more well-adjusted when someone else is pulling the strings for them: I just do what I’m told, I don’t have to worry about a thing, Big Mother already did all the worrying for me, I don’t have to stand here paralyzed by infinite choices, I don’t even have to THINK anymore.

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