Who’s a Fascist? Why Does it Matter?

Despite all the chatter, there aren’t any fascists involved in the clashes involving the misnamed “white nationalists” and “antifa” (antifascists). Each side accuses the other of “fascism.” But fascism was destroyed in the Second World War, and insofar as there are still some scattered remnants, they are non-Western (the Iranian Islamic Republic and the Islamic State “caliphate” are perhaps good examples).

But “fascism” as it originated, and came to power, in Europe is gone, and there is no sign of contemporary revival. There has never been a viable fascist movement or party in the United States (any more than there has been a viable socialist party or movement).

Fascism was a revolutionary mass movement that originated in Italy after the First World War. Why revolutionary? Because, unlike the 19th century right-wing movements, it did not aim at the reestablishment of traditional monarchies. Nor was it class-bound; it acted in the name of the war-winning fighters (Italy), or the fighters betrayed by the political class (Germany) and the Jews. Thus the claim of fascist leaders to act in the name of “the nation.”

America has patriotism, not nationalism. Our loyalty, and our passions, are to a set of ideas, not to a country whose citizens share a common ethnic identity or religion, which is what nationalism is all about.

The fascist movements were part of a broad-based revolt against the liberal democratic state; revolts and then revolutions succeeded in Italy, Germany and Russia. First came the Russian revolution, then Italian fascism, then Hitler’s failed revolution, which triumphed a decade later.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of fascism was its enormous popularity. By the time Hitler became German chancellor, had enormous mass appeal, both in Italy and beyond. In both Germany and Italy, there was no sign of an effective opposition or resistance. Had they not lost the war, the two tyrants could have looked forward to many years of stable rule.

There is, and has been, no comparable movement in the United States. Racist reactionaries on the right, or violent anti-capitalist groups on the left, are both miniscule. Both claim to speak in the name of failed movements and regimes, ranging from communism to racial slavery. Real fascism was revolutionary and claimed to represent a “new man.” Today’s violent Americans have no such concept.

The most politically interesting and potentially significant aspect in the current tumult is that both sides call the other “fascist.” That testifies to the sometimes perplexing success of “progressive” dogma in the Western left following the fall of the Soviet Union. You might have expected Western intellectuals to acknowledge communism’s failure, but instead “fascism” became the primary, at times seemingly the only, legitimate label for political evil. This practice started right after the Second World War, and was a major weapon in the Soviets’ campaign to bring communists to power in the West. The West European communists asserted that they alone were entitled to determine if a given person was “fascist” or “antifascist.” Post-war Italy, with Europe’s most powerful Communist party, was the classic example. This produced all manner of political blackmail, as many real fascists were recycled as “antifascists.” It all went well for them for two generations. It wasn’t until the end of the century that famous writers and scholars confessed to their dark past.