Fascism has become quite the buzzword in American politics. Leftists are absolutely sure that the GOP Establishment and Donald Trump are fascists, and the GOP Establishment typically responds with something along the lines of “Democrats are the real fascists.” Perhaps the most hilarious incarnation of this phenomenon involves leftists citing George Orwell’s 1984—with its Newspeak, criminalizing thought, and the like, which the leftists themselves actually support—to level accusations of “evil” and “fascism” against the Alt-Right. While it may seem that this “fascist” hysteria is a relatively new thing, it most assuredly is not as George Orwell, himself an opponent of fascism, said in a 1944 essay that the word “is almost entirely meaningless” because even then it was applied by and to conservatives, socialists, communists, Trotskyists, Catholics, war resisters, supporters of the war, and nationalists. To paraphrase a line from that same essay, everyone is called a fascist but not by the same people.
This confusion is by no means limited to those who accuse others of fascism, and, in fact, the confusion largely exists because there was no firm definition even amongst those who self-identified as “fascist” or held similar ideologies. For example, consider Il manifesto dei fasci italiani di combattimento of 1919, more commonly known as the Fascist Manifesto, written by Alceste De Ambris and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and adopted by the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento of Benito Mussolini. Despite fascists largely being seen today as on the political right, the opening lines said that the document was “revolutionary because it is anti-dogmatic, strongly innovative and against prejudice,” and indeed it was. In terms of politics, it called for universal suffrage for men and women age 18 and above, eligibility for holding office for men and women age 25 and above, and the abolition of the Italian Senate, which was seen as firmly in the hands of the King as the senators were given lifetime appointments. In terms of economic policies, the manifesto called for an 8-hour workday, a minimum wage, workers’ rights, the reduction in the age of retirement from 65 to 55, the nationalization of transportation industries, and the nationalization of arms industries with existing military contracts revised with 85% of the intended profits confiscated. Perhaps most shockingly, however, was a call for the “seizure of all the possessions of the religious congregations and the abolition of all the bishoprics.” In truth, the Fascist Manifesto read much like what one would expect to come out of the Democratic National Convention in any given election cycle.
Mussolini formed the Partito Nazionale Fascista, or National Fascist Party, just two years after the manifesto was written, and the year after that would see King Victor Emmanuel III legally giving Mussolini power. While it is true fascist “Blackshirts” were marching around Rome at the time, the PNF had come to power legally just as the NSDAP did in Germany. Another parallel between the two is that the early writings of both parties did not necessarily fit with how they governed. For example, rather than seizing all of the possessions of religious congregations and abolishing the bishoprics, on 9 January 1938, Mussolini welcomed some 60 archbishops and bishops as well as 2,000 priests to Rome in a carefully orchestrated display of the links between the PNF and the Church, and the Archbishop of Udine, Monsignor Giuseppe Nogara, praised “the many merits of Mussolini for having finally re-established imperial Italy and for having placed the Catholic religion at the center of life.” Indeed, while the PNF continued to think of itself as “revolutionary,” the party was also self-described as being in the “service of the nation” with “a policy based on three principles: order, discipline, hierarchy,” which hardly sounds revolutionary or liberal. Indeed, just as Hitler was known as Der Führer (“the leader”), Mussolini was Il Duce, which carried the same meaning, and the Italian Fascist was every bit the illiberal ruler as his German counterpart, enacting policies that “outlawed freemasonry, exempted the clergy from taxation, cracked down on artificial contraception, campaigned for an increased birth rate, raised penalties for abortion, restricted nightlife, regulated women’s clothing and banned homosexual acts among adult men.” In 1938, Fascist Italy also adopted laws banning Jews “from positions in banking, government, and education,” confiscating their properties, and targeting miscegenation with Jews or Africans.
The question then is not, “Who is a fascist?” It is rather, “What does one mean by ‘fascist’?” Obviously, the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento of 1919 sounded more like the Marxist Antifa of today, but the Partito Nazionale Fascista would sound increasingly like other far-right movements as things progressed and World War II drew near. If one is so inclined and works for National Review, for example, it is not hard to justify calling leftists “fascist” when Mussolini had been a Marxist in his younger days and when the Fascist Manifesto was decidedly leftist sounding. All one has to do is pretend that fascism is solely defined by Mussolini’s life and activities up to 1922. Similarly, if one is so inclined and blogs from Starbucks, it is also not hard to justify calling rightists “fascist” when Il Duce and the PNF promoted traditional social values, engendered national pride, and adopted racial policies. All one has to do is pretend that fascism is solely defined by Mussolini’s life and activities after about 1925. Both can be somewhat justified with how they use “fascist” within a nice, neat vacuum, but they also rob the word of any real meaning or substance because they separate it entirely from an identifiable platform. “Fascist” means everything and nothing. Jonah Goldberg, Kevin Williamson, and others at National Review can try to accuse liberals of being the real Fascists and/or Nazis while simultaneously running articles asking whether or not Donald Trump is a fascist, but their accusations are simply laughed off as they too are called Fascists and/or Nazis.
What then should we make of members of the Alt-Right who self-identify as “fascist”? Are they simply Schrödinger’s villain? Jeet Heer would say that they are far-right radicals, and Jonah Goldberg would say that they are far-left radicals. The merry-go-round of accusations continues unabated. Therein is the problem with labeling oneself with a somewhat nebulous term without then offering a definitive definition. If you do not define yourself, then others will define you as they see fit. Since “fascist” has been universally used in an accusatory sense for decades, self-identified fascists have embraced the baggage hurled at them from both the mainstream right and left, and little to nothing has been done to counteract that reality because “fascism” has remained amorphous. Even some of the most ardent of self-identified fascists cannot distill their beliefs down into a party platform that can be presented to others, and they instead present what amounts to an esoteric worldview that can be discussed (and dismissed) as a religious cult rather than a political movement. If they are fascists, what does that mean exactly?
For an ideology to become a movement and, ultimately, to change things for the better, it must have concrete goals and practical ways of going about achieving those goals. For example, if you want to see traditional values restored to society, what sort of policies would you implement to achieve that goal? Do you plan on coming to power behind a single, big personality, or would you start with local politics and work your way up as a party? What sort of economic policies would you implement? If “fascism” is to become something substantive rather than a political insult and boogeyman, then it needs to be discussed in practical, realistic terms so that it comes to represent a well-rounded ideology in people’s minds. When people hear “fascist,” they need to understand what that means in terms of politics, social policy, economic policy, and the like. Otherwise, they will continue to hear it and think, “those are the evil bad men who want to do that thing my side dislikes.” If it truly is just an esoteric cult for a small number of people on the internet, then fascism is of little real value to the Alt-Right or anyone else. After all, what good is a movement that does not move and has no intention of ever moving because it has no goals, nothing to achieve? At a certain point, people should just admit that they are wearing a costume and playing a game, or they should actually set about building something real. Where are the manifestos? Where are the leaders? Where are the organizations defined by the here and now rather than 1930’s Italy or Germany? Now is the time to strike while the iron is hot, to pound it into something real, a blade aimed at the heart of modernity and liberalism. Or just put on your bow tie and be done with it.