What is… fascism?
Of all the unanswered questions of our time, perhaps the most important is: “What is fascism?”’, commented George Orwell when considering the explosive fascistic outburst across Europe and Asia towards the end of the Second World War. More than 70 years later, it appears Orwell’s question remains unanswered, even though the term ‘fascist’ is bandied around more than ever.
The origins of fascism are commonly located within Mussolini’s Partito Nazionale Fascista, the Italian movement spearheaded by Il Duce. Throughout the 1920s, the Italian fascists loosely upheld three key tenets: a hatred of communism, a support for nationalism and a glorification of war – all of which could be expressed through violence. Nazism, while similar in many ways to Mussolini’s fascism, had one particularly clear distinction: a concept of the superiority of the Aryan race, which justified the elimination of the Jews. Yet the modern use of the term ‘fascism’ seems to have Hitler in mind more than Mussolini.
Fast forward to 2017 and rhetoric surrounding fascism is as prevalent as ever. Whether it be the election of Donald Trump, the rise of far-right parties in eastern and central Europe, the Brexit vote or the emergence of the alt-right, commentators across the globe point to contemporary political events to highlight the return of fascism. As a consequence, Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner on human rights, marked the most recent International Human Rights Day with a grave speech that warned: ‘The rhetoric of fascism is no longer confined to a secret underworld of fascists, meeting in ill-lit clubs or on the “Deep Net”. It is becoming part of normal daily discourse.’
So, are we facing the return of fascism? And if so, how comparable is it to its origins in 1920s Italy? Can fascism be isolated into a political doctrine? Or do we, as Orwell advised, need ‘to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword’? Has fascism become a catch-all pejorative term for right-wing views or is there a serious possibility of fascism 21st century?