A Dangerous Definition

How clearly can we distinguish fascism from “populist nationalism”? And does it matter?

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Devon Yu/Thinkstock.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Devon Yu/Thinkstock.

This article supplements Fascism, a Slate Academy. To learn more and to enroll, visit Slate.com/Fascism.

Adapted from Fascism: A Very Short Introduction by Kevin Passmore. Published by Oxford University Press.

One way to explore the legacy of fascism is to enter the debate about whether it was a futile attempt to restore “traditional” society, or helped, perhaps inadvertently, to bring into being the “modern” world. Partisans of the former view could point to fascist policies that were plausibly anti-modern—the return to the land, restriction of city growth, and idealization of the peasantry. Codreanu’s fondness for peasant costume expressed Romanian fascism’s idealization of the peasantry. Other evidence suggests that fascism was “modern”: the worship of military technology, favoritism towards big business in the distribution of military contracts, mass mobilization, the involvement of women in fascist movements, and so on.

Evidence can be piled on either side without resolving the question, and moreover we encounter the problem of definition—we can’t agree what modern is, and so the answer to the question depends on whichever definition we use. In practice, it is hard to avoid judging fascism’s modernity in terms of what one personally happens to regard as “progressive.” Given the difficulty of determining what is “modern,” a better approach might be to examine how fascists perceived and used the term. What did “modern” mean to fascists themselves?

Fascists drew upon Social Darwinism and its French alternative, Lamarckianism; collective psychology; social biology; the science of crowds; and studies of myths. Linking all of these ideas were allegedly scientific assumptions about national characters and/or races. This “science” was married to the conviction that the nation must be internally strong and homogeneous, if it was to overcome the unavoidable tendency to decadence and survive in the life-and-death international struggle. Here, fascists’ ideas were shaped by artistic modernism, which perceived the world as a dark threatening place in which nothing was permanent, which nonetheless might be made sense of and even tamed through the special techniques of the artist.

Many fascists saw this project as modern, but others saw it as a return to tradition, and still others as a reconciliation of tradition and modernity. Fascism is a contradictory set of interrelated and contested ideologies and practices that cannot easily be categorized in terms of binary opposites such as tradition and modernity or radical and reactionary.

So, if we can’t define fascism, how can we identify it and oppose it? If we can’t expose a party as fascist, do we let it off the hook?

To begin with, we must not confuse morality with academic research. Moral positions can’t be deduced from the study of the past. Scholars can depict the actions of fascism as gruesomely as they wish—alas, they will be seen as crimes only if the reader shares the moral perspective of the writer. Anyway, the question of whether or not the modern far-right’s stance is “fascist” has no bearing on the moral acceptability of its proposals. For instance, would the expulsion of nonwhites from a country be more acceptable if it was the work of a nonfascist government? To reduce the far right to its similarities with fascism carries the risk of obscuring what is new about it, and of diverting attention from the possibility that fascists may not be alone in advocating or practicing policies that others would regard as morally wrong.

Another major problem with the definitional obsession is that it forces scholars to take sides in the questions that agitate protagonists—that is, to answer the question of who the true fascists are or were—and thus to provide spurious justification for one side in those disputes. Often, activists or journalists consult academics on the “definition of a political ideology” in the hope of getting scientific objective backing for their own views. And yet academics are no better qualified than anyone else is to decide who the real fascists were. They can only explain the different ways that protagonists used the term, classified people, the use they made of those classifications in daily struggles, and what the consequences were.

As the political sociologist Annie Collovald has explained, the French National Front’s (FN) adoption of the “national-populist” label underlines the dangers. This category was not invented by the FN, but by a group of political scientists who occupy a strategic position in the French university establishment, close to governing circles. These academics are committed to the presidential Fifth Republic, which they believe finally satisfies the nation’s desire to reconcile democracy with strong government by competent people (such as themselves). They reject the idea that fascism ever existed in mainstream politics in France, for doing so might taint with fascism their own preference for strong government. They therefore depict the FN as a temporary “national-populist” protest on the part of marginal ill-educated people who seek simple answers for their difficulties in the age of globalization.

Besides betraying a certain contempt for ordinary people, this interpretation plays into the hands of the highly educated professional politicians who actually lead the FN. It permits the FN to assert academic support for its difference from fascism and for its claim to represent the voiceless. It’s as if racism is acceptable as long as it isn’t fascist. It would be just as problematic, though, to label the FN as fascist. It’s potentially a way of discrediting the party, but since FN sympathizers don’t usually see themselves as fascist, one runs the risk of re-inforcing their conviction that the movement represents honest people who are contemptuously dismissed by the elite.

Doubtless, those who regard academics’ refusal to pronounce as dereliction of duty will not be mollified. Didn’t academics use neutrality to claim that the spread of fascism did not concern them? That’s undeniably true. But this approach to fascism does not represent an abdication of moral responsibility. The key is that academics should not make exaggerated claims for their knowledge, but they must defend the principles on which free and rigorous enquiry depends.

In fact, in the age of fascism, it was precisely the conviction of many academics that “scientific” methods provided them with special knowledge of what was morally good: That permitted them to intervene in other people’s lives without their consent. The belief that medical science had resolved the question of who should live and die for the good of the nation permitted the involvement of doctors in the Holocaust. Likewise, Italian fascists believed that since the development of the nation-state was a scientific fact, its preservation ought to be the object of state policy. In reality, the idea that nations have “characters” or that racial origin determines political behavior is mere prejudice which crumbles away under the most limited scrutiny. The science of fascists is little more than bigotry erected into principle.

Although one cannot afford to be complacent, contemporary academics do not usually assume that history is regulated by scientific laws, and still less that knowledge of these laws provides a moral standard. They subject their own assumptions, and those of their colleagues, to systematic criticism, and they try, if not always successfully, to uncover unacknowledged prejudices in their work. A proper scholarly method is intrinsically anti-fascist in that it treats skeptically what fascists regard as beyond criticism. Academic inquiry accepts that its insights depend on perspective, that other perspectives will be possible, and that their answers will always be superseded. This necessary mutual criticism can only happen in a democratic environment.

Notwithstanding, one might still object that this view of academic research promotes “ivory tower” detachment, and legitimizes complacent pursuit of irrelevant intellectual problems while the world collapses. It’s quite legitimate to study fascism in order to discover which means have been most effective in combating it and what might help fight fascism in the future.

Nevertheless, caution is required, for the history of fascism alone cannot provide anti-fascist strategies. Because fascism is so hard to pin down, no single method could be universally effective against it. Banning fascist organizations sometimes works, sometimes it doesn’t. There’s no telling whether prosecutions for racist propaganda will represent a deterrent or promote sympathy for people who exercise the right of “free speech” (but who infringe the rule that freedom is constrained by the harm that one might do to others). Sometimes efforts to appease racism in the electorate have deprived fascists of support; in other cases they have legitimated fascism. Clearly, potential supporters of fascism must be offered a better and more humane alternative means of solving their problems. Yet no rule dictates what this alternative must be.

So are we letting the modern far-right off the hook by avoiding the question of fascism? Ultimately, responses to fascism depend not upon scholarly assessments of what has happened in the past or on categorization. We cannot oppose the far-right by defining it as fascist—however many similarities there undoubtedly are. We must focus rather on the dangers that it represents in the present, and recognize that nonfascist movements, including groups that play by democratic rules, can also threaten decent values. And the question of values is not just for academics, but for society as a whole.

Adapted from Fascism: A Very Short Introduction by Kevin Passmore with permission from Oxford University Press. Copyright (c) 2014 by Oxford University Press.