Facism in the past: Citizens out to applaud the 'exodus of the Jews' the morning after Kristallnacht, 1938.

Facism in the past: Citizens out to applaud the 'exodus of the Jews' the morning after Kristallnacht, 1938. Yad Vashem Photo Archives

Understanding Fascism

by David Neiwert

"Fascism" has come to be a nearly useless term in the past 30 years or so. In many respects, leftists are most responsible for this degradation; it became so common to lob the word at just about anyone conservative or corporatist in the 1960s and 1970s that its original meaning -- describing a very distinct political style, if not quite philosophy -- became utterly muddled, at least in the public lexicon.

A recent example of this was the report at Take Back the Media that Rush Limbaugh had characterized antiwar protesters as "fascists and anti-American." Indeed, it was this report that inspired me to write at Orcinus about Limbaugh and the real nature of fascism. But the report was wrong. (Take Back the Media, to its credit, quickly corrected its quote.)

Here's the actual quote:

"It's beyond me how anybody can look at these protesters and call them anything other than what they are: Anti-American, Anti-Capitalist Marxists and Communists."

Limbaugh was clearly smearing the antiwar dissenters, and that was outrageous enough. But he wasn't calling them fascists -- rather their ideological opposite.

It is clear that liberals are every bit as prone to confusing fascism with totalitarianism as are conservatives. The difference, perhaps, is that the latter often do so deliberately, as a way of obscuring the genuine fascism that sits at their elbows.

As "fascism" has been bandied about freely, it has come loosely to represent the broader concept of totalitarianism, which of course encompasses communism as well. Right-wing propagandists like Limbaugh clearly hope to leap into that breach of popular understanding to exploit his claim that those on the left, like Dick Gephardt or "feminazis," are "fascists." It's also clear as he denounces antiwar liberals as "anti-American" that he is depicting them as enemy sympathizers with the forces of "Islamofascism."

Most Americans have a perfectly clear idea of the basic tenets of communism (though in many cases it is fairly distorted), largely because it is an ideology based on a body of texts and revolving around specific ideas. In contrast, hardly anyone can explain what it is that makes fascism, mainly because all we really know about it is the regimes that arose under its banner. There are no extant texts, only a litany of dictatorships and atrocities. When we think of fascism, we think of Hitler and perhaps Mussolini, without even understanding what forces they rode to power.

At the same time, it's important that Americans of all stripes -- liberal or conservative -- have clear view of what fascism is, because it is not an extinct political force, and it is above all else innately anti-democratic and anti-American in spirit. This essay is in some regards a plea, particularly to those on the left who have used the term willy nilly to score shrill partisan political points, to cease abusing the word "fascism," learn what it means, and apply it only when it's appropriate. (I have absolutely no hopes of persuading those on the right, particularly since they are a large part of the problem.)

It has always seemed to me that Americans view Nazism almost as some kind of strange European virus that afflicted only the Germans, and only for a brief period -- this by way of rationalizing that It Couldn't Happen Here. But it also seems clear to me this is wrong; that the Germans were ordinary, ostensibly civilized people like the rest of us. And that what went wrong in them could someday go wrong in us too.

I described some of this in the Afterword of In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest, reminiscing about a professor's midafternoon lecture:

When he was a young man, he told us, he served in the U.S. Army as part of the occupation forces in Germany after World War II. He was put to work gathering information for the military tribunal preparing to prosecute Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. His job was to spend time in the villages adjacent to one concentration camp and talk to the residents about what they knew.
The villagers, he said, knew about the camp, and watched daily as thousands of prisoners would arrive by rail car, herded like cattle into the camps. And they knew that none ever left, even though the camp never could have held the vast numbers of prisoners who were brought in. They also knew that the smokestack of the camp's crematorium belched a near-steady stream of smoke and ash. Yet the villagers chose to remain ignorant about what went on inside the camp. No one inquired, because no one wanted to know.
"But every day," he said, "these people, in their neat Germanic way, would get out their feather dusters and go outside. And, never thinking about what it meant, they would sweep off the layer of ash that would settle on their windowsills overnight. Then they would return to their neat, clean lives and pretend not to notice what was happening next door.
"When the camps were liberated and their contents were revealed, they all expressed surprise and horror at what had gone on inside," he said. "But they all had ash in their feather dusters."3

That story neatly compresses the way fascism works: in a vacuum of denial.

The gradual mechanism by which this phenomenon gradually crept over Germany was vividly described in They Thought They Were Free, a book by Milton Mayer about "how and why ‘decent men' became Nazis":

What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security. And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it.4

So if it could happen to the Germans, it could happen to us, particularly to the extent that we remain in denial about it. But how are we to tell if it is happening, since it seems to happen so gradually that the populace scarcely recognizes it?

It's worthwhile to begin by examining the historical record, because there, at least, we can get a reasonably clear picture of just what fascism really was and is.

In a historical sense, fascism is maybe best understood as an extreme reaction against socialism and communism; in its early years it was essentially defined as "extremist anti-communism." There were very few attempts to systematize the ideology of fascism, though some existed (see, e.g. Giovanni Gentile's 1932 text, The Philosophical Basis of Fascism). But its spirit was better expressed in an inchoate rant like Mein Kampf.

It was explicitly anti-democratic, anti-liberal, and corporatist, and it endorsed violence as a chief means to its ends. It was also, obviously, authoritarian, but claiming that it was oriented toward "socialism" is just crudely ahistorical, if not outrageously revisionist. Socialists, let's not forget, were among the first people imprisoned and "liquidated" by the Nazi regime.

But fascism is more than just a reaction. It is a political force with a distinct set of characteristics.

One of the more popular recent essays on the subject was written by Umberto Eco, who is a cultural scholar, of course, though not what I would consider a genuine expert on fascism. Nonetheless, his piece, "Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt" is on the right track, and as good a place as any to start.5

Eco identifies a series of traits that sum up the essence of what he calls "Ur-Fascism," that is, the beast that has always been with us and will always be. Now, although this piece was written in 1995, let's see how many we can recognize today:

The cult of tradition.

[Who are the folks who beat their breasts (and ours) incessantly over the primacy of 'traditional Judaeo-Christian culture'?]

The rejection of modernism.

[Think 'feminazis.' Think attacks on the NEA. Think attacks on multiculturalism.]


[G.W. Bush's anti-intellectualism and illogical, skewed speech are positively celebrated by the right.]

Action for action's sake.

[Exactly why are we making war on Iraq, anyway?]

Disagreement is treason.

["Liberals are anti-American."]

Fear of difference.

[Again, think of the attacks on multiculturalism, as well as the attacks on Muslims and Islam generically.]

Appeal to a frustrated middle class.

[See the Red states -- you know, the ones who voted for Bush. The ones where Limbaugh is on the air incessantly.]

Obsession with a plot.

[Limbaugh and conservatives have been obsessed with various "plots" by liberals for the past decade -- see, e.g., the Clinton impeachment, and current claims of a "fifth column" among liberals.]

Humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies.

[Think Blue states vs. Red states.]

Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy.

[The very essence of the attacks led by talk-radio hosts against antiwar protesters.]

Life is eternal warfare.

[This perfectly describes the War on Terror.]

Contempt for the weak.

[Think both of conservatives' characterization of liberals as "weak spined," as well as the verbal attacks on Muslims and immigrants from the likes of Limbaugh and Michael Savage.]

Against 'rotten' parliamentary governments.

[Remember all those rants against 'big government'?]

Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak.

[Perhaps the most noticeable trait in the current environment. The destruction of meaning by creating "empty phrases" combining opposite ideas has, as we have seen, become a prominent strategy deployed by the conservative movement.]

Now, I know a quick reading -- the kind Limbaugh prefers, prone to miscomprehension and mischaracterization -- might suggest otherwise, but this demonstration isn't really an attempt to argue that Limbaugh is a fascist.

It is uncanny just how closely he and his conservative-movement cohorts fit the description provided by Umberto Eco's 14 points. But therein lies the problem: Eco's essay is useful, but not authoritative by any means, in no small part because the study of fascism isn't really within his field of academic expertise. And it has some flaws, not the least of which is that some (not all) of the traits he describes as endemic to fascism could be ascribed to other totalitarian philosophies as well, notably communism. The truth is, a deep conservative might fit Eco's description and still he might not be a fascist.

What this exercise reveals is not so much that Limbaugh is a fascist, but rather, that he is making a career out of transmitting the themes and memes upon which fascism feeds to a mainstream conservative audience. After all, in its developmental phase, fascism in many ways comprises relatively mundane ideas and behaviors, which isolated seem unremarkable enough, but which in combination are both potent and lethal.

In turning to history for guidance, it's important not to confuse fascism as a movement with fascism as a power. If we think that we can only identify the rise of fascism by the arrival of its mature form -- the goosestepping brownshirts, the full-fledged use of violence and intimidation tactics, the mass rallies -- then it will be far too late. Fascism sprang up in fact as a much more atomized phenomenon, arising at first mostly in rural areas and then spreading to the cities; and if we are to look at those origins, then it's clear that similar movements can already be seen to exist in America.

Fascism as we will see springs from very ancient sources; its antecedents have appeared throughout history. It adapts to changing conditions. As the French specialist on the extreme right Pierre-André Taguieff puts it:

Neither "fascism" nor "racism" will do us the favour of returning in such a way that we can recognise them easily. If vigilance was only a game of recognising something already well-known, then it would only be a question of remembering. Vigilance would be reduced to a social game using reminiscence and identification by recognition, a consoling illusion of an immobile history peopled with events which accord with our expectations or our fears.6

What's necessary for assessing the genuine potential for fascism in America is identifying the core components of fascism itself: the ancient wellsprings from which it came and which remain with us today. Then we need to see how we are doing in keeping those forces in check.

Next: III: The Core of Fascism


3. See the author's In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1999), pp. 319-320.

4. Milton Sanford Mayer, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-35 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966).

5. First published in the New York Review of Books, June 22, 1995, then reproduced in Utne Reader, November-December 1995, and widely available on the Web.

6. Cited in Roger Griffin, "Paper tiger or Cheshire cat? A spotter's guide to fascism in the post-fascist era," Searchlight, November 2002.




Rush, Newspeak and Fascism: An exegesis

I. Projecting Fascism
II. Understanding Fascism
III. The Core of Fascism
IV. Tracking Fascism
V. Proto-Fascism in America
VI. Crossing the Lines
VII. The Transmission Belt
VIII. Official Transmitters
IX. Media Transmitters
X. Reaching the Receivers
XI. Dualist Receivers
XII. Divine Transmissions
XIII. Fascism and Fundamentalism
XIV. The War on Liberals
XV. Waiting for Godwin

1 PDF File

Contribute to David Neiwert below:

Click here to contribute to Cursor, Inc.