Page last updated at 12:54 GMT, Tuesday, 20 October 2009 13:54 UK

What is a fascist?

The Magazine answers...

It's a word much applied by opponents to the British National Party and other radical political movements, but what is a "fascist"?

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini
Both of these men are often categorised as fascists

"Fascist" and "fascism" are terms that one might suppose to be simple badges, but dig beneath the surface and there are myriad complexities and a morass of academic debate.

It is more than six decades since the end of World War II and the fall of Nazi Germany, but those events are the prism through which the word "fascism" is still viewed.

The first "fascist" movement to gain power was Mussolini's Blackshirts in Italy in 1922. Their movement could certainly be said to be nationalist and authoritarian, as well as accepting of violence in the struggle for political power, but much of the rest of its characteristics have been subject to academic dispute.

"Frustratingly, I can't give a simple definition," says Kevin Passmore, reader in history at Cardiff University and author of Fascism: A Very Short Introduction. "It depends on definitions."

If your definition of "fascist" is someone who holds beliefs that can be categorised as "fascism", the terms fascism still needs to be defined.

There isn't an answer
Many say 'fascists' are authoritarian and nationalist
But some say racism is part of the definition
Others link the term to its Italian genesis
While still more use an amalgam of the Blackshirts and the Nazis

"You can say 'is fascism a movement that resembles what fascism was in Italy?'" says Mr Passmore. But for many users of the terms, fascist and fascism must be a blend of the common denominators between Italian fascism and German Nazism.

But in a letter to the Times on Tuesday, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne is keen to distinguish the terms. The 85-year-old former Sunday Telegraph editor confesses that like "most of my octogenarian generation of British... [I] believed in white superiority".

But that "in no way meant [we] were fascists," says Sir Peregrine, before adding he is "no longer a racist".

One of the problems in likening fascism to Nazism is that the two do not cross over as neatly as some people assume. Racism, and particularly anti-Semitism, was central to the ideology of Nazism, but the position in Italian fascism was far more ambiguous. So for some scholars, the mere presence of racism in a modern group's ideology might not be enough to earn the "fascist" label.

Fascism in Italy also had corporatism ingrained in is political make-up. Corporatism is usually defined as a political and economic system where individuals are organised into different groups - for example "plumbers" or "priests" - within the state, negotiating with other groups to make progress.

German NPD supporter
Some activists would accept the fascist label while others eschew it

It is unlike a modern liberal democracy where the basic political unit is the individual. The corporatist model emphasises co-operation over competition.

Another characteristic associated with fascism is autarky - the self-sufficient economy. But by no means all modern autarkic states - Afghanistan under the Taliban, for example - have been widely classed as fascist.

Fascist symbols are also significant. The term derives from the "fasces" - the axe and bundle of rods used in ancient Rome - sported by Mussolini's fascists. Franco's Falangists, used arrows joined by a yoke, the symbol of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. The Nazis used a Swastika. Symbols that in some way echo these older motifs are common among some modern extremists.

Question mark floor plan of BBC Television Centre
A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

Of course, another problem in refining a "fascist" label is that the stated ideology of the Italian fascists and the German Nazis often did not marry up completely with the political policies they pursued.

But the clearest problem in the definition of the word "fascist" is the very wideness of its application over the years. There is a plethora of uses from Rick in the Young Ones deploying it as an insult, to the Oxford English Dictionary's differing definitions "(loosely) a person of right-wing authoritarian views" and "a person who advocates a particular viewpoint or practice in a manner perceived as intolerant or authoritarian". So you have "body fascism".

Broadly speaking, in political discourse, it is a "boo word", a term used more for purposes of condemnation than precise categorisation. The Nazis were bad, and in this view their ideology was fundamentally linked to fascism, meaning that fascism is fundamentally bad.

"It is a useful political weapon to say a modern political movement is like fascism," says Mr Passmore.

And those groups often categorised by opponents as fascist, like the BNP, often choose not to use it to describe themselves.

Mussolini and fascists in Rome in 1922
One definition is entirely related to Italian fascism

"You can ask why don't they call themselves fascists given they admire several aspects. Why is it it remains a bad word? Anti-fascist movements have often said fascism is the same as Nazism," notes Mr Passmore.

There might be some who prefer an "elephant in the room" definition, believing that it is possible to know a "fascist" when one sees one, even if a precise definition is hard to come by. For them any nationalist political movement that is authoritarian, opposed to free speech, in favour of a one party state or dictatorship, and seems to have racist tendencies, is open to the "fascist" label.

But the debate over a precise definition will roll on.

"Students like to think this word means this," says Mr Passmore. "I lean towards the view that it's much more interesting to look at how the term has been used. History and life is about debate over what words mean."

Here is a selection of your comments.

One of the greatest mistakes that people make concerning fascism is associating it with "right wing" ideology. In fact fascism and right wing thought are completely opposed to each other in terms of their fundamental goals and ideal (their roots). To put it as simply as possible fascism is a political force that wishes to begin a new state of equality in a sort of national rebirth. This is different from right wing thought because it wishes to preserve a sort of "status quo" and the stability of a traditional order.
Thomas, Massachusetts

Much more interesting than the definition of "fascist" which has in many instances become little more than a catch-all perjorative, is the wider definition of "right wing". So for example, the BNP is classed as "right wing" (indeed usually "extreme right wing"), yet its economic aims would largely find favour with the left of "Old" (and not so old) Labour. A person who believes in "small" government, the rights and responsibilities of the individual, and the private sector, is usually regarded as "right wing", yet corporatism and state control, as is pointed out in this article, is seen as fascist which is always "right wing". Right wing is seen as reactionary, yet people who stand up for democracy, sovereignty and the sanctity of the UK parliament are seen as reactionary, while people who champion the unelected supremacy of the EU are seen as progressive.
Steve, London UK

My basic understanding is that fascism is generally made of concepts of authoritarianism, nationalism, militarism and racial supremacy. My studies, as a student have also suggested that fascist look to some historic state as the ideal, such as Hitler's desire to recreate a Germany based on earlier "Reichs" or Mussolini's desire to recreate the Roman Empire, while never accepting the present situation of the state as ideal.
Martin Meyer, Dundee, Scotland

While fascism might often have racist undertones, Mussolini gave the world a very concise and convenient definition: "Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power."

Now, obviously authoritarianism and nationalism are natural consequences of this definition. But, what is ironic is that while most (including the article) agree that Mussolini was the first to implement fascism, no one wants to quote Mussolini definition of fascism as even a starting point to a more encompassing definition. Instead, politicians and scholars, alike, seem to rather simply equate fascism to the Nazi party, thus polarizing the debate and rendering fascism as a "dirty" and politically incorrect word. However, the "inconvenient truth" is that Western governments (and their economies) already closely mirror those of Germany and Italy in the late 1920s.
George P. Burdell, Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Surely it is the way a word is currently used that matters? "Fascist" has come to mean someone of extreme right-wing or bigoted views to the vast majority of people, so isn't that what the word actually means?
Catherine Hilton, Todmorden, England

"Fascism" these days is taken to be synonymous with the Far Right, but in fact it is and always was a socialist movement. Both fascist and Nazi parties advocated a state-controlled and planned economy, centralised authority and collectivism (sacrificing individual liberty to the ends of society). In fact, the only difference between fascism and communism was the group that was to be favoured in the revolution: for the fascists it was defined by race; for the communists, by class. But in practice even this distinction was blurred.
Tom , London

A major problem with the "elephant in the room" definition given at the bottom is that it includes many regimes that - almost self-definingly - could not be called fascist. Stalin's Soviet Union would fit as fascist by that definition, yet was ostensibly communist - and communism is usually regarded as the exact opposite extreme of fascism.
Dave Lowering, Melbourne, Australia

As a history graduate I had the pleasure of studying fascism at the University of Sheffield. The module itself was confined within the years "1914-1945", which I think is a very telling indication of what the intended "definition" of the word was. Of course fascism is ultra-nationalist, even virulently so; of course, it's totalitarian - based around an autocratic hierarchy; and of course fascism has, I believe, pseudo-racial/xenophobic implications due to its intrinsically nationalistic character. Alas, the word has become far too liberally applied. For example, I despair when some unread people equate fascism and communism (notably Stalinism) as one and the same thing - simultaneously overlooking the profound and intricate details of their unique ideological origins. There seems to be this idea that just because Stalin and Hitler's regimes committed acts of despicable genocide they are automatically the same breed.
Danny Bird, Bristol, UK

Fascism is now a useless word having so many negative connotations as to render it virtually meaningless. In academic circles the differences between Italian and Spanish Fascism and German Nazism are understood but still terminology gets in the way. But it is surprising how many "fascist" ideas keep appearing in modern politics under different names. When Tony Blair announced the "Third Way" in British politics in the 1997 election he was using a term coined by Mussolini about the corporate state. The corporate state allowed big business to operate in a purely commercial way until it was deemed to have failed when the state would step in and impose a socialist style planned economy. The grouping of workers into similar trades was seen as a way of protecting them from the predations of big business and managing their labour/trade as part of a planned economy. Thus the Third way was a middle ground between a socialist planned economy and a democratic/liberal market economy.
Hugh Davie, London UK

Fascism simply means extreme collectivism. The individual is worthless and all that matters is the group - in most cases the nation. Nazis are just one type of fascist and it also includes communists and those traditionally believed conceived as being on the extreme left. They also believe in giving absolute power to the state, shutting down debate and "removing" individuals seen as disruptive to the "good of the whole".
Chris, London

Surely the best definitions work on etymological principles. The fasces symbolised the authority of the state to inflict corporal punishment (with the axe in the middle of the bundle symbolising its right to impose death). I take the defining quality of fascism to be this elevation of state power to absolute levels - "this is the state above the law" - coupled with the state exercising social control by the denial of people's right to free association. Under this definition, fascist states include those of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, as well as Hitler and Mussolini. This seems quite reasonable to me, as they seem to have recognisable features in common that can fairly be described by the word "fascism".
John D Salt, Risca, Caerfilli

An essential element of fascism is German political idealism, where (among several things)the individual is subservient to the state. Giovanni Gentile imported German idealism into Italy. Any definition of fascism behooves the inclusion of its basic philosophical background and ideas. Because of this Franco cannot be properly catalogued a fascist.
Rafael Gonzalez, Greoux les bains, France

In my view, the Taliban are fascists. They do not want any one who does not agree with their brand of Islam (which, in my opinion, is totally off the track of what Islamic values and ideals are). They do not believe in free speech, free movement, and are very intolerant of even moderate individualism. Let's stand up against the fascists (white supremacists) here in the UK and the fascists (Taliban and their like) in Pakistan. Human civilisation depends on it.
S Shafqat, Pakistan/UK

This brings to mind the question of whether the Soviet Union, for all its anti-fascist (ie anti-German) propaganda during the Second World War, was itself fascist. Soviet communism seems to meet every one of the aforementioned criteria, except for the use of the fasces as a symbol. Ironically, the US dime (10 cent piece), from 1916 until 1945, depicted the fasces on its reverse.
Ben S, New Orleans, USA

I like to use Thomas Sowell's definition as he is an economist who has written extensively on this subject. Fascists, communists and Nazis are all socialists, which has as its central doctrine totalitarian dictatorship, centrally planned economy, and ownership of the means of production of the government. The difference between them is merely membership. The communist doctrine is by class, by Nazism by race (regardless of what race) and fascism by corporate membership (by fact of citizenship or physical presence). By these definitions it is easy to identify the flavour of socialist one may be. It also reminds us of the core values of each type: government ownership of everything including human and civil rights. this is why the government can kill off those who don't fit the definition they have chosen.
Donald, Tulsa, United States

"Fascist" - like "racist" - is, as you say, a boo-word, something you accuse your opponent of when you cannot be bothered to actually present any argument to justify your disagreement with his opinion.
Megan, Cheshire UK

A fascist is someone you can't agree with. Simple.
Mo, Corby

When I was at school we were taught a definition of fascism as "a system of government that sanctifies the interests of the state over those of the individual".
Eustace Tuttle, London

For me, a central aspect of Fascism is the externalisation of conflict, an exemplar of which can be found in George Orwell's "1984" where, with the lack of any external threat, one needs to be invented in order to unify society and mobilise it to war.

I think a key work in this field is Slavoj Zizek's "The Sublime Object of Ideology" - which examines the psychoanalytic idea that the individual subject and society as a whole is inherently internally antagonistic, and the fascistic consequence of externalising this in ideology...
Peter Robinson, London

I don't know why "Marxist" hasn't also become a pejorative term. It could be argued that Stalin, Mao Tse Tung etc, have been responsible for more misery and deaths than Hitler, Mussolini and Franco were. Personally, I think most "isms" are obnoxious and anti-human.
Skeptic, Bognor Regis

I'm going to use the biological to explain fascism. Fascia is an uninterrupted, three-dimensional web of tissue that extends from head to toe, from front to back, from interior to exterior. It is responsible for maintaining structural integrity; for providing support and protection; and acts as a shock absorber. Fascia comes from the Latin for a band, if you look at your image of the axe and rods there is a band surrounding it. Therefore fascism is the binding of society into a collective with structural integrity that works together for a common cause, whether that cause is good or bad.
Stuart, Manchester

Fascist is not the same thing as Nazi. Had Mussolini joined with Britain in 1940, and Italy been invaded by Germany several years earlier the title 'Fascist' would have a much different meaning in this country.
Brian Gates, Medway Kent

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