On the use and abuse of the term “fascism” to describe current events

by David J. Lobina

For someone who grew up in the South of Europe but has lived in the UK for the last 20 or so years, and who, moreover, is a sort-of linguist, the recent proliferation of the word “fascism” to refer to certain political events and tendencies in the English-speaking world, especially in the US, is not a little surprising. After all, the people we used to refer to as fascists when I was growing up in Italy and Spain certainly bore a resemblance to classical fascism – some were the descendants of actual fascists, in fact – whereas the guys who get called fascist all the time these days, especially in the US, are nothing like them. And in any case, it was the 1990s then and it is 2023 now, is the term “fascism” still relevant today?[i]

Who were these fascists from my youth, then? If you lived in Italy or Spain in the 1990s and were politically active, you would most certainly run into them sooner or later and there were a couple of dates in the calendar that you needed to look out for, as neo-fascists, to employ a perhaps more appropriate nomenclature, tended to come out to commemorate events such as the so-called March on Rome, on the 27th of October, in Italy, and Francisco Franco’s death, on the 20th of November, in Spain.[ii]

As mentioned, some of these people were the descendants of real fascists, and this is perhaps clearest in the case of the Movimento Sociale Italiano, or MSI (The Italian Social Movement), a political party founded in 1946 by veterans from the so-called Republic of Salò – more properly, the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (The Italian Social Republic), a Nazi puppet state nominally led by Benito Mussolini in his nadir days – and which, in 1994, and under the name of Alleanza Nazionale (The National Alliance), entered the government of Silvio Berlusconi, the business magnate turned politician.[iii] This is to some extent also true of the many offshoots of the original Falange Española (The Spanish Falange), a party that was founded in the 1930s on the model of Mussolini’s Partito Nazionale Fascista (the National Fascist Party), the latter created in 1921. In its latest iteration, the Falange goes by the name of the Falange Española de las JONS.[iv]

The modern versions of these organisations, however, differ greatly from classical fascism, by which I mean Italian fascism from 1922 to 1943 (roughly), as well as from each other, and these differences become a chasm when it comes to US politics. And yet seemingly every other week there is an article out there about how the Republican Party is becoming a fascist party, or about how Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, or Ron DeSantis are all fascists.

Robert Reich, a professor of public policy and a veteran of various Democratic administrations, and Jason Stanley, a philosopher turned political commentator, are probably the worst culprits in this sense (see here, here, and here, for a sample; Richard J. Evans, an actual expert, offers some respite from this and I will make similar points below).

Some of the articles I have just referenced take the analogy with classical fascism a little bit too literally, I think, and this is often based on rather crude correspondences. Umberto Eco’s article on so-called eternal fascism (Ur-fascism, as he called it; let’s put to one side the reasonableness or relevance of such a concept to begin with), is often cited when discussing the main characteristics of fascism in order to then draw the relevant parallels, but this piece may not be the best guide for such purposes. Apart from the fact that Eco was writing in the aftermath of the National Alliance’s success in the 1994 general election and he explicitly states that classical fascism is not coming back (this context needs to be taken into account when evaluating the article), it needs to be emphasised that Eco was focused on the ways of thinking and feeling of fascists, their linguistic habits, as he puts it at one point, and the end-result may not be particularly helpful. Though Eco outlines 14 characteristics of eternal fascism – such as the cult of tradition, rejection of modernism, the cult of action, etc. – he somewhat bizarrely argues that the presence of one of these may be enough to ‘allow fascism to coagulate around it’, an argument that is hard to square with how most people apply Eco’s list of features (I also think Eco’s list is more a reflection of the kind of intellectual that he was than an accurate description of fascism per se, but this is by the by now).

In any case, some of the exalted speech one finds in political commentators sometimes gives rise to a few absurdities; as a case in point, the philosopher Robert Paul Wolff last year mused in his blog about what it must have been like in Germany, Italy, and Spain in the 1930s while contemplating the erosion of democracy in the US, and this is not a little preposterous on the face of it. It is not unprecedented, however, for the words “fascism” and “fascist” have always been misused, especially when it comes to using these terms as an insult – Antonio Gramsci and other communists in 1920s Italy used to call socialists “semi-fascists”. I certainly remember realising, as I became an adult, that there was a distinction to be had between the words “fascist” and “neo-fascist”, and a meaningful one at that. Interestingly, the term “neo-Nazi” was much more in use than “Nazi” where I grew up, and one just didn’t call anyone simply a “Nazi”, in fact, as it seemed to have been pretty obvious to anyone than calling a skinhead a Nazi was quite ridiculous.

This is, in part, a matter of how language use changes in time, of how the meaning of words change through usage and convention, and a relevant issue here is the differences in use, interpretation, and nuance across languages and cultures as well, a clearly relevant factor when it comes to the contrast I shall identify between Italian and English. Having said that, I also happen to think that the Oxford English Dictionary has it more or less right at present.

According to the OED, and the equivalent Italian dictionary, the Treccani, the first term to have entered normal linguistic usage was “fascist” (fascista in Italian) rather than “fascism”, from the word fascio, which in turn comes from the Latin for “bundle” (a fascis in Ancient Rome was a bundle of rods bound up with an axe in the middle; it became one of the symbols of Italian fascism, but before then of the American and French revolutions). In the early 20th century, the word fascista referred to a political group, the first such use in relation to a worker’s league from Sicily – that is, to a socialist movement.

Still, the first sense of the word “fascist” in the OED is in reference to Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, and the same goes for the term “fascism”, these usages now marked as historical. The second meaning of fascist/fascism in the OED refers, in a generic sense, to a member of a political organisation advocating for fascism, and this includes the movements Italian fascism influenced in the 1920s and 1930s, most notably Nazism in Germany. The OED gives an extended description of this second meaning, defining fascism as an anti-communist and ultra-nationalist movement, usually espousing ethnocentric ideas of racial superiority (from the beginning, in the case of Nazism, but gradually for Italian fascism), and typically forming totalitarian dictatorships with a charismatic leader at the heart of it all.

That is fine as far as it goes.[v] I do wish to point out a third meaning of the word “fascist” as a noun/adjective in the OED, though; namely, and in an extended and depreciative use, as autocratic, intolerant, or oppressive, especially to enforce conformity. I would say that this is how most lay people use the word “fascist”, not only now, but in the most recent past, and though it is not a usage I would employ myself, it is part of linguistic use and clearly a valid one (I would say that such use ought to be more circumspect and qualified than it usually is).

What I do contend, as alluded to earlier, is the identification of current political movements that are more appropriately described as authoritarian far-right, or in the case of American politics, radical conservative – far-right 2.0, as the Italian commentator Steven Forti argues in this book apparently written in Spanish – with the fascism of the 1920-40s, and especially with Italian fascism, as the resemblance is rather superficial at best, if not quite misleading, and most probably unhelpful, anyway. It is here that the differences between Italian and English uses of the word are more noticeable.

It is noteworthy, in fact, that the Treccani dictionary doesn’t really mention any of the extended uses of the word fascismo that the OED includes, instead focusing on the Italian experience of the 1920-40s. This is also true of the historical dictionary the Treccani institute keeps, as well as the entry on fascism from a book edited by Umberto Eco on the history of European civilisation (the entry written by Elena Papadia). That is, in every case fascism is taken to be an intrinsically Italian phenomenon of the post First World War era. This is certainly in line with Italian scholarship on the matter, most notably in the works of Renzo De Felice and one of his students, the already mentioned Emilio Gentile.

Before getting to that, however, and as a way to showcase the differences in perspective between the English-speaking and Italian scholarship on fascism, the respective entries on fascism in the English and Italian versions of Wikipedia are quite illustrative. The English version offers a quite general definition of fascism as a far-right, authoritarian and ultra-nationalist ideology and movement, characterised by a strong leader, autocracy, militarism, social hierarchy, and strong regimentation of both society and economy. This entry spends quite a bit of time on definitions, with the usual suspects all present, with the surprising inclusion of Jason Stanley and his (over-)emphasis on the cult of the leader who promises national regeneration and the use of fascists rhetoric, and the entry also includes a discussion of some of the political movements the term may be applied to[vi]. The Italian version, on the other hand, constitutes a rather thorough history of Italian fascism, and if nothing else, it goes some way towards justifying the belief of scholars such as De Felice and Gentile that Italian fascism was a pretty unique and in fact novel phenomenon, and that we should thus frame our understanding of fascism in historical terms above else.

I can’t do justice to either De Felice or Gentile here, and this will be far too brief, but here is a sort of summary. First of all, De Felice emphasised the revolutionary rather than reactionary nature of Italian fascism,[vii] especially in its attempts to create a new society and a new man (one reason the Futurists might have been drawn to fascism, actually), thus contrasting it to the more traditional and more reactionary form that Nazism took. De Felice also drew a distinction between fascism as a movement and fascism as a regime, but today he is mostly known for his monumental biography of Mussolini, not without some controversy, however.

Emilio Gentile’s works offers a more through and comprehensive account of Italian fascism, and from various many angles to boot (this and this are some of his more accessible books on fascism; this one is a very good conceptual discussion of fascism, whilst this one is probably his magnum opus, as comprehensive a history of fascism as there may be anywhere). To summarise. There are three dimensions to understanding Italian fascism, according to Gentile: the organisational dimension, with the very novel appearance of a militia-party, the violence and terror of these militia (squadrismo) to bring about a regeneration of the nation, with a conscious attempt to appeal to the middle classes above all; the cultural dimension, with its emphasis on the myth of youth, the creation of a new man and a new society, and with an anti-everything outlook (anti-communism, anti-politics, anti-parliamentary democracy, e così via); and finally, the institutional dimension, where there was only place for one party, thus requiring the symbiosis of state and regime, the implementation of a police state, a corporativist organisation of the economy, etc. And plenty more, but perhaps this particular summary by Gentile himself will do for now: [viii]

il fascismo è un fenomeno politico moderno, nacionalista e rivoluzionario, antiliberale e antimarxista, organizzato in un “partito milizia”, con una concezione totalitaria della politica e dello Stato, con una ideologia a fondamento mitico, virilistica e antiedonistica, sacralizzata come religione laica, che afferma il primato assoluto della nazione, intesa come comunità organica etnicamente omogenea, gerarchicamente organizzata in uno Stato corporativo, con una vocazione bellicosa alla politica di grandezza, di potenza e di conquista, mirante alla creazione di un nuovo ordine e di una nuova civiltà.

There is indeed plenty more to say about Italian fascism, not least about its history and contradictions, its extreme violence, and the actual movements it spawned worldwide, issues that might deserve another post. Another interesting topic to discuss is the work of the author Antonio Scurati, who has recently published three fascinating novels about the figure of Mussolini, an example of historical fiction that may deserve a post of its own too.

As for my own preference regarding how to use the word “fascism”, I certainly think that Gentile’s work on Italian fascism, and in particular the definition I have just provided here, makes referring to any aspect of American politics as fascist, or even neo- or post-fascist, not a little absurd, difficult to justify, and quite misguided overall. I personally only use the word “fascism” for 1920-40s Italian fascism (maybe as Fascism?), as I also see very little value in employing this term to far closer movements to fascism, such as Nazism, falangism or francoist (let alone any other, more modern examples from Europe), given that there are as many points of convergence among these movements as there are discrepancies and glaring differences. There are plenty of authoritarian movements in the world today and some of the challenges and dangers are considerate, but they are clearly not fascist. More to the point, I fail to understand why some people insist upon these analogies, and I don’t see the analytical value in drawing them at all. But maybe it’s just my native languages speaking.


[i] As was the case when I wrote about Catalan nationalism (here and here), I will for the most part employ sources that are not in English in this piece (in this case, mostly in Italian); I will also adopt an “Italian viewpoint” on the matter, with the view to highlight some of the cultural and linguistic differences between English-speaking and Italian commentators on the phenomenon of fascism.

[ii] I say the “so-called” March on Rome because Italian scholarship on the matter, especially the work of Emilio Gentile, whom I shall be quoting quite a bit here, has it that this event from 1922 wasn’t much of an uprising and the turning point for Mussolini and the fascists involved more threat and background political machinations than a massive revolt. Francisco Franco ruled Spain as dictator from 1939 until his death on the 20th of November of 1975.

[iii] The National Alliance was reconceptualised as a more traditional conservative party in an attempt to shed much of its earlier neo-fascist skin (at least on paper; it used to be called a post-fascist party), and thus becoming more in tune with the anti-fascist character of the Italian constitution of 1948, which prohibits the reorganisation of the fascist party under any name. The Berlusconi government from 1994 was the result of a coalition that also included a secessionist party from the North of Italy, called Lega Nord (the Northern League), though it has since been rebranded as simply Lega (but not officially). The Lega is in another government at present, this time in coalition with Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy, the name is a reference to the opening line of the Italian anthem), an offshoot of the National Alliance after various splits and mergers (it is worth noting that Meloni was a member of the youth wing of the old MSI; if anyone may be said to have some proper fascist roots these days, she might be the best candidate).

[iv] Or in the full version of its name: The Falange Española de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista (Falange de las JONS; that is, the Spanish Phalanx of the Councils of the National Syndicalist Offensive). The original Falange was first led by José Antonio Primo de Rivera, who certainly wanted it to have a clear fascist outlook. After his death in 1936, the party was taken over by Franco and his loyalists, and in addition to various mergers and splits, the Movimento Nacional, as it was known during Franco’s dictatorship, was more francoist than fascist, not least because of its ultra-Catholicism, a feature quite extraneous to fascism.

[v] It could have been worse, I guess. This particular article has it that “Christian nationalism” is one of the three markers of European fascism, which would disqualify Italian fascism and Nazism.

[vi] The entry on the Britannica website is similar but proves to be far too expansive in what it regards as relevant to fascism, even discussing Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, which surely are more right-wing populists than they are fascists in any way.

[vii] Italian communists at the time saw fascism as entirely reactionary, but this is possibly on account of their world-historical views at the time, which included the coming revolution. In addition, everyone was a fascist or semi-fascist for the communists, including well-known figures of Italian socialism who were to fight Mussolini’s fascists on the ground, some of them losing their lives in the process.

[viii] As per Google Translate: ‘fascism is a modern political phenomenon, nationalistic and revolutionary, anti-liberal and anti-Marxist, organized in a “militia party”, with a totalitarian conception of politics and the state, with a mythical, virilistic and anti-hedonistic ideology, consecrated as a secular religion, which affirms the absolute primacy of the nation, understood as an ethnically homogeneous organic community, hierarchically organized in a corporate state, with a warlike vocation for the politics of greatness, power and conquest, aimed at the creation of a new order and a new civilization’.