The Latest Obscenity Has Seven Letters

A few years after the end of World War II, George Orwell wrote that the ”the word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’ ”

Since then the term fascist has gone in and out of fashion several times. In the late 1960’s, the time of civil rights and Vietnam War protests, it was widely used to describe everything from police brutality to compulsory bedtime for children. With the waning of the cold war it seemed to go out of vogue: how could there be fascism without its historical adversary, communism?

But since Sept. 11, the term fascist appears to be making something of a comeback.

Not long after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Christopher Hitchens adopted the term ”Islamic fascism” to describe Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and other forms of militant Islamic fundamentalism. More recently Paul Berman, in his book ”Terror and Liberalism,” uses the fascist analogy to defend the United States invasion of Iraq, applying the term to both the regime of Saddam Hussein and various manifestations of Islamic fundamentalism.

Meanwhile, in what many people see as a particularly far-fetched usage, some on the left are dusting off the political vocabulary of the 1920’s and 30’s to describe policies of the Bush administration that they find antidemocratic: aggressive unilateralism in foreign affairs, the doctrine of pre-emptive force and what they perceive as the abridgment of civil liberties in the war on terror. Just this week, protesters were flashing signs emblazoned with the word fascist during Attorney General John Ashcroft’s speeches in favor of the antiterrorism laws.

”Whenever people start locking up enemies because of national security without much legal care, you are coming close,” said Robert Paxton, an emeritus professor of history at Columbia University and the author of a forthcoming book called ”Fascism in Action,” a comparative study that tries to distill the essence of fascism.

Yet the sudden recourse to old, familiar terms may be less a result of inaccurate labeling than of the failure to find the proper language for problems and phenomena that are bafflingly novel in an age in which religion and politics, modern technology and seemingly archaic beliefs are mixed together, in which media control and money have sometimes replaced force as a means of maintaining consensus.

”We are facing forms of domination that exceed the old vocabulary and so we have to try to find language that corresponds to this condition,” said Sheldon Wolin, a professor emeritus of political thought at Princeton University, who has compared Mr. Bush’s military-minded foreign policy to the expansionism of fascist regimes in the 1930’s.

Even Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy entered the debate this week by rejecting any comparison between Mr. Hussein and Mussolini. ”That was a much more benign dictatorship,” he said during an interview with the conservative British magazine ”The Spectator.” ”Mussolini did not murder anyone. Mussolini sent people on holiday to internal exile.”

His off-the-cuff remarks caused an uproar among his critics, who pointed to the killing of anti-Fascist opponents, the hundreds of thousands of Italians and non-Italians killed in Mussolini’s aggressive wars and the Fascist government’s complicity in the Nazi deportation and extermination of more than 7,000 Italian Jews.

If the term fascist is thrown around as an epithet, it is partly because fascism, unlike communism, did not develop a highly specific doctrine. The dean of Italian historians of Fascism, Renzo De Felice, always insisted that it was wrong to apply the term Fascist to anything but the movement founded in Italy by Mussolini in 1919, which collapsed at the end of World War II. Even movements that openly modeled themselves on Fascism — like Hitler’s Brown Shirts and Franco’s Falange, were, he felt, something different. But most scholars say that Fascism became the template for many right-wing, 20th-century movements, whose affinities are impossible to ignore.

In recent years, a number of authors have gone to some lengths to define its characteristics. The Italian scholar Emilio Gentile (a former De Felice pupil) attempted a synthetic definition in a book not long ago: ”A mass movement, that combines different classes but is prevalently of the middle classes, which sees itself as having a mission of national regeneration, is in a state of war with its adversaries and seeks a monopoly of power by using terror, parliamentary tactics and compromise to create a new regime, destroying democracy.”

Other characteristics on most scholars’ checklists: the rejection of both liberalism and socialism; the primacy of the nation over the rights of the individual; the demonization of the nation’s enemies; the elimination of dissent and the creation of a single-party state; the dominant role of a charismatic leader; the appeal to emotion and myth rather than reason; the glorification of violence on behalf of a national cause; the mobilization and militarization of civil society; an expansionist foreign policy intended to promote national greatness.

The Baath Party, which came to power with Mr. Hussein in Iraq and has governed in Syria as well, fulfills some but not all of the items on the checklist. It has established single-party rule, with a dictatorial leader in command, and has crushed internal dissent. It has combined nationalism with some elements of socialism without, however, disturbing basic property rights. Moreover, as Mr. Berman points out in his book, the founders of the Baath Party were students in Europe, where they absorbed some of the ideas of Fascism and Nazism and received support from Nazi Germany during World War II at a time when many Middle Eastern countries were trying to free themselves from British colonial rule. Syria has acted aggressively in Lebanon, and Mr. Hussein fought two expansionist wars, one with Iran, the other in Kuwait.

But Mr. Hussein’s Baathist regime fails to qualify in one critically important respect. ”Fascism is a malady of failed democracies,” Mr. Paxton has written in his own definition. ”There can be no authentic fascism before democracy, or outside societies whose citizens are deeply engaged in mass politics.”

Fascism, scholars agree, is by definition a modern mass movement. Old-fashioned monarchies, as well as military juntas, generally count on passive subjects, while the innovation of Fascism was mobilizing the masses, in punitive raids and grand public rallies, in the cause of a kind of ultranationalism.

”Saddam Hussein’s regime is an evil phenomenon, but fascism is the product of democracies that have gone wrong, that had working constitutional systems which they gave up voluntarily,” Mr. Paxton said.

For this reason, Mr. Paxton and most experts on European Fascism consider it inappropriate to apply the term to societies of the Middle East that have little experience of democracy and whose modes of governance spring from a different matrix. In the view of Mr. Paxton, Mr. Hussein’s regime has more in common with many third-world dictatorships that are militaristic and nationalistic but that rule more through brute force than through mass mobilization.

Mr. Berman insists that there are genuine commonalities precisely because both the Baath Party and Islamic fundamentalism grow out of contacts with Europe. ”They didn’t experience liberal democracy as in Weimar Germany or in Italy but they did experience an effort to modernize their own countries according to the Western model,” he said.

Mr. Berman and Mr. Hitchens also applied the term fascist to militant Islam because it seems to have an aggressive, fanatical hatred of the West, an apocalyptic vision of violent conflict and a cult of death that represents a danger that the world’s democracies would be mistaken to ignore. They describe Sept. 11 as a historic moment like that in 1938 when Hitler’s threats against Czechoslovakia and the peace negotiations in Munich divided Europe between the desire to appease or confront Hitler.

This interpretation does not sit well with most experts on Islam. ”Fascism is nationalistic and Islamicism is hostile to nationalism,” said Roxanne Euben, a professor of political science at Wellesley College. ”Fundamentalism is a transnational movement that is appealing to believers of all nations and races across national boundaries. There is no idea of racial purity as in Nazism. Islamicists have very little idea of the state. It is a religious movement, while Fascism in Europe was a secular movement. So if it’s not what we really think of as nationalism, and if it’s not really like what we think of as Fascist, why use these terms?”

Victoria De Grazia, a professor of European history at Columbia, also emphasizes the contrasts. ”What was so striking about the proclamations of Osama bin Laden after Sept. 11,” she said, ”is that they were so different from anything we are familiar with. He gave these long rants which were highly spiritual and which completely lacked the Western Machiavellian structure we are used to.”

For Ms. De Grazia, the analogy to Munich says more about Mr. Berman’s and Mr. Hitchens’s audience than about the contemporary political problem. ”Hitchens and Berman were writing for a left audience,” she said, ”and fascism is a threat felt particularly by the left and one that can only be dealt with by military force.”

Maya Chadda, a political scientist at William Paterson University in New Jersey, agrees. ”I think the whole Munich analogy is misplaced and gives a false impression of what’s going on,” she said. ”Osama bin Laden is not motivated by that kind of logic. He is not trying to build a state but a movement to wake up Muslims worldwide. It’s something very different.”

To most, applying the fascist label to the Bush administration is entirely out of bounds, and even those who are making the analogy are careful to make clear that it is highly imperfect. ”Obviously, the Bush administration is not a fully fascist regime with a single party, an end to elections and the setting aside of rule of law, but you can make a up a list of similarities and differences,” Mr. Paxton said. ”In times of national emergency, you start with the demonization of an enemy — which is both outside and inside — and then you say we can’t afford the luxury or all our freedoms in order to save our community from this emergency created by the enemy. You have a unilateralist foreign policy, the belief that a great nation cannot be bound by international treaties.”

Abbott Gleason, a historian at Brown University and the author of a book on totalitarianism, admits that he has used the analogy with the Fascist era out of a desire to provoke. ”The word fascist is so overloaded that it’s a bad term for any aspect of contemporary reality,” he said. But he continued, ”I am worried that we are going through a kind of anti-liberal revolt, belief in a very strong state, a contempt for pluralism, for a ‘soft’ welfare state and a sense that we cannot afford certain freedoms.”

He added, ”It might have some shock value that can help you see things that our usual vocabulary can prevent you from seeing.”

But Ms. De Grazia is skeptical of the efficacy of such attempts to provoke.

”The fact that people are using the term fascist to refer to such extremely different phenomena tells you that it has lost most of its descriptive power,” she said. ”I think the problem is that we are dealing with all sorts of new, strange political phenomena — Osama bin Laden, Hindu nationalism in India, the Le Pen phenomenon in France, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Bush’s doctrine of pre-emptive force — and we don’t have the right words to describe these things.”

– September 13, 2003

Published at The New York Times


Cameras Shoot Where Uzis Can’t

Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, by releasing audio- and videotapes of themselves, have given new life to their movements of rebellion — or at least the illusion of new life — which, in the age of mass media, may amount to the same thing. Defying reports of their own deaths, they appear to speak... CONTINUE READING