Mar 312009

Funny that this should come up twice in five minutes as I, in true holiday time-wasting fashion, scroll lazily through my feeds.

First up: Nicky Campbell calls Guido Fawkes a fascist on the radio (then, naturally, apologises). Guido doesn’t seem to mind too much – banter gets out of hand sometimes, no real offence meant, etc.

Next: I see via Megan McArdle that somebody called David Henderson has called President Obama’s administration fascist, and backed it up with a nice long quotation from The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics:

Where socialism sought totalitarian control of a society’s economic processes through direct state operation of the means of production, fascism sought that control indirectly, through domination of nominally private owners. Where socialism nationalized property explicitly, fascism did so implicitly, by requiring owners to use their property in the “national interest”–that is, as the autocratic authority conceived it. (Nevertheless, a few industries were operated by the state.) Where socialism abolished all market relations outright, fascism left the appearance of market relations while planning all economic activities. Where socialism abolished money and prices, fascism controlled the monetary system and set all prices and wages politically. In doing all this, fascism denatured the marketplace. Entrepreneurship was abolished. State ministries, rather than consumers, determined what was produced and under what conditions.

So I’m reading this, and it’s making a fair bit of sense, and then I discover McArdle’s commentary. Usually, I think she’s pretty sensible, but she reacts to the ‘f-bomb’ as if somebody has suggested Obama is a genocide:

How is this helpful? Has clarifying the distinction between fascism and socialism really added to most peoples’ understanding of what the Obama administration is doing? All this does is drag the specter of Hitler into the conversation. And the problem with Hitler was not his industrial policy–I mean, okay, fine, Hitler’s industrial policy bad, right, but I could forgive him for that, you know? The thing that really bothers me about Hitler was the genocide. And I’m about as sure as I can be that Obama has no plans to round up millions of people, put them in camps, and find various creative ways to torture them to death.

Now, I hold no brief for Hitler, obviously (and boy does it irritate me that I have to clarify that), but wouldn’t it be nice if reasonable people could hold a discussion about him or – less inflammatory by far – the concept of fascism without sensitive, politically-correct, knee-jerkers trying to shut down the debate with their hysterical reactions?

This word ‘fascist’ has been so overused as a generalised insult for those with whom the user disagrees politically that it holds virtually no meaning in standard conversation these days except ‘a very bad, mean person.’ Oh, how facile. And when some poor brave soul attempts to deploy it under the banner of its real characteristics – as David Henderson has done – he is accused of comparing Obama to Hitler and therefore stultifying the debate.

I have a different opinion of what stultifies debate and that is: telling people that making a distinction between socialism, fascism, and current economic trends is unhelpful. Refusing to contemplate what fascism actually is because limited minds can’t think past its colloquial usage. And shutting down a perfectly legitimate fucking discussion because obviously the only thing ‘fascist’ means is ‘a mean, bad person like Hitler.’

Well, you know what? We’ve all got something in common with Hitler. Many people like dogs and enjoy contemplating nice watercolors. Many people speak German. Many people dislike smoking and praise the efficiency of the Volkswagen. And just like Hitler wasn’t the only person ever in the history of the world to do those things, he’s likewise not the only fascist.

So can we shut the fuck up about ‘fascist’ meaning ‘bad like Hitler’ and engage the concept on its own terms, please?

  10 Responses to “What is a fascist?”

  1. Have you heard of Godwin’s Law? This link being a handy instant riposte to such mindless name-calling.

    Anyway, fasces, bundles of sticks with an axe projecting, carried by lictors before the chief Roman magistrates, as you will well know. Fascists are just communists by another name. The political spectrum is annular — it just depends from which direction you approach the same region. The Nazi party’s full title was Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, FFS!

  2. Agreed, of course, though it has to be said that I am thin ice here because I have a VW. Not such thin ice as BMW drivers, though, and they are more secure than Mercedes drivers. Whenever I see a big black Merc flash past me at 100 mph I cannot help muttering “Nazi!”

    But really, the level of public debate these days is so dismal that your average playground name-caller looks like Cicero.

  3. Point of order –
    Hitler admired Mussolini for some years. But while Mussolini was a Fascist, Hitler was a Socialist, NOT a Fascist, and by the late 30s the two agreed to disagree. So yes, there is a difference and it should be noted.

    Also, while both had no use for capital-C Communism, that has somehow come to mean in the popular mind that they were of the far right. Well, in the sense that Stalin was to the political right of Mao perhaps…

  4. Jonah Goldberg (author of Liberal Fascism, which I have on order) used to bait Lefties by asking them, apart from the genocide and the invading of Poland, what it was exactly they didn’t like about Fascism.

    John A: your description of Mussolini and Hitler’s politics is muddled. Both were classically fascist in that they believed that while nominally the means of production should rest in private hands, the government should be the final arbiter of its disposition. The chief difference between Naziism and Italian Fascism was the former’s genocidal racism. Mussolini started out as a student of far-Left Socialism (and rather an erudite one). Hitler hated Bolshevism primarily because it was competing for the same population bloc. Fascism vs. Communism was more in the nature of a turf war than a clash of ideologies.

  5. “Fascists are just communists by another name. The political spectrum is annular — it just depends from which direction you approach the same region. The Nazi party’s full title was Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, FFS!”

    Most communist states were not actually Marxist communist societies; rather, they were despot controlled totalitarian states. Fascism is most often defined by nationalism, traditionalism, collectivism, the view of “a superior class” of people, and unquestioning obedience.

    Fascism is independent of, in definition, any market system.

  6. Easy. Your parents. between the ages of 15 and 17.


    “Fascism is independent of, in definition, any market system.”

    Hmmm. But usually allied with capitalist economies, in the modern world, at least. Would you not say?

  7. Excellent post. Once again a fine insight.

  8. “Hmmm. But usually allied with capitalist economies, in the modern world, at least. Would you not say?”

    No, I wouldn’t. Fascist regimes are deeply nationalistic and statist. In order to maintain a society where everyone is essentially “obedient,” it must also maintain absolute power. To do so, they usually have a lot of control over the economy. Thus, they are usually socialist.

    Now, that being said, it does not follow that because most fascist regimes are socialist that all socialist economies are fascist. Nevertheless, a lot of people take the correlation between fascism and socialism and run with it, saying that socialism is fascism. And, that is not true.

  9. Somebody did call her on that in the comments, obviously, but I find even that rather annoying. Some people do have things in common with Hitler – stifling discussion because one doesn’t like that fact accomplishes nothing. And fascism is not the same thing as communism necessarily, as that quotation points out – Roger Griffin at Oxford wrote a really sterling book about it in the 90s that was reissued by the OUP a couple of years ago. I remember particularly because he showed up at an open party at our house once and chatted to me on it at length, between drinking copious amounts of wine and giving my friend Theo relationship advice. Fascinating guy, and quite the authority.

    Never mind that, though – do you or do you not agree that getting all worked up because someone has called someone else a fascist is neither mature nor constructive?

  10. Who was, of course, not above a bit of name-calling himself, if Sallust is to be believed…

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