What is Fascism?

George Orwell

Tribune, 24 March 1944

[“As I Please” was a regular column in Tribune from December 1943 to February 1945 and again from November 1946 to April 1947.  This article is Orwell’s 24 March 1944 “As I Please” column.  The present title was not Orwell’s, but was rather applied to the article by Alexander S. Peak.]

OF ALL the unanswered questions of our time, perhaps the most important is:  ‘What is Fascism?’

One of the social survey organizations in America recently asked this question of a hundred different people, and got answers ranging from ‘pure democracy’ to ‘pure diabolism’.  In this country if you ask the average thinking person to define Fascism, he usually answers by pointing to the German and Italian régimes.  But this is very unsatisfactory, because even the major Fascist states differ from one another a good deal in structure and ideology.

It is not easy, for instance, to fit Germany and Japan into the same framework, and it is even harder with some of the small states which are describable as Fascist.  It is usually assumed, for instance, that Fascism is inherently warlike, that it thrives in an atmosphere of war hysteria and can only solve its economic problems by means of war preparation or foreign conquests.  But clearly this is not true of, say, Portugal or the various South American dictatorships.  Or again, antisemitism is supposed to be one of the distinguishing marks of Fascism; but some Fascist movements are not antisemitic.  Learned controversies, reverberating for years on end in American magazines, have not even been able to determine whether or not Fascism is a form of capitalism.  But still, when we apply the term ‘Fascism’ to Germany or Japan or Mussolini’s Italy, we know broadly what we mean.  It is in internal politics that this word has lost the last vestige of meaning.  For if you examine the press you will find that there is almost no set of people—certainly no political party or organized body of any kind—which has not been denounced as Fascist during the past ten years.  Here I am not speaking of the verbal use of the term ‘Fascist’.  I am speaking of what I have seen in print.  I have seen the words ‘Fascist in sympathy’, or ‘of Fascist tendency’, or just plain ‘Fascist’, applied in all seriousness to the following bodies of people:

Conservatives:  All Conservatives, appeasers or anti-appeasers, are held to be subjectively pro-Fascist.  British rule in India and the Colonies is held to be indistinguishable from Nazism.  Organizations of what one might call a patriotic and traditional type are labelled crypto-Fascist or ‘Fascist-minded’.  Examples are the Boy Scouts, the Metropolitan Police, M.I.5, the British Legion.  Key phrase:  ‘The public schools are breeding-grounds of Fascism’.

Socialists:  Defenders of old-style capitalism (example, Sir Ernest Benn) maintain that Socialism and Fascism are the same thing.  Some Catholic journalists maintain that Socialists have been the principal collaborators in the Nazi-occupied countries.  The same accusation is made from a different angle by the Communist party during its ultra-Left phases.  In the period 1930–35 the Daily Worker habitually referred to the Labour Party as the Labour Fascists.  This is echoed by other Left extremists such as Anarchists.  Some Indian Nationalists consider the British trade unions to be Fascist organizations.

Communists:  A considerable school of thought (examples, Rauschning, Peter Drucker, James Burnham, F. A. Voigt) refuses to recognize a difference between the Nazi and Soviet régimes, and holds that all Fascists and Communists are aiming at approximately the same thing and are even to some extent the same people.  Leaders in The Times (pre-war) have referred to the U.S.S.R. as a ‘Fascist country’.  Again from a different angle this is echoed by Anarchists and Trotskyists.

Trotskyists:  Communists charge the Trotskyists proper, i.e. Trotsky’s own organization, with being a crypto-Fascist organization in Nazi pay.  This was widely believed on the Left during the Popular Front period.  In their ultra-Right phases the Communists tend to apply the same accusation to all factions to the Left of themselves, e.g. Common Wealth or the I.L.P.

Catholics:  Outside its own ranks, the Catholic Church is almost universally regarded as pro-Fascist, both objectively and subjectively;

War resisters:  Pacifists and others who are anti-war are frequently accused not only of making things easier for the Axis, but of becoming tinged with pro-Fascist feeling.

Supporters of the war:  War resisters usually base their case on the claim that British imperialism is worse than Nazism, and tend to apply the term ‘Fascist’ to anyone who wishes for a military victory.  The supporters of the People’s Convention came near to claiming that willingness to resist a Nazi invasion was a sign of Fascist sympathies.  The Home Guard was denounced as a Fascist organization as soon as it appeared.  In addition, the whole of the Left tends to equate militarism with Fascism.  Politically conscious private soldiers nearly always refer to their officers as ‘Fascist-minded’ or ‘natural Fascists’.  Battle-schools, spit and polish, saluting of officers are all considered conducive to Fascism.  Before the war, joining the Territorials was regarded as a sign of Fascist tendencies.  Conscription and a professional army are both denounced as Fascist phenomena.

Nationalists:  Nationalism is universally regarded as inherently Fascist, but this is held only to apply to such national movements as the speaker happens to disapprove of.  Arab nationalism, Polish nationalism, Finnish nationalism, the Indian Congress Party, the Muslim League, Zionism, and the I.R.A. are all described as Fascist but not by the same people.

It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless.  In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print.  I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.

Yet underneath all this mess there does lie a kind of buried meaning.  To begin with, it is clear that there are very great differences, some of them easy to point out and not easy to explain away, between the régimes called Fascist and those called democratic.  Secondly, if ‘Fascist’ means ‘in sympathy with Hitler’, some of the accusations I have listed above are obviously very much more justified than others.  Thirdly, even the people who recklessly fling the word ‘Fascist’ in every direction attach at any rate an emotional significance to it.  By ‘Fascism’ they mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class.  Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathizers, almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’.  That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.

But Fascism is also a political and economic system.  Why, then, cannot we have a clear and generally accepted definition of it?  Alas! we shall not get one—not yet, anyway.  To say why would take too long, but basically it is because it is impossible to define Fascism satisfactorily without making admissions which neither the Fascists themselves, nor the Conservatives, nor Socialists of any colour, are willing to make.  All one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.

A Reflection on Orwell and the Meaning of Fascism (2011) by Alexander S. Peak

Fascism exists.  So, then, what is it?

In the article above, Orwell asks this very same question.  He concludes, not that people should cease using the term, or regard it as meaningless, but rather that people should try t apply the term without using it simply with the intent to smear others.  Fair enough, but this hardly provides a definition.

Fascism is not the only term that can be confusing, or that has been applied in a variety of contradictory ways.  The terms liberal and conservative, in fact, are often just as confusing

I tend to like to apply traditional meanings to terms.  Thus, when I use the term liberal, I usually mean the individualistic ideology that favours limited government, laissez-faire economic policies, free trade, and peace—essentially a limited-government libertarianism.  I tend to put quotation marks around the term when I instead refer to what is often incorrectly described as liberalism in these united states—although I admit that there are times when I have failed to include the quotation marks.  I tend to use the term conservative to describe that ideology in support of or not strongly opposed to traditional forms of hierarchy such as fuedalism, collusions of church and state, mercantilism and neomercantilism, &c.

So, I am naturally inclined to consider something fascist if I think Mussolini, the founder of Fascism, would recognise it as fascistic.

It is often stated, correctly, that although all communists are socialists, but that not all socialists are communists.  Likewise, while not all socialists are fascists, all fascists are socialists.  Mussolini recognised himself to be a socialist, after all, and thus this claim seems reasonable enough.

Orwell is correct that fascism is not necessarily antisemitic or racist.  Nazism, however, which is a form of fascism, definitely is antisemitic.  So, while a person cannot say, “I cannot be a fascist because I am not antisemitic or racist,” a person can correctly say, “I cannot be a Nazi because I am not antisemitic or racist.”

Fascism is right-wing.  But, that merely begs the question:  What does it mean to be right-wing?  I define the x-axis of the political spectrum on ethical grounds.  If one believes that individuals have a natural, inalienable right to individual sovereignty (also called self-ownership) and that therefore it is a violation of one’s natural rights to initiate force or fraud against the individual or her justly-acquired property, then I put you on the left.  Libertarianism, therefore, would fall on the far left, and anarcho-libertarianism would fall on the far, far left.  The right-wing, by contrast, would hold that there is nothing unethical about using aggression to achieve one’s goals, either, according to such people, since humans do not possess natural rights or because respecting human rights is unimportant.  Fascists, believing that the individual is worthless outside of his usefulness to the state, would necessarily fall on the far, far right.  That’s not to say that they are the only group to fall on the far right.  Those I have labelled omniarchists would also fall on the far right.

Fascism is militaristic and nationalistic.  But this, too, may need some explanation, for two different things are invariably labelled nationalism at different times.  The belief that one’s own government should be supported whether it does what is right or what is wrong is often described as nationalism, and it is definitely a bad thing.  It is blind love of the state, and is typically entwined with the vague yet unyielding belief that “my country and people” are somehow better than “your country and people.”  Thus, this form of nationalism is inherently collectivist, for it ignores that every individual is different, and that one cannot honestly provide a valid critique of a person based solely on that person’s place of origin.  Again, this form of nationalism is bad, and it is the form of nationalism that fascists tend to exhibit.  The other thing that is often referred to as nationalism can be either good or bad, but actually tends to be good.  This is the desire of oppressed peoples to throw off the rulership of others and to start running their own governments independently of said others.  Although this is sometimes referred to as “nationalism,” it has no inherent connection to nationalism in the previous sense nor to fascism.

Fascist states tend to promote a top-down economic structure often described as corporatism or guild socialism.  It can be debated just how much statist intervention and command an economy requires before its economic system can be labelled fascist, but it seems quite clear that fascists have a complete distrust of the unfettered market, which they incorrectly regard as unstable and chaotic.

A fascist state will also tend to be monarchical, although not all monarchies are necessarily fascist.  One can loosely say that the stronger a dictator’s stranglehold over his or her subjects, the more likely the state he or she leads is a fascist one.

The fascist state will always try to control education through a system of government-funded schools.  This is because the fascist state requires a certain degree of control over the attitudes and beliefs of its subjects in order to retain power.  For the same reason, the fascist state will try to control, either through censorship or through direct take-over, media content.

When the word Fascist is capitalised, it refers to the ideology of the Fascist Party (except, perhaps, when it is the first word in a sentence).  When the term fascist is lower-case, it refers to a broader philosophy.  Thus, while Nazism and Fascism are two different things, Nazism is nevertheless a form of fascism.  Further, it would be, in my opinion, horribly incorrect to say that all fascists are “in sympathy with Hitler” or “in sympathy with Mussolini.”  One can be a fascist—i.e., be nationalistic, militaristic, anti-individualistic, opposed to free markets, and in support of strong leaders and government-run schooling—and still regard Hilter and Mussolini as flawed.

Finally, it is important to note that one can be said to be moving in the direction of, or embracing, fascism without actually having become fascist.  If one wants greater governmental control over businesses, increased military funding, higher taxes, and the like, one is certainly then showing a fascistic tendency—but whether the person showing this fascistic tendency shows enough of it to actually constitute a fascist can, of course, be debatable.  For example, let’s say an individualist anarchist decides that she wants to become a minarchist—that is to say, she wishes to start supporting a government with extremely-limited powers.  Perhaps the only thing she wishes for this government to do is, to a strictly limited extent, provide for national and internal defence.  Well, then, I think we would have to conclude objectively that, although she has moved in a fascistic direction, she still would not constitute a fascist.

With all this said, should we be upset when someone uses the term fascist simply to mean authoritarian or even simply ultraviolent?  I think not.  Sure, using it to mean ultraviolent gives the term an extremely loose meaning, but, I can at least understand what the person is getting at by using the term in such a way.  Any initiation of force against the innocent, after all, tends toward the same disregard for individual rights that fascism exhibits.  So, if that is ultimately how you choose to employ it, I figure it’s no skin off my back.

Orwell’s article copyright © The Estate of Eric Blair

Peak’s reflection copyleft 2011