As I Please
Tribune, 24 March 1944
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 Mussolinis 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
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
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 193035 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. Trotskys 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
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 Peoples 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, Priestleys 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
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.