I have been using the first several columns in this series to define terms, and I am going to continue that today with a word that is seriously misunderstood and frequently misused: fascist.
Fascist, like Socialist, Communist, and terrorist, has devolved among the general public into an insult to use on whoever you don’t like, without understanding the meaning of the word. It is usually linked to brutality and suppression, which is accurate, but has basically become a synonym for “meanie.” That simplistic understanding is dangerous on several levels. For one thing, a government (or a person) can use brutality and suppression without being fascist; the brutality and suppression are tools, it is the ideology those tools enforce that makes someone fascist or not. Merriam-Webster says that fascism “exalts nation and often race above the individual,” and that’s a good place to start unpacking.
People sometimes call those they disagree with fascist communists. That’s where the problem comes in. Fascists and Communists are opposites, you can’t be both at once. Fascism is the extreme far right, communism is the extreme far left. Taken to their ultimate extremes, both can be authoritarian and use similar tactics to control their citizens. I like to say that if you go all the way to the left or all the way to the right, you circle around and they start to look like the same thing. The majority of citizens in Fascist countries did not make a conscious decision to be Fascist - it sneaks up on them, usually because they don’t understand what it is or how to identify it, and they fall for its propaganda (this another way in which not understanding the meaning of fascism is dangerous.)
I am now going to give you the detailed explanation of fascism that I have been giving in class for 15 years. Starting in 2017, I sometimes got angry looks from students as I gave this definition. I know it was because they thought I was picking on Donald Trump and twisting things to make it seem like they applied to him. But again, in reality, it was the same definition I had been giving for years.
We get the term Fascist from the Fascist Party that formed in Italy, in the 1920s, and led by Mussolini who eventually ruled the whole country. This was closely followed by the rise of the Nazi Party, in Germany. Control of the Japanese government at that time was seized by the military, and, while they may not have espoused the exact same views as Italy and Germany, they qualified as fascistic.
Fascists are far-right. Fascism equals hyper-nationalism - our country and our way is the best and all others are inferior. Fascists will say that other countries have taken advantage of theirs because their leaders have been too weak to stand up for themselves. This weakness, they say, is a form of betrayal. The country and its leaders must be strong as steel. Fascists call for authoritarian leaders who will restore their country to the glory it had in the past. Fascists strongly emphasize their country’s mythology, especially the idealized, mythologized stories about how and why it was founded (it was always founded in perfection). Perhaps most importantly, in a fascist state, everyone must conform to the norm. People whose ideas differ, or whose ethnicity, race, religion, etc. differ from the majority, are not to be tolerated. Their very existence threatens the unity and strength of the whole. This is a perfect description of Hitler, Mussolini, and the militarized rulers of Japan in WWII. And, I don’t know, maybe some other people.
The Italian term “Fascist” comes from the Latin word fasces, which literally means “bundles.” You can Google the word and see a picture of fasces, but I will describe it for you here as well. It was made from a dozen or more slender wooden rods tied up in a bundle, with one rod longer than the others holding an axe head that protrudes out of the top. It was a symbol of governmental authority in Republican Rome. The idea was that each slender rod could easily be broken on its own – but, when placed in a bundle, they were invulnerable. Add an axe head to them, and they were dangerous. On its own, this is not a bad image. It demonstrates strength in unity. 150 years before Mussolini, fasces were used in the iconography of the new U.S. government, appearing on various official seals. E Pluribus Unum, after all - out of many, one. United we stand, divided we fall.
But it meant much more to the hyper-nationalist government of Mussolini who dreamed of creating a new Roman Empire. Think of that image in terms of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The whole is more important than the individual, except that one individual, the leader (or Duce, or Fuhrer), the rod with the axe, around which everything is built. All the other rods must be uniform, exactly the same. If you have some that are one length and some another, or different widths or shapes, the bundle will be uneven and weakened. Think of this in context of Nazis. Everyone in Nazi society had to be “Aryans” of Germanic descent, conform to dominant social mores, be healthy and productive, and submit to Nazi ideology. Anyone who did not “fit the bundle” was pruned out of it. This included “inferior races,” foreigners, LGBT people, members of certain religions, people with disabilities, and people who did not conform to Nazism: Socialists, Communists, intellectuals, and political protesters. This is the essence of fascism. There is one way, the national way, and dissidents and outsiders must be purged in order to strengthen the nation.
Nowadays, I hear many people insisting that Nazis were left-wing and were, in fact, Socialists. On one hand, it’s easy to understand the confusion, due to the Nazi Party’s official name: the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei. Or, in English, the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. It sounds Socialist, and even has the word right in there. On the other hand, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is not democratic nor is it really a people’s republic, so titles don’t always mean anything. The fact is - and, let me stress, this is a historical fact - Socialists and Communists were the arch-enemies of Nazis and were the first groups (along with labor unions) that they went after. If you know your history, you know that four weeks after Hitler took office, a fire was set at the Parliament building (Reichstag), in Berlin, which Hitler blamed on the Communists and used as an excuse to suspend their civil rights and give himself emergency powers. The key word in the party’s name was Nationalist, not Socialist.
So if you hear someone blame the nation’s woes on foreigners or lazy, shiftless racial minorities, or on academics and intellectuals, or on the weakness of more liberal leaders, or on our own allies who stabbed us in the back, or on socialism, and that only they are strong enough to save us and make the nation great again… it’s been said before.
And again, more recently.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.