Surely there can be no easy or definitive answer to this. The term has moved beyond the expressed ideologies of the Partito Nazionale Fascista which ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943 and other self-identified “fascist” groups which were associated with it. Fascism, like great art, is often approached with the mantra “I know it when I see it”, and so a variety of governments, parties and movements have been widely identified as ‘fascist’ based on an interpretation of their politics, practises, rhetoric, aesthetics and so on. In approaching a genuine definition, though, it may be necessary to dispense with specific historical examples and instead attempt to identify the inherent attitudes of fascism which lead it to manifest in the various ways it has. This kind of definition is perhaps more useful for diagnosing proto-fascist tendencies in our current situations; accepting that fascism looks different each time it rears its head, we will fail to recognise its next incarnation if we expect it to conform directly to historical patterns. In a 1995 essay, Umberto Eco defines such tendencies as ‘Ur-Fascism’ or ‘Eternal Fascism’.
“Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier for us if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Blackshirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances — every day, in every part of the world.”
Fascism is a mercurial force; it can coincide with values traditionally ascribed to both the ‘left’ and the ‘right’, it can be reactionary, radical and conservative. Attempts have been made to produce pithy definitions, extended considerations or checklists of characteristics, none of them wholly satisfactory. People have manipulated the term to include their political enemies and excuse their allies; it is uncritically applied to any right wing group, to any nationalist ideals, to any authoritarian government. Someone using the word ‘fascist’ to describe anything other (anything more banal) than Blackshirts or the EDL is likely to be branded hysterical and reactionary, or to fall afoul of Godwin’s law.
Some insight to building an understanding of fascism can come from the word itself. It is derived from the Roman symbol of the ‘fasces’, a bundle of wooden sticks with an axe blade protruding from the middle. We see, in this metaphor, an emphasis on unity and conformity, in the interests of mutual security (a single rod is easily broken, but all the rods bound together are much stronger), all things purposed into a deadly tool of authoritarian discipline. From our own historical perspective, the image of many things bound together provides a useful tool for understanding the way in which disparate, sometimes contradictory ideologies and practices can be found aligned in common purpose, each contributing to a single composite weapon, Fascism.
For these problems with popular usage George Orwell in 1944 reasoned that the term was ‘almost entirely useless’, but as current events constantly draw us back to it we are forced to respond that while there exists a phenomenon which can be defined as fascist, there exists a need for such a term, however problematic. This project does not start with a certain definition of fascism and judge current developments according to it. Rather, an understanding of fascism is an ongoing endeavour which is in informed by that which we see around us.