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The word fascist is sometimes used to denigrate people, institutions, or groups that would not describe themselves as ideologically fascist, and that may not fall within the formal definition of the word. The Fascist party that developed in Italy in the 1920s rigidly enforced conservative values and behavior norms during the Mussolini regime. As a political epithet, fascist was subsequently used in an anti-authoritarian sense to emphasize the common ideology of governmental suppression of individual freedom. It has also been applied to a broad range of people and groups, including people of many religious faiths, particularly fundamentalist groups. The individual, institution, or group(s) called fascist often find the use of the term in this way to be highly offensive and inappropriate.
In this sense, the word fascist is intended to mean "oppressive", "intolerant", "chauvinist", "genocidal", "dictatorial", "racist", or "aggressive" – all concepts that are allegedly inspired by the ideology of actual fascism, and pervasive through fascist states. One might accuse an inconveniently placed police roadblock as being a "fascist tactic" for its perceived oppression or interloping, or an overly authoritarian teacher as being "a total fascist". Terms like Nazi and Hitlerite, are often used in similar contexts.
The phrase social fascists was used by communists against social democrats before 1933, and is still used in some communist circles to refer to modern social democracy movements. As early as 1944, the term had already become so widely and loosely employed that British essayist and novelist George Orwell was moved to write:
It would seem 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, bullfighting, 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.
During the late 1960s and 1970s, the term was often used to describe a wide range of individuals, governments, and public institutions. It was often paired with other insulting terms, the most common being pig, i.e., fascist pig. In this context, the term fascist generally referred to conservative positions which prioritized the maintenance of existing social relations over various personal rights upheld by protesters and dissidents. Essentially, it served as an emotive substitute for "authoritarian", though it also described specific analytical functions – such as emphasizing the privileging of order over freedom in an opponent's discourse, the perceived racism of "imperialist" practices, or even specific Marxist theories of the origins of fascism.
In the 1980s, the term was used by leftist critics to describe the Reagan administration, and critics in the 2000s to describe the administrations of George Bush and Barack Obama. In her 1970 book Beyond Mere Obedience, radical activist and theologian Dorothee Sölle coined the term Christofascist to describe fundamentalist Christians.
By the 2000s, the term came to be used against Muslims as well. Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a number of commentators (most in the United States) began using the term Islamofascism to describe Islamism and militant Islam. On August 10, 2006, in the wake of an alleged terror plot foiled in London, President Bush described the war on terror as a war against "Islamic fascists".
In 2004, Samantha Power (lecturer at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University) reflected Orwell's words from 60 years prior when she stated, "Fascism – unlike communism, socialism, capitalism, or conservatism – is a smear word more often used to brand one's foes than it is a descriptor used to shed light on them."
The term is also used as an insult to imply that the ruling party is too heavy-handed in certain actions. For instance, it was used to describe Margaret Thatcher's use of police to quell public disruptions during the miners' strike.
In 2006, the European Court of Human Rights found contrary to the Article 10 (freedom of expression) of ECHR fining a journalist for calling a right-wing journalist "local neo-fascist", regarding the statement as a value-judgment acceptable in the circumstances.
Possible explanations for casual uses
Following the end of the Second World War, no group wanted to affiliate with the term "fascist" and both the propaganda systems of the USSR and Western World branded fascism as an irrational ideology because it stood in opposition to those of the Allies. The term subsequently lost all significant meaning. Marxist theorists such as Trotskyists, which harbor an economic and materialist view of history, examined fascism strictly from an economic point of view. This led them to conclude that fascism was merely a form of extreme reactionary state capitalism, since fascist states adopted corporatism, promoted class collaboration, protected private property and wanted to eradicate all forms of socialism.
While attracting criticisms for imprecision and for downplaying the extremity of actual fascism, the use of fascist as an epithet for authoritarian and intolerant power-holders has a distinct analytical basis, suggesting that fascism is a continuum or a social relation, rather than simply a political system, and that acts of repression are in some way homologous with fascist ideology. Specifically, it seems that the imputation is an interest in authoritarianism strong enough to deny interest in the legitimacy of that authority.
They employ massive overkill strategy, uh there are 30, 20 to 30 marshals daily inside the courtroom, uh, it has the atmosphere of an arms camp, uh, the law against us is rigged ... and uh, our claims that this law violates our constitutional rights and it’s the same way that we claim that Mayor Daley didn’t have the right to deny us a permit to march or to assemble in the park....
I think it points a direction in the future which is that the government embarked on a course of fascism.
Theories such as Félix Guattari's concept of microfascism and Wilhelm Reich's theory of fascism as repressive-desire provide an analytical basis for interpreting intolerance, chauvinism, and authoritarianism as "fascist". The idea of authoritarian personalities prone to fascist attachments may be one reason why fascism is used as an epithet for the same kind of people who might be called "anal-retentive". On An(Archy) and Schizoanalysis by Rolando Perez uses the word fascist in an analytically informed way that is similar to the usage of epithet, showing that such usage is not necessarily ill-informed or unsystematic. One basic point of these perspectives is that a libertarian or emancipatory outlook requires openness of social space, tolerance or celebration of difference, and opposition to arbitrary authority; an absence of such an outlook contributes to social closure and exclusion, thus producing social effects similar to a fascist regime (e.g., oppression of minorities and lack of basic liberties).
Several Marxist theories back up particular uses of fascism beyond its usual remit. For instance, Poulantzas's theory of state monopoly capitalism could be associated with the idea of a military-industrial complex to suggest that 1960s America had a fascist social structure; this kind of Maoist or Guevarist analysis often underpinned the rhetorical depiction of Cold War authoritarians as fascists.
Some Marxist groups – such as the Indian section of the USFI and the Hekmatist groups in Iran and Iraq – have provided analytical accounts as to why the term fascist should be applied to groups such as the Hindutva movement, the 1979 Islamic Iranian regime, or the Islamist sections of the Iraqi insurgency. Other scholars contend that the traditional meaning of the term fascism does not apply to Hindutva groups, and may hinder an analysis of their activities.
- Orwell, George. "What is Fascism?", Tribune, 1944. Orwell.ru, retrieved 2006-09-13.
- Dorothee Sölle (1970). Beyond Mere Obedience: Reflections on a Christian Ethic for the Future. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House.
- "Confessing Christ in a Post-Christendom Context.". The Ecumenical Review. July 1, 2000. Retrieved 2007-12-23. "... shall we say this, represent this, live this, without seeming to endorse the kind of christomonism (Dorothee Solle called it "Christofascism"! ..."
- Pinnock, Sarah K. (2003). The Theology of Dorothee Soelle. Trinity Press International. ISBN 1-56338-404-3. "... of establishing a dubious moral superiority to justify organized violence on a massive scale, a perversion of Christianity she called Christofascism. ..."
- Power, Samantha. "The Original Axis of Evil", The New York Times, 2004-05-02.
- "Case of Karman v. Russia (Application no. 29372/02) Judgment". European Court of Human Rights. March 14, 2007.
- "An Interview About the Trial with Abbie Hoffman"
- Chatterjee, Surojit (December 19, 2003). "RSS neither Nationalist nor Fascist, Indian Christian priest's research concludes". The Christian Post. Archived from the original on November 13, 2006.
- P. Venugopal (August 23, 1998). "RSS neither nationalist nor fascist, says Christian priest after research". The Indian Express.
- Walter K. Andersen, Shridhar D. Damle (May 1989). "The Brotherhood in Saffron: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Revivalism". Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 503: 156–157. doi:10.1177/0002716289503001021.
- Ethnic and Racial Studies, Volume 23, Number 3, May 2000, pp. 407–441 ISSN 0141-9870 print/ISSN 1466-4356 online.
- Iivi Masso 2009-02-19: Fašism kui propaganda tööriist (Fascism as a tool of propaganda), printed in Eesti Päevaleht