More specifically, it means "someone not nice." For those striving for laser-like semantic precision, a fascist must have something to do with nationalism, war and theories of racial superiority.
Expanding on the latter definition, a psycho-social explanation of fascism has become generally current in popular-culture discussions of politics. According to this explanation, fascist politics arise from personality deformations, probably caused by allowing boys to play with toy guns.
These deformed personalities naturally clump together, forming fascist movements, according to this theory, especially in times of stress when governments aren't permitted to raise taxes high enough to support the social programs our wise guardians know would make us all happy.
This theory is nonsensical and ignores the actual history of fascism altogether. This is dangerous for two reasons. For one, it allows the overuse of the fascist label to misunderstand undesirable, but quite different phenomena, like the Ku Klux Klan.
The second is that a lack of understanding of fascism and its historical origins can blind us to resurgences of the same sentiments and drives that created fascism the first time around, and may be creating equally undesirable phenomena today.
A parallel myth has held that fascism was primarily an aberrant phenomenon of Italy and Germany in the post-1918 era, where disillusioned veterans at loose ends reacted to post-war depression and political unrest banded together to form fascist parties.
After the Germans invaded and occupied most of the rest of Continental Europe, this myth contends, they recruited a few isolated losers and opportunists to form puppet governments, which were hated by the great mass of the population, most of whom supported the resistance.
After the war, goes the myth, this handful of collaborators was punished, and in Germany and Italy themselves, the great mass of the population who had gone along realized their errors and became ardent democrats.
What this myth (promoted partly to allow the construction of NATO) ignores is the fact that fascism, and the proto-fascist movements from which the historical fascist parties emerged, was an integral part of the Continental European cultural and political scene for several generations prior to its political-military victory of 1940, and represented a major current in Continental political and social thought.
It was not confined to Germany and Italy: wherever the Germans went on the Continent, they found substantial like-minded political movements, who did not view the Germans as occupiers so much as an effective means of defeating their domestic political opponents and carrying out their political goals.
To be a fascist in Continental Europe in the decade before World War II was not to be marginalized or aberrant. A European fascist could feel immersed in a large, self-contained purposive universe, with fascist organizations for women, children, university students, labor unions members -- even automobile owners.
You could go to international fascist meetings and meet German Nazis, Italian Fascists, Spanish Falangists, French Cagoulards and Croix-de-Feu, Belgian Rexists, Hungarian Arrow Cross, Romanian Iron Guards, Norwegian Quislingites, and many others, all marching together toward the future they considered rightfully theirs.
These movements looked back over several generations to the first stirrings of proto-fascist movements in the late 19th century. The typical young Vichyite militiaman rounding up Jews in 1943 or waiting to fight the Anglo-American invaders in 1944 was probably not an opportunist recruited on the spur of the moment.
His papa had probably been a fascist street-fighter in the 1930s; grandpapa had probably been in the anti-Dreyfusard riots in the 1890s. And it would not be surprising if grandpapa's parents and grandparents had been ultra-nationalists and anti-Semites in the previous generations.
As I discussed in last week's column, fascism must be considered as one particular expression of a wider Industrial Counter-Revolution against individualism, constitutional government, free markets and global trade.
It is a specific historical movement, rooted in time and place, and expressing a specific set of grievances and prejudices. That Counter-Revolution is far from over, as globalization and the spread of competitive free markets continue to disrupt local elites and undermine the ruling narratives upon which their local hegemony depends.
European fascism was like a large river, flowing and carrying along millions of willing and enthusiastic adherents across the European continent. The question now is, where did this river disappear to in 1945? These people and their underlying sentiments were the culmination of generations of political evolution. It defies reason to believe that they simply changed their minds, all of them.
A few -- only a handful, really -- were punished afterwards. Many had begun to see the handwriting on the wall by 1943 or 1944, and had begun some form of cooperation with resistance forces. After the war they came forward reborn as Resistants. In the Soviet-occupied countries, most simply joined the Communist Party. You can now see in a Budapest museum the special application form for former fascist secret policemen to join the new Communist police.
In the West, many merely laid low for a while; others sought to find the closest equivalent to the old comfortable world of fascism they had left behind. If they could not have the whole package, they would try to find some of the pieces of what they had previously supported, and devote themselves to those. For more than a few, the closed world of Communism had that familiar and comfortable quality.
Integral to the fascist message were the hatred of individualism and free markets and hostility to the Anglo-American culture that they saw (accurately enough) as the source of those values in the modern world. They hated the popular culture that they saw as eroding respect for the traditional forms of European cultural authority. Of course, they despised the Jews as agents of modernism among them, but that current was muted in post-war Europe, since the fascists had successfully achieved their agenda of destroying the Jewish communities as significant economic and cultural forces on the European continent.
Above all, fascists everywhere enshrined the role of the state as the focus of national life and the source of meaning and value. This separates fascism from other movements of political violence and racial caste conflict (like the Klan, for example) and unites it with the superficially liberal but state-exhalting European nationalist movements of the 19th century of which fascist movements are ultimately mutated descendents. This value also unites fascism with the purposive and directive state of European bureaucrats today.
Particularly, they resented the loss of political power by Europe to America, and sought to revive the integrated European economy they had achieved from 1940 to 1944 in order to recreate a European counterweight.
They also continued to build on the 1940-1944 theme of an underlying cultural commonality among Continental Europeans, which they counterposed to the "barbaric" American culture: the theme of "Coca-Colonization."
With the end of the Cold War, many of the more repressed elements of European fascist culture were able to come out of hiding and return to political respectability. Of course, they avoided the old symbols, and generally continued to substitute a pan-European cultural identity for the old national chauvinisms pre-war fascists had displayed, a process well underway by 1944. Even anti-Semitism came back in the lightly disguised form of anti-Zionism and solidarity for Palestine.
Where have all the fascists gone? The answer seems to be that the river of fascist sentiments merely flowed underground for a few decades, and now they are seeping back to the surface. Looking at the pro-Baathist demonstrations that swept Europe in the last month, it is clear that these sentiments have regained more overt respectability that at any time since 1945.
One wonders whether our Vichyite militiaman, now in his dotage, was part of the third of French public opinion that wished for Saddam to defeat the Anglo-American forces.
I rather suspect he was. One also wonders how many of his values, passed already over a number of generations, have not continued in some form or other to be handed down to the subsequent generations, to be expressed anew in the new language of European resentment.
The fascist stream was not the only stream of European public opinion, nor ever the majority stream. Others, genuine adherents of freedom and democracy, hated them and opposed them with every weapon they had. The descendants of these streams remain the majority streams of political philosophy in Europe.
But we must not let our sympathy and respect for these positive forces disguise the reality that the currents of fascism did not disappear in 1945, and that their re-emerged currents today are not just the small bands of pathetic losers that openly recreate the symbols and names of the past.
Fascism is an organic development of strains of political thought that have been endemic in Europe since the Industrial revolution. Fascism as an organized movement under that name no longer exists, nor is it likely to re-emerge as such. But the sources of fascism are still alive; new expressions of the same underlying sentiments are regaining more respectability and political presence than at any time since 1945.
(The views articulated in James Bennett's weekly Anglosphere column for United Press International are his own and are not necessarily shared by UPI.)