Tuesday, 9 June 2009

The BNP and the 'rise of Fascism' - what's in a name?

As people fume about the election of a couple of BNP MEPs, the rise of the Far Right and, as one commentator put it, the shame of us sending 'Fascists' to Europe when we once liberated Europe from Fascism, it is worth reading again George Orwell's 1944 essay, What is Fascism?. Given that he was writing a good deal nearer the demise of the last (and first) self-proclaimed Fascist regime than we are, the issues he raises about the 'fuzziness' of the term are worth bearing in mind when it is bandied about in modern debate. Here are some quotes, with my own highlights, (but do read the whole thing):
Of all the unanswered questions of our time, perhaps the most important is: ‘What is Fascism?’
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.
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.
It is in internal politics that this word has lost the last vestige of meaning.
... 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, Priestley's broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.
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.
I would simply add that the use of the word 'Fascist' is (still) an excuse for not thinking, not defining and not engaging. It is like the use of 'fundamentalist' or 'bigot' - it is something 'everyone' (except those on the receiving end) knows is supposed to excite our disapproval. As Orwell put it, "even the people who recklessly fling the word ‘Fascist’ in every direction attach at any rate an emotional significance to it " (my emphasis).

'Fascist' is, in short, a boo word and as such, it appeals to the mass instinct inside each one of us. It contributes nothing, however, to our understanding of the real issues.

John Richardson
9 June 2009

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  1. John - I agree with you that the word fascist is unhelpful if it's undefined, but I'm not sure I agree it's undefinable. I always understood that the classic definition of fascism (admittedly, it's not a full logical definition but a set of ideas that imply a definition) was that of Mussolini:

    "Fascism, now and always, believes in holiness and heroism; that is to say, actions determined by no economic motive. Fascism denies that the majority, by the simple fact of being the majority, are to direct human society... and it affirms the immutable, beneficial and fruitful inequality of mankind.

    Fascism conceives of the state as an an absolute, in comparison to which all individuals and groups are relative, only to be conceived in their relation to the state. It seeks to influence the state not merely by words or majority vote but by action, holiness and heroism."

    If this definition (or a definition stemming from this that takes human inequality, repudiation of democracy and absolutising of the state as key) is accepted, I would argue that the BNP are partially fascist, in that they seem to affirm "the inequality of mankind" (sic), but seem to accept the democratic process and do not absolutise the state. Of course, you might argue that in his earlier days Mussolini SEEMED to affirm the democratic process, too...

    Andy Griffiths, Galleywood

    PS full text at www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/mussolini-fascism.html

  2. Andy, you'll notice Orwell made the same point: Fascism is not 'undefinable'. "To begin with," he said, "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," adding, "Fascism is also a political and economic system."

    But then he went on to ask, "Why, then, cannot we have a clear and generally accepted definition of it?" and his own answer was, "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."

    Now I would be interested to know what he meant by that, but it is clear that what he opposed, and what we should oppose, is the use of Fascist to mean "Right wing stuff with which I (and all right thinking persons who agree with me) deplore."

    However, I'm sure that people do not mean by this Mussolini's avowed commitment to "holiness and heroism".

    As to "the state as an an absolute, in comparison to which all individuals and groups are relative, only to be conceived in their relation to the state," that sounds to me like Communism (which is, of course, arguably the mirror image of Fascism, but is still not the same thing).

    The inequality of mankind is self-evident, so I don't see that this can be per se a definition of Fascism. What matters is what you do about that fact.

    And on democracy, I'm sure we'd both agree that the majority is not allowed to impose its view simply by merit of being the majority. And surely Christians seek to influence the state "not merely by words or majority vote but by action, holiness and heroism."

    Meanwhile, I do not believe that using violence to silence those with whom one disagrees exactly exonerates the opponents of the BNP from the 'Fascist' charge in the loose sense Orwell condemns.

  3. (Chelmsford)

    I suspect that when people call BNP "fascist" they really mean that it is "racist", which is clearly true (at least in its membership conditions), but is perhaps an accusation which people don't want to make too explicitly.

    John, I hope that, when you affirm that "The inequality of mankind is self-evident", you don't mean that in the racist sense that Mussolini probably had in mind when he affirmed this same inequality. Perhaps you need to explain your remark before people start to think you are racist.

  4. When I taught school I had a colleague who was an active member of the Republican Party. Knowing that I was a diehard Democrat, he would often address me - when students weren't in earshot - with "Pinko" and I would respond with "Crypto-fascist." Except when used in jest or to describe Italy or Germany under Mussolini and Hitler, I avoid the word.

    However, I am reminded of a meeting about the locating of a community residence for persons with mental illness. During the meeting one man made some outrageous statements about "those people." After the meeting he approached me and assured that he wasn't bigot. I responded by asking why, if he wasn't a bigot, he hade made buch bigoted statements.

    Bigot and fascist as labels may be a problem, but challenging statements which we find reprehensible is not at all a bad thing.

  5. I take your point that the word can be used just as a slur, but isn't it also a useful epithet for extreme right-wing groups with nationalistic views that include a desire for racial purity? I wouldn't know whether this is the true definition of the word - but it is the association it conjures for me and I suspect many others. Whatever we call Nick Griffin it's thoroughly depressing that a substantial proportion of the population seem to think he's the answer to our country's problems.

    Rosie Brock,

  6. Peter, as you probably know, the BNP denies that its membership policy is racist - or rather it admits that it is racist in the sense that the National Black Police Association is racist. Unfortunately for this particular argument, membership of the NBPA has "no bar to membership based on colour". Rather, they explain, "The definition of 'Black' does not refer to skin colour. The emphasis is on the common experience and determination of the people of African, African-Caribbean and Asian origin to oppose the effects of racism."

    Er, yeah. So that's clear. Except that they then write how the Association was founded because, "Nationally the loss of Black staff from the service was at alarming level," which obviously does refer to skin colour. This 'distinction' is actually disingenuous gobbledygook, but its occurrence relates to a different problem which Orwell also identified.

    Meanwhile, I would want to clarify that when I refer to self-evident inequalities, I include those which have an inherited, including a 'racially' inherited, component. Thus, I am at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to living in hot sunny climates, having Welsh blood in me, resulting in ginger (well, it was once!) hair and a fair skin which needs to be kept constantly wet under rainy skies. My part-Afro-Caribbean nephew and niece, by comparison, have a distinct advantage, not least in the amount of sun-block they don't need.

    The panicky denial of racial inequalities is a symptom of our cultural misunderstanding of how equality works. Equality is most important when it is given, not when it is innate.

    To say 'Jack and Jill' are equal begs the question 'In what?' and runs the risk that if you can show that they are in any particular unequal the whole edifice collapses.

    Far better to say that the good person will treat Jack and Jill equally in all areas where it matters. That, at least, is my position.

  7. Rosie, it is clear that 'Fascist' is, indeed, used as an epithet for "extreme right-wing groups with nationalistic views that include a desire for racial purity". The problem is that it is used in this way to add an emotional component, not to clarify our reference. As Orwell pointed out, the way it is bandied about shows it lacks distinction.

    I myself think of many on the left as 'Fascist', but I do try to check myself when tempted to use the term because I know I'm just expressing an emotion.

    I had a Northern Irish Catholic friend once who used to describe Sinn Fein as Nazis, on the grounds that they, too, were Nationalists and Socialists.

    Perhaps the problem in the end is that politics is just as 'tribal' a pastime as any of our other human endeavours, and will always, therefore, lack a certain rationality.

  8. John,

    I have just blogged on the association of BNP with "extreme right-wing" labels

    and so disagree with Rosie's comment. I don't see why nationalistic/racist equals right-wing. As I suggest in my blog, and as Andy's comment on the absolutisation of the state would suggest, the BNP, like the Nazis, and most Fascists, are actually far left-wing in most of their policies and principles. They just happen to be unpleasant racists as well.

    Perhaps the difference between Fascism and Communism is in their theoretical end goals (the former maybe the dominance of one race/nation/glorious reich, the latter the dictatorship of the proletariat leading to a classless society). Their means of reaching those goals (the total dominance of the state in all of life, extinguishing family loyalties etc) are remarkably similar.

    If you'd taken a Cambodian peasant under the Khmer Rouge and moved them to 1930s Germany, would they have noticed any difference, other than the level of industrialisation. On second thoughts, the Khmer Rouge's devotion to the state makes the Nazis look like pussycats!

  9. I think I was just arguing that, on the basis of Mussolini's an others' own words, we CAN define "fascist" - like some forms of communism, it involves
    1. absolutising the state and
    2. denying the automatic right of the majority to set public policy,
    but unlike communism it also involves
    3. a belief that people are "to be" unequal.

    I thought it would be self-evident that all three of these points are utterly at odds with contemporary Christian faith.
    1. Because Jesus is king so Mussolini - or "Britain"- isn't.
    2. Because as contemporary western Christians we hold that (within the bounds of law - yes, I know that's complicated!) the people have a right to elect representatives who will be accountable to them. This includes accepting that the state has a right to pass laws that we as Christians might rightly protest against.
    3. Because every human being is made in the image of God. Yes John, your skin colour puts you at a disadvantage in certin climates, but you are still "innately" equal in the sight of God and all Christian people as a human being to all other human beings - aren't you?

    Andy, Chelmsford

  10. Andy, I agree a definition of 'Fascist' must be possible, but that it rarely applies to the way the word is bandied around in political slanging matches.

    On your three points:

    Romans 13 characterizes the magistrate as having the power of the sword to punish wrongdoers. Revelation 13 (rather conveniently on the numbers front) characterizes the state when it ignores or opposes God, with the resultant persecution of God's people. The Anglican Articles look for a rather more idealized situation, where the state, under the godly king, enacts godly laws and establishes godly rule. This latter neither assumes nor requires democracy, which is not a 'Christian' doctrine as such, and therefore is always open to corruption. (CS Lewis raised the question, posed by an earlier Greek philosopher - I think he said Aristotle - as to whether 'democratic' behaviour was that which the majority preferred or that which preserves democracy. A good question, I think.)

    The 'equality' of our humanity is, of course, axiomatic, but no more than saying all cats are equally cats, or all bananas are equally bananas. To say that all people are equally in God's image is true if you accept the premise that to be human is to be in God's image, but is also a bit of a truism. As individuals, I doubt that any of us is precisely 'equal' to the others by many measurable qualities.

  11. In the case of the BNP, it is accurate given the history and ideology of the party.

    Whether you think it ro be a term of endearment depends on your politics. It can be used as a bit of a catch all, but in this case, the use is accurate.

    Mike Homfray

  12. Fascism can also be extended to the media where it involves the subject of race, for example I wrote to the media newspaper in Oldham concerning a particular subject that of rape.... why in thirty years there had been numerous rapes of white women and children by Asian men and in the same time not one rape of an Asian woman or child by a white man............? You would have thought that this particular fact would have gotten some attention particularly if the situation had been reversed and numerous Asian women and children had repeatedly been raped by White men, but no this issue was not discussed, not published not allowed to be expressed... why not? .... political correctness....a forced policy of how we view a particular ethnic minority.... as the previous writers said, fascism is very hard to define and seems to be banded about at the BNP because it suits various political parties and ignorant people but when a pertinant point is made at ethnic minorities which are Asian then the media and the establishment can show various forms of Fascism that kill the discussion dead.