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George Orwell on fascism

George Orwell

The political energy of fascism is colouring the horizons of Europe. The right wing of public life is teeming with activity. With each new electoral gain, its momentum grows, as does the cold-bloodedness of their slogans and the callousness of the policies they imagine. At least in countries like Italy, Sweden, and The Netherlands, a fascistic revolution seems rapidly approaching. It does to me at least.

Just look around you. Refugees, climate activists, people of colour, trans people, Muslims, critical historians, disabled people, people who are medically vulnerable, women who choose to control their own bodies—all of these groups are pushed ever more forcefully into the dehumanising mould of a ‘problem’ or ‘aberration’ that needs to be dealt with. To put it bluntly, large parts of humanity are with increasing enthusiasm portrayed as those that need to be got rid of, instead of fellow souls that deserve respect, support, shelter, and a living.

That this is happening should be obvious.

Yet although the political rhetoric is there for all to witness some people continue to find it incongruous to see the term ‘fascist’ applied to the type of politics that is unfolding. Still, it is exactly what I am intent on doing. I will use ‘fascistic’ to describe the direction in which Europe is currently moving, because this is what I judge it to be.

I’ve been told off for this—online, but still. “Of course, that right-wing politicians have become mainstream is obvious. But it’s well beyond the pale call them fascists.”

But why exactly? Why is labelling the current political movement fascist objectionable? I have seen two different reasons offered. The first is that ‘fascist’ is a label that applies only to specific historic movements—fascism is contained and a thing of the past and what we see now is just… something else. The second is that the word ‘fascist’ should not be used because it’s merely a pejorative phrase: a term of abuse that expresses no more than contempt or disapproval—“Oh, you don’t think what I think? Well, in that case you’re a fascist.”

As it happens, I don’t think either of these reasons is any good. To start with the pejorative use, this is of course nothing new. George Orwell, who knew a thing or two about fascism, wrote in his essay on politics and the English language that “the word ‘fascism’ has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’”. Keep in mind that he wrote this not even a year after the menace of German fascism had been defused.

So yes, if you describe everyone as a fascist, then you are unlikely to say anything informative. However, we should be careful to distinguish between words and things, between ‘fascism’ (the term) and fascism (the political force). Even if the term ‘fascist’ is frequently misused, that doesn’t mean that fascism doesn’t exist, or that some people nowadays cannot be or become fascists.

Orwell would have been the first to emphasise this. Much of his work as a writer and essayist was devoted to chronicling the twentieth-century struggle against fascism, mainly in its German, Italian, and inchoate British varieties. Continuously he stumbled into a brick wall. It was that many of his contemporaries were unable or (more commonly) unwilling to get to grips with what fascism really is. It was just too inconvenient, too disruptive, to look true fascism in the eye. In ‘Socialism and the English genius’, an essay from 1941, Orwell writes

To understand Fascism they would have had to study the theory of Socialism, which would have forced them to realize that the economic system by which they lived was unjust, inefficient and out-of-date. But it was exactly this fact that they had trained themselves never to face.

Orwell here is jumping ever so slightly ahead of what I want to say. But his words do get me to address the other reason you supposedly should not call someone a fascist. This is the misguided assumption that ‘fascist’ is a term that applies only to specific historic movements.

The assumption betrays a hopeless ignorance of what fascism (the political force) actually is. “One can gauge the general ignorance,” Orwell wrote, “from the fact that the ordinary Englishman thought of ‘Fascism’ as an exclusively Italian thing and was bewildered when the same word was applied to Germany.”

Even in Orwell’s time many people were reluctant to label anyone but rather specific historical groups or movements as fascistic. The idea that fascism could rear its head in different forms and—heaven forbid—in your own country was just unthinkable. And for many it still is, I think. Because of this wilful ignorance, the forces that could cause fascism to gain a foothold in 21st-century Italy, Sweden, or, say, The Netherlands continue to be downplayed or remain unacknowledged altogether.

Fascism must be understood as a world-view or a vision of society. Orwell speaks about a ‘fascist attitude of mind’ and a ‘fascist feeling’. He defines it as essentially reactionary—as going against something. What does it go against? He is clear about this. The fascist attitude of mind is repulsed by equality, by the ideal of a world-state of free and equal human beings. As it happens, this ideal of a world-state in which everyone is free and equal is the ideal of socialism. That’s why Orwell thought that to understand fascism you would have had to study socialism first. It is even possible to see fascism as a reaction to actual socialism, wherever it crops up—in several places Orwell takes this possibility extremely seriously, and at one point portrays fascism as a mirror-image of socialism.

So understood, it should be clear that the fascistic attitude or sentiment is not geographically or historically contained. Someone who felt and expressed this fascistic feeling, according to Orwell, was the Irish poet W.B. Yeats. Writing A Vision in 1925 Yeats described his idea of utopia: “every detail of life hierarchical, every great man’s door crowded at dawn by petitioners, great wealth everywhere in a few men’s hands, all dependent upon a few”. This is a vision of a society opposed to freedom, opposed to justice, and opposed to equality. As Orwell writes in his 1943 essay on Yeats,

in a single phrase, ‘great wealth in a few men’s hands’, Yeats lays bare the central reality of Fascism, which the whole of its propaganda is designed to cover up. The merely political Fascist claims always to be fighting for justice: Yeats, the poet, sees at a glance that Fascism means injustice, and acclaims it for that very reason.

Orwell’s writings about fascism are of immense value to day. They should serve as a mandatory refresher of how real the political force of fascism is, and how closely fascism lurks under the surface of capitalist society. His works remind you of the fact that although the fascist will always claim to fight for ‘freedom’ or ‘justice’, they invariably suppress the qualification that it concerns only freedom and justice for them.

I think that the term ‘fascist’ can perfectly well be used today, and even used in a purely descriptive way. The political movement I see in frightfully many places in Europe is reactionary, it is viscerally opposed to the idea that everyone deserves free and equal treatment, and it actively promotes great wealth to remain in the hands of a privileged and aggressively protected few.

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