The worst thing about 2016 — an otherwise bracing year of political upset and oligarchical tears — has been the mainstreaming of the insult ‘fascist’. Anyone who sticks it to the status quo, whether by rejecting the EU or plumbing for Trump over Clinton, risks being smeared with the F-word. Even the normally measured New York Times flirted with the idea that loads of Americans and Europeans might be fascists, or at least facilitators of fascism. Trump’s victory speaks to a possible ‘revival of fascism’, it said, echoing the fears of an army of observers and tweeters who see in Brexit and Trump the stirrings of a kind of Nazism.
The terrifying casualness with which the F-word is now flung about could be glimpsed in the Michael Sheen controversy. Achieving ‘peak luvvie’, Sheen said, in an interview with the Times, that he was cutting back on acting to fight the new ‘demagogic, fascist’ politics. Where is this fascism? Wales, apparently. A Times editor summed it up: ‘The great actor Michael Sheen is quitting acting and going back to Wales to battle the rise of populism and fascism’. So are there Blackshirts in Cardiff? Swarms of Hitler Youth in Merthyr Tydfil? No. These people are talking about Brexit voters. They’re talking about those largely working-class Welsh communities that said ‘Screw you’ to the EU. In the eyes of the snootier sections of society, these people are fascists, or midwives of fascism.
Sheen has since clarified his comments. He says he isn’t ditching acting and doesn’t think Welsh Brexiteers are fascists. That’s nice of him. Yet his diagnosis that the west is in the grip of a ‘demagogic, fascist’ politics is one shared by much of the smart set. And they seem not to realise whose footsteps they’re following in. For ‘fascist’ has long been the favoured slur of the authoritarian, especially Stalinist authoritarians. Some of the nastiest political people in recent history used the accusation of ‘fascism’ to stigmatise and silence their critics, and now so-called liberals play the same low game.
The fascist slur was a central part of the Stalinist propaganda armoury. Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian-British writer who left the Communist Party of Germany in the 1930s after becoming disillusioned with Stalinism, later writing the classic anti-totalitarian work ‘Darkness at Noon’, wrote about this. One of the main ways Stalinists kept people in line was by deploying the fascist tag, he said:
In Party parlance, everybody who was not on our side was a Fascist. The Socialists were Social-Fasicts, the Catholics were Clerical-Fascists, the Trotskysits were Trotsky-Fascists, and so on.
George Orwell, another great 20th-century critic of totalitarianism, likewise noted the Stalinist fashion for using the ‘F-word’ as code for deviant thinker. In Spain in 1936, Orwell fought in the Trotskyist Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM). The Stalinists involved in the Spanish war were agitated by POUM’s radicalism, so they demonised and repressed it. How? By calling it fascist. Orwell wrote of being branded a ‘Trotsky-Fascist’; POUM was ‘tarred with the Trotsky-Fascist brush’. It was this experience of being libelled and harried by Stalinists that encouraged Orwell to devote himself to the cause of anti-totalitarianism. He later wrote that ‘the word ‘fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless’. We should ‘use [this] word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword’, he said. Brexitphobes, take note.
Stalinists continued their fascist-slur antics during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. This wasn’t a people’s stab for freedom, they said: it was a ‘Fascist-Hungarian counter-revolution’, driven by ‘fascist-reactionary elements’. The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), to its historic shame, backed the Stalinists’ crushing of the Hungarian uprising, again on the basis that the uprising had been a ‘fascist’ one. The British Marxist Peter Fryer slammed the CPGB for ‘smearing’ the revolt, painting the ‘courageous struggle of the Hungarian working class for democracy’ as a ‘fascist-inspired, fascist-led counter-revolution’. Sound familiar? Today, British people’s instinct to take back democratic control from the EU — which is no USSR, no, but it is a rotten bureaucracy — is likewise slammed by certain leftists as a fascist-tinged revolt against all that is decent.
Stalinists’ use of the fascist slur to maintain political order reached its nadir with the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. GDR officials referred to the Wall as the ‘Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart’. West Germans were fascists, you see, as were East Germans who longed to join them in enjoying democratic and liberal rights. Later, in the 1970s and 80s, leftish fascist talk became farcical. The NUS banned neo-fascists from campus, later extending the ban to include anti-migration Conservatives and Christian fundamentalists — what the old Stalinists might have called Tory-Fascists and Clerical-Fascists. Now the fascism libel is back, with a vengeance, this time aimed at everyone from the Welsh to Rust Belt Americans to leading Brexiteers and Trump’s cabinet.
It isn’t fascism that has been revived in 2016; it’s the vicious, authoritarian tactic of using the word fascist to pathologise those who think differently or who kick against the political order. Today’s fascist libel is driven by the same authoritarian impulse as that noted by Koestler and Orwell: it’s about saying ‘everybody who is not on our side’ is wicked and unfit for political life. The F-word is a weapon. It’s a silencing tactic. Its aim is not to describe but to denounce. It speaks to the baleful influence of Stalinist thought on the British left that it can so naturally reach for the insult once used by Soviets to criminalise those who agitated for greater freedom in Spain, Hungary or Russia, and use it now against Brits who prefer national democracy over EU illiberalism. Oh, the irony: in promiscuously using the 20th-century term ‘fascist’ against their enemies, they demonstrate their own similarity to another nasty 20th-century creed: Stalinism.