When censoring fascists, who gets to decide who's "fascist"?
Giving anyone the power to label someone "fascist" and censor them is far more of a threat than a handful of Nazi punks.
Let me be 100% clear on this point: fascism is bad.
I have previously suggested that fascism can be defined as an authoritarian, nationalist, and anti-rationalist political system. It creates a darkly romantic world-view of a people totally committed to a glorious existential struggle against an implacable, subhuman foe; at their head, a Great Leader who embodies the divine order of the cosmos, a divine order than has been disturbed but will now be set aright.
As the fascist state is based on glorious struggle -- as in Hitler's Mein Kampf, "My Struggle" -- it must continually find someone to struggle against, some enemy to fight, internal or external. It can never be at peace. So even if you accept authoritarianism or nationalism (ideas we shall argue against at another time), it's a bad system, doomed to fail but capable of doing tremendous damage along the way.
I think this is a serviceable definition of fascism, but it is not the only one out there.
And that takes us to the problem I wish to discuss. As part of a rising tide of "progressive" authoritarianism here the US, many people are calling for censorship of, and sometimes even violent assaults on, "fascists". (This authoritarian progressive movement has its own problematic tendencies to see the world in terms of glorious existential struggles; another tangent for another time.)
The problem with censoring "fascists" is, who gets to decide who's "fascist"?
George Orwell literally fought fascists in the Spanish Civil War, and got shot in the throat for his trouble. Yet the group he fought with, POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, the "Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification") was declared "fascist" by the Stalinist Spanish Communist Party.
For context: a few years earlier the KPD, the Communist Party of Germany -- similarly under the control of Stalinists in Moscow -- had founded "Antifaschistische Aktion", or "antifa" for short: a group which opposed the social democracy of the ruling Social Democratic Party, labeling it a variant of fascism. The KDP sometimes even worked with Nazis in attacking the SPD and its allies.
Antifaschistische Aktion was formed by the Stalinists after the SPD and its allies formed an anti-monarchist, anti-fascist, anti-Communist direct action group, the Iron Front. It was the Iron Front, not their opponents in this Stalinist "antifa", whose symbol was the three arrows which today's historically ignorant antifa groups have appropriated.
In other words, according to Stalinists, everyone but them was "fascist"!
That was the context in which the original "antifa" group was born, as a group opposed to the genuinely anti-fascist Iron Front. And today, "antifa" groups and other authoritarians and vigilantes often take the same expedient of declaring anyone who disagrees with them "facsist".
Because it is a term which can be and has been used on anyone. In 1944, Orwell -- let me repeat, a guy who had literally gone to war against fascists, and literally came within about an inch of being killed by them when a bullet passed between his trachea and carotid artery -- wrote that he had read the term "fascist" used to denounce groups including Conservatives, the Boy Scouts, the Metropolitan Police, M.I.5, the British Legion charity, Socialists, the Labour Party, Communists, Trotskyists, Catholics, war resisters, war supporters, and nationalist movements including Polish nationalism, Finnish nationalism, the Indian Congress Party, the Muslim League, Zionism, and the IRA:
It will be seen 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, 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.
If the word "fascism" has been almost entirely meaningless since even before the great war of the 1930s and 1940s against fascism ended, then the same applies to "anti-fascism" and to calls to "deplatform fascists."
Let’s look at a few contemporary political groups that have been labeled “fascist” by their opponents:
“Black Lives Matter Campus Fascists” — Rob Dreher at The American Conservative
“BDS’s fascist narrative” — Roseanne Barr. BDS refers to the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement aiming to stop Israel’s apartheid policies against Palestinians.
“The trans lobby is being as repressive as the fascist ideology…” — Lidia Falcón O’Neill, a Spanish feminist writer tortured by actual fascists during the Franco regime.
If we place “fascists” outside of legal protections of free speech and due process, then all one has to do is label one’s political opponents as fascist.
Would I like fascists to STFU? Absolutely! But giving the state, a multinational social media corporation, a vigilante mob, or anyone the power to label someone "fascist" and force them into silence is far more of a threat to our rights and liberties than a handful of Nazi punks.
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