‘What Is a Fascist? A Trans-Atlantic Issue’: Looking at the present with the eyes of the past

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With the words “fascism” and “fascist” constantly being tossed around in the media, as well as with the rise of Antifa – whose name derives from the word “anti-fascism” – it can be difficult to understand what these words actually mean. What is a fascist? What is an anti-fascist? How do their historical meanings compare to their usage in modern political conversations? 

All these questions and more were discussed in the first panel discussion of the Noether Dialogues in Modern & Italian History, hosted by Professor Sergio Luzzatto, the Emiliana Pasca Noether Chair in Modern Italian History here at UConn.  

The panel included keynote speaker Victoria de Grazia, Moore Collegiate Professor of History at Columbia University, as well as guest speakers Moshik Temkin  and John Foot. Temkin is an associate professor of history and public policy at Harvard University and Foot is a professor of modern Italian history at the University of Bristol. All participants were incredibly well-versed and well-published on the fascist period of Italian history. 

In their discussion, the panelists worked to unpack the definition of fascism, as the meaning of the word has changed over time. 

“There is no doubt that every generation has had its interpretation of fascism; I should say, every historiographical cohort, roughly speaking,” de Grazia said. 

De Grazia reflected on her own experience, seeing the different interpretations of the concept evolve over her academic career, beginning in the 1960s as a student up through the 21st century as a professor. 

Some of the discrepancies surrounding fascism stem from what Temkin called “sloppy usage” of the term. 

“[There is] the distinction between fascism, the historical phenomena and then fascism as a label,” Temkin said. “It strikes me that these are actually two different histories: One is the history of people who called themselves fascist and led fascism, and then there are the histories of people who were called fascist by others.” 

As Americans, we often associate fascism with the regimes of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Since the United States fought against these powers in the Second World War, the panelists believe that the label of “fascism” and its subsequent connotation have a very dismissive quality that ends a discussion. 

“If we hold fascism to be the bar that a particular political phenomena has to reach in order for us to react in a negative way, then we find ourselves bogged down in a discussion that distracts from the damage that these regimes might already be doing,” Temkin said. 

The panelists examined the administrations of various world leaders, particularly that of President Trump. They discussed the fact that every historically fascist society not only has a charismatic leader, but also several enablers that allow for that leader to come to power.  

“At the end of the day, Trump is only one guy…He can’t do everything by himself, a lot of people have to do what he says… My tendency, as a historian, is to say, who are these people? Why are they following orders?” 

Moshik Temkin, Associate Professor of History and Public Policy, Harvard University

“At the end of the day, Trump is only one guy,” Temkin said. “He is a 74-year-old man sitting in the White House. He can’t do everything by himself, a lot of people have to do what he says, in order for all those things to happen. My tendency, as a historian, is to say, who are these people? Why are they following orders?” 

The panelists discussed the possibility of there always being “fascist” movements in every nation at all times, waiting for the proper leader to come around and pull up their constituency, a theme in many contemporary elections. 

“[Fascism] is a very hot word, a difficult word to bring into conversations without it exploding,” Foot said. “We need to get a grip on how it is used.” 

The panel concluded that whether or not a current leader meets the definition of a fascist should be irrelevant. Instead of focusing on labels, society should simply judge a leader’s actions on its effect on society. 

“What does it entail for us to state that, let’s say, Trump, is a fascist?” Temkin said. “Or, in that sense, what does it entail to say that he is not a fascist? Does that change in any way, the way that we think, individually or collectively, about how society needs to address the problems we have? The question of whether Trump is a fascist should not dictate necessarily how we respond to him as political creatures.” 

Thumbnail photo of anti-fascist protestor in Athens, Greece this Monday, Oct 12. Photo courtesy of Thanassis Stavrakis / AP Photo.

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