The BBC tries to answer the question in surprisingly good faith and ends up completely lost. The piece reminds me of one of my absolute favorite articles on the subject. Gilbert Allardyce’s “What Fascism Is Not: Thoughts on the Deflation of a Concept” had an enormous impact on me. It begins:
“PERHAPS THE WORD FASCISM SHOULD BE BANNED, at least temporarily, from our political vocabulary,” S. J. Woolf wrote in 1968.1 Historians who have confronted the problem of defining this mulish concept may sympathize with this modest proposal. Unfortunately, the word “fascism” is here to stay; only its meaning seems to have been banned. Nevertheless, the German philoso¬pher-historian Ernst Nolte is probably correct in stressing that historians do not have the responsibility to invent new terms simply because the existing ones seem inadequate. But they do have the responsibility to confess how truly inadequate the term fascism has become: put simply, we have agreed to use the word without agreeing on how to define it. This article is concerned with the reasons for this unfortunate state of affairs.
Although some scholars attempted from the start to restrict the use of the term fascism to Mussolini’s movement in Italy, most have joined in a process of proliferation that began as early as the 1920S. After Mussolini’s success, observers thought they recognized men and organizations of the same type arising in other nations. From this beginning emerged a popular image of fascism as an international movement, a phenomenon that found purest expression in Italy and Germany, but also appeared in a wide number of other countries. When stripped of national trappings, it is commonly believed, all of these movements had a common characteristic that was the essence of fascism itself. Although that essence is difficult to define, the prevailing hope is that continuing research will eventually reveal the nature of facism more clearly. Thus, while the thing itself continues to elude us, the name goes on as before.
But this is my favorite passage:
Certainly we must never forget that between 1 942 and 1945 such groups from different nations of occupied Europe became involved in the death machinery of the Final Solution. Auschwitz is not soiely a German problem. But we should not look at the previous history of these groups through the barbed wire of the concentration camps. As long as the fascism problem is the Nazism problem we cannot separate it from visions of the Final Solution; for this reason discourse on the subject will remain charged, moralistic, and pulpitarian. I will discuss below the work of those historians who interpret Hitler’s move¬ment as a unique product of German history. To accept their view is to recognize that other movements also may be unique and that they can only be understood in terms of their own national histories. To implant Nazism exclusively in German history is to dismantle it as a conceptual model. The drama of the Third Reich made popular the impression of Nazism as fascism pure and unchained, a movement with the power and resources to do what all fascists in their hearts wanted to do. The time has come to recognize, on the contrary, that the Hitler regime involves problems too aberrant and peculiar to provide us with conclusions for interpreting movements in other nations. Hard cases make bad law.
Since fascism is ostensibly an international movement, some scholars insist that it can only be understood in terms of an international model, a construct derived from the comparative study of a cross-section of national forms and not from one or two single cases. Moreover, the model ought to be sufficient unto itself, with only minor differences between existing units.30 European historians claim to find abundant national forms of fascism in areas beyond Italy and Germany, but what do these forms share that is cross-national? Beyond Europe the problem gets worse. When, for example, Jordi Sole-Tura affirmed that “no fascist movement recommends the abolition of private
ownership of the means of production,” Lloyd Eastman soon found one that did, the Blue Shirts of Kuomintang China: “This does not,” he suggested, “prove that the Blue Shirts were not fascist. On the contrary, it demonstrates again the multifarious forms that fascism assumed in different national set¬tings. “31
This is the logic of the cancer cell, and with it there can be no end to the number of fascist movements. Without conceptual boundaries, there are no limits to growth; where such boundaries are imposed, the distinctive elements of the various “fascist” organizations break through the lines at every point. This is not to say that these organizations may not share certain correspon¬dences and similarities.32 Certainly, individual scholars will want to continue the effort to catalogue more effectively a “fascist minimum,” a certified cluster of shared traits (salutes, shirts, squads, Fuhrerprinzip, and whatever) that could provide some instant identity to those throngs of nationalist radi¬cals that I uncomfortably call “fascist.” Frankly, I anticipate the list will be short and inconsequential. Such traits are largely descriptive accessories, features too limited and external to provide a compelling generic classifica¬tion. The so-called fascist parties are too mixed, diverse, and exceptional to be collected into such a general typology, It is not enough, therefore, to replace the German and Italian prototypes with a comparative international model. Instead, it is necessary to declassify fascism altogether as a generic concept.
Update: From a reader:
Your citation of Allardyce prompted me to recall my own favorite passage which has shown itself to be remarkably prescient given the political discourse of the past eight years:
There is, nevertheless, something to recommend the idea of confining the term fascism within the time limits that Nolte defined. Full of emotion and empty of real meaning, the word fascism is one of the most abused and abusive in our political vocabulary. Unlike the word romanticism it is not found to be beautiful. But it is similar in that it means virtually nothing. Yet the term fascism is probably with us for good. The object, therefore, is to limit the damage. Placing it within historical boundaries at least provides a measure of control, restricting the proliferation of the word in all directions, past and present, and preventing it from distorting political rhetoric in our own time. Fascism must become a foreign word again, untranslatable outside of a limited period of history (pp. 187-188).
Like my dad used to tell me, “if everyone is a fascist, then no one is.”