George Orwell Tries to Identify Who Is Really a “Fascist” and Define the Meaning of This “Much-Abused Word” (1944)

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Two neol­o­gisms, “Post-truth” and “Alt-right,” have entered polit­i­cal dis­course in this year of tur­moil and upheaval, words so noto­ri­ous they were cho­sen as the win­ner and run­ner-up, respec­tive­ly, for Oxford Dic­tio­nar­ies’ word of the year. These “Orwellian euphemisms,” argues Noah Berlatsky “con­ceal old evils” and “white­wash fas­cism,” recall­ing “in form and con­tent… Orwell’s old words—specifically some of the newspeak from 1984. ‘Crime­think,’ ‘thought­crime,’ and ‘unper­son’.… They even sound the same, with their sim­ple, thunk-thunk con­struc­tion of sin­gle syl­la­bles mashed togeth­er.”

“The sheer ugly clum­si­ness is sup­posed to make the lan­guage seem futur­is­tic and cut­ting edge,” Berlatsky writes, “The world to come will be util­i­tar­i­an, slangy, and up-to-the-minute in its inel­e­gance. So the future was in Orwell’s day; so it is in 2016.” As in Orwell’s day, our cur­rent jar­gon gets mobi­lized in “defense of the indefensible”—as the nov­el­ist, jour­nal­ist, and rev­o­lu­tion­ary fight­er wrote in his 1946 essay “Pol­i­tics and the Eng­lish Lan­guage.” And just as in his day, the euphemisms pret­ty up con­stant, bla­tant lying and racist ide­olo­gies. We can also draw anoth­er lin­guis­tic com­par­i­son to Orwell’s time: the wide­spread use of the word “fas­cism.”

Berlatsky uses the word with­out defin­ing it (when he talks about “white­wash­ing fas­cism”), except to say that “fas­cism thrives on false­hoods.” That may well be the case, but is it enough of a cri­te­ri­on for an entire polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic sys­tem? The word begs for a cogent analy­sis. Even Umber­to Eco, who grew up under Mussolini’s rule, felt the need for clar­i­ty, giv­en that “Amer­i­can rad­i­cals,” he wrote in 1995, abused the phrase “fas­cist pig” as a pejo­ra­tive for any author­i­ty, such that the word hard­ly meant any­thing thir­ty years after World War II.

But sure­ly Orwell—who fought fas­cism in Spain in 1936, and whose omi­nous post­war dystopi­an nov­els have done more than any lit­er­ary work to illus­trate its menace—could define the word with con­fi­dence? Alas, when we look to his work, even before the war had end­ed, we find him writ­ing, “‘Fas­cism,’ is almost entire­ly mean­ing­less.” His short 1944 essay, “What is Fas­cism?” does not, how­ev­er, push to abol­ish the word. He calls instead for “a clear and gen­er­al­ly accept­ed def­i­n­i­tion of it” against the ten­den­cy to “degrade it to the lev­el of a swear­word.”

But Orwell (being Orwell) is not opti­mistic. One rea­son a def­i­n­i­tion had been so dif­fi­cult to come by, he writes, is that any group to whom it is applied would have to make “admis­sions” most of them are not “will­ing to make”—admissions as to the real nature of their ide­ol­o­gy and objec­tives, behind the euphemisms, lies, and dou­ble-speak. If no one is a fas­cist, then every­one poten­tial­ly is. Even in the 40s, Orwell wrote, “if you exam­ine the press you will find that there is almost no set of people—certainly no polit­i­cal par­ty or orga­nized body of any kind—which has not been denounced as Fas­cist.”

He enu­mer­ates those so accused: “Con­ser­v­a­tives, Social­ists, Com­mu­nists, Trot­sky­ists, Catholics, War Resisters, Sup­port­ers of the war, Nation­al­ists.…” What of the text­book exam­ples just on the oth­er side of the front lines? “When we apply the term ‘Fas­cism’ to Ger­many or Japan or Mussolini’s Italy,” Orwell con­cedes, “we know broad­ly what we mean.” But appeal­ing to these extreme gov­ern­ments does lit­tle good, “because even the major Fas­cist states dif­fer from one anoth­er a good deal in struc­ture and ide­ol­o­gy.” Umber­to Eco is con­tent to say that fas­cism adopts the cul­tur­al trap­pings of the nations in which it aris­es, yet still shares sev­er­al con­stant, if con­tra­dic­to­ry, ide­o­log­i­cal traits. Orwell isn’t so sure he knows what those are.

So what can Orwell say about the word, one he is eager to hold on to but at a loss to pin down? Though he believes it must name a “polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic” sys­tem as well, Orwell final­ly opts for an ordi­nary lan­guage def­i­n­i­tion, to which we “attach at any rate an emo­tion­al sig­nif­i­cance.” Whether we “reck­less­ly fling” the word “in every direc­tion” or use it in more pre­cise ways, we always mean “rough­ly speak­ing, some­thing cru­el, unscrupu­lous, arro­gant, obscu­ran­tist, anti-lib­er­al, and anti-work­ing class. Except for the rel­a­tive­ly small num­ber of Fas­cist sym­pa­thiz­ers, almost any Eng­lish per­son would accept ‘bul­ly’ as a syn­onym for ‘Fas­cist.’” Those today who are not bullies—or unapolo­getic fas­cist sympathizers—and who don’t need euphemisms for these words, would like­ly agree.

You can read “What is Fas­cism?here. You can find the short essay pub­lished in this vol­ume, The Col­lect­ed Essays, Jour­nal­ism and Let­ters of George Orwell.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Umber­to Eco Makes a List of the 14 Com­mon Fea­tures of Fas­cism

George Orwell Reviews Mein Kampf: “He Envis­ages a Hor­ri­ble Brain­less Empire” (1940)

George Orwell Explains in a Reveal­ing 1944 Let­ter Why He’d Write 1984

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (7)
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  • Bill W. says:

    Notice there’s no ‘alt-Left?’ Napoleon the Pig has exempt­ed him­self, once again.

  • MichaelD says:

    Maybe if we approached the mean­ing at the quan­tum lev­el say, Schro­ding­er’s Fas­cist?

  • Jostein says:

    “Notice there’s no ‘alt-Left?”

    That’s what the argu­ment is about, no? That per­haps “left” and “right” hap­pi­ly shake hands in the mid­dle when it comes to use of pow­er, as well as the rhetoric they use to con­ceal it.

    I think that we don’t actu­al­ly have fas­cism now at all. What we have is indif­fer­ence, that in effect is some sort of soft author­i­tar­i­an­ism. Where pop­ulist move­ments man­age to pull off fair­ly spec­tac­u­lar pow­er-grabs at times from the fact that pow­er is del­e­gat­ed and giv­en away uncrit­i­cal­ly. While many in pow­er open­ly, and with­out con­test, argue that the con­tin­u­a­tion of affairs is the only pur­pose of the state.

    So in many ways we’ve just revert­ed to a point where Hobbes and Locke both would prob­a­bly have won­dered what the val­ue of their work real­ly would be, when peo­ple real­ly pay absolute­ly no price for just fork­ing over their author­i­ty, to a body of pow­er that peo­ple don’t think is nec­es­sary to con­trol.

    What we have now also dif­fers from the sce­nario in 1984 where it’s actu­al­ly nec­es­sary to main­tain the “sys­tem” with any amount of coher­cion and force. It just exists so we can be lazy and pay no price for it. In fact, you pay a price if you protest. No threat of rev­o­lu­tion, no threat of great upheavals, etc. And we’re just stum­bling through it, com­plain­ing about which side should be allowed to claim the dou­ble­plus­good terms in their rhetoric, while wield­ing the same unchecked pow­er.

    Which also was Aldous Hux­ley’s cri­tique of Orwell — that he saw 1984 as extreme­ly unlike­ly, and envi­sioned a more like­ly future where peo­ple would­n’t be forced and held by their ears, but would sim­ply float around in bliss­ful soma-induced indif­fer­ence instead. He was right. Orwell was wrong.

    That does­n’t change that Orwell’s expla­na­tion on how words we like or dis­like lose their mean­ing very quick­ly — whether that is “fas­cism”, “democ­ra­cy”, “free­dom”, and so on — isn’t absolute­ly spot on.

  • Bob Dole says:

    Sure­ly because they don’t self-iden­ti­fy as Alt-Left?

  • Fabian says:

    Was­n’t aware “Alt-left” was in com­mon usage the same way “Alt-right” (Inci­den­tal­ly, a term that many of that per­sua­sion self-iden­ti­fy as) is. There is no marx­ist ana­logue to the right wing nation­al­ist move­ments of today, cer­tain­ly no move­ment with pop­u­lar sup­port, any­how. The clos­est thing one can find is a new gen­er­a­tion of left­ists who iden­ti­fy clos­est with the social democ­ra­cy of the post­war peri­od, such as those in Momen­tum, Podemos and Syriza.

  • Ron says:

    That is one weird mus­tache George is rock­ing.

  • Michael Keenan says:

    Are not Super Del­e­gate and Elec­tors real­ly euphemisms for fas­cist over­lords?

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