Is ‘fascist’ still the right word?

The term is being used ever-more frequently—and manages to capture the threat of authoritarianism in a way other words cannot
June 14, 2023

Jacob Rees-Mogg was speaking at the National Conservatism Conference when an Extinction Rebellion activist called Dirk Campbell jumped on stage, took the microphone and said: “I would like to draw your attention to a few characteristics of fascism.” (Often XR protesters glue themselves in place, but perhaps none of them actually wanted to sit through the whole thing.) 

Campbell later explained that he wanted to raise awareness of the Public Order Act 2023, which he sees as clamping down on protest and “the thin end of the wedge of fascism”. But is it outdated to call someone a fascist? Do we need a new word for 21st-century authoritarianism? 

Fascism has been around for 100 years. It started life in the 1920s, that decade more famous for fun, frivolity and jazz. The language of this time tells of social revolution and economic prosperity: new words for partying (cocktail bar, daiquiri), dances (boogie-woogie and Charleston), sexual behaviour and social norms (bull-dyking and Bright Young Things). But it was also a contradictory decade, with neologisms such as arms race, atom bomb, America firster and of course fascism and blackshirt. It was Italy that first witnessed, in this decade, the rise of a militant nationalist, anti-­communist and anti-socialist Fasci di Combattimento (“bundles of combat”) led by Benito Mussolini. It wouldn’t be until the Second World War, however, before the meaning of this new word extended to refer to any regime or behaviour perceived as autocratic or intolerant. The poet Dylan Thomas was the first to use “lowercase” fascism, in a letter to the writer Pennar Davies in 1939: “I think that to fight, for instance, the fascism of bad ideas by uniforming and regimenting good ones will be found, eventually, to be bad tactics.” 

Fascism still captures authoritarianism in a way other words cannot

This was the sense of fascism that 72-year-old Campbell used when he heckled Rees-Mogg. And it still captures a type of authoritarianism that no other word manages to do. Trumpism is too American and in its semantic infancy for generalisation, while other national conservative or populist movements are too narrow in meaning for their names to be taken up. Alt-right may be broader, but the demographic is different from the old-school fascist; the two speak different languages.

If we examine the life of the word fascism, we see that its usage has oscillated. It peaked in the Second World War, dipped in the 1950s and rose again in the 1970s. It dropped in the 1980s, but has been rising ever since. Big data tells us that, in recent months, it most commonly occurs with the words creeping, encroaching and rising. For now, you could say fascism shows no signs of slowing down.