The other F-word
When I was young, people on the left used to refer to right wing authoritarian governments in places such as Latin America as “fascist”. Scholars would occasionally point out that the term “fascism” has historically meant something more than just right wing authoritarian, citing specific examples such as Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany.
Timothy Snyder is one of the world’s leading experts on fascism. He suggests that today’s Russia meets the standard definition of the term:
As a cult of irrationality and violence, it could not be vanquished as an argument: So long as Nazi Germany seemed strong, Europeans and others were tempted. It was only on the battlefields of World War II that fascism was defeated. Now it’s back — and this time, the country fighting a fascist war of destruction is Russia. Should Russia win, fascists around the world will be comforted.
We err in limiting our fears of fascism to a certain image of Hitler and the Holocaust. Fascism was Italian in origin, popular in Romania — where fascists were Orthodox Christians who dreamed of cleansing violence — and had adherents throughout Europe (and America). In all its varieties, it was about the triumph of will over reason.
Because of that, it’s impossible to define satisfactorily. People disagree, often vehemently, over what constitutes fascism. But today’s Russia meets most of the criteria that scholars tend to apply. It has a cult around a single leader, Vladimir Putin. It has a cult of the dead, organized around World War II. It has a myth of a past golden age of imperial greatness, to be restored by a war of healing violence — the murderous war on Ukraine.
Fascist governments also tend to favor a mixed economy, with a nationalistic attitude toward foreign trade and investment. The interests of the state take precedence over the human rights of individuals or even entire minority groups.
No country fits perfectly into any single category. Thus while Cuba and North Korea are generally regarded as “communist”, neither country is exactly what Karl Marx had in mind when he wrote the Communist Manifesto.
In my view, today’s China is better described as fascist rather than communist, despite the fact that the country is ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. Like Russia, China has a mixed economy with both the state and the private sector playing a major role in many sectors. China is a bit less militaristic than Russia, but shares many of the other traits of fascist governments, including a personality cult around its leader and an obsession with an historical narrative where China is a once great nation victimized by outsiders. On domestic human rights, China is arguably even more repressive in some respects, especially in the Uyghur region. (I say “domestic human rights”, because Putin obviously places little value on the rights of Ukrainians.)
I still don’t believe it makes sense to use the term “fascism” to describe every right wing authoritarian government. But in the case of Russia and China, the label is increasingly apt—much more so than 20 years ago.