When I was younger, people on the left used to refer to right-wing authoritarian governments as “fascists” in places like Latin America. Scholars have occasionally noted that the term “fascism” refers to more than just right-wing authoritarianism, citing historically specific examples such as Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany.
Timothy Snyder One of the world’s leading experts on fascism. He suggests that today’s Russia meets the standard definition of the term:
As a religion of irrationality and violence, it could not be defeated as an argument: as long as Nazi Germany seemed powerful, Europeans and others were tempted. Fascism was defeated on the battlefield of World War II. Now it’s back – and this time, Russia, a country in a war of fascist destruction. If Russia wins, fascists around the world will be relieved.
We are wrong to limit the fear of fascism to a specific image of Hitler and the Holocaust. Fascism was predominantly Italian, popular in Romania – where fascists were Orthodox Christians who dreamed of clearing violence – and had followers throughout Europe (and America). Of all its types, it was about the victory of will over reason.
For that reason, it is impossible to define satisfactorily. People often strongly disagree with what fascism constitutes. But today’s Russia meets most of the criteria that scholars tend to apply. It has a culture surrounding a single leader, Vladimir Putin. It has a religion of the dead, organized around World War II. It contains a myth of the golden age of imperial greatness, which will be restored by a war of healing violence – a war of attrition against Ukraine.
Fascist governments also favor a mixed economy with a nationalist attitude towards foreign trade and investment. The interests of the state take precedence over the human rights of individuals or even minorities as a whole.
No country fits perfectly into any single division. Thus Cuba and North Korea are generally regarded as “communists”, but no country is exactly what Karl Marx thought it was. Communist Manifesto.
In my view, today’s China is better described as a fascist rather than a communist, even though the country is ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. Like Russia, China has a mixed economy in which both the state and the private sector play a major role. China is a little less militaristic than Russia, but shares many of the other features of a fascist government, including its leader’s obsession with a personal religion and a historical narrative where China was once a great nation hunted by foreigners. In terms of internal human rights, China is arguably more repressive in some areas, especially in the Uyghur region. (I call it “domestic human rights”, because Putin clearly underestimates the rights of Ukrainians.)
I still don’t believe it makes sense to use the word “fascism” to describe every right-wing authoritarian government. But in the case of Russia and China, the label is increasingly appropriate – much higher than it was 20 years ago.