What fascism is has been subject to much debate. Can it be described using a set of characteristics? Or has it been reduced to simply describing all forms of authoritarian governments and simply people we don't like very much? As one who studies political science, I sure hope the field comes up with some concrete definitions and classify fascism.
In the 1920s, the west thought that Benito Mussolini was a pretty neat guy. Ever since they changed their mind a few years later, fascism has been a universal term of abuse. Us leftists revel in calling our rightist opponents "fascists." More recently, "fascist" has been used as an epithet for liberals. The Tea Party has used the term against President Barack Obama, along with "Marxist," "socialist," "Nazi" (looks like those aren't mutually exclusive after all!), "Kenyan" and "Muslim." In his book "Liberal Fascism," Jonah Goldberg argues-- with slightly more academic integrity than Glenn Beck-- that fascism is inherently left-wing because it descended from progressivism, not conservatism.
In other words, nobody can quite agree on what fascism is except that it's bad. Since fascism was mostly defined by its adherents it would help to look at who exactly belongs under the "fascist" umbrella. Few would dispute Mussolini, Francisco Franco and Adolf Hitler. It generally seems that people like Augusto Pinochet, Salazar, the Greek Colonels and Juan PerÃ³n could also, at the very least, be described as embracing some fascist ideas. This seems to be a dead end, considering that Pinochet and PerÃ³n share very few similarities except, perhaps, for their authoritarianism. If fascism is merely a term for authoritarianism, we can truly say that the term is obsolete. When we begin applying the word to Barack Obama, Plato and Michael Moore, that's when the meaning really gets diluted.
To make any sense out of what the characteristics of fascism are, it would seem like a good idea to examine its roots. The term "fascism" comes from the Latin word "fasces," meaning a bundle of rods. The term indicated national unity which is a good reference point. Fascism certainly must include a type of social collectivism coupled with nationalism and authoritarianism.
What differentiates fascism from other forms of dictatorial rule is its view of the past. Communists, for example, look towards the future. When Lenin assumed power in Russia, churches were demolished as much for the reason of destroying vestiges of the past as to suppress religion. Fascists, by contrast, revel in past glories. Mussolini sought to restore the days of the Roman Empire. Hitler glorified Germanic achievements, promoting writers and artists who often contradicted the Nazi message (Nietzsche was a staunch anti-nationalist and opposed anti-Semites while Wagner was a pacifist).
An interesting aspect of fascist systems is the idea of leader-worship. The three most famous fascist states-- Italy, Spain and Germany-- all crumbled upon the death of their leader. This characteristic is also the most relevant today. When people are accused of fascism, quite often the term is synonymous with "demagoguery." This touches upon another founding principle behind fascism, its roots in classical conservatism elitism and social Darwinism.
The place of religion in fascist governments has been a source of much controversy. Some theist apologists argue against atheists by bringing up Hitler. Regardless of whether or not Hitler was an atheist, it is relevant to examine the degree of secularism within fascist countries. It is a known fact that fascism tends to play to abstract emotions-- honour, glory, patriotism. It would be fitting, therefore, for fascist states to use religion to either appease or control their populace. Mussolini's relationship with the Catholic Church was bizarre, at best. When Mussolini still subscribed to socialism, he proudly proclaimed that science disproved the existence of God. As prime minister, he was far more opportunistic. The Lateran Treaty made Italy a de facto theocracy in exchange for the Vatican minding its own business.
Hitler had a similar approach: while it is arguable that he wanted to more or less replace religion with state-worship, Nazi Germany made a pact with the Catholic Church as well. Franco's Spain was staunchly religious. If it's unfair to critique religious involvement in fascism from a historical perspective, perhaps it is fair to say that the stress fascism puts on traditionalism and anti-Marxism would be appealing to many religious conservatives.
The most contentious aspect of fascism, perhaps, is its economics. Left-wing, right-wing, or completely off the charts? Certainly, it comes from an anti-communist tradition. The original founders were national syndicalists, an ideology that combined both left- and right-wing concepts. The idea behind this type of syndicalism was a cooperation among all classes, as opposed to proletariat dominance in Marxist theory. In short, while communism sought to eliminate classes through a worker revolution, fascism wanted to maintain class division yet promote a combined effort. Mussolini came from a socialist background and he further confused the issue by mixing radical socialism into the anti-Marxist national syndicalism. While corporatist cooperation between classes seemed great in theory, it tended to lead into plutocratic dominance. The tendency of fascism to become controlled by industrialists has led many to place it on the far-right. If there is a common thread to fascist economies at all, it would have to be a rejection of class conflict and a strong state hand in the economy. Other than that, fascism is only loosely defined economically.
Many of the characteristics attributed to fascist governments (disdain for human rights, scapegoating) are common to all authoritarian systems. The idea of a circular political spectrum has also complicated things as to whether or not there really is any difference between Stalinism and fascism. However, if we move away from abstract concepts like political spectrums, it is not difficult to pinpoint certain policies as "fascist." Is it possible that "fascist" can have a different meaning in popular discourse than in academic circles? Yes, but fascism is loosely defined even among intellectual elites. Therefore, the following will have to suffice: nationalism, authoritarianism (elimination of opposition, censorship et cetera), militarism, glorification of the past, leader-worship, statism, elitism and irrationality. Economics should be "third way" (we're on to you, Tony Blair)-- both anti-communist and anti-capitalist.
Within this context, it is acceptable to label certain regimes today as "fascist." Theocratic Iran meets every single one of the above characteristics. Franklin Roosevelt did not and could hardly be called a fascist, regardless of economics. Some have thought Plato was fascist, but he never accepted irrationality, nationalism or leader-worship and his economics were staunchly collectivist. In contrast, new "white-collar" neo-Nazism in Europe represented the British National Party or the Hungarian Jobbik are copies of Hitler's national socialism. It is not childish name-calling to point out fascist-like policies of the Catholic Church or of American neo-conservatives. However, there is a distinction between calling rhetoric "fascist" and calling policies "fascist." The term is still useful in distinguishing right-wing tyranny from ultra-collectivism; one just needs to ensure the term does not become synonymous with "authoritarianism."
By examining certain characteristics of systems and contrasting them with previous governments described as "fascist," it is possible to paint an accurate-- and not complex-- picture of what can be defined as such.