1. The term Fascist was coined by Benito Mussolini, leader of Italy (1923-1944). It refers to the bundle of sticks - fasces - which was carried before the leaders of the Roman Republic in ancient times. To the Romans it had symbolized "Unity is Strength" (because it is harder to break a bundle of sticks than a single stick). This symbol is also used on in various republics, including the United States coinage..
Mussolini used it as the symbol of his authoritarian party, which he called the Fascist Party. He hated the democratic system existing in Italy before he seized power in 1923. He accused it of corruption and inefficiency, though his real purpose was to seize power for himself. Paradoxically, the Italian version was not the worst of the regimes given this label.
2. The term is often applied to all authoritarian, non-Marxist single party regimes. In the 1930s it was a generic term for the regimes in Italy, Spain and Germany, as well as movements in eastern Europe such as Romania (Iron Guard) and Hungary (also Latvia). However, apart from being authoritarian and preventing democracy these regimes had many differences.
In Germany the party was called the Nazionale Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter Partei - Nationalist Socialist German Workers Party - Nazi. Its characteristics were: the Leader is always right; hatred of Jews and foreigners; Germans were the only true humans; hostility to Christianity and common morality; possession of force is a sign of the fitness to rule; worship of the occult.
Its aims were to exercise power first over Germany, then over the world. The kind of people who supported it are probably found in all societies but they were numerous in 1930s Germany, following the defeat in the first world war and the economic catastrophe of high unemployment and hyperinflation which destroyed all savings. That war may have left millions of morally damaged people willing to follow demagogues and commit crimes. In modern wars fewer people take part but many of those return psychologically damaged. Fortunately, there are not enough of them to form a criminal regime.
The Nazis produced a kind of economic recovery by using some of the aspects of Keynesian economics (deficit financing in bad times) and military investment (preparation for war: the unemployed were drafted into the army).
The Nazis also promoted various ideas which cannot be supported by experimental knowledge. These included: the idea that the earth was hollow; that the stars were holes in a solid sphere; that everything was made of fire and ice. Their most obvious strange idea was that humans are divided into distinct "races" - groups of people with similar genes. Modern genetics has found no evidence for this. But it led Hitler to order the killing of millions of Jews, Gypsies and Slavs.
Was the Nazi party merely a vehicle for Adolf Hitler's personality? There is evidence that he had a personality or method of talking that attracted many people to him, perhaps if they already had some character weakness. He can be compared to other catastrophic human leaders: Genghis Khan, Shaka the Zulu, Shi Huang De. Was he a psychopath (like Serial Killers)? The people who carried out his orders were usually ordinary people. (see Hannah Arendt: The Banality of Evil)
4. Post Nazi
5. Left wing people sometimes use the word loosely for any authoritarian person or party which shows signs of opposing left wing ideas. This use of the word should be discouraged. It should be reserved for those regimes which employ random violence, assassination, terror and torture in support of absolute, totalitarian power. Modern regimes of this kind can be found in Central America and western Asia (Syria, Iraq) and in Uzbekistan.
Out of power modern fascists can be found in western and central Europe, the former Soviet Union and in the United States (Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations and others). Fascism seems to attract people who have no moral feelings, perhaps psychopaths and people whose whole life has been consumed by undifferentiated hatred. Some of these are found even in Israel. The Aryan nations may be a similar phenomenon.
6. In the future it is possible that the difference between Communists in power - Marxist-Leninists - and fascists will be considered unimportant. A new category - Classic 20th century Dictatorship - may be used instead. Both types of dictatorship had secret police and prison camps, prevented free elections, controlled the press, had no respect for law. Both were totalitarian. The only difference was in the freedom given to the aristocracy and owners of industry by the fascists; whereas the communists tended to nationalize industry and land. Nazis tended to run industry better, but used slave labor (so did Stalin), which in the long run would produce the same results as the Communists - shoddy goods. There is a historians' dispute about whether Hitler was knowingly imitating Stalin in his methods, that is whether Stalin's role was to enlarge the scope of what a nasty dictatorship could do. This is something which can't be proved. The danger is that neo-fascists may use such an argument to pretend that Hitler was not responsible for his actions: "Stalin made me do it!"
Modern neo-Nazi writers, such as David Irving, purport to "prove" that the events of Nazi Germany did not happen. However, by the ordinary methods of historical scholarship the massacre of millions of Jews and others is as well established as any event in human history, and better than many. (The camps were filmed by the Nazis and by the allied forces who met them in 1945. The Nazis left large numbers of documents.)
Perhaps the same forces which produce political fascism work to produce the type of criminal activity called Mafia. (Is it a kind of private enterprise Fascism?).
It has been suggested that Fascism is the extreme result of a lack of tolerance, as can be observed in extreme right wing organizations in democratic countries. But the structure has the effect of giving power to those who would be limited by democracy, including industrialists, landowners, the military. Without a strong democratic culture all these will try to achieve power.
Twenty first century
In the United States the racist movements of Aryan Nations and Militia seem to be growing, a bad sign perhaps of growing poverty and unemployment and inequalities in society The role of certain radio and television broadcasters - especially Rupert Murdoch's Fox network and British newspapers - reminds the perceptive listener of the activities of Joseph Goebbels in Nazi Germany - propagating untruths.
Should we apply the term to the late Osama bin Laden and his followers?
He does have some of the characteristics:
The terrorist incidents in the United States, Europe and Indonesia perpetrated by Osama's followers are intended to terrorise and kill without regard for the victims.
Are western countries drifting in a fascist direction? Using the excuse of fighting "terrorism" most have recently enacted restrictive laws limiting the freedom of citizens. One disquieting sign of a change is the United States' use of torture in a number of camps not under legal control, contrary to the Constitution, apparently with the approval of a large proportion of the population. Here is an article discussing this. Is the US on the Brink of Fascism?
Is Fox News a pre-fascist phenomenon? (Untruths, lack of journalistic ethics, practice of bribing politicians and blackmailing them with private information - see the proceedings of the British House of Commons Select Committee).
The British government has also been attempting to end such ancient safeguards as Habeas Corpus and jury trials as well as erecting thousands of tv cameras in the name of "fighting crime and terrorism".
Arendt - Origin of Totalitarianism
Simon Baron-Cohen - The Science of Evil
Zero Degrees of Empathy: A new theory of human cruelty
Review of Baron-Cohen