Fascist is a word that gets thrown around a lot nowadays. George W. Bush is a fascist. Slobodan Milosevic is a fascist. Your boss is a fascist.

Needless to say, the word usually gets applied to someone we dislike. It's one of the few political terms that is entirely pejorative and not really accepted by anyone. Communist, for instance, is gladly accepted by numerous parties and states worldwide, despite the tens of millions of dead attributable to governments who called themselves Communist. But the memory of the Holocaust has proved so unique and painful that no-one will risk association with this infamous crime. Even Holocaust deniers of the far right-wing stripe shy away from the term, preferring more innocuous names.

This has led to a situation where the word fascist has become divorced from any real relation to fascism in modern usage. Fascism as a historical phenomenon has a fairly precise meaning, although it had national variations in Nazi Germany, fascist Japan and fascist Italy. In Italy it's easy to see who the fascists were: they included the word in the name of their political party, the National Fascist Party. And so it was in Germany, where the Nazi Party was the main organ of fascist ideas and activity.

Things were a little more complicated in Japan, but it's still relatively clear who exactly the fascists in Japan were. Japan was so different to the European homes of fascism that Japanese fascism was bound to look different. But it still had the same essential elements: ultra-nationalism, the repression of dissent, an impulse toward imperialism, and a self-destructive pathology. Again, the political movement here was fairly recognizable.

Today we apparently aren't so lucky when it comes to knowing just who the fascists in our midst are. This is the only reason why two perfectly reasonable people can disagree about whether Pat Robertson, for instance, is a 'fascist'. Do we have any real criteria? From the over-use of the word that is evident everywhere, it appears not.

Well, I think we should stop bandying the word around quite so freely. The reason I think this is because it distorts our perception of the concepts that really lie behind the word. And this isn't just historian's pedantry, but in my view a vital point in modern politics.

We'll start with the easy stuff: the reappearance of old-style fascism in the modern world. This is fairly easy to pinpoint and a just target for our scorn. Slobodan Milosevic fits the mould of an old-style fascist dictator fairly well: he used unbearable kitsch propaganda and wars of aggression to try and rebuild a mythical glorious Serbia of old. Parties with similar goals for their own motherlands exist all over Europe and on other Continents. Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath was essentially an instantiation from the same class. So far so recognizable.

Now let's consider that Milosevic used to be a Communist, and pause for a moment to reflect how easily he made the transition between the two. This would tend to validate the theories of some old thinkers who posited that both fascism and Communism belonged to the same class of political systems, a class they called totalitarian. They said these systems shared certain traits, such as the desire to control the minutae of people's lives, of the economy, of culture; everything, totally. They didn't let people do what they wanted to do.

History validates this judgement of both fascism and Communism. Yes, yes, "real Communism has never been tried" and "Communism works great in theory". Well, fascism worked great in theory too. There was nothing in Nazi propaganda about the glorious motherland detailing what would happen to the Jews, and there was nothing in Communist propaganda about what would happen to the bourgeoisie. We know what happened to both groups: they were exterminated, "liquidated" in the banal language of the political scientists. The destruction of these respective groups was the essence of the two systems we are discussing.

It is possible to describe a political Utopia which is fascist and doesn't involve violence, just as it is possible to explicate such a system which is Communist. The two are not very different at all, especially as they share some fundamental traits. Both are based on kitsch imagining and hence utterly unrealizable.

By historical accident 'fascist' became the mudslinging word and 'Communist' didn't. This is because the Communist system remained in existence for so much longer and hence gained legitimacy from all sorts of people. John Lennon might have realized that "If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao / You ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow" but there were many who didn't.

Now to the point. My point is that if fascist is going to get bandied around like it's going out of fashion, we ought to stop just applying it to anyone we don't like. It's our strongest general word of political censure because everyone thinks it's bad. Let's use it properly. The image it calls up is of oppression, rigidity of thought, and no political participation by anyone but the elite. All features of the totalitarian political systems: the theocratic system, the Communist system, and the system of fascism properly defined.

We've got so used to freedom in Western democracies that we've forgotten what real oppression is. This is the only explanation for why the word fascist can be applied so freely to our politicians. If our democracies are going to be intelligent, and especially if American democracy is going to stop sliding down the slope of undignified rhetoric it's currently going down, we need to start thinking before we speak. There are real fascists in this world and they're not sat in the White House, the Congress, or the Democratic National Convention.

A fascist is anyone who tells you that you're not allowed to think for yourself. A fascist is anyone who aspires to force you to spend your life not as you please, but as he pleases. A fascist is anyone who aspires to be able to control what you read, what you watch, and what you listen to. A fascist is anyone who aspires to crush human dignity and freedom by controlling the lives of others. They brook absolutely no disagreement or discussion and want to control everything, utterly. These people can be Communists, Islamic fundamentalists (this is the meaning of the term Islamofascism, O you who claim it has no meaning), or Nazis. They're not the people raising your taxes a dollar or waging a war most of your countrymen wanted at the time.

Only by realizing that it is these people who are our enemies in the world, and then resolutely facing up to them, can our politics and international relations be conducted on a moral and rational basis. Totalitarianism is the ultimate enemy of the Western political tradition, and as our strongest word of censure 'fascist' is justly applied to anyone who aspires to complete political control, even if they legitimize themselves as heroes of the proletariat or God's chosen people. We all have a duty to ask ourselves every time we speak or act politically if we are acting consistently with this conception of the ultimate enemy, the fascist.