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Paolo Di Canio should explain past political comments

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Fascism can mean different things to many, but Sunderland's new manager needs to explain what it means to him.

Harry Engels

Football often offers the conflation of terminology with strange assumptions. The single phrase ‘good feet for a big man', now widely mocked, works on the assumption that the heterogeneous ‘big man' has inherently bad feet. We draw assumptions that an ‘Italian' style of team is defensive, and now with Paolo Di Canio appointed manager of Sunderland AFC, fascism, Nazism and racism are being widely explored in Britain.

Initially important, as any undergraduate student of History, Politics or Sociology will have been taught, is to stress that fascism as an ideology has no sound and academically agreed upon definition. This is useful with the wider links drawn between Fascism, Nazism and racism. A view prevalent among today's historical revisionists is that fascism is so wide a term, used to describe a number of different post-WW1 European movements, that the meaning loses relevance as a political category.

Another side-note to be drawn is the problem of any type of ideology. The issue here is that many 20th century politicians that proclaimed an ideology, and named their parties after that ideology, simply didn't follow the doctrine that foundational texts had set out. The terms that they so desperately wanted to be associated with, and gave themselves, have, though, stood the test of time. An easy example is the Communist Party of Russia, with Lenin and Stalin said to be devout followers of Marx, despite ripping up The Communist Manifesto and using titbits of twisted doctrine to support their authoritarian dictatorships.

It would be useful, then, to look at the origins of fascism and what the word actually connotes. Although, as someone firmly towards the centre-left of the political spectrum, an apology for the abhorrent crimes of Hitler's and Mussolini's dictatorships won't be found here. Balancing a strong contrast between Fascism and the views that we hold today in Western liberal democracies came from James Richardson who, on The Guardian's ‘Football Weekly' podcast, posited the view that in Italy politics isn't viewed as ‘for and against' as it is in Britain, meaning that it is socially acceptable to highlight the positive aspects of someone's politics whilst condemning the large majority of his or her views. Now, onwards.

The word ‘fascism' is thought to come from the Latin fasces that were the rods bundled around an axe, a symbol of authority and strength through unity in Ancient Rome. Through this image of authority and unity some of the central ideas of fascism can be deciphered, even if historians dispute the term itself as an accurate descriptor of political groups. There is, it should be stressed, no coherent, universal ideology uniting the different groups said to be ‘fascist'. Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Oswald Mosley have been labelled with this term, now used more readily in political conflicts than by historians analysing the 20th century.

Common strands between these thinkers are evident, though. There is recognition of Marxism and extreme left-wing politics as inherently wrong, a anti-liberal and democratic hatred, the ideas of regeneration and rebirth, a glorifying of youth and community and the pedestalisation of the nation-state and the ‘folk' or traditional national people. And it is with this glorifying of the traditional nation that views of racism and anti-immigration stem. It may seem logical that, with a movement glorifying what they believe to be the rightful nation of a tract of land, exclusion of particular races is evident. However, it doesn't have to be the case, depending on individual interpretations of the fascism that one may follow. If one views that Nazi's founding doctrines are the essence of Fascism then a racist view is inherent. Hitler's Mein Kampf suggested that the Nazis existed "to promote the victory of the better and stronger [race], and demand the subordination of the inferior and weaker [races] in accordance with the eternal will that dominates this universe". But if one views the statements of Mussolini, Di Canio's alleged idol, in The Doctrine of Fascism as the key, then racism doesn't necessarily have to come into it.

In The Doctrine of Fascism, Mussolini states that "the keystone of the Fascist doctrine is it's conception of the State", with unacknowledged co-author Gentile forwarding the view that "for the Fascist, everything is within the State." Here the state is seen as the key and founding principle, not with the purpose, as Hitler had, of promoting one race with the subordination of all the others. Although we can again highlight issues of doctrine and practice. Mussolini saw himself as a fascist and is known as one, and with race laws passed against the Jews we seem to have another indicator that fascism is inherently racist. Though, to come back to James Richardson's point, it is possible for one, such as Di Canio, to claim to be a fascist without following all the policies but into practice by Mussolini and the Italian fascists, and possibly without promoting one race or another.

Indeed, as Gabriele Marcotti has pointed out in The Times today, Di Canio promoted the values of immigration in his autobiography, praising those who move to and adopt another country as their own and condemning Mussolini for losing his principles in later political life, thought to be linked to Mussolini's adoption of an anti-Jewish stance. Sunderland's new manager, though, must explain his past political statements in the light of this week's furor. Should he support fascism, the Italian needs to explain which aspects of the ideology that he supports, with his own description of racism as ‘stupid' and ‘ridiculous'. Until Di Canio clarifies people can easily brand him a fascist and deduce an anti-immigration, pro-white European stance. It's up to him.