Brandishing old ghosts
Jack Conrad argues that in order to effectively combat today’s far right we must begin by rejecting false historical analogies.
Mainstream liberal opinion has been in part dumbfounded, in part terrified by the repeated electoral successes of the far right: Nerendra Modi and the BJP in India, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil; Russia, Japan, Turkey, Sri Lanka and Israel can also be mentioned. Above all, though, there is Donald J Trump, the 45th US president. Not only mentally unhinged - the poor sod shows all the signs of early-onset Alzheimer’s - Trump is widely condemned for being a purveyor of a fascistic white nationalism.1
Europe has proven far from immune. The governments of Poland and Hungary are far-right. Both Law and Justice and Fidesz are anti-communist, anti-migrant and anti-gay, and carry about them more than a whiff of anti-Semitism. There are sizable political formations still further to their right. Jobbik, the second largest party in the Hungarian parliament, displays a distinct fondness for Miklós Horthy, the pro-Nazi collaborator during World War II. Jobbik also had close relations with the unarmed ‘citizen force’, Magyar Gárda Mozgalom. In Poland the Konfederacja - a motley collection of right libertarians, monarchists and national chauvinists - gained 11 seats in the Sejm in the October 2019 elections. Almost needless to say, Konfederacja upholds “Christian values” and denounces the international Jewish “conspiracy” against Poland.2
Then there is Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, the Freedom Party in Austria, Alternative for Germany, the Danish People’s Party, The Finns, Swedish Democrats, the League in Italy, Vox in Spain, the Brexit Party, etc - all registering 10%-30% in EU elections.
How should this global phenomenon - and it is a global phenomenon, albeit a complex one, coloured and shaped by particular national histories, circumstances and dynamics - be assessed?
According to many on the economistic left - most notably the Socialist Workers Party and what remains of its International Socialist Tendency - this is the 1930s in “slow motion”.3 The world is seeing a renewed forward march of fascism. According to the SWP’s Stand Up to Racism (superseding Unite Against Fascism) - a popular front backed by trade union officials, assorted worthy radicals, various religious dignitaries and a good smattering of Labour MPs - “hate crime and far-right terror attacks are at epidemic proportions, and the racist and fascist right are experiencing the biggest growth in their support since the 1930s”.4
True, the ideological precursors of many of today’s far-right parties include the ‘classic’ fascists of the 1920s and 30s. Yet hard-core holocaust deniers, non-state fighting formations and unrepentant Hitler fans are often shunned, cold-shouldered, even proscribed. Poland barred the American Richard Spencer - white supremacist and alt-right figurehead. Marine Le Pen expelled her own father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in an attempt to cultivate a less toxic image. Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz government oversaw the ban on the Magyar Gárda Mozgalom. The totally marginalised UK Independence Party still excludes former members of the British National Party from membership.
My intention, in this article is to provide a historical framework, first by showing why a sloppy, catch-all use of the term ‘fascism’ is dangerous. Then what might be called the 19th century precursors of fascism will be briefly discussed. Fascism is then to be put in its proper historical and socio-economic context. Next we examine fascism through the prism of how it was theoretically assessed and explained away by the bourgeois establishment. On that basis the contemporary situation can perhaps be properly assessed.
The term ‘fascism’ has been subject to all manner of different definitions since it was first coined (Benito Mussolini adopted the fasces - a bundle of sticks with an axe at their centre, the symbol of state power in ancient Rome - as the emblem of his movement). Mussolini’s formed the ‘Italian Fascisti of Combat’ in March 1919 when 54 people - demobilised soldiers, pro-war former syndicalists and extreme social chauvinists - signed up to his programme. Fascism, in the words of Il Duce, stood opposed to liberalism, the “exhausted democracies” and the “violently utopian spirit of Bolshevism”.5
Nowadays, on the left, however, the word ‘fascism’ has degenerated into little more than a throwaway insult. London’s Met police force are regularly dubbed ‘fascist’ by overexcited protestors; the guerrillarist left in Turkey describe all the country’s governments as fascist since the foundation of the modern state by Kemal Atatürk in 1923; fascism is also casually equated with bigoted prejudices, restrictions on civil liberties and any and every manifestation of national chauvinism. So for many fascism is not a future danger. It is already here.
Such labelling rallies all manner of sundry elements, fills those who use it with righteous indignation and often provokes a pleasingly spluttering response from the intended target. Yet it does nothing to reveal the true nature of fascism, as it emerged historically and functions as a counterrevolutionary weapon in capitalist society. Not a matter of pedantry or semantics. If fascism is sheared of history, if it is reduced to little more than something regressive and threatening, an object of opprobrium, then one cannot methodologically distinguish between the role played by fascism as it mercilessly destroyed the organised working class in Europe during the 1920s, 30s and 40s, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the suspension of habeas corpus in 1794 and the suppression of the London Corresponding Society and the Society of the Friends of the People, 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and McCarthyism in the US, the barrage of anti-trade union legislation introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government and her defeat of the miners in the 1984-85 Great Strike or the June 2016 Brexit vote and the election of Boris Johnson as Tory leader three years later.
Giving ‘fascism’ a clear, definite meaning by rooting it in history has nothing to do with any softness towards the William Pitt the younger and his diehard Tory regime, sympathy for senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-communism, fondness for the police kettling of protesters, admiration for the Turkish state, endorsement of Boris Johnson’s empire 2.0 fantasy, etc. On the contrary, labelling fascist what is not fascist is a terrible mistake, which disarms the workers’ movement against any actual, real fascist threat.
For example, in the late 1920s and early 30s, ‘official communism’ dogmatically classified everything and everyone from the Labour left to Ramsay MacDonald’s national government, and from German social democracy to Franklin D Roosevelt, under the rubric of fascism or tendencies towards fascism. Eg, Roosevelt’s New Deal was described by Britain’s foremost communist political thinker as a “transition to fascist forms, especially in the economic and industrial field”.6
Fascism supposedly grew organically out of bourgeois democracy. According to Dmitry Manuilsky - a trusted member of Comintern’s presidium - in his report to its executive committee, only a liberal “can accept that there is a contradiction between bourgeois democracy and fascism”.7 Stalin summed this approach up by coupling together social democracy and fascism as “twin brothers”.
The ‘third period’ theory led the Communist Party of Germany to shun any serious united-front strategy towards the “social-fascist” Social Democratic Party. Not that the SDP was going to accept any such offer - leaders such as Rudolf Hilferding, Otto Wels and Arthur Crispien wanted an “aggressively antagonistic line” towards the communists. They feared that the communists were about to “obliterate” them electorally.8 Their determination was to defend the Weimar republic and fight the Nazis within the bounds of legality. Meanwhile, though the Nazi vote had fallen by 4%, Adolf Hitler - supposedly not especially dangerous - got himself lifted into the saddle of power by the bourgeoisie. Big business generously financed the Nazi Party.9
After January 1933 the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party were both subject to eviscerating Nazi terror. There were firebombings, beatings, assassinations, arrests and killings ‘while attempting to escape’. A legal ban quickly followed. In March 1933 Hitler was able to pass an enabling bill through the Reichstag - purged of social democratic and communist MPs - which in effect gave him dictatorial powers.
In 1934-35 Stalin’s Communist International ‘corrected’ its analysis of fascism - first at the 13th plenum, and then at the 7th Congress. Georgi Dimitrov delivered a new formulation, which was duly adopted by all ‘official communist’ parties. Dimitrov redefined fascism as the “open, terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinist and most imperialist elements of finance capital”.10
His cure was, though, not much better than the original disease. Fascism was still viewed as an outgrowth of capitalism. But overcoming fascism was completely divorced from the revolutionary class struggle against capitalism.11 Besides blessing cooperation with social democrats, the door was held open for the forthcoming drive towards popular fronts in every country - Britain, India, US, France, Spain, Chile, etc. That countenanced communists aligning themselves with the less terroristic, less chauvinistic and less aggressive representatives of finance capital.
The clever idea was to rely on simple arithmetic. Together the communists, social democrats and liberals add up to a greater total than the fascists. The popular front therefore promised bigger street demonstrations, a higher vote in parliamentary elections and more MPs. Soon coalition governments. Broadness became the watchword. The SWP has applied the exact same logic with its Anti-Nazi League, Stop the War Coalition, Respect, Unite Against Fascism and Stand up to Racism lash-ups. But it is the liberals who always set the limits. They will hardly fight capitalism - that is not in their nature. The social democrats might fight capitalism, albeit in name only - that is their nature. Hence the result of popular fronts is not greater strength, but programmatic collapse. The struggle for socialism is discounted or put off to the distant future.
From afar Trotsky damned the ‘fourth period’ as a headlong descent into naked class collaboration. He ranked Comintern’s new line on a par with social democracy’s abject failure given the challenge of inter-imperialist war in August 1914. In a phrase, The Marseillaise is drowning out The Internationale. The Communist International was entering the “social patriotic camp”, he thundered.12
In the course of his writings on Germany Trotsky arrived at still highly relevant conclusions. Fascism is a product of capitalist crisis and capitalist loss of control over society. Fascism, as a system of government, sees the effective removal of the bourgeoisie from political - not economic - power. Strutting thugs, psychopathic murderers and rabble-rousers take over the leading offices of state. True, military dictatorships can see liberal and conservative parties disbanded or reduced to mere decoration. But army generals are unmistakably members of the ruling class. The same cannot be said of Mussolini or Hitler (though it can of Oswald Mosley). However, for the capitalist class - or at least key sections of the capitalist class - the loss of political power is a price worth paying. Fascism organises, militarises and unleashes a mass plebeian force - the crazed petty bourgeoisie, the lumpenproletariat, embittered former soldiers - which, because of its fanatical ideological commitment, is ready to fight for the complete destruction of Marxism “in all its shapes and forms”. Fascism is therefore frequently structured internally according to ‘command and obey’ military principles. Mussolini ha sempre ragione! (‘Mussolini is always right’) chanted the blackshirts. Of course, fascism carries out its mission to “save the nation”, with the connivance (sometimes passive, sometimes active) of the police, state bureaucracy and army high command. Not only is the communist vanguard annihilated: the mass of the working class is held in a “state of forced disunity”.13 Workers possess no rights, no ability to collectively bargain with employers. They are gagged, crushed, atomised.
So the fascist danger goes far beyond the usual repression meted out by despotic regimes.
Doubtless fascism’s intellectual origins lie in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Social Darwinism, the pseudo-science of race, state worship, romantic national history, anti-Semitism, and the vilification of international socialism and the organised working class were the dominant ideas of the European ruling classes prior to the outbreak of World War I. Colonial empires found justification in racial theory. Romantic national history bound masses of people at home to the imagined community of the state, and social Darwinism served to reconcile them to the natural, hierarchical social order.
Nevertheless, though fascist leaders and their shrill publicists freely deployed such ruling class ideas, they did so in an entirely demagogic fashion. The intention was to carry out a (counter) revolution. Clearing the path to power always took priority. Any ideological manoeuvre, any pose could be justified. Hence with fascism there is no logically sustained reasoning of the kind found in Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, Hegel and Marx. Read Mein Kampf, Mussolini’s My autobiography or Mosley’s My life. Leaving aside the lies and half-truths, the writing is banal and full of contradictions. In fact, no fascist leader has ever written anything of any worth. No surprise - fascist ideology “is constantly shifting”: “Every pronouncement springs from the immediate situation and is abandoned as soon as the situation changes.”14 Fascism holds to certain vague beliefs - leadership, the force of will, unthinking discipline, national salvation - but there is no fascist theory systematically linking proposition to practice. Irrationalism is the defining characteristic.
By the same measure, however, attempts to brand Marine Le Pen a fascist because her advisor, Frédéric Chatillon, is a “Hitler enthusiast”,15 describing Viktor Orbán’s regime as “soft fascism” due to the demonisation of Muslim refugees,16 or claiming that Donald Trump’s response to the killing of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville in 2017 opens the “door to the rise of the fascist far right” are desperate and entirely misplaced.17 A liberal form of irrationalism.
Organisationally, fascism has precursors in the anti-liberal and anti-socialist counterrevolutionary movements of the same late 19th to early 20th century period. A loose analogy can also be drawn between Louis Napoleon Bonaparte’s movement and fascism. While not pushing his case too far, August Thalheimer - a former top leader of the Communist Party of Germany - did just that and with generally rewarding results.18 Thalheimer took as his starting point the profound insights he found in Marx’s The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon and his The civil war in France. Leon Trotsky too argued that there “is an element of Bonapartism in fascism”.19
In 1848 the bourgeois monarchy of Louis Philippe was overthrown. A popular, working class-led revolution restored the republic. However, neither the workers nor the bourgeoisie proved strong enough to establish their rule. The Cavaignac dictatorship could arrest Auguste Blanqui and suppress the workers, but could not establish a stable order. There ensued an inherently unstable revolutionary-counterrevolutionary stand-off between the two classes. Under these circumstances Louis Bonaparte - nephew of emperor Napoleon I - met his destiny.
Bonaparte gathered together an amorphous layer of decayed elements - those whom the French call la bohème. Backed by this volatile, but manipulatable, social base, Bonaparte skilfully constructed a grand coalition.
Before workers and the lumpenproletariat he flourished revolutionary phrases; the peasants were fobbed off with traditional family values and the promise of renewed national glory. Meanwhile Bonaparte quietly aligned himself to high finance. In December 1851 he seized power with the help of the French army. The Bonapartist state raised itself above society. Bourgeois political power ended, but bourgeois economic power was rescued from the working class threat.
The Boulangist movement was also something of a prefiguration. General Georges Boulanger was the model of the man on horseback appearing before a society which longed for a saviour. A social demagogue controlled by the reactionary right, he could though appeal to the working classes. He shot to fleeting prominence during the late 1880s. Mixing strident nationalism with mass agitation against parliamentary corruption, influential members of the French Workers’ Party, including Marx’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, succumbed to the illusion that the Boulangist third way represented a “genuine mass movement”, which could, if encouraged, develop a socialistic character. Like so many impatient leftists Lafargue tried to swim with an alien tide. Modern-day Scottish nationalism, political Islam, the Yellow Vests, the People’s Vote campaign all come to mind - ‘After them, us’ being the unacknowledged slogan.
Friedrich Engels, for his part, would have none of it. He urged the French comrades to “fight under their own flag” - against both the bourgeois political establishment and the Boulangists.20
Action Française, established in 1899, bears an even closer approximate resemblance to fascism. It combined anti-Semitism with nationalism and dynastic royalism. Of key importance, though, we have the first ‘shirt movement’: ie, rightwing fighting squads. The ‘Camelots du Roi’ began as Action Française’s street gang and in 1917 became a full-blown mass, counterrevolutionary militia.
In February 1934 it was part of a royalist-fascist bloc - armed with revolvers, clubs and razors - which invaded the parliament building in Paris and put “the smiling, somewhat senile” Gaston Doumergue into power as prime minister.21 Supported by big capital, tycoons such as Ernest Mercier, the director of an electrical and oil trust, these fighting squads howled for the end of the republic and ‘France for the French’.
The Union of Russian People, formed in 1905, likewise mobilised declassed elements into fighting squads - assisted by tsarist officialdom. With the cry of Nicholas II on their lips and inaugurating god’s kingdom on earth in their hearts, the Black Hundreds launched vicious pogroms against striking workers, revolutionaries and Jews - “Beat the Yids, save Russia” ran their “famous slogan”. They wanted to “encourage” Jews to “emigrate to Palestine”.22
World War I marked an epochal turning point. Capitalism morphed into state monopoly capitalism. The law of value, competition and other essential laws decline and can only be sustained through organisational measures, such as state intervention and the arms economy. Market forces are partially demystified. They are exposed as political. Socialism is imminent. When it must do, collective capital puts off the transition by elevating state power above the immediate interests of profit.
Official Europe, especially in the defeated countries, emerged from the mayhem of World War I thoroughly discredited, weakened and riven with internal divisions. Our class was presented with an unprecedented historic opportunity. Bolshevism brilliantly led the way. Tragically, elsewhere, the organisations of the working class either proved inadequate or wretchedly backed away from the task and sought to reconcile themselves with capitalism. Bourgeois society was exhausted and chronically split. But the working class lacked the necessary leadership, with which to deliver the final, revolutionary blow. Fascism erupts as a counterrevolutionary movement under these conditions.
Following World War I, virtually every country in Europe spawned its clutch of fascist groups and grouplets. At first they were entirely marginal. Mussolini secured not a single MP in the 1919 elections. Polite society looked down on them with barely concealed contempt. Hitler was dismissed as a crank. However, the unresolved class struggle and the inability of the bourgeoisie to rule in the old way produced one spasm of economic and political dislocation after another. The malign aura of fascism vanished. Mussolini’s blackshirts and Hitler’s brownshirts appeared before the ruling class as saviours … albeit not on a horse.
Mussolini took power in 1922 at the invitation of king Victor Emmanuel III - with the active encouragement of big capital and the benign neutrality of the army assured. The famed march on Rome was pure theatre. Mussolini knew beforehand that the establishment would give him a hero’s welcome. A decade later, in the aftermath of the 1929 crash, Hitler formed a government with the willing support of president Paul von Hindenburg and the main party of the conservative right. He proceeded to impose fascism in its most brutal, most deranged form.
Not surprisingly, the initial response from Marxists was somewhat confused. At the 4th Congress of the Communist International in 1922 - the last attended by Lenin - the victory of fascism was blamed in part on the inability of the communists to resolve the revolutionary situation positively - which had in 1919 seen the seizure of the factories by the workers. “Primarily” fascism served “as a weapon” in the “hands of the big landowners”, or so went the argument. Italy presumably was going backwards down a fixed evolutionary ladder from capitalism to feudalism. The bourgeoisie escaped blame in this clumsy schema. They were said to be horrified by Mussolini’s “black Bolshevism”. Crucially though, Comintern failed to come to terms with the fact that, with fascism’s triumph, the working class had suffered a strategic defeat. Fascism could not hold for long. A renewed rising by the working class must occur - and very soon.
Actually fascist success in Italy, plus the continued grip of a deep socio-economic crisis, stimulated the growth of other fascist movements. There were inevitably some mere imitations - eg, the Romanian Fascist Party founded in 1923 and George Valois’s Le Faisceau of 1924. However, fascism is fundamentally a national chauvinist movement. That is how it gains a mass base - as stressed by Clara Zetkin and Karl Radek. Hence the general tendency was to aggressively take on the trappings, prejudices and antagonisms of its own nationalism.
So, Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party was no clone of Mussolini’s fascism. The same goes for the Austrian Heimwehr, Hungary’s Arrow Cross, Spain’s Falangists, the ABC and Falanga in Poland, and the Croix de Feu and Solidarité Française.
Naturally the German military conquest of much of continental Europe after 1939 created not only a batch of Quisling collaborators, but an allure for Nazification amongst the fascist groups. Only in Poland did the native fascists resist this for any time. In general, however, the Germans did not elevate their fascist co-thinkers into governing satraps. They preferred to deracinate them. Many went on to serve on the eastern front with military units such as the Waffen SS.
A formless anti-capitalism is sometimes advocated. Gregor Strasser’s wing of the Nazi Party dreamt of a return to pre-monopolistic conditions and a kind of feudal national socialism. Suffice to say, the organised working class - trade unions and leftwing political parties - along with the ideas of Marxism and international socialism, were the real enemy, not capital.
Having obtained power, fascism is obliged to restrain or even silence its mass base. Capital has no fondness for freelance armies. The blackshirts were therefore incorporated into the state by Mussolini. Hitler massacred his brownshirts. Gregor Strasser was murdered during the Night of the Long Knives on June 30 1934. Fascism is thereby bureaucratised and becomes what Trotsky calls “Bonapartism of fascist origins”. From this bureaucratised position fascism brings to bear the whole unmediated weight of the state machine against any manifestation of working class independence. Simultaneously fascism acts to temporarily suppress contradictions within the ruling class - if need be, by recourse to state force. Property is usually left untouched, but traditional political parties are turned into mere husks, dissolved or absorbed into the body of the bureaucratised fascist movement.
Hence, while fascism strikes in two directions - against the working class and against divisions in the ruling class - it objectively acts to preserve the capitalist system of exploitation. Fascism is then a particular form of anti-socialism and counterrevolution under conditions of state monopoly capitalism.
Explaining away fascism
Not surprisingly, once fascism moved from the obscure fringes to the storm centre of big-power politics and world conflict, it had to be explained - and urgently. A wide range of theories have been produced - most of which are deeply flawed and deserve to be dismissed out of hand.
Christian apologists see fascism as the direct result of secularisation. By rejecting god, humanity is visited by evil. The antidote is obvious - take up the cross and restore religion. Conservative aristocrats paint fascism as a revolt by immature masses, the common herd, who have been freed from the constraints and responsibilities of a properly ordered agrarian society. Forlornly they yearn for the days when they constituted the natural class of governance.
Liberal-leaning evolutionary biologists put fascism down to the aggression and pack instincts supposedly hard-wired into the male brain by the supposed conditions in the African Palaeolithic some 1.5 million years ago - a viewpoint shared by some radical feminists.
Psychologists have sought to locate the rise of fascism either at the level of some mass psychosis or in the warped personalities of its leaders. Wilhelm Reich argued that humanity is “biologically sick” and should free itself by discarding sexual repression.23 Most Freudians disagreed. They insisted on entirely speculative clinical examinations of fascism’s leaders - Mussolini, but most of all Hitler. Raymond de Saussure believed Hitler exhibited a strong Oedipus complex and needed to channel his sexual energies in order to conceal his impotence from the public: the German Reich was a penis substitute. Obvious crap and nonsense.
An altogether more insightful, semi-Marxist, psychological approach is to be found in Erich Fromm’s Escape from freedom (1941). Fromm sought to understand how millions of Germans were captivated by Hitler. Capitalist alienation and the reduction of the human subject to a mere cog in the production process is blamed. Fascism answers the need in the human soul for a sense of belonging. The fact that the working class in Germany never reconciled itself to Nazism seems to run counter to the thesis. Worse, Fromm can offer no effective solution, no escape from the dilemma. He merely posits a democratic socialist society.
Theodor Adorno, amongst others in the so-called Frankfurt school, claimed to have discovered the ‘authoritarian personality’, which was apparently rife amongst all classes in Germany. This was an integral part of a general theory of the period. Liberalism was in decay. Capitalism and mass culture were producing an overarching totalitarian society. The Soviet Union was essentially no different. Herbert Marcuse believed that fascism was the almost inevitable result of monopoly capitalism - a view he subsequently modified by claiming that, although post-World War II western capitalism still maintained a democratic outer shell, the tendency was towards a grey conformity and complete subordination of the personality to the needs of capital: ie, a totalitarian society. New Left radicals in the 1960s US gleefully denounced fascist Amerikka!
Establishment figures such as Hannah Arendt and Zbigniew Brzezinski readily adopted totalitarian theory. Its great virtue lay in the fact that it directly linked Nazism and Stalinism. However, they gave the theory a none too subtle twist by disaggregating capitalism from totalitarianism. Capitalism, in this rightwing version of the totalitarian theory, is equated definitionally with freedom, democracy, choice and personal liberty. That capitalism flourished under Mussolini and Hitler is completely ignored.
As the reader will know, mainstream bourgeois society now propagates this intellectually barren explanation for fascism over the airwaves, in the press and in schools and colleges. What began as a leftist critique of existing conditions has been thoroughly colonised by the right and turned into its opposite.
Joining fascism and bureaucratic socialism together into a single phenomenon admirably suited the needs of the cold war. Capitalism was excused of all blame and the Soviet Union was made into a culprit. In the hands of Karl Popper, totalitarianism became truly superhistorical. Sparta, Ch’in China, the empire of Diocletian and Calvin’s Geneva are all classified under that heading, of course, along with Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Plato, Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche form a totalitarian human chain that joins the periodic culling of the helots to the gas chambers.
Such a philosophy was vital for the capitalist system, above all in Europe. Fascism was beaten not only by the armies of the Soviet Union, the USA and Britain: there were radical partisan movements and popular risings throughout the German empire, Yugoslavia, Greece, Albania, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, etc. Equally to the point, the capitalist class was deeply compromised. Almost without exception, the bourgeoisie collaborated with fascism, often with great enthusiasm. For example, in France it welcomed the German invasion. Since 1936 the working class had made huge gains at the expense of capital. The forces of the left were feared and hated, but could not be crushed by the upper classes - the German Nazis would do that job though.
The situation in other counties was substantially the same. Hence after 1945 bourgeois Europe was forced to reinvent itself. The fascist past had to be denied and turned into other. World War II became our finest hour, a crusade for freedom. The motive was to save the Jews, not the British empire. Hence totalitarian theory, the holocaust industry and the anti-racist, anti-fascist declarations of Unesco - such the July 1950 declaration on race, which scientifically’ supported the “ethic of universal brotherhood” and the warning that “men and nations alike” can “fall ill”.24
Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán and Nigel Farage are reactionary rebels against the carefully constructed post-World War II consensus ideology. The mainstream bourgeois establishment reacts with such hostility, because their crude national chauvinism, outbursts against immigrants, dog-whistle anti-Semitism and blood-and-soil nationalism reminds capitalist society of its shameful, pre-1945 past. Few establishment historians or other paid persuaders dare recall how mainstream bourgeois opinion promoted social Darwinism, race theory, anti-Semitism and a brutal arrogance towards colonised peoples. And how these ideas were blessed from the pulpit and enforced with police batons and army bayonets.
At this present moment in time, there are no effective, serious, fighting squads or military lines of command. We are neither in a revolutionary nor counterrevolutionary situation.
Yes, Le Pen, Salvini, Orbán, Farage, have definite sympathies for fascism. Many of their founding cadre come from post-World War II fascist sects. But the strategy is electoralist. Tomorrow all that might change. However, the 1920s and 30s show that fascism does not come from the far right alone. Mussolini began on the far left. He was editor of the Socialist Party’s paper Avanti. Mosley served as a Labour minister - one of the first recruits to his New Party being AJ Cook, the famed miners’ leader. Józef Piłsudski made a similar journey: he went from Polish left nationalism to carrying out his “revolution without revolutionary consequences” coup.25
Second-guessing the future is futile. Saying who will and who will not be a fascist is a nonsense. Our task is to organise against capitalism and its defenders as they presently exist, not as they might appear if we fail.
Besides garbled populist propaganda denigrating foreigners, corrupt establishment politicians, migrants, communists, greedy capitalists, religious, ethnic and other minorities, etc, fascism launches physical force, primarily against the organised working class.
2. Fascist groups, movements and parties form counterrevolutionary fighting squads separate from the state - this is the essential and defining characteristic of fascism, a characteristic that distinguishes it from other forms of counterrevolution.
3. Fascism objectively acts in the interests of the capitalist class. Fascist organisations are often manipulated, financed and directed by sections of the state and the monopoly bourgeoisie.
4. Fascism grows into mass proportions when capitalist society is mired deep in crisis, but the working class lacks the necessary organisation, determination or leadership with which to deliver the final revolutionary blow.
5. Fascism clears its own path. But, once in power, fascist parties and fighting formations inevitably undergo a process of bureaucratisation. The upper layers merge with the ruling class. The lower elements are simply merged into the state machine or, failing that, are mercilessly crushed.
6. Under present circumstances in Britain, there is no immediate danger of a mass fascist movement, let alone such a movement coming to power. There is no revolutionary situation.
7. It is essential to distinguish between individual fascists and fascist organisations. People may openly or privately admire and/or seek to emulate Nazi Germany, Mussolini Italy or Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts. But what makes a fascist organisation is the intention, or reality, of forming counterrevolutionary fighting formations.
8. The theory of killing fascism ‘in the egg’ is completely illusory. When it comes to the far right, it is a diversion and has led either to the leftist futility of squadism or the quagmire of popular frontism.
9. Destroying the extreme right using force and attempting to silence it through terror has patently failed. Ditto popular fronts which join the left organisationally and politically with the bourgeois establishment.
10. Unlike social democrats and anarchists, communists do not view any tactic as a matter of principle. Eg, parliamentarianism or anti-parliamentarianism. Indeed, when it comes to tactics, the only principle we recognise is that nothing is automatically ruled in and nothing automatically ruled out.
11. Tactics employed to counter organisations such as the BNP, National Front, Britain First, Ukip, etc have to be concrete. Therefore they have to be flexible and constantly changing.
12. We consider the tactic of no-platforming opponents perfectly legitimate. Ditto force and violence. Against fascist fighting formations it is absolutely correct to defend ourselves, using whatever means are necessary.
13. By the same measure, peaceful tactics, debate and persuasion are also legitimate under other circumstances. We do not seek a ‘civilised’ relationship with the extreme right (or with the mainstream bourgeois parties, for that matter). But communists are determined to take away from the extreme right what popular base it might possess. That primarily means a battle for hearts and minds. Not that we consider those who vote BNP, NF, Britain First or Ukip as our ‘natural’ constituency.
14. At all times we recognise that it is the capitalist state and the capitalist class which is our main enemy. It is the failures, the malfunctioning of declining capitalism which give both ammunition and sustenance to the extreme right.
15. Communists are champions of democracy and free speech. We are against state bans on political parties, including outright fascist parties. State restrictions on what can and what cannot be said in political debate must also be vigorously opposed. Any such bans or restrictions would inevitably first and foremost effect the advanced part of the working class. Free speech and the widest democracy provide the best conditions for Marxism to grow and flourish, and for the formation of the working class into a future ruling class.
See T Snyder The road to unfreedom London 2018; CR Sunstein (ed) Can it happen here? Cambridge Mass 2018; M Albright Fascism: a warning New York 2018; J Stanley How fascism works New York 2018.↩︎
A phrase that I think originates with the SWP’s founder, Tony Cliff. He is quoted as saying that “observing Europe in the 1990s is like watching a film of the 1930s in slow motion” (A Callinicos, ‘Crisis and class struggles in Europe today’ International Socialism summer 1994, p39).↩︎
B Mussolini My autobiography London nd, p65.↩︎
R Palme Dutt Fascism and the social revolution London 1934, p251.↩︎
Quoted in M Kitchen Fascism London 1983, p5.↩︎
D Harsch German social democracy and the rise of Nazism Chapel Hill NC 1993, p219.↩︎
See D Guerin Fascism and big business New York 1973.↩︎
G Dimitrov The working class against fascism London 1935, p10.↩︎
We saw a similar argument in the Weekly Worker by Thomas Kilkauer and Norman Simms: ‘Pretend language of democracy’, December 5 2019.↩︎
L Trotsky Writings 1935-36 New York 1977, p129.↩︎
L Trotsky The struggle against fascism in Germany New York 1971, p144.↩︎
F Neumann Behemoth London 1942, pp39-40.↩︎
M Bradley, ‘Trump, the alt-right and fascism in the US’ Socialist Review September 2017.↩︎
See M Kitchen Fascism London 1983, pp71-75.↩︎
L Trotsky The struggle against fascism in Germany New York 1971, p444.↩︎
K Marx and F Engels CW London 2001, p197.↩︎
W Shirer The collapse of the Third Republic London 1970, p254.↩︎
SD Shenfield Russian fascism: traditions, tendencies, movements Armonk NY 2001, p32.↩︎
W Reich The mass psychology of fascism New York 1946, p273.↩︎
Unesco, Paris, 1952.↩︎