Misusing the F-word
To effectively combat today’s far right we must begin by rejecting lazy analogies. Jack Conrad calls for clear historical thinking
Liberal and left opinion has been in part horrified, in part dumbfounded by the repeated electoral successes of the far right: Narendra 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 was and remains Donald J Trump. Although soundly beaten in the electoral college and in the popular vote on November 3 2020, he still got 74 million votes. This surpassed the previous record set by Barack Obama by more than seven million, giving him the highest vote of any sitting president in US history.
No less to the point, Trump maintains an iron-like grip on the Republican Party. Most GOP voters believe, or say they believe, that Joe Biden stole the presidential election. Most GOP voters want Republican representatives and senators to follow Trump’s economic, social and foreign policy agenda and not the other way round. Most GOP voters want Trump to run again … and this looks - at least from where we see things today - far from impossible. If the wheels come off Biden’s reconditioned Keynesianism, it is indeed quite conceivable that Trump could win in 2024 and become the 47th US president.
Not that Europe has proven immune from the far-right contagion. Quite the reverse. In Poland and Hungary the far right is in government. Both Law and Justice and Fidesz are illiberally anti-migrant, anti-communist 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 National Assembly 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.1
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, etc - all registering around 10%-30% in recent polls.
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?
Trump has long been accused of being a fascist or going in the direction of fascism.2 That was most certainly the case in the run-up to the November 2020 election and the aftermath of his failed January 6 2021 self-coup. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez warned that Trump is “fascism at the door”3; Nick Cohen reasoned that “If Trump looks like a fascist and acts like a fascist, then maybe he is one”;4 then there are those who merely reckon that Trump is taking on “fascist traits”.5 The latter phrase comes from Daniel Lazare, a longstanding revolutionary socialist in the US and a regular Weekly Worker contributor.
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”.6 The world is seeing a renewed forward march of fascism. Hence the SWP’s Stand Up to Racism (superseding Unite Against Fascism) - a popular front backed by trade union officialdom, a good smattering of Labour MPs, various worthy radicals and a mixed bag of religious dignitaries - and its standard line: “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”.7
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 now totally marginalised UK Independence Party still excludes former members of the British National Party from its own membership.
My intention in this article is sixfold. Firstly, to insist upon the political advantage of clear, tight, historically rooted definitions. Secondly, to show why repeatedly crying wolf over the ‘fascist’ danger and courting moderate conservative and liberal opinion in order to get them to join the ‘anti-fascist’ cause breeds complacency, spreads confusion and is ultimately self-defeating. Thirdly, what might be called the 19th century precursors are discussed. Fourthly, fascism is then put in its proper historical and socio-economic context. Fifthly, to examine fascism through the prism of how it is theoretically assessed and explained away by the bourgeois establishment. Sixthly, on that basis, to assess the present-day situation.
The term ‘fascism’ has been subject to all manner of different definitions since it was originally 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 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”.8
Nowadays, on the left, however, the word ‘fascism’ has degenerated into little more than a political swear word. London’s Met police are regularly dubbed ‘fascist’ by overexcited protestors; the guerrillaist left in Turkey describes 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 a past which permeates the present.
The F-word certainly provides emotional catharsis for the user and provokes a rewardingly spluttering response from the target. Yet that hardly helps reveal the true nature of fascism - not least how it emerged historically and functions as a counterrevolutionary weapon in capitalist society. This is not a matter of pedantry or semantics. Shearing fascism of history, reducing fascism to little more than a swear word - something hateful, regressive or threatening, an object of opprobrium - means one cannot methodologically distinguish between the state oppression imposed by fascism during the 1920s, 30s and 40s, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, conventional state oppression: eg, the 1794 suspension of habeas corpus, the banning of the London Corresponding Society and the regular use of yeomanry to suppress ‘Jacobinism’ by William Pitt’s Tory reaction; Otto von Bismarck’s 1878 anti-socialist laws; America’s late 19th century Jim Crow legislation, Woodrow Wilson’s 1918 anti-sedition laws and 1950s McCarthyite witch-hunting; the barrage of anti-trade union laws introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government and her defeat of the miners’ 1984-85 Great Strike.
Needless to say, giving fascism a clear, definite meaning by rooting it in history has nothing to do with any softness towards the Pittite Tories, a penchant for Bismarckian blood and iron, sympathy for senator Joe McCarthy, admiration for the Turkish state or fondness for Thatcherism, etc. On the contrary, labelling fascist what is not fascist muddles, disarms, betrays the workers’ movement.
In the late 1920s and early 30s, ‘official communism’ dogmatically insisted upon classifying everything and everyone from the Labour left to Ramsay MacDonald’s national government, and from German social democracy to Franklin D Roosevelt, under the ever expanding rubric of fascism or tendencies towards fascism. Eg, Roosevelt’s New Deal was described by Britain’s foremost communist political thinker - he did, it has to be admitted, have a considerable, albeit ultimately servile, intelligence - as a “transition to fascist forms, especially in the economic and industrial field”.9 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”.10 Stalin summed the approach up by coupling social democracy and fascism as “twin brothers”.11
The ‘third period’ theory led the Communist Party of Germany to reject making any serious united front proposals to the “social-fascist” Social Democratic Party. Not that the SDP tops were ever going to willingly 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 just about to “obliterate” them electorally.12 Their determination was to defend the Weimar republic and fight the Nazis and the communists within the bounds of the constitution and legality. The rank and file might have proved to be a different matter. In other words, a united front from below might have forced a change of course above. We will never know. But we do know what actually happened.
Despite the Nazi vote falling by 4%, Adolf Hitler - supposedly not especially dangerous - got himself lifted into the saddle of power with the reluctant help of president Paul von Hindenburg, the recommendation of conservative chancellor Franz von Papen, a coalition with the German National People’s Party and the active backing of a big-industry, big-finance and big-agriculture coalition - the Nazis were generously financed.13 After January 1933 the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party were both subject to eviscerating Nazi terror: firebombing, beatings, assassinations, arrests and killings ‘while attempting to escape’. A legal ban on both parties quickly followed. In March 1933 Hitler was able to pass an enabling bill through the Reichstag - purged of social democratic and communist deputies - 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 universally 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”.14 His cure was, though, not much better than the original ‘social fascist’ disease. Fascism was still viewed as an outgrowth of capitalism. But overcoming fascism was completely divorced from the revolutionary class struggle against capitalism. Besides blessing cooperation with social democrats, the door was held wide 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 capitalism.
The clever idea was to rely on simple arithmetic. Together the communists, social democrats and liberals add up to a greater sum total than the fascists. The popular front therefore promised bigger street demonstrations, a higher vote in parliamentary elections and more MPs. After that there would be anti-fascist coalition governments and ministerial portfolios. Broadness became the permanent formula. The SWP 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 right which always sets the programmatic limits. Neither liberal bigwigs nor British-Asian businessmen, neither the official Labour left nor the Muslim Association of Britain will fight capitalism - well, maybe, except rhetorically and then within the existing constitution. To keep such allies on board socialist principles, aims and declarations will be sacrificed one after the other until the point of total extermination is reached. Hence the result of popular fronts is not greater strength, but programmatic liquidationism.
Instead of the precondition for forming a government being breaking the existing constitution, working class political power and superseding capitalism, there are anti-fascist, popular, progressive coalition governments which are committed to achieving reforms within the existing social system. Socialism is commonly denounced, resisted, warned against as divisive ultra-leftist sectarianism - that and/or safely quarantined off to the remote 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 declared.15 In the course of his writings on Germany Trotsky arrived at a still highly relevant set of 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 established elite, the police, the state bureaucracy and the army high command. Not only is the communist vanguard annihilated: the mass of the working class is held in a “state of forced disunity”.16
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, although fascist leaders and their shrill publicists freely deployed such ruling 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. Leave 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.”17 Fascism holds to certain vague beliefs - leadership, the force of will, manly 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 of her father’s “fascist roots”,18 describing Viktor Orbán’s regime as “soft fascism” due to the demonisation of Muslim refugees,19 or claiming that Modi’s BJP government in India is “fascist” because of the “arrest of leftist intellectuals” and the “overturning the country’s constitution” is to indulge in hyperbole.20 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.21 Thalheimer took as his starting point the profound insights he found in Marx’s The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon and The civil war in France. Trotsky too argued that there “is an element of Bonapartism in fascism”.22 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 Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte - nephew of emperor Napoleon I - met his destiny.
This Bonaparte gathered together an amorphous layer of decayed elements - those whom the French call la bohème. Backed by this volatile, but manipulatable, social base, he skilfully constructed a grand coalition. Before the proletariat and the lumpenproletariat he flourished well-crafted revolutionary phrases; he won over the peasants with traditional family values and grand promises of renewed national glory. Meanwhile, this Bonaparte quietly aligned himself to high finance. Clearly CLNB was no “grotesque mediocracy”. In December 1851 he seized power with the help of the French army in a self-coup. The Bonapartist state raised itself above society. Bourgeois political power ended, but bourgeois economic power was saved 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 remainer People’s Vote campaign - they all come to mind: ‘After them, us’ is 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.23
Action Française, established in 1899, has for good reason been called the “thesis” of fascism (Ernst Nolte).24 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.25 Supported by big capital, including tycoons such as Ernest Mercier, the director of an electrical and oil trust, the 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”.26
World War I marked an epochal turning point. Capitalism morphs 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. They were entirely marginal at first. 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 repeated economic crises produced a constitutional disjuncture. 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 his coalition government with the conservative right.
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 in Italy was blamed in part on the inability of the communists to resolve the revolutionary situation positively - which had in 1919 seen the widespread seizure of factories by 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, 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 was 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”.
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.27 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 guiltily ignored.
As the reader will know, mainstream bourgeois society now propagates this intellectually barren explanation for fascism over the electronic and print media 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 together fascism and bureaucratic socialism 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 as 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”.28
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 chauvinism, rejection of liberal multiculturalism, demonisation of migrants, etc 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, we have neither a revolutionary nor counterrevolutionary situation. There is no working class threat, no rising working class movement. Sad to say, the working class exists as little more than a slave class. Yes, Le Pen, Salvini, Orbán, Farage have definite sympathies for fascists and have fascist admirers, allies and outliers. However - well, at least for the moment - their political focus is firmly within the frame of parliament and electoralism. Fascist fighting formations are not being recruited, trained let alone unleashed. Tomorrow, of course, all that might change.
A necessary aside. 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. In Britain Oswald 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.29 Today we have similar candidates in the many and various hues and shades of Blue Labour, the former Revolutionary Communist Party/Spiked and the social-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.
As for Trump, he did indeed mobilise, fire up and direct fascist gangs on January 6. Not that we should categorise him as a fascist. No, he was an aspiring Bonaparte who was willing to flatter, promote and use America’s third-rate fascist fighting formations. None of the leaders of the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters, the Oath Takers were about to come to power on January 6. No, the storming of the Capitol was about Donald Trump remaining the US president, presumably through imposing a state of emergency and the willingness of the army, the police, the secret state, the mass media and big business to back him. Always an unlikely scenario.
Naturally, in America Bonapartism takes a strictly American form. Donald Trump is an egotistic former reality TV showman, a multinational prime-site property deal-maker, a blue-blooded red neck who uses his millions of followers and billions of dollars in a self-promotional culture war against political correctness, black rights and me-too feminism ... as already mentioned the working class threat is noticeably absent. There is no mass left party, no crippling strike wave, no danger of the class struggle running out of control.
Much, however, is lost in translation. Although one of the alumni of the New York Military Academy, Trump is no Napoleon. Whereas Napoleon was a military genius and fought 60 (still much studied) battles, Trump avoided the draft for Vietnam five times - once pleading bad feet, four times pleading college studies. Yet through sheer chutzpah and an almost instinctive ability to articulate popular fears and grievances and offer easy solutions, Trump became the uncrowned emperor of the GOP and the saviour-hero worshipped by a whole swathe of the US electorate. Whether Mar-a-Lago is to be his Elba or his St Helena remains to be seen.
Either way, what Trump drew on in 2016 and 2020 will not evaporate with Biden’s presidency. There exists profound disenchantment with the old order. For millions the American dream has long turned into an American nightmare: low wages, squeezed middle class incomes, student debt, homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, desperation and fear
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
WB Yeats The second coming (1919)
Centre-ground politics - Joe Biden, Emmanuel Marcon and Angela Merkel - finds itself constantly attacked, diminished, undermined. Factor in the post-Covid economic boom quickly petering out into stagnation, the danger of proxy wars becoming big power wars and the predictable failure to tackle the danger of runaway climate change and the choice before humanity could not be clearer: socialism or barbarism.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 squads or the quagmire of popular frontism.
- 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.
- 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.
- Tactics employed to counter organisations such as the British National Party, National Front, Britain First, Ukip, etc have to be concrete. Therefore they have to be flexible and constantly changing.
- 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.
- 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, Ukip or the Brexit Party as our ‘natural’ constituency.
- 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.
- 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 affect 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.↩︎
Quoted in The Independent October 6 2020.↩︎
The Guardian January 16 2021.↩︎
D Lazare, ‘Assault on democracy’ Weekly Worker May 20 2021.↩︎
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.↩︎
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.↩︎
J Orr, ‘The many faces of Marine Le Pen’ International Socialism 2020.↩︎
Arandhati Roy interview: dw.com/en/arundhati-roy-were-up-against-a-fascist-regime-in-india/a-45332070.↩︎
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.↩︎
E Nolte The three faces of fascism London 1965.↩︎
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.↩︎