Fascism needs definition
Marxism strives for clarity and telling the truth. Jack Conrad replies to Hasan Keser and Daniel Lazare
To have a science, to have a rational discussion, to interpret the past in order to arm ourselves for the future, it is necessary to establish words which have a definite meaning. We need definitions - brief, logical descriptions which locate essential characteristics and establish boundaries. That makes it possible to distinguish one thing, one phenomenon, from another.
Of course, our definitions are determined (1) by the specific properties of the definiendum: ie, the object of definition; and (2) by the sophistication, the level, the structure of knowledge attained within a particular field. Hence, although definitions are subject to various logical rules, such as the rule of proportion between what is defined and what is defining, one definition leads to another, as particular features or properties undergo change. Motion and interaction - the passage from one state to another - is a basic proposition of Marxism (put another way: there is no fixity, immutability or permanence).
So what about fascism? Here is a two-part definition derived from the profound analysis developed by Leon Trotsky in the midst of the resistible rise of fascism during the 1920s and 30s. It remains his most important, most enduring, contribution to Marxism (not that I consider myself a Trotskyist, a Trotskyite or a Trotskyoid).
1. Fascism must be distinguished from other forms of counterrevolution because it organically bases itself on a disorientated, crazed, desperate plebeian mass. Crucially, fascism organises fighting formations which are separate from the state. When the need arises, fascist parties are manipulated, protected and financed by the state and core sections of monopoly capital. Fascism is helped to grow to mass proportions when society is experiencing severe crisis, when the bourgeoisie is incapable of ruling in the old way, but where the working class lacks the necessary strength, determination or leadership required to deliver the final revolutionary blow.
2. In power, fascism assaults, pulverises, destroys the organised working class. Any attempt, any manifestation of independent working class activity is mercilessly crushed. The traditional parties of the bourgeoisie are either absorbed or closed down, but property goes largely unaffected. Meanwhile, fascism undergoes a process of bureaucratisation - its upper layers merge with the ruling class, while its lower levels are incorporated into the state machine.
What then are we to make of the contributions of Hasan Keser1 and Daniel Lazare2 - both polemicising against my recent article on fascism?3
Unfortunately neither comrade supplies a definition of fascism as such. Instead we get catch-alls, unfounded inference, speculation and not a little moral outrage. The result, in both cases, veers unmistakably in the direction of liberalism.
Somewhat strangely, comrade Keser accuses me of wanting to evaluate fascism “globally”, but only managing to touch on my “own native British case”. In fact, though my main audience is doubtless in the UK, I actually spent comparatively little time dealing with my “own native British case”. Either way, we find comrade Keser taking me to task over Turkey and comrade Lazare doing the same over the United States.
Too many comrades on the left seem to have bought into the dominant post-World War II bourgeois ideology. In short, capitalism and democracy go together like a horse and carriage.
Yet the fact of the matter is that ‘bourgeois democracy’ is an oxymoron. The capitalist class is not and has never been a democratic class. Real capitalist democracy is shareholder democracy. Not ‘one person, one vote’: rather ‘one share, one vote’. In the second half of the 19th century the capitalist class, especially in Europe, was, though, successively compelled to give concessions to the working class, not least when it came to the franchise. The nearer they got to universal suffrage, the more the capitalist class resorted to pouring money into parties that could fool enough of the people enough of the time, and domesticating working class leaders through bribery and corruption. Under capitalism, money, not the electorate rules. No surprise - the subsidy/advertisement-dependent capitalist mass media lies on an industrial scale, feeds the population with mind-rotting celebrity trivia and upholds so-called traditional family, entrepreneurial and patriotic values. Medieval anti-Semitism was even reinvented in the late 19th century as an antidote to socialism. Albeit nowadays in the name of democracy, there has throughout been a capitalist pushback against democracy, including state clampdowns, witch-hunts, bans and meting out stiff prison sentences.
This produces its opposite. Comrades on the left who claim that capitalism and fascism go together, that fascism is the natural, inevitable, outgrowth of capitalism, that any bourgeois politician mouthing - vote-gathering - contempt for woke liberals, the cosmopolitan elite, poor migrants and promoting unhinged conspiracy theories is a fascist, shows fascist traits or is travelling in the direction of fascism.
Enter comrade Lazare. He writes about the “internal dynamics” of capitalism pushing it into “out-and-out” fascism - that, yes, in the absence of any kind of threat from the working class movement and the left. Why the capitalist class would sacrifice the buyable certainties that come with the ‘rule of law’ for the arbitrariness, mayhem and madness of fascism is, to say the least, a mystery.
Of course, there are real fascists and real fascist grouplets in the US. The Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys were all encouraged, flattered and put into play in Donald Trump’s desperate self-coup bid on January 6. But there is a world of difference between using such fascist grouplets as pawns and lifting the likes of Mike Vanderboegh or Stewart Rhodes into the saddle of power.
Comrade Lazare equates fascism with barbarism and calls it the “ultimate bourgeois reaction”. Looking at the record of Nazi Germany from 1933, but in particular from 1942 to 1945, it is hard to disagree. Nazi Germany was though exceptional, even in fascist terms. Coldly efficient bureaucratic organisation was combined with modern technology to produce an extermination regime. Maybe six, maybe ten million perished as a result. That said, in this respect, Nazi Germany merely concentrated in time what American colonists did to the native population in 1,500 wars, raids and attacks: where there had been between five and 15 million of them in 1492, when Columbus first arrived, by the late 19th century and the end of the Indian wars a mere 238,000 remained.4 The British did the same in their Australian work colony. The natives were surplus to requirement, treated as vermin. They even hunted them down for sport. Then there is Leopold II of Belgium and his private exploitation colony in the Congo. Millions of natives were killed or died from overwork, maltreatment and disease. Many, many other such cases could be cited of the barbarism of normal capitalism.
Anyway, for his own reasons, comrade Keser, timidly, coyly, hedgingly, tells us that he would “hesitate to criticise” those who define Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime as “fascist”. Why? Because of its draconian measures against opponents, restrictions on democratic rights, foreign adventures, withdrawing from “international legal agreements” and, crucially, its coalition with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). As already argued, imposing restrictions on democratic rights is an inherent feature of normal capitalism. So, for that matter, are foreign adventures and even withdrawing from “international legal agreements” (take recent history in the ‘birthplace of parliamentary democracy’: eg, Thatcher’s anti-union laws and defeat of the miners’ strike in 1984-85, the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq, Brexit and disputes over the Northern Ireland protocol).
What about Erdoğan’s MHP allies? A far-right secular nationalist party, the MHP claims to uphold the tradition of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. True, with the connivance of the deep state - Turkey’s branch of Gladio - the Grey Wolves were armed and set loose to murderous effect in the 1970s.5 Though the Grey Wolves claim to be nothing more than a cultural and educational association, it is widely recognised that it is in reality MHP’s unofficial paramilitary wing.
It is certainly the case that in the 1970s the Gray Wolves were a textbook example of a non-state fighting formation. Turkey was mired in an acute socio-economic crisis. There were countless political strikes, a revolutionary left which grew to mass proportions, and numerous street clashes. That could even involve progressive police units firing upon reactionary police units. That there were thousands of deaths in Turkey’s ‘low-level civil war’ is a matter of record.
However, comrade Keser himself admits that there is no need for such non-state fighting formations under present circumstances. With the September 1980 army coup, the ban on political parties (including the MHP), the mass imprisonment of leftwingers and then, finally, the 1989-91 collapse of bureaucratic socialism in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the working class movement and the left in general underwent a spiral of decline. Today, the working class movement and the left - Kurdistan aside - does not pose any kind of serious threat to the existing order - well, not in the short to medium term. As for the Grey Wolves, they still remain active, but on a far lower scale: the occasional assassination of a soft-left Kurdish politician, protests against any admission of Turkish guilt for the 1915-17 Armenian genocide, trafficking drugs into Europe to raise funds, running training camps for Uyghur militants, etc.
As for the MHP - with just over 10% of the popular vote, here we have a far-right, nationalist party, which, yes, has available to it a residual non-state fighting formation, but which puts its main energies into electoral activity and with its leverage over the government pursues its anti-Kurdish, pan-Turkic agenda to some considerable effect.
Frankly, though, categorising the MHP as fascist today needs thinking about - it should at the very least be conditional, include caveats, etc. The claim that ‘once a fascist organisation, always a fascist organisation’ is just as stupid as the claim that ‘once a fascist, always a fascist’. After all, we Marxists recognise that nothing is fixed, that everything changes … and that should be reflected in the definitions we use. Eg, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation - nationalist, socially conservative and cosseted by Putin’s government - is it an unchanged continuation of the party led by Lenin? Hardly. The same would go for other, what we call ‘official communist’ parties. Despite the names remaining the same, our emphasis is on Stalinite rupture, degeneration and how what was turned into its opposite.
Then there is ‘categorical cross-infection’. Is Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) fascist because of its coalition with the MHP? That makes as much sense as categorising the MHP as Islamicist because of its - that is the MHP’s - very junior role in an alliance dominated by Erdoğan and the AKP. Such a claim certainly violates the rule of proportion between what is defined and what is defining.
Take the latest Israeli coalition government. Should we put a categorical equals sign between Naftali Bennett’s far-right Zionist Yamina and the Muslim Brotherhood’s United Arab List? Their unity is conditional, fragile and determined by the horse-trading arithmetic necessary to produce a Knesset majority. Both parties are reactionary, undoubtedly, but the form of reaction is categorically different: colonising on the one hand and colonised on the other.
And why is comrade Keser hesitant about disagreeing with those who wrong-headedly insist that the Erdoğan regime is fascist? Is his equivocal formula dictated by the needs of political diplomacy? The search for some inoffensive middle ground? Would that refusal to take a principled stand apply to the Maoists who label Turkey as fascist ever since the foundation of the republic in 1923? Would that equivocation be likewise extended back to the ‘official’ Communist Party of Germany in the late 1920s and 30s, when it branded the Social Democratic Party and the National Socialists as mere variants of fascism? And what about those American leftists who splutteringly accused Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan of being fascist?
One can respect, admire the passion, the conviction, the bravery of past generations of revolutionaries. That said, we Marxists have a duty to tell the truth - fearlessly, frankly and openly. Those comrades got things wrong. Very wrong. Sometimes the results were comic, sometimes banal, sometimes disastrous. But nowhere were the results good (judged in terms of the global transition from capitalism to communism).
Letters Weekly Worker June 3 2021.↩︎
‘Texas and the F-word’ Weekly Worker June 10 2021: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1351/texas-and-the-f-word.↩︎
J Conrad, ‘Misusing the F-word’ Weekly Worker May 27 2021: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1349/misusing-the-f-word.↩︎