Performative anti-fascism

With the far-right Fratelli d’Italia forming a government in Italy, the SWP warns of the danger, but calls for … street protests. Mike Macnair offers a critique

Someone back in the 1990s came up with the idea of ‘performative security’: actions taken which are supposed to make us feel that the state is acting to improve security without, in practice, reducing the risks.

The idea began, it seems, on the left, but by the 20-teens the libertarian right had joined in the use of the analysis (to characterise the elaborate forms of airport security adopted after 2001, which journos seem surprisingly able to defeat). From the same source, since the Covid-19 pandemic, has come the idea of ‘performative public health measures’ - meaning some of the measures in theory designed to reduce the spread of the disease, but in practice having at most very limited effects. The effect of these forms of ‘performative security’ is to increase or maintain public anxiety about the threat at issue (which is, in effect, overstated by the severity of the measures taken), while making it appear that the promoters are taking action against the threat - in spite of the fact that the measures taken do not actually remove the threat.

The left, and in particular the Socialist Workers Party, has arguably been engaged since the 1970s in ‘performative anti-fascism’. It talks up the threat of fascism, but proposes measures to deal with this threat which cannot possibly reduce it: street demonstrations, demands on the state to ‘no-platform’ fascists, and popular front alliances with liberals to create ‘broad unity against fascism’. The effect is to promote fear of fascism, and the illusion that the SWP and its front organisations are taking effective action against it, while actually leaving it untouched.

The latest iteration is the SWP’s response to the formation in Italy of a coalition government led by Giorgia Meloni of the Fratelli d’Italia. Socialist Worker carries a substantial think-piece by Simon Basketter (October 22), arguing that the FdI is, in fact, a fascist party - on the basis of its historic background in the post-war fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano, together with its opposition to secularism, abortion and immigration, and the general tendency - since the premiership of Silvio Berlusconi - for Mussolini to be ‘rehabilitated’ in Italian politics.

Basketter links the Fratelli by implication to the October 2021 attack on the CGIL trade union confederation’s headquarters by anti-vaxxer protestors led by a separate far-right group, Forza Nuova. He concedes that Meloni as prime minister “does not mean that fascism has triumphed”, but he draws an analogy between the present and the period between the 1922 March on Rome and Mussolini assuming full power, that of the development of fascism in Austria, and the 10 years between the Munich beer hall putsch and the German Nazi victory in 1933.1

How should we respond to this danger? The SWP’s front organisation, Stand Up To Racism, promotes an October 21 statement by the international campaign of which SUTR is part, World Against Racism and Fascism. This asserts:

The job of all who are against fascism and its horrific historic realities is to call out and ostracise fascist forces from political office. #NeverAgain must be something we enact, to expose the fascists and the danger they pose.

And immediately?

World Against Racism and Fascism will be coordinating demonstrations for UN Anti-Racism Day 2023 on Saturday March 18 … The international coordination will also call protests outside Italian embassies and consulates on the date of Meloni’s official inauguration as prime minister, as well as protests outside any tours she may organise.2

I am not primarily concerned in this article with the character of the Fratelli government, but with the politics of the SWP’s anti-fascism. It is necessary to note, however, that Basketter’s historical analogies are plainly false. Neither the Italian Fascisti nor the German Nazis ever gave up on street violence for the sake of ‘respectability’ until they had actually attained power. In Austria, street violence was organised by the mainstream conservative parties through the Heimwehr (‘Home Guard’) militia. The Social Democrats in response developed their own militia, the Republikanischer Schutzbund (‘Republican Protection Association’). In contrast, though fascist in origin, the Fratelli seem to have, over decades, demobilised their members from street violence, becoming less partisan to Mussolini’s corporatism and more like the Tory right in ideology. Basketter’s analysis is like characterising the Partito Democratico (Democratic Party) as a party of the revolutionary left on the basis of its origins in the Partito Comunista Italiano.

This, of course, does not mean that the Fratelli pose no threat of mobilising violence against the workers’ movement: it is to be remembered that the Tory Party has a history going back to the 1680s, and continuing up to recent times, of mobilising anti-immigrant and anti-left mobs and indirectly sponsoring such mobilisations, not to mention backing the Ulster Volunteers unionist militia in 1914; and, as I have said, the rightwing militias in 1922-34 Austria were the creatures of the mainstream conservative parties. Indeed, Engelbert Dollfuss, who overthrew the Austrian parliament, was leader of the long-established and mainstream, Catholic, anti-Semitic Christian Social Party.3

What the victory of the FDI does demonstrate is yet another step in the decline of liberal political ideology and the rehabilitation of far-right nationalism and traditionalism under populist colours. This began already with the rise of political Islamism in the Middle East in the 1980s and accelerated with the Putin administration in Russia from 2000, in Hungary with Fidesz’s turn, in opposition in the 2000s, from its neoliberal origins to conservative nationalism, and with the parallel evolution of Law and Justice in Poland, the contemporaneous turn to nationalist Word War II historical revisionism in Japan, the victory of the Hindutva nationalist BJP in India, and so on. In the US, Trump (and the continuing strength of far-right politics in the Republican Party), in Britain, the Brexit vote and the Johnson administration, reflected the same trend. Another recent example is the success of the far-right Sweden Democrats in the September 2022 elections and their ‘confidence and supply’ support for the new rightist coalition government.

Meanwhile, there has been a steady erosion, through state action, of rights of freedom of association, of speech and of legal industrial action. Liberals and social democrats have been prominent in this evolution, with the Blair administration responsible for very fundamental anti-democratic measures, and ‘intersectional’, ‘safe spaces’ ideology forming the ideological basis of the ‘anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt, which put securocrat Sir Keir Starmer into the leadership of the Labour Party to prohibit opposition to US imperial policy.

In short, it is quite true that there is a tendency towards right-nationalist and traditionalist ideologies, and towards authoritarian forms of government tending to illegalise the workers’ movement. The ideological rehabilitation of ‘fascism’ and inclusion of far-right groups in government is a part of this process.


The question is whether the SWP’s (and other far leftists’) ‘anti-fascism’ has done anything at all to defeat or even to mitigate this trend? And the answer - unavoidably - is that it has not.

The SWP’s current line on anti-fascism goes back to their ‘glory days’ in 1977-78, when the unexpected success of some rank-and-file SWPers’ Rock Against Racism initiative allowed the SWP to do an end-run round the existing local ‘anti-fascist and anti-racist’ campaign groups by allying with the ‘official left’ in Labour and the trade unions to create the Anti-Nazi League as a top-down, controlled national organisation committed in principle to the broadest possible unity against ‘Nazis’ - meaning the National Front of John Tyndall and others. Even when, in its early days, the SWP was committed to direct-action no-platforming of the NF, this was always a popular front project, which sought to create unity against Nazism on the basis of British nationalist social democratic identification with 1939-45. A couple of large-scale barneys with the police later, the ANL had become a vehicle for peaceful protest, like the previous early-1970s initiatives of the old ‘official’ Communist Party. The NF was, in fact, seen off - not by the ANL, but by Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government stealing the political clothes of the far right.

The SWP has pursued one or another similar initiative over the last 45 years, SUTR being the latest incarnation. Has fascism been kept marginal by these initiatives (as SUTR-WARF argue, protests can keep it marginal)? The answer is, in fact, completely plain to see. The opposite has happened. In Italy in particular, the participation of the left in support for ‘responsible’ centrist governments, aiming to keep the far right out, has precisely strengthened the far right as the only force of apparent opposition to mainstream consensus politics. It is true that the parties of Hitlerite German nationalism in Britain - Tyndall’s NF and so on - have never obtained mass support. Surprise, surprise. But far-right English nationalism, in the form of the nationalist wing of the Tory Party (and its Ukip and ‘Brexit Party’ offshoots from time to time), has gone from strength to strength.

If the SWP has illusions of going back to the glory days of the ANL, it must be pointed out that the ANL itself - and behind it the whole ‘anti-fascist movement’ - reflected widespread illusions among communists in finding some way to create the glory days of the popular front (and its biggest manifestation - the ‘global anti-fascist alliance’ of 1941-45). The popular front period was, after all, the period of the greatest numerical strength and apparent influence of the old ‘official’ CPGB and of the CPUSA. And the ‘anti-fascist alliance’ ended in UK/US victory in 1945, the Sovietisation of eastern Europe, and so on.

But, in reality, the apparent success of the communists in the popular front period reflected the fact that they were tailing a fraction of the liberals who were willing to oppose the fascists. If the popular front made the workers too strong, the liberals jumped ship. The victories of 1941-49 obscured the defeats of 1936-1940. It is the defeats that have been repeated over and over again in subsequent times.

In short, it has been proved by repeated experiment over more than 45 years, in the clearest possible way, that the effort to ‘isolate the fascists’ or to ‘crush fascism in the egg’ does not prevent the growth of far-right political ideology and far-right influence.

The idea was always a bastardised form of Trotsky’s arguments in 1930‑33. ‘Fascism’ is a name which has been, for conventional reasons, given to a quite specific form of the immediate promotion of civil war against the organised workers’ movement. This civil war is conducted by para-statal paramilitaries, backed by police and judicial leniency, when the forces mobilised are not in government. When they are in government, it takes the form of immediate mass arrests and killings, with a view to the complete suppression of workers’ organisations (other than corporatist ones controlled by the state).

It is this character of ‘fascism’ as open war on the workers’ movement which means that the response needs to be the unity of the workers’ organisations - not unity in peaceful protest, but unity in organised, forcible self-defence, by whatever means necessary, up to and including full-scale civil war.

We do not presently face open war on the workers’ movement, but tasks of ideological struggle alongside the ordinary economic and political struggles of the actual existing warts-and-all workers’ movement. Under these conditions, performative anti-fascism of the sort the SWP advocates is actually a diversion, and in that way practically assists the growth of the far right.


  1. socialistworker.co.uk/features/why-we-say-the-brothers-of-italy-are-fascists.↩︎

  2. worldagainstracism.org/2022/10/21/no-to-georgia-meloni-fascists-not-welcome.↩︎

  3. On 1914, see, for example, TC Kennedy, ‘Troubled Tories: dissent and confusion concerning the party’s Ulster policy, 1910-1914’ Journal of British Studies Vol 46, pp570-93 (2007). On more recent Tory relations to loyalist paramilitaries, see also www.patfinucanecentre.org/declassified-documents/thatcher-and-uvf-0 (probably a confusion, but an illuminating one).↩︎