Fascism and the left
CPGB aggregate debated two motions on fascism and discussed May 1 elections. Mary Godwin reports
The April 19 aggregate of CPGB members returned to the discussion of fascism and, after a comprehensive and constructive debate around rival motions, voted by a large majority to accept a slightly amended version of the motion presented by the Provisional Central Committee. However, it ought to be stressed, the fact that there was a clear margin in favour of the PCC’s motion was not the result of theorised conviction. The debate revealed that there exists real and continued confusion amongst CPGB members on the question of fascism.
Comrade John Bridge, who drafted the motion, said he extracted the original version from his book Europe. At the time it was written in 2002, a rash of rightwing but not fascist parties were growing in influence in various European countries - organisations which the Socialist Workers Party in particular described as “Nazi”. Accurate use of words is essential, but it is something the SWP is not renowned for. However, having declared Le Pen, Haider and the British National Party to be Nazi or fascist, it then compounds the error by establishing popular-front anti-fascist alliances and even implying workers should vote for anyone except the BNP: the mainstream parties of British imperialism are to be regarded as respectable.
Comrade Ben Lewis introduced the debate, speaking for the PCC motion and against an alternative proposed by Nick Rogers. Comrade Lewis outlined the main areas of difference between the two motions. Firstly, the definition of fascism. Secondly, how to define the BNP in relation to other rightwing populist groups such as the UK Independence Party. And, thirdly, differences on tactics and strategy. Contrary to comrade Lewis’s expectations, this third area of disagreement proved to be the main focus of the subsequent debate, relating to the sentence in comrade Rogers’ draft: “It is the special responsibility of communists organised into a united pluralist party to challenge intrusions by the BNP and other far-right groups into the working class.”
It was stressed that the adoption of one of the two motions would not mean the end of the debate. A range of different positions, possibly including a formal majority and minority position, is perfectly acceptable.
Comrade Rogers said that agreement over the definition of fascism was not essential, provided we were agreed on tactics. Comrade Mike Macnair responded that on one level, formulating a definition of fascism can be seen as a question about 20th century history. On another level, however, definitions and the analysis and argument related to them are important because of their relation to operational decisions - decisions about concrete strategic and tactical questions. Only to the extent that a definition of fascism has concrete operational consequences is it necessary to take a vote on it.
Comrade Rogers said the definition in the PCC motion of “fighting squads separate from the state” as “the essential characteristic of fascism” was incorrect. His own motion defined fascism as “a terroristic and ultra-nationalist variant of Bonapartism that represents in extreme form capital’s attempt to preserve its rule”. He rejected the suggestion in the PCC motion that the BNP’s adoption of an electoral strategy means it is no longer fascist. This different analysis can lead to a different response to the BNP threat.
Comrade Rogers explained what he meant by the “special responsibility” of communists being “to challenge intrusions by the BNP”. He was not suggesting that CPGB members should attempt to physically seek out and confront BNP members today. His motion referred to what our tactics and strategy should be when we have the kind of Communist Party we are fighting for. The BNP attacks the non-white section of the working class, it seeks to divide the working class on racial lines, and it is succeeding in gaining the support of sections of the working class which we should be aiming to win to our politics. We need a strategy to respond to that, and the militants of the working class have the duty to tackle the racist ideas the BNP tries to promote.
Comrade Bridge disagreed with any prioritisation of the BNP. Our main enemy is not the BNP, but the British state and capital itself. He said communists do not need to make the BNP our special target. The “special responsibility” of communists is to unite the British working class.
Comrade Macnair said that in present-day Britain the main threat propagated by the BNP is political poison rather than violence. This political poison takes the form of the national chauvinist politics which we find in mainstream political discourse and also, he pointed out, in the politics of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain. Labour and the Tories, as well as the BNP, are all dividing the working class along national lines. The job of communists in the face of this political threat is to create an internationalist party that presents a radical political alternative.
Comrade Rogers argued that his version of the motion was actually supported by comrade Macnair’s remarks. We should build our response to the BNP on the basis not that it threatens counterrevolution, but that it divides the working class. We should be concerned when the BNP makes electoral and organisational advances in working class areas. It is organising as an insurgent anti-establishment force. We will also hope to be anti-establishment and insurgent and so will be up against them.
Comrade Peter Manson made the point that the poisonous ideas put forward by the BNP simply reflect in a more extreme way the chauvinism of mainstream politics. We need to get rid of the disease itself rather than an extreme symptom of it. Replying to the debate, comrade Rogers agreed that the state is our main enemy and the ruling class is the root of racism and chauvinism. But it is the BNP that is physically attacking people, and we must take them on.
How to oppose the BNP was another major theme of the discussion, reflecting the fact that this whole debate had arisen from the no-platforming controversy. All comrades stressed the need for tactical flexibility. Comrade Macnair asked: what kind of battle are we facing? Primarily, a battle of ideas, which makes the argument for free speech so important, because it cuts across the arguments for censorship propagated by the Labour Party, and echoed by the left in relation to the BNP. But that argument for censorship can also be directed against revolutionaries. We need a clear, sharp edge against these pro-state, pro-censorship, popular-frontist politics.
The final paragraph of comrade Rogers’ motion was identical to the final paragraph of the successful PCC motion, except that in comrade Rogers’ version the word “state” was twice italicised: “We are against state bans on political parties, including fascist and other far-right parties. State restrictions on what can and what cannot be said in political debate must also be vigorously opposed.”
Comrade Stan Keable asked whether this meant comrade Rogers was not against other sorts of bans, such as by the National Union of Students leadership. As comrade Manson pointed out, the NUS, no less than the state, will use such bans against us. Comrade Keable emphasised that ideas need to be expressed and combated.
In his opening speech comrade Lewis had commented that it had been generally agreed at the March aggregate that free speech was not absolute, but comrade James Turley said it is an error to imagine that the circumstances under which it is legitimate to curtail free speech - such as the ‘right’ to provoke panic in a crowded cinema by shouting ‘Fire!’ - are obvious. They need to be precisely theorised. Free speech is a slippery phrase that can be put to all sorts of uses, he said. Some BNP propaganda is as dangerous as maliciously shouting ‘Fire!’
Another idea put forward by comrade Turley is that, whatever fascists themselves might imagine, fascism is objectively an international movement. Just as the revolution is international, so is the fascist counterrevolution. Comrade Bridge disagreed: in the 20th century fascism emerged in a number of countries but there is no automatic solidarity between fascist movements.
Another strand of discussion arose over the stage at which a section of capital looks to fascism and the contradictions this provokes. Comrade Phil Kent argued that capitalism needs free movement of labour, which fascism restricts. Comrade Rogers stated that neoliberalism has served the interests of the ruling class in the recent period, so it has no need to turn to fascism now. He said the BNP is not supported by the state, but is a distorted, negative reflection of the interests of the atomised working class. Comrade Bridge replied that when the system is in crisis the capitalist class turns to fascism as a defence against the threat from the left.
Some comrades suggested that Chile in the 1970s and Turkey in the 1980s were examples of fascism. The use of torture and anti-working class repression was cited. Comrade Bridge disagreed. We must distinguish between forms of counterrevolution. Chile and Turkey saw counterrevolution from the state itself . A fascist party clears its own path to state power by beating down the working class and often then turning on sections of the bourgeoisie.
What of fascist states? History also shows that on achieving state power fascism as a special form of counterrevolution immediately starts to disintegrate. Non-state fighting formations associated with the fascist party are either crushed or incorporated into the state. The fascist party is itself fully bureaucratised and the fascist state quickly becomes essentially a variant of Bonapartism.
Although many comrades, including comrade Lewis himself, conceded that comrade Rogers’ motion contained a lot of useful material, the aggregate voted by approximately three to one for the PCC motion, as opposed to comrade Rogers’. A minor amendment proposed by comrade Keable was accepted with no votes against. It was emphasised once again that the adoption of the PCC position was not intended to shut down debate and comrades may, of course, continue to submit material on the question of fascism to the Weekly Worker.
The next session of the aggregate debated the May 1 local and London assembly elections following an introduction from comrade Peter Manson.
Comrade Manson recommended continuing to prioritise critical support for individual Labour candidates who call for an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of British troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. We should also extend that critical support to left-of-Labour working class candidates. In London, faced with rival slates of candidates, we should prefer the Socialist Workers Party’s Left List over both George Galloway’s Respect and the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, which is standing, alongside other ‘official’ communists, as Unity for Peace and Socialism. In the London mayoral election, the PCC recommends a first preference for the Left List’s Lindsey German and second preference for Ken Livingstone.
This recommendation was not universally accepted by CPGB members. Before the aggregate it had been suggested by comrade Cameron Richards that Livingstone might qualify for support as a working class anti-war candidate, but comrade Jim Moody argued that even a second preference for Livingstone should be conditional on his making a clear statement that he is in favour of immediate, unconditional withdrawal of British troops.
Comrade Rogers argued that the only group which might welcome CPGB members within it is Galloway’s Respect, but calling for a vote for the rival Left List would “burn our bridges with Respect Renewal”. Comrade Rogers went on to say that if we cannot work with Galloway’s group, we should either work in the Labour Party or consider standing candidates of our own in future elections.
Comrade Macnair said that a basic working class option was to vote for a Labour candidate wherever possible, even though in most cases they would not meet our previous criteria. He wondered whether these criteria were of such critical importance as they were in 2005.
Replying to comrade Rogers, comrade Bridge said he thought comrade Rogers was mistaken to think we would be welcome in Respect Renewal. On the question of standing our own candidates, we would need to consider what it would cost and what it might achieve. Comrade Manson said in 1992 we stood candidates in the general election to demonstrate that the CPGB was still in existence despite the liquidation of the ‘official’ party, and in 1999 it was worth standing in the European elections to show the left that it was possible to do so. But there would be no specific purpose in such a symbolic gesture now.
Comrade Bridge said our goal, including in the current election campaign, should be to shift the debate on the left from ‘How can we reproduce old Labour?’ to ‘How can we recapture the tradition of the Marxists?’
In the final half hour of the aggregate comrade Mark Fischer gave an update on preparations for the Communist University, and also details of the Summer Offensive, which will run from June 21 to the end of CU on August 16.
Essential characteristics and our tactics
Amended resolution adopted, proposed by PCC
1. 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 characteristic of fascism that distinguishes it from other forms of counterrevolution. Put another way, fascism is a terroristic variant of Bonapartism.
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, that failing, are mercilessly crushed.
6. Under present circumstances in Britain there is no immediate danger of a mass fascist movement, let alone a fascist movement coming to power. There is no revolutionary situation.
7. It is essential to distinguish between individual fascists and fascist organisations. Eg, the BNP leadership contains many with a clear and unmistakable fascist background and continued ideological outlook. People who openly or privately admire or/and seek to emulate Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy or Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts. But today the BNP cannot be classified as a fascist organisation. It is a reactionary, ultra-nationalist, right-populist party. There are no 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 squaddism 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. Note the sizable votes for Ukip and the BNP.
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 out and nothing automatically ruled in.
11. Tactics employed to counter organisations such as the BNP, National Front, Ukip, etc have to be concrete. Therefore they have to be flexible and constantly changing.
12. We consider the tactic of no-platforming opponents per fectly 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 of 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 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 gives 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 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.
BNP’s fascist pedigree
Unsuccessful alternative motion, proposed by Nick Rogers
1. Fascism objectively serves the interests of the capitalist class in periods of capitalist crisis and revolutionary upsurge by unleashing physical force against the organised working class.
2. Fascist groups, movements and parties attempt to build a mass base by espousing an eclectic ideology of extreme nationalism, often of a xenophobic and racist character, combined with a populist appeal to anti-establishment and anti-capitalist sentiments and a virulent and violent hostility to socialists and communists. Fascist propaganda particularly takes aim at finance capital, which in Nazi ideology merges with anti-semitism.
3. In origin, fascist organisations are not creatures of the capitalist class. They attract the support of members of the petty bourgeoisie and the most downtrodden members of the working class. They form counterrevolutionary fighting squads separate from the state. 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. In these circumstances sections of the state and the monopoly bourgeoisie will manipulate, finance and ultimately direct fascism to the point of bringing it into power.
4. Once in power fascist parties and fighting formations are incorporated into or substituted for the institutions of the capitalist state. Those elements of fascism’s mass base that continue to advocate anti-capitalist solutions are mercilessly crushed. The messianic leader and the state are exalted, while preserving the essential features of capitalist society. Big business flourishes under fascist rule. The organised working class is completely smashed; its leading cadre are physically liquidated.
5. Fascism can be defined as a terroristic and ultra-nationalist variant of Bonapartism that represents in extreme form capital’s attempt to preserve its rule by negatively anticipating the socialist society of the future.
6. In Britain today there is no revolutionary crisis and therefore no immediate danger of a mass fascist movement, let alone a fascist seizure of power. Over the last three decades the strategies of neoliberalism - not fascist terror - have served the role of weakening the organised working class.
7. Nevertheless, organisations and parties of a fascist pedigree are a feature of Britain’s political scene. Currently, the most successful is the British National Party. Although it has adopted the tactic of pursuing electoral respectability by mothballing much of its street fighting capability, the BNP’s leadership is primarily composed of those with a clear and unmistakable fascist background and its membership retains the capacity to contest for control of the streets. Its fascist background, its ideology of white nationalism, its explicitly racist policies towards Britain’s ethnic minorities, its nationalist economic and foreign policies, and its anti-capitalist posturing distinguish the BNP from reactionary, nationalist and anti-migrant parties such as UKIP.
8. In so far as the BNP succeeds in attracting the electoral support of sections of the white working class, this represents a failure of the revolutionary left to pose a viable alternative to the attacks by New Labour on the interests of the working class. It is the special responsibility of communists organised into a united pluralist party to challenge intrusions by the BNP and other far-right groups into the working class. The building of an international working class movement will involve building unity between working class communities of many different ethnic, cultural and national backgrounds. Demonstrating the ability to build such unity among the working class of our own nation-state is a vital part of the wider international task.
9. The tactics of communists should be flexible and constantly changing to meet changing circumstances. This rule applies also to combating fascism and the far right. In fighting attempts by fascists and the far right to divide the working class, we consider tactics such as vigorous debate to win hearts and minds, no-platforming and physical defence of ourselves and working class communities to be equally legitimate. At no time do we seek a ‘civilised’ relationship with fascists and the far right. A united and self-confident working class would make organisation by fascists and the far right in working class communities untenable.
10. We recognise that it is the capitalist state and the capitalist class which is our main enemy. It is the failures of capitalism which gives both ammunition and sustenance to the fascism and the right. It is therefore a mistake of the first order to form popular fronts which join the left organisationally and politically with the bourgeois establishment.
11. Communists are champions of democracy and free speech. We are against state bans on political parties, including fascist and other far-right 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.