Fascism: articles, extracts, responses

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A few articles have started to appear either with extracts from the book or attempts to apply its arguments to the crisis around us. Friends might enjoy:

‘The Lessons We Need to Learn From Europe’s Struggle Against Fascism,’ Jacobin, 29 September 2020.

‘When Trump defends armed rightwing gangs, his rhetoric has echoes of fascism,’ Guardian, 1 October 2020.

‘Trump Isn’t Keeping His Fascist Plan Secret. He’s Trying to Derail the Election,’ TruthOut, 2 October 2020.

Adam Turl has published a piece which engages seriously (and critically) with my journalism for Tempest.

A first – and very positive – review of my book on Fascism has also appeared in the Morning Star.

Fascism: first readers’ responses

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Many thanks to the people who’ve read my book on Fascism and reviewed it for Amazon . I do want to emphasise that these are reviews written by people who were looking out for the book, knew it would be published, and had an idea of its contents. While I trust they read the book fairly and independently, obviously such readers are likely to be relatively kind. That said, hopefully, they give you a flavour of the book.

Susan J. Sparks comments on the interwar theories of fascism to which I refer, not just the best-known figures but “Clara Zetkin, Karl Korsch, Bordiga, Wilhelm Reich, Rudolf Hilferding and Walter Benjamin and others, as well as the odd piece of fiction (Jack London’s The Iron Heel), and a 1924 Plebs League pamphlet about Italian fascism.”

N. Rogall emphasises the book’s applicability to events far beyond the US or the UK: “This is an excellent read for all those troubled by the rise of far right politics from the US to India, from Brazil to Eastern Europe.”

Phil G writes, “His focus is on the twentieth century, but he sets the stage for understanding the growth of the contemporary far right, a topic that he has examined in detail in another recent book, The New Authoritarians.”

Charlie Hore sets out the book’s debt to David Beetham’s Marxists in Face of Fascism (this is true!) and writes, “pleased to see the Martiniquan poet and communist Aimé Césaire quoted on how fascism drew on habits learned in the colonialism: ‘Colonisation works’, Césaire wrote, ‘to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred.’”

Thais Yanez speaks of the influence of anti-colonial writers and says that I highlight “the shortcomings of the Left on the urgency to work as a unified front and apply these theories in practice, the somewhat individualistic and even nationalistic approaches that prevented an internationalist workers’ response or revolution to defeat both capitalism and fascism that did not become a bureaucratic oppressive regime like Stalinism.”

I’m particularly glad that these readers noticed the way I tried to integrate colonialism into my arguments – far more so than in the first edition of this book 20 years ago. If there was one thing about the 1920s and early 30s which the pioneer Marxists missed, it was exactly this.

Even a writer as keen-eyed as Trotsky failed to integrate the Italian colonial wars into his account of fascism, or grasp that colonialism had trained key parts of the German state in habits of racialised exclusion and killing. So that when Trotsky wrote that war would result in the mass murder of the Jews – this is a brilliant insight – something which he was almost alone to admit. And yet you never feel that he was capable of explaining how or why that disaster was possible, save in the most general terms that Hitler was a racist and the Nazi revolution incomplete.

“Ordinary” book reviews should start appearing from next week.

La amenaza que representa el antifascismo – en fantasía y realidad.

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Todos los héroes esporeados de la derecha estadounidense están de acuerdo, desde Alex Jones hasta Tucker Carlson, desde Andy Ngo hasta Donald Trump: lxs antifascistas deben ser explusadxs de la vida pública.

Cuando las mujeres marcharon en Washington para protestar en la inauguración de Donald Trump se transformaron en la imaginación de la derecha extrema en ‘las heces de la humanidad’, “extranjeras” planeando “una guerra civil” para la “tiranía”

Cuando los fascistas marcharon por Charlottesville con pistolas y antorchas gritando ‘los judios no nos reemplazaran”, cuando uno de ellos mató a Heather, fox News llamó a lxs socialistas y anarquistas, a lxs liberales y feministas que bloquearon el camino para detenerles ‘domésticas… Antifa quema todo los que viene en contacto suyo”. La derecha proyecto sus fantasías espeluznantes en sus oponentes y declaró que lxs antifascistas habían sido lxs responsables de los “asesinatos de múltiples oficiales de la policía por todos los Estados Unidos”, abriendo el camino para que Trump declarara que había habido ‘gente muy fina en los dos lados”

En el lado antifascista, el insistio, “Tenias alborotadorxs, y lxs ves llegar con sus atuendos negros, y los cascos, y los bates de beisbol, tenias mucho mal, tenias mucha gente mala en el otro grupo…no tenian permisos”

Trump quería que todo el mundo viera lo que él veía en charlottesville, una guerra entre dos grupos de gente. Uno con sus armas y simbolos fascistas y sus fantasias de genocidio. Ellxs eran lxs que habían venido a ‘protestar inocentemente’ , y contra estxs estaba antifa quienes merecían cada bala que se les tiraba.

Una y otra vez, el reproche a ‘antifa’ se ha usado no sólo contra aquellxs que confrontan al fascismo, sino hasta contra lxs liberales más blandos. ‘No estarán segurxs en la América de Biden’ advierte Pence.

Incluso ahora Trump insiste que Biden controla “gente que de la que nunca has oido. Gente que está en las sombras oscuras… gente que está controlando las calles… bandidxs usando estos uniformes oscuros, uniformes negros con equipo.” Y de esa manera, se le está pidiendo a todos los Estados Unidos – a todo el mundo observando en desconcierto y miedo- que vea al mundo a través de los ojos de los Proud Boys, The Patriots, los teóricos de la conspiración del QAnon.

Pues es que, en la mentalidad paranoica y temerosa de la derecha, si hay mil personas en Portland aun dispuestas a tomar las calles para defender a Black Lives Matter, su presencia abruma todo. Cuenta con más de las 200,000 personas que han muerto por coronavirus. Y nunca más una sociedad pensante debería tolerar la posibilidad de que en ocasiones unas pocas personas valientes se pongan en el camino de los fascistas marchando por las calles de los E.U.

¿De qué se trata el antifascismo que lo convierte en un espectro en la mente de la derecha estadounidense?, tan vivido como el espectro del comunismo era?

Cuando el fascismo comenzó, casi nadie en la política estaba de acuerdo con él. La parte de la gente que eran antifascistas potenciales era muy grande, de hecho. Incluia liberales, conservadores, cristianxs, feministas e incontables más aparte. E incluia a la gente que vuelve a Trump salvaje de miedo: anarquistas y comunistas.

Aquí quiero hablar de una fracción de ellxs en particular: Lxs Marxistas. Eran parte de un enfoque común de la política la cual era compartida por por decenas de millones de personas.  El marxismo no era una cosa en singular sino una variedad de políticas. Llamaba a la gente que creía en la realidad de la revolución y que estaba determinada a llevar a cabo un levantamiento inmediato. Era empleado también por otrxs que no querían nada con ninguna idea de revuelta masiva pero que restringieron su deseo de cambio solamente al avance lento de los derechos de lxs trabajadorxs y otros grupos subalternos. El marxismo también tenía el apoyo de millones de gente quienes (como en los E.U. hoy en día) sostenían cualquiera de las posiciones entre estos polos.

Ya cuando se desgastó el siglo veinte, el marxismo fue destronado de su posición de autoridad (por ello es que es más probable que  lxs antifascistas estadounidenses de hoy sean anarquistas que comunistas) . Pero si nos enfocamos en el periodo del surgimiento del fascismo, solo los 1920s y los 1930s, esta subordinación pertenecía al futuro. 

En el libro que he estado escribiendo sobre la generacion que invento el antifascismo encontraran a Clara Zetkin quien habia sido editora del periodico La Mujer Socialista Alemana Die Gleichheit (Igualdad) y una patrocinadora de la resolucion que llevo al establecimiento de el actual Dia Internacional de la Mujer, Leon Trotsky, el anterior lider del Ejercito Rojo Bolshevique, o Daniel Guerin, quien vivio hasta los 1950s y 1960s caundo fue anaraquista, un miembro del del Frente Homosexual de  Accion Revolucionaria en FRancia y una de las figuras principales del movimiento de liberacion gay. En la izquierda moderna, lxs pondriamos en diferentes categorías: Zetkin tuvo una carrera de décadas como socialista y comunista. Trotsky fue bolchevique, Guerin se volvió anarquista. En la Europa de los 1920s y 1930s, y de cara al fascismo, compartieron un lenguaje común y tuvieron esencialmente el mismo enfoque para resistir el ascenso de Hitler.

Escribiendo para un público internacional sobre eventos en Italia, Zetkin advirtió, “Las masas en sus miles se unieron al fascismo. Se convirtió en un asilo para todxs lxs desahuciadxs politicxs, lxs desarraigadxs sociales, lxs destitutxs y desilusionadxs.

En los panfletos que vendieron cientos de miles de copias, instando a lxs alemanxs socialistas y comunistas a unirse, Trotsky escribió, “ En el Nacional Socialismo todo es contradictorio y caótico como en una pesadilla. El partido de Hitler se dice llamar socialista, y aun así lleva una lucha terrorista contra las organizaciones socialistas… lanza pernos a las cabezas de lxs capitalistas y aun así es apoyado por estas.

Viajando por Alemania en 1933, Guerin apunta las letras de una cancio, mitad comunista, mitad nacionalista, que prometia liberar a lxs trabajadorxs del yugo judio , “Nunca he escuchado gente cantar con tal fe… Estoy perdido en mis pies, estático en medio de esta masa que moriría sin interrumpir su canción. Ya hay rumores de que  secciones de los Stormtroopers (soldados de asalto) se están impacientando, hasta amotinado, yo pienso para mi mismo que será necesario satisfacer a esta multitud – o aplastarles, brutalmente”

Lxs marxistas de la entreguerra furosn lxs primerxs en formular lo que se puede llamar el programa antifascista. Este es la creencia que el fascismo es una forma de políticas de derecha extrema especialmente violentas y destructivas, que tiene la capacidad de crecer rápidamente en tiempos de crisis social y que si se ignora destruirá la capacidad de la izquierda de organizarse y revertirá por décadas las demandas de cambio de lxs trabajadorxs y otros grupos desposeídos. Si la apuesta es correcta, sigue que es repetidamente una prioridad de sus oponentes de confrontar el fascismo, aun cuando otras formas de discriminacion son endémicas, y aun cuando otras políticas de derecha extrema tienen más apoyo que el fascismo. Esta manera de pensar asume un presente en el que el trabajo aún es explotado y la discriminacion por raza y género son prevalentes.  Y aun en estas circunstancias, advierte, el fascismo es un agente caótico de cambio negativo. Puede hacer sistemático lo que hoy es limitado. El fascismo es capaz de extender el sufrimiento en una escala enorme. Asimismo, cuando el fascismo es vencido, las otras formas de opresión en las que florece también pueden ser debilitadas.

La apuesta antifascista no es una postura distintivamente marxista; todo tipo de gente la ha sostenido en la historia. Todo tipo de gente la sostiene hoy día.

Pero la primera vez en la historia en que un grupo significante la adoptara fue a mediados de los 1920s, cuando las personas de las que he escrito comenzarán a hacer campañas contra la amenaza del fascismo fuera de Italia.  Este enfoque reconoció el potencial de Mussolini para inspirar a imitadores incluyendo Alemania.

Al tiempo que estas advertencias claras fueron hechas primeramente, Hitler era solo un mero político regional. Cualquier ganancia electoral que había disfrutado había sido modesta, y se enfrentaba a una serie de competidores en una posición entre fascismo y conservatismo, varios de los cuales estaban mejor fundados, tenían mejor acceso a los medios y medios propios para emplear violencia paramilitar contra sus adversarios. 

El decir que el fascismo, a pesar de todas las debilidades y a pesar de la influencia mayor de sus rivales en la derecha, era el oponente más amenazador a la que enfrentaba la izquierda alemana era hacer una predicción de cómo el fascismo crecería y que haría en el poder.

La apuesta antifascista  de todas las otras formas de politica, hecha por esta generacion sontenia que el fascismo era diferente cualitativamente incluyendo la derecha y hasta la extrema derecha.

A diferencia de estas, busca crear una dictadura y una en la que todas las formas de expresión de todos sus rivales sean recortadas. El panorama de la derecha de los 1930s no era más complejo que el nuestro, con cada una de estos temas a continuación prominentes en discusiones públicas = monarquistas, seguidores del ejército de la iglesia, abogadxs por impuestos fijos, abogadxs por expansión imperial- y muchas otras formas de políticas de derecha aparte de estas.  A lxs antifascistas les desagradaban todas estas tendencias, pero no veían en ninguna de ellas el potencial violento del fascismo.  

Bajo esa teoría, había otras ideas sobre el rol del fascismo en relación a otros movimientos reaccionarios. El fascismo no era un movimiento con solo una causa. Era toda una teoría de vida que proveía justificación para la subordinación no solo de lxs oponentes raciales de Musolini y Hitler, sino también de sus enemigxs politicxs , y las mujeres, y lxs gays, y las personas discapacitadas. EL fascismo tuvo la capacidad de atravesar barreras en momentos de crisis y cuando lo hizo de propagar modos de pensar derechistas hasta que sus seguidorxs habían absorbido respuestas reaccionarias a todas las preguntas posibles.   

Aparte de la rol que jugaron en el asesinato de seis millones de judixs, Hitler y Mussolini tambien eran partidarios del genocidio contra lxs Roma y Sinti, abogados por un racismo colonial ultra-agresivo y acelerado, organizadores de la eutanasia de gente discapacitada y el asesinato de hombres gays, y las subordinacion de las mujeres, la destruccion de los sindicatos y el asesinato de lxs coministas. Cada uno de estos planes se reforzaban entre sí. Esta dinámica totalizadora hizo al fascismo un enemigo destructivo único.

Es útil escuchar a la gente que captó ese riesgo, en un tiempo en el que casi todxs en la derecha y el centro estaban en desacuerdo. Al restatarlxs de la economía de atencion del presente y al mandar a lxs lectorxs al pasado para aprender de ellxs, espero que su enfoque sea de interesarse en otrxs encando la derecha diferente de nuestros tiempos.

Ya que lo que mas atrae a lxs seguidores de Trump mas que nada son sus cuentos infantiles sobre manifestantes uniformadxs de negro juntandose en secreto para vencer sus planes. Es este secreto lo que lxs engancha – la idea de un plan escondido el cual solo ha sido descubierto por algunas almas valientes derechistas. Para la derecha contemporanea , el mito de una conspiracion antifascista es tan convincente como lo fue para una generacion de derechistas diferente, cien anos atras, que el mundo esta dominado por una conspiracion secreta de judixs que se esconden en lugares oscuros, mandando sus ordenes conspiratorias fuera, contralando a los Papas y Zares, conspiradores radicales y la policia que prtende echarles un ojo.

Pero la historia del antifascismo no es de ninguna manera secreta. Mas bien, es un libro abierto.

(trans. Faithais Yáñez)

Fascism; Theory and History – articles and events

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For people who are interested in my new book on Fascism (which was formally published yesterday), I thought I’d share a quick set of links, just highlighting articles I’ve written for other sites about fascism, and about our present crisis:

RS21, 31 August, Fascism beyond Trump

Morning Star, 8 September, A new street movement

Tempest, 10 September, Right populism or neo-fascism

Pluto, The Anti-Fascist Wager

I’ll also be holding a couple of launch events for the book, as follows:

Independent Left, 23 September

London Anti-fascist Assembly, 25 September

Nottingham People’s Assembly / Five Leaves, 7 October

Radical Independence Edinburgh 14 October

If you’re interested in booking me for other events, drop me a line at davidkrenton [at] gmail [dot] com.

Finally, if you haven’t already, you can order the book here or here.

But what if it get worse from here…

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A number of friends have written to me about the piece I put up two days ago on Trump and the difficulty of making radical left-wing politics central to an anti-Trump coalition. They have said to me that the passages in which I seemed to discount any possibility of him contesting the election result were too glib. Rereading the piece, I can see how it came over that way.

I don’t want to make predictions. Part of the story of fascism and of anti-fascism is of people who at one stage in their lives thought they were doing something recognisable (they were an ordinary conservative, a socialist…), but got caught in events beyond their control, found themselves trapped in the logic of their own rhetoric. The next you knew, historic had sent them off in quite another direction. At one stage Mussolini was a socialist; at another point, he was not. At one stage Mosley was the saviour of the Conservatives. And the list goes on Tasca, Silone… You can get moments when it feels like history is just slipping out of everyone’s hands. Then, worst of all, people find themselves comfortable in what they’ve become.

If you want to think through the chance that the worst parts of 2020 are ahead of us, I am willing to acknowledge that risk. Over several years, I have been arguing that we are in a process in which events are renewing and radicalising the right, and that it has not yet exhausted itself.

If history was to somehow “stop” tomorrow, then in terms of how he has governed Trump is not a fascist, he is not even close. (Save for one really *really* important respect, which I’ll go in to) he has governed more like every other Republican administration since 1948 – each one of which faced the accusation from Democrats that it would re-run fascism.

The essential way in which Trump has been unlike fascists is that he has accepted the political limits imposed by the liberal state. When judges have told him to stop; by and large, he has. He cast doubt on the possibility of elections; he accommodated to them in reality. He has not purged the state . On the stump, he promised to jail his opponents; in office, he left them at liberty. The whole theme of my new book on fascism is that it is a specific movement, with a unique trajectory, in that it does reactionary and mass politics in equal measure. Compared to that, Trump has governed like a “reformist” of the right (albeit an aggressive one), and not a “revolutionary” (or, more accurately, a counter-revolutionary).

There is one part of Trump though which is new i.e. the intensity of his relationship with people further to the right. In Britain, every single far-right group has been buoyed by Trump and if it is like that for us, god knows what it must be like for you. When I’ve tried to explain this in recent weeks I’ve often cited the example of James Allsup, a member of Identity Evropa (i.e. a fascist, but of a particular sort) who four years ago had an audience of less than 10 people but by the time YouTube cracked down on his account it had had 70 million views. That is what Trump has done – he has listened to American fascists, he has amplified their talking points and made an audience for them – and that is even before you get into this year and the change that’s taken place in Trump’s support, its paramilitarisation around the lockdown and BLM.

In the old days, Republicans might “dog whistle” (i.e. say things knowing parts of their right-wing base would hear them), but they would also “gate-keep” (i.e. keep these people out of institutional power). Individuals like William Buckley Jr (whatever other harm he did) made it their career to keep some people in the tent and others out – while there is no-one playing that equivalent role today.

Trump does not dog whistle, he shouts out racism through a loudspeaker. Rather than keep out the likes of Laura Loomer, he acts as her number one social media fan.

The US is heading towards an election, which looks like it’s going to be miserable. I’m not worried about what happens if Trump loses by ten percentage points (in those circumstances, he will leave). I’m more than willing to acknowledge the possibility though that the result is a mess.

It’s as clear to me as I’m sure it is to everyone, that the postal votes will take days, maybe weeks, to count.

The way that the electoral college works, by artificially increasing the weight of voters who live in smaller states, means that Trump can win the election even if he loses the popular vote (cf 2016), but there is a certain point beyond which – if he does loses the vote badly enough – he must also lose the election. There’s not exact figure for that, but let’s say it’s 5 percent.

What we do know is that in most opinion polls, Trump is about 7 points behind. Sounds good, doesn’t it? But it’s not enough – a lead that small makes a “messy” election result more than likely.

A larger proportion of voters than in any previous election are likely to vote in advance, because of Covid, and because Democrats are urging people to vote postally. And checking postal votes (i.e. Democratic votes) is much slower than checking votes in person. Some states even have laws preventing postal votes from being checked before election day. Oh yes, and postal votes are more likely to be rejected. When a postal vote is checked you have to confirm that the person is on the roll, that the form is signed, and that they’ve actually voted (cf 2000 and the “dimpled chads”). All of these are likely to be disputed.

So, if Biden really wins the popular vote by 7 clear points then, on election night, as the first results come in (i.e. before postal votes are counted), you’d expect Trump to be ahead and the true scale of Biden’s lead to become apparent only long after.

In other words, it’s more likely than not that in early November, Trump will announce that he “has” won the election, and his media (Fox, Breitbart, etc) will follow him in declaring Trump the victor. That’s even – as I keep on saying – if, in reality, Biden is heading for a comfortable win.

So we’re facing a real danger of a situation where the two American don’t even agree that either candidate has won, let alone which one, and where the election result is heading towards the courts to determine (with their inbuilt partisan majority).

You don’t need to see Trump as a fascist – even if he’s just a plain old braggart authoritarian, it’s easy to imagine scenarios in which his supporters take to the streets with a view to intimidating judges and Trump starts egging them on.

In Britain, our polling companies debate whether Labour is catching up with the Conservatives. In the US, the psephologists are debating how the scenario of an unclear election result will be resolved, and whether it will be by judges or with guns. To outsiders – this is not a good look.

What I guess we need to balance – which is hard – is the way in which history provides two clear exit points from here:

a) The administration is voted out heavily, and goes, and when in 10 years time American have to explain to everyone else, “We came this close to fascism”, we’ll think you were mad. We’ll say Trump was just a nasty, ordinary, right-wing creep with a big mouth. In government – he was all talk and did nothing.

b) Trump wins the election / loses narrowly enough to drive his supporters wild. And yes, at that point, all bets – however bad are off. Political murders are already taking place in the US at Weimar rates. You have to assume, they’d go up from there. After all, we had the trial run in the spring and summer, with armed supporters of the far right invading state legislatures. At a certain point in the 1920s, the guns of the far right were a mere boast, at another point they were for real. I don’t discount for a second the possibility of Trump being trapped by his ego, the demands of his supporters, his pathological desire to flatter them…

No doubt, friends will tell me there are other routes out. But from here, they seem the main ones.

Nothing in advance of the election determines which 2020 we’ll get. Whether it will be the genuinely revolutionary politics which were once reflected in parts of the US constitution, which was after all one of the most radical systems of government in its day (it’s amazing how any politics, stuck in stone for such a long time, goes stale). Or the reality of colonial oppression, slavery and genocide, which was structured in from the beginning. No-one knows which way history will bend.

The two things we do know are that Trump has a far weaker belief in the idea of democracy than any prominent politician for years.

And that if anti-fascist do take to the streets, they will have to find ways of confronting not merely Trump’s armed supporters, but the politics of the liberal mainstream who will seek to de-escalate the situation by sending in cops to confront the left first.

It follows the the only thing which can counterbalance the risk is when people organise – when they take the streets – and make it impossible for Trump supporters to march (of for the police to disperse them).

If I was in the States I’d be thinking – is there an anti-fascist coalition in my city? What have I done to build it?

And if one doesn’t exist already: well, I talked in my other piece about the sorts of movement that could prevent the right from dominating the streets; anarchists, the DSA… Neither is enough, you’d need to pull in surviving Trotskyist groups where they exist. Maoists, people at the left edge of the Democrats. Greens.

People need to be as principled as the moment will allow, and as broad as they can be – even while knowing that these two instincts aren’t easily held together. You just have to try.

Everyone one is afraid now, and probably everyone is going be angry – the trick is to make your hope and ideas as big as the situation demands.

Because otherwise, no matter how bad 2020 is now, there’s every possibility that we’ll be look back in two months’ time on the autumn and saying, “those were the good times”.

1990s anti-fascism: a balance sheet

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One of the things I’ve written about in the last few weeks is the experience of re-reading my 1999 book on fascism, with a view to seeing how much of the analysis still stands up.

Here, I thought it might be useful to broaden my focus a little, and treat that book as reflective of a general approach towards anti-fascism. What I thought I was doing, at the time, was writing a conventional SWP-influenced “party line” guide to what fascism was and how to fight it. (Certainly, any number of reviewers took it that way). Twenty years later, it’s worth reflecting again – not so much on the book, but on the unspoken ideas of anti-fascist politics which informed it.

Joining the SWP as I did in 1991 was a natural step for any leftist to take. I’d been in the Labour Party for a year, suffered that organisation’s lack of interest in stopping the poll tax or the Iraq War. The SWP – because of its success in the 1970s (and the implosion of the Communist Party) – was able to present itself, quite plausibly, as the party of all the movements, so that if you were seriously against racism, sexism, homophobia, and if you were committed to organising in trade unions on a rank-and-file basis, or to stopping the Criminal Justice Act, the SWP was the group for you.

A great deal of the SWP’s credibility was down to the large number of people who’d joined the group in 1976-9 during the Anti-Nazi League. The SWP in that period had been able to renew itself, recruiting a younger generation of members who still led SWP branches 15 years later. They were experienced and articulate. They had a philosophy of the world which included art, science, and music. Soon after I’d joined, I went through experiences that seemed to justify my decision to join including the election of BNP councillor Derek Beackon in Tower Hamlets, the campaign to unseat him a year later, and the Anti-Nazi League carnival of summer 1994.

I met my partner at Welling. We’re still together, more than a quarter of a century later. The politics of that period shaped me – and continue to shape the socialism in which I believe.

I was in Oxford in 1992-5 and one of the campaigns in which I took part was in support of the family of a middle aged Somali man, S- G- A-, who had been killed in a racist firebombing. The police refused to treat it as a racist murder. The same attackers had, that evening, also attacked a synagogue (the rabbi depressingly, was later a prominent public supporter of Steve Bannon). Together with friends, I helped to take collections for the family, provide security for people afraid of being attacked again, spoke in schools, and helped to call a march in support of the family, attended by them and around a hundred other local residents.

These are some of the proudest memories of my life, and I want to be absolutely clear: if I hadn’t met the SWP or the Anti-Nazi League, I would not have had the confidence to believe I could be part of challenging that racism, the skills to organise a protest, or even the sense of obligation which forces you to act in other people’s defence. I owe that activism to other people’s prompting – and I am grateful to them for pushing me.

You can get a sense of the SWP in this period by thinking of just one high-profile member: Julie Waterson. The leader of the ANL on its re-launch, she was a working-class woman from West Lothian with a fierce sense of humour and an absolutely loyalty to the people around her. If you did something right, she’d tell you. And if you got anything wrong, she wouldn’t hold back from telling you. Julie inspired love and anger in equal measure. But if she had one virtue above all it was this – what you saw was what you got. What she said was what she believed; and if you were her comrade then she’d give all of herself for you. There’s no better example of that than events at Welling whe she was trying to negotiate with the police, and they responded by clubbing her. She kept on organising the crowd, defiantly, her jacket splattered with her own blood. Could you imagine the grey blurs who run today’s SWP putting their bodies on the line for their comrades like she did?

I remember Julie coming to speak to Oxford SWP in 1995; the local branch was ignoring the local Campaign to Close Campsfield – in practice (and without any ever having admitted this), because we didn’t run it and other groups did. “What are youse doing?” Waterson demanded. I also remember a couple of years later when I started writing for Searchlight magazine. At that year’s SWP conference, Julie took me aside. “We’ve had a discussion on the Central Committee,” she began. They’d had a vote and wanted me to stop writing for what was, after all, a rival leftwing publication. “If you listen to those bastards” (she meant her comrades on the CC), “I’ll never forgive you.”

Under her leadership, the anti-racist part of the SWP was in some ways recognisably like the sort of left you’d want to see nowadays – it actively cultivated the support of Jewish Holocaust survivors, it put them on platforms, it also tried to educate its members in something of the black Marxist tradition. We might not have known for the most part who Darcus Howe how was, or the origins of the Race Today collective, but we were expected to have read about Malcolm X, the Panthers, DRUM…

A surprising lot of all left-wing politics is about positioning, and the niche the ANL carved out was for “mass” anti-fascism.

Further to our left, although sometimes we pretended they weren’t there, were the “militant” anti-fascists of Anti-Fascist Action. (This is their term for themselves; we called them “squaddists”). AFA specialised in events such as confronting BNP paper sales, and physically turning them over. If a fascist was speaking in a town hall, AFA would insist on anti-fascists forcing their way in and preventing the fascist from speaking. The ANL, by contrast, emphasised numbers: winning the Labour Party and unions. The idea was to organise huge turnouts in order to physically confront and beat the far-right, but (AFA complained) there was a lot more emphasis on generating the numbers than there was on ever using them.

Meanwhile, on our right, we had the Anti-Racist Alliance, a campaign which focused much more on winning mainstream opinion to anti-racist and anti-fascist positions. It was broader than the ANL, with a much greater focus on eg all-black shortlists for Labour Party selections, a much greater opposition to institutional racism in the police. But at key moments, it was more “liberal” than the ANL.

So if you take events at Welling in 1993, the single major street confrontation in this period (albeit with certain previous AFA mobilisations, notably the “Battle of Waterloo”, not far behind it). Welling saw an alliance of left wing groups (SWP/ANL and Militant/YRE) temporarily agree to hold a joint march against the BNP. AFA and other forms of radical anti-fascism (eg anarchists, Class War) were there. At Welling, anti-fascists fought the police, defying batons, throwing bricks in return. Tens of thousands of people were there. Meanwhile, ARA were organising a rival, peaceful protest, barely a thousand strong, miles from the BNP headquarters.

Fascism: Theory and Practice was an attempt to express the perspective of my party and my left “generation” in book form. Reviewers understood that and tended to read the book either positively or negatively according to how they saw the SWP in general.

Of course, that organisation no longer exists. At the start of the 2000s, Julie Waterson was removed as the SWP link to the ANL. The SWP’s anti-racist work which was handed over to Martin Smith and Weyman Bennett, two individuals who lacked Julie’s sense of fun – or her honesty.

The ANL was folded into a different campaign “Unite Against Fascism”, whose methods of organising were both more liberal than the 1990s-era SWP, while also ceding to ARA the principle of black political leadership.

None of this was healthy for my old party. In 2004-6, the SWP put on a dozen events, including both concerts and traditional speaking engagements, for the Holocaust denier Gilad Atzmon. (One SWPer, Richard Seymour did speak out against Atzmon’s promotion; but years had to pass before anyone else in the SWP would agree publicly with him).

Black political leadership, exercised by a middle-aged white socialist, caused Martin Smith – and the people around him – to lose all sense of who they were. If you want to get a sense of what UAF’s anti-fascism became, then watch the five-minute film taken in 2010 of Smith speaking outside Westminster Magistrates’ Court after he had been convicted of assaulting a police officer. Smith had just been convicted for assault (kicking a policeman in the balls). It wasn’t part of any synchronised attack on police lines, still less on the EDL, but a juvenile piece of posturing: the sort of thing that someone might do if in their head they were Leon Trotsky, but life itself wasn’t providing the chances to lead anything real. Smith’s petulance was punished with a community sentence. Not the prison sentence it might have received had the prosecution been motivated by political malice, and the courts genuinely cracking down on anti-fascists.

Outside court, Smith told his supporters that he was in a tradition, “If you go back to the first black regiments in the American civil war, the black soldiers were sent back to become slaves and their white generals were shot … In Birmingham Alabama in 1963, people went in their thousands to prison to break the Jim Crow laws. So I stand in the best of company, with Malcolm [X], with Martin [Luther King]…” In his imagination, Smith had ceased to be like the great leaders of the past, he was one of them, as black and as poor and as unjustly victimised as all the others.

I’ve described before how the members of Martin Smith’s bodyguard behaved in 2013: the violence which they had threatened against the far-right was now turned inwards against a much more available target: a generation of young socialists who had had the temerity to argue that sexual harassment or rape were inappropriate conduct for the leader of a left-wing party. The people who were used to following Martin Smith’s lead repeated his explanation of what had gone wrong – his claims of victimhood, his sense that somehow “the state” or other dark forces were behind everything bad that had befallen him.

There is a reason why so many of the early 90s ANL generation had left the SWP by the end of 2013. We knew – better than the others who stayed were willing to admit – how far the group had fallen.

But imagine you could recreate it all – the good and the bad – highlight the former and dial down the latter. When you looked at what was left, would it be an anti-fascist politics worth salvaging?

These days, I don’t tend to see either mass or militant anti-fascism as singly “the answer”, but as successive steps the left needs to take. When fascist parties emerge from street movements (stage one of Robert Paxton’s five stages of fascism) and become electoral parties (stage two) the burden is likely to shift from “militant” to “mass” forms of protest. Saying that one form of struggle is the answer is like saying that a hammer is better than a paintbrush – you need them both, you use them for different things.

Moreover our anti-fascism has to broaden to a different kind of cultural work: not just the political struggle, including the street-fighting which Julie Waterson understood, but also that kind of free flowing and non-political campaigning in which (say) the original Rock Against Racism specialised, but ANL mark two could only ever copy.

Undoubtedly, there will be movements in future which are serious about anti-fascism and which have the same levels of support as 1930s or 1970s or even 1990s-style anti-fascism.

When they emerge, they’ll need to be better-rooted in culture – online and offline. I hope they find people to lead them with an honest sense of who they are and a commitment to the movements they lead. So yes, we’ll need more Julie Watersons, and more of the politics she lived by.

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If you’ve enjoyed this piece, my new book Fascism: History and Theory is published by Pluto on September 20 – you might like it too.

On defining fascism

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“There is a need to analyse all ideologies critically, and this is especially true of fascism, a political tradition which from its inception set out to kill millions. Indeed, how can a historian, in all conscience, approach the study of fascism with neutrality? What is the meaning of objectivity when writing about a political system that plunged the world into a war in which at least forty million people died? How can the historian provide a neutral account of a system of politics which turned continental Europe into one gigantic prison camp?”

“One cannot be balanced when writing about fascism, there is nothing positive to be said of it.”

I wanted to share again the above passage from Fascism: Theory and Practice, which I’ve seen lots of readers quote over the years (not least, Mark Bray – in his book Antifa).

You can only ever define anything by reference to characteristics which are external to it. A stoat is (in Dr Johnson’s words) a small-stinking animal; a metre is (less controversially) one 10-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator. Socialism is not simply the shared political consciousness of every working class person in history (even if, 20 years after Marx’s death that was what it briefly looked like it might become). Rather it is a specific set of ideas – a differentiated tradition, motivated by a shared conception of equality – sitting a distinct place on the political spectrum and with a recognisable history and trajectory.

You won’t, and can’t, understand fascism by simply collecting together the most memorable bits of Hitler or of Mussolini’s speeches. Or by telling yourself that “fascism = nationalism plus socialism”.

Above all, you have to connect together what the fascists said, and what the fascists did – and show what the common project was that joined them.

On the limits of liberal anti-fascism

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My new book, Fascism, begins and ends with an analysis of what fascism was. It avoids, almost entirely, any discussion of whether our period is fascist, whether its leading representatives are (Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro), or how to understand their armed supporters.

The book has very little present-day “politics” in it, which sounds strange – how could you have a book about fascism, which quotes the likes of Zetkin, Gramsci or Trotsky, without that book being intensely political? What I mean is that this book is about fascism in history, and understanding it.

As I’ve argued before, you can’t have any discussion on the left about the risk posed by fascism, unless you begin by agreeing on what fascism was. Only then can you work out whether anyone today deserves that name, and what is the best way to go about stopping them.

Part of the reason why I emphasise understanding fascism is to do with the ways in which politics has changed since the 1930s. One way to understand European politics in the 1930s, might be as follows. Imagine the working-through of a dialogue which began with a revolutionary approaching a reformist socialist and saying, “I am worried by the rise of Hitler. If he comes to power, both of us are doomed; therefore let’s work together to stop him.” Now imagine a second dialogue in which the reformist socialist approached someone from the liberal centre of European politics, and said the same to that liberal.

For the European left of the 1930s, it was possible to envisage that the first dialogue might result in action, and that it might be enough to set millions of people into the streets – without needing to get to that second conversation at all. So, for example, when supporters of the French right rioted on the streets of Paris on 6 February 1934, this caused Socialists and Communists to call anti-fascist counter-protests. The two left-wing groups mingled in the streets, and set in train two years of anti-fascist unity whose results included some of the largest strikes in French history, as well as the election of an anti-fascist Unity government in 1936. Co-operation was enough to grow each of the two divided wings of French socialism to the point where together they could imagine becoming the majority.

But in France, of course, unity continued past that election result. The Communists insisted on an alliance not merely with Socialists, but also with liberals. In office, anti-fascist unity (the “Popular Front”) became a means of de-escalating the struggle. Therefore for large parts of the left – dissident Marxists, anarchists and Trotskyists – the shared understanding was that anti-fascist unity in future should be only between different groups of socialists, and should not be extended so far as “Radicals”, “liberals”, etc.

The problem with extending this reasoning to our times, is that the different components of the left have shrunk so fast – especially in the countries where a street right is growing – that it becomes almost impossible to envisage a left alliance which would be capable of speaking for a majority of people. In the United States, what would it mean: the attacked population of Portland allying with the DSA? I’d love to see that alliance happen – perhaps friends closer to the struggle would say it has happened already – but the plan of attaching the “revolutionaries” to “the reformists” would still leave you speaking of only a tiny number of people – how would they outnumber Donald Trump, with his Republican Presidency, and his 70 million Twitter followers?

It is possible to imagine the different fractions of the US left uniting to stop the Proud Boys or the Patriots – but not an electoral force with as broad as support as the incumbent Republican President. That can only happen with the support of the Democrats, and under their control – i.e. with all the pressures towards conformism of the 1930s Popular Front.

The words of the equivalent dialogue are also slightly changed. It begins the same concern, “I am worried by the rise of Trump.” Then there is an extra step: “And Trump is a fascist.” It ends as before, “If he comes to power, both of us are doomed; therefore let’s work together to stop him.”

The sentences “Trump is a fascist”, and “let’s work together”, have a separate logic. The latter is a question of pure politics, it’s about the threat posed by the right, about the range of available other options (Could we help to stop environmental catastrophe by voting Green, or would that only contribute to an easier victory for Trump?).

The statement “Trump is a fascist” is to some extent similar – it’s a political and moral judgment – but it’s a judgment-call shaped by history. You can’t assess whether Trump or Modi or Bolsonaro are fascists untless you have an idea of what happened in the past which is independent of them.

There are, in fact, a lot of good political reasons why people might not want to be in a Popular Front dominated by anti-Trump liberals.

The most important is that liberals portray Trump as something utterly new and alien to American life. All the bad things that happen now are his fault. And any of the 30-year history which caused tens of millions of voters to see Trump as legitimate – like the existing parties but a bit more so – simply vanishes away.

In a piece I published two weeks ago, I made the point that between 2016 and 2019, Trump added just 9 miles to the Mexican wall. The first 580 miles were built under Bill Clinton and George Bush. Barrack Obama added around another 200 miles. From this perspective who is worse: the combined forces of American centrism who built 800 miles of the wall, or Trump, who increased their achivements by a mere one percent?

In eight years in office President Obama and Vice President Biden reported 3 million people. Trump in his first two years managed just half a million.

Donald Trump has added trillions to the budget of the US military, but not enough for Joe Biden.

Over the last few weeks, there have been countless occasions when people speaking on behalf of the American centre have spoken as if racism and incarceration began in 2016. On Twitter, Paul Krugman has been explaining to his followers how there was no increase in racism in the US after 2001, no detention of Muslims, no state paranoia and no “anti-Muslim sentiment“. Such a way of mis-understanding the past doesn’t just treat everyone like children, it also fails to acknowledge where Trump came from – not as the negation of the previous three decades, but as their simplification and extension. Not despite what happened to Willie Horton but because of it, not despite the Iraq War or bail-out of the banks, but because of them.

Friends will have seen the clips in which Trump is given the opportunity to say he will accept the result of the election – and he refuses it. This isn’t a good sign – the effect such words have on his base is troubling.

But it is no more healthy to see parts of the American state (the army, the Secret Services) being treated heroes, standing in the last redoubt before the collapse of democracy. Or to see former officers speculating on the necessity of a coup to unseat Trump, using “the once-unthinkable scenario of authoritarian rule in the United States,” as a justification for the sending the army to the streets. After Grenada, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iraq (again), maybe it’s time to grasp that sending in the US army doesn’t result in more democracy for protesters but less.

The argument that Trump is akin to fascism rests on his campaign rhetoric, and the threat posed by his alliance with an extreme right online and on the streets, not on his record in office.

If Trump really was a fascist then some of this blindness about the past might be justified. If, for example, Trump was about to steal the election … If he was about to show a vastly greater contempt towards American voters than (say) even George Bush in 2000 … If he was about to call an army of his supporters onto the streets to invalidate a popular vote, and you could realistically expect the Patriots kill hundreds of people. If the left was genuinely facing that immediate catastrophe – then an alliance with liberals would make sense, even if meant biting our collective tongues and keeping silent through a great deal of annoying myth-making.

On the other hand, if Trump isn’t a fascist, then how could that alliance be justified?

The theme of my book is not whether Trump (or Modi or Bolsonaro are fascists). Back in 2019, I tried to answer that question, and nothing since has changed my understanding.

What I’m trying to do in this book is slightly different. It invites readers to look the past square in the eye, and set out in clear terms what fascism was.

We need a book which speaks of the role played by fascism in the Holocaust and the World War – the millions of lives that fascism took – and tries to explain what it was about fascism that caused it to become more militant in office. Why it played a different role in office not just from conservatism, but from the other reactionary regimes most similar to it.

That’s the book I’ve written.

Fascism – a playlist

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As part of the build-up to the launch of my new book on Fascism, I thought I’d make the book a playlist. For people who’ve got Spotify, I’ve also posted this playlist there (daver1917/My antifascist songs)

Joy Division, Atmosphere

Cabaret, Tomorrow Belongs To Me

Johnny Cash, Folsom Prison Blues

Stranglers, No More Heroes

Siouxse and the Banshees, Metal Postcard

Elvis Costello, Night Rally

Jan Delay, www hitler de

Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit

British Sea Power, Something Wicked

Ana Tijoux, Mi Verdad

A letter to my readers

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In a week’s time (on September 20th), I’ll be publishing a new book called Fascism. If you follow this blog then you’ll know already that it isn’t altogether new.

Twenty year ago, I published a first ‘Fascism’ book, and it remains one of my books of which I’m the proudest. Among the people who read it and corresponded with me where people I’ve known ever since: friends from Glasgow and Belfast and Dunedin. Friends from uni whose ideas, whether about fascism or about the crisis of our own times, I’m still grappling with. The idea, that we might be living in a world whose constituent parts were heading towards fascism, was taken up by readers. I received letters from Tehran. I saw the book behind passed from hand to hand in Grahamstown in South Africa. Maoists in India invited me to write for their magazines.

It was my real first book, and for any writer that’s a moment to remember: you make yourself naked before the whole world. And you wait, and you watch, and you hope you don’t look ridiculous.

From the 20th, I’m hoping that reviews will start appearing. When they do, I’ll share them here.

In advance of then, I wanted to explain what’s different about this edition.

First of all, the book is now called Fascism: History and Theory. Last time, I began with the theory, this time I begin with history. In the last four years, more English-speaking writers have been talking about whether we are returning to a moment like the 1930s than at any stage in my lifetime. And the people most animated by this possibility aren’t even the far left. They’re Judges for the Booker prize, they’re Barack Obama, they’re advocates of American power like Madeleine Albright.

The political activist in me understands why you need to ask the question. Occasionally, I’ve been asking it too.

But the more that people fix on that possibility, the more they seem to invoke the least important parts of fascism. So fascism is now said to be a movement which creeps into power. (No movement in history shouted more or crept less). Or it is evil because it promoted separate routes of national development rather than an international order (when for four hundred years capitalism has alternated between periods of “autarky” and of “globalisation”). Or because it directed some of its appeals to workers. (Without that, how would any right-wing party win an election?).

For that reason, my book doesn’t say very much at all about the analogy between the 1930s and today, rather it focuses on explaining fascism was, in its own historical context. Maybe afterwards, people will say “sure, we’re heading that way”, or maybe not – either answer is capable of satisfying me. But neither answer can be convincing unless both sides have a shared understanding of the past and one which is true to the past. Unless you’ve got that shared understanding – unless you understand for example both the scale of the Holocaust and its origins in older forms of colonial rule – then both sides are just talking past each other.

Second, I try to explain in more detail than in any other book I’ve read what the sharpest left-wing theories of fascism had in common. (The book is essentially about “Marxism”, but you’ll find in the book Marxist-feminists, Black Marxists, Socialist, Communists, dissident Marxists, even anarchists).

To put that explanation together I’ve had to think hard about certain things I left vague twenty years ago. About debates between Trotsky and Thalheimer. About Walter Benjamin and his critique of a certain kind of productivist thinking, and where that leaves “Marxism“.

I don’t want to be more specific than that here – these issues are what the book’s about, and will determine whether people are still reading it in five or ten years’ time.

Last, the book – in it’s opening pages, talks about anti-fascism as well as fascism. It tries to explain what people do when they adopt an anti-fascist consciousness, and the wager they make to themselves. And the thought processes which are common to almost all anti-fascism.

Hope too, I hope you’ll find ideas which speak to you.

[The book itself can be ordered here or here].