Until the last year, when activists have thought about post-war fascism, the sorts of example we have often had in mind has been something like Britain’s National Front. At the end of the 1970s, this was a successful far-right electoral party: between 1976 and 1977 its results included 40,000 votes in Leicester, 8% of the vote in Stechford in Birmingham, and 120,000 votes in London, with a credible third place in thirty three of the seats it contested there.
The Front was recognisably a fascist party: a point argued most persuasively by the social psychologist Michael Billig. In parties of this sort, he argued, there is always a difference between their ‘exoteric’ ideas (i.e. the message that is aimed at the general public) and their ‘esoteric’ ideology (i.e. the philosophy that is used, internally, to motivate the core activists).
The Front was both far-right and fascist: it had leaders who had grown up in a neo-Nazi milieu, were conscious of and loyal to the politics of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s. Individuals such as John Tyndall and Martin Webster filled their speeches with phrases borrowed from classical fascism. They intended to capture the state and purge the civil servants, the press, the church, and replace them with NF supporters who would be loyal to them.
The Front was harassed by anti-fascists and became unpopular. In 1979, it suffered a major reverse when despite standing 300 candidates in a general election it won just 0.2% of the vote.
One feature of the Front’s politics was that while it was fascist, at the same time, this politics caused the party significant shame. The leaders of the NF knew they needed to modernise, but where to they couldn’t decide. John Tyndall warned National Front supporters against, ‘surround[ing] themselves with obscurantist regalia, tap[ping] the sides of their armchairs to martial music and defer[ring] to political leaders of a bygone age’. John Bean confesses in his memoir to having suffered nightmares at the thought of the Holocaust’s victims. Following the 1979 election, the party split into four hostile camps. Those who opposed the old leadership blamed the Front’s failure on the old guard’s previous history in neo-Nazi cells, their willingness to be photographed in SA-style uniforms. Jenny Doyle, another founder member wrote, “If the Party is ever going to succeed it must rid itself of all the N[ational] S[ocialist] diehards”
This shame was an important asset for anti-fascists. While the National Front was growing, it was able to ignore accusations of fascism. But when the organisation stalled, the criticism served to lever apart its most committed members from their periphery.
Since 1945, indeed, the exposure of fascist shame has perhaps been ta key tactic of anti-fascists. It is an approach however that can only work with a particular kind of adversary. To say to a supporter of Hitler in 1933, ‘You are a fascist’, would have been no insult. Of course they were, and proud of it. Equally, if you are faced with people with no organic link to fascism whatsoever, the accusation does not hurt. If someone can say, with a straight face that they are not a fascist, they have no interest in fascism, and that if fascism was alive today they would oppose it – then to shout back at them ‘But you really are a fascist’ would be meaningless and ineffective.
When thinking about the far right now, the most striking feature is the heterogeneity of the right. In the 1980s and 1990s, the most important trend was what you might call ‘Euro-fascism’, i.e. a kind of politics which like the National Front in Britain sought to combine a principally-electoral form of organisation with a certain consciousness of loyalty to the fascism if the 1930s. The exemplary party was in many ways that Italian Social Movement (MSI). By 1994, it was so strong that it was capable of joining a government coalition, in support of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. For anti-fascists alive then, this was a terrifying moment: the last minority fascists to enter government in Europe had been Mussolini and Hitler. Yet the MSI, by now renamed the National Alliance (NA) failed to dominate that government, fell in behind the kleptocratic personality of Berlusconi and failed to push the state in a more authoritarian direction.
Other Euro-fascists since then have included Britain’s BNP (which won 50 council seats and 2 MEPS but ultimately failed to modernise) and Le Pen’s Front National, which has followed the same direction of travel as MSI/AN without – quite – breaking the links to the 1930s.
After 9/11, the most dynamic groups on the right have tended to be organisations such as Pegida or the EDL – Islamophobic rather than fascist, social movements rather than parties, without an ideology of personal leadership, and with no real continuity of personnel to previous fascist parties. The National Front’s Chairman was, significantly A. K. Chesterton – one of the very few British fascists of the 1930s to have fought for Britain rather than Hitler. The members of the EDL, by contrast, gathered in pubs where they sang the Dam Busters theme tune. While the parties of the 1970s needed a ‘good’ fascist to front up a group that was otherwise loyal to the tradition of Hitler and Mussolini; the successful far right of our own times feels no such loyalty to the past.
An analogy could be drawn with the way in which the activists of the left sometimes imagine our own tradition. In the early days of the socialist movement, it was common for leftists to conceive of our past as a sort of intellectual family tree. So, at one time, there was Thomas More with his idea of Utopia, then there were the Levellers, the Diggers, the Chartists, Marx, Engels, New Unionism, and so on. The idea expressed in that way of looking at the past is that at any moment, there are people trying to push history in a revolutionary and egalitarian direction. They inhabit the same point in the political spectrum even if there is no ideological continuity at all from one generation to the next. Perhaps the same dynamic has been taking place on the right: that there are today counter-revolutionaries and inegalitarians, occupying the same point on the left-right spectrum as fascism, yet with no continuity of ideas or organisation between their generation and the counter-revolutionaries on the right who preceded them.
The most important development, just now, is the effect that Trump has had in galvanising politics at every point on the far-right spectrum. Some of this is down to Trump himself who occupies a liminal space between standard conservatism and the non-fascist far-right. The language of his speeches employs what fascism scholars call an ideology national palingenesis (the idea that America will be reborn under his leadership). He has travelled to far-right parties in other countries, notably Poland, and given speeches promoting their own right-wing myths. The rejection of mainstream politics, the willingness to work with Bannon and Breitbart, the idea of Presidential government as a kind of CEO-state occupied by large numbers of the ultra-rich, all these are politics as practised by far right.
Indeed between summer 2016 and summer 2017, there was a process of convergence under which political forces which normally inhabit separate and distinct parts of the right-wing spectrum were working together as if they were allies: conservatives (Trump and the Republicans), the non-fascist far-right (Farage, Bannon, Gorka), and fascists (Le Pen).
If the process has been halted since it was only as a result of Charlottesville which raised the stakes for the non-fascists in this coalition, putting so much pressure on Trump that he was forced for the first time to distance himself from his erstwhile allies.
Is there still such a thing as a fascist ‘shame’? You saw it at Chalottesville – although not so much among the fascists who were there, as among their allies.
You saw it, in a different way, when Richard Spencer was punched by a protester. You may remember the exchange that precedes the blow. Spencer is asked, ‘Are you a neo-Nazi?’ He answers, ‘No I am not a neo-Nazi,’ but there is a look on Spencer’s face, a look of smug contempt, an inability or lack of desire to explain to this particular audience the particular way in which Spencer tells himself he has exchanged fascism for a more sophisticated theory of its co-thinkers. It’s the look – ‘I’m not, I’m not: but I am really‘ – which justifies the blow that follows.
In the last year, we have seen – since Trump’s victory – the reemergence of fascist groups operating in a mimetic relationship to the past, copying the politics of the 1930s. We have also seen fascist politics, eg a return to the open, naked, anti-semitism of the past.
Yet the sense remains that the most dangerous people aren’t the open fascists who are weakened, after all, by the continuing taboo associated with that past. The ones to watch are the people who are shaped by the crises of 9/11 and 2008 rather than the events of eighty years ago.