Is History repeating itself? The 1930s and now


Keeping on with the discussion of my book, Fascism Theory and Practice, in the light of the new edition, which will be published in ten days; how should we understand the rise of the far-right in comparison with the 30s?

A good place to start, is with chapter 1 of Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, and the passage in which Marx is reflecting on the way in which Napoleon III invoked his uncle Napoleon I in order to make his own government seem all the greater. “all great world-historic facts and personages appear,” Marx wrote, “twice … the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”.

It is not difficult to find instances of fascism-as-repetition-and-as-farce. Think of John Tyndall, warning the members of the (British) National Front 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”. Or of Frank Collin, the (American) Nazi leader in the same era: short, balding, detested by his own supporters, and desperately hiding from them the fact that his own surname was Cohen. In both cases, inept and unimposing people were seeking to conceal their failure by putting on the symbols of cruelty.

In the same passage, Marx goes on to write, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.”

The most dangerous elements of our own far right organise in a world where fascism remains a despised legacy. For that reason, they reject the spirits of the past, refuse the names or battle-slogans. They insist that they are beyond the ghosts of the past.

In short, the people drawing the analogies between Hitler or Mussolini and Donald Trump are not Trump or his supporters, but his enemies.

There’s a very long tradition in American politics, because the policy differences between the two main parties are so narrow, insisting that far more is at stake than there ever is.

Since the 1940s, Democrats have repeatedly accused their Republican rivals of sympathy for fascism, and the Republicans have repeatedly accused their enemies of actual or concealed communism. Each of those warnings has been wrong before.

And yet, there is something different about Trump: in the way he calls his supporters onto the street, in the way he uses Twitter to promote open anti-Semites and neo-Nazis, in the way he tries to protect even those caught with a warm gun in their hand from punishment.

In the time Trump has been in the White House, far-right ideas have grown faster than at any time since 1945: the period 2016-19 saw such troubling “records” as the worst anti-Semitic attack in all of American history, the largest far-right street protest in British history, the most amount of votes for a far right candidate in any European election since the war.

When I shared my last piece, one friend joked that the idea of the 1930s in slow motion had been proved right – just two decades later than its authors thought. Is that right? Are there any historical analogies which help us to explain what’s happening now.

In the book I brought out last year, The New Authoritarians, I tried to answer this by looking at the period from 2016-19 as a whole, as a single moment in history which had a different expression in each of the United States, Brazil, France, Britain, etc, and yet each country produced noticeably similar forms of politics in each of them. The growing part of the right, I insisted, was not fascism, rather it was poised awkwardly between conservatism and fascism, sharing with the former the key characteristic that it was electoral rather than counter-revolutionary. It was a militant form of the electoral right, but still committed to parliamentary change. There was a process at work in which far-right breakthough in one country led to advance in another. But the principal beneficiaries – Trump, Farage, Bolsonaro and Le Pen – still represented greater continuity with the recent past than with the politics of 80 years ago.

In that book, I set out three different ways of thinking about our moment in comparison with previous decades.

ANALOGY 1: 2016-19 as a new 1979-80

One analogy which I argued was at least partially true was with what you might call the neo-liberal turn of 1979-80. IE that two major election results, the victories of Thatcher and Reagan on comparable political programmes had hastened the demise of a long epoch of history (the statist capitalism of the 1950s-70s) and saw its replacement with something different (neoliberalism). That process had then seen numerous emulators throughout the world. You saw the right renew itself and changing and the left following it onto the same ground.

One way to understand 1979-80 is to think that capitalism always goes through phases, some in which it is stateist (i.e. in which it is argued that the state has to be used to monitor the economy, to plan production, and to create the conditions for capitalism to flourish), some the reverse.

There are shorter and longer cycles of opinion which serve to make either nationalisation or privatisation ascendant.

On this model, Trump and Brexit would create the conditions for a reversal of those elements of right-wing ascendancy which had insisted on budget cutting, tax cutting, the essential immorality of using the state to protect the poor.

If this analogy turns out to be correct then you might expect the very “militant” electoral right of 2016-19 to lose in 2020 and burn itself out quickly, Trump’s Twitter account with its 70 million followers to rapidly lose its inteest, and the long-term consequences of Trump to be “just” the establishment of a welfarist and racist vision of electoral right politics, serving as a positive tale for a future generation of populist-but-not-worse politicians. Nationalism would be more typical, the free market globalism of the 1990s would be off the agenda. But the process of radicalisation would stop were it had got to by 2019 and go no further.

ANALOGY 2: 2016-19 as new epoch of fascism

The second (overt) comparison which I also argued was at least partially true was with the 1930s. Conservatives had stopped denouncing fascists, rather they had invited them to join them in sharing power. This has an echo, to some extent, of the calculations which led to the invitations of Hitler and Mussolini into power – both of whom came there with the blessing of other, more moderate forces, on the European centre-right.

In 2016-19, the taboo against political violence to some extent fell, as had the sense on the electoral right that part of its survival was bound up with relegating its extremists. It used to be part of the political wisdom of the right that, much though you might dog-whistle racism in order to make sure certain kinds of voters stuck with you, you didn’t invite them to join you in Congress of in Parliament. Think of the different way that one generation of Republicans dealt with the challenge of David Duke (by calling on their voters to vote Democrat to stop him), and the way that today’s generation deals with such QAnon fans as Laura Loomer.

You could see in spring 2020 what an ongoing cycle of this sort might look like if it continued remorselessly onwards: with Modi encouraging state terror against Muslims, Trump calling his armed supporters onto the streets… Until eventually you would have a recreation of the 1930s model, i.e. reactionary regimes in power, employing a continuous model of popular mobilisation against their enemies, while delivering no change in their economic lives, and this process continuing to the point where the new authoritarians would have nothing left to offer their supporters but genocide against their racial enemies and inter-imperial war.

ANALOGY 3: 2016-19 as a permanent revolution of the right

There is a third analogy which The New Authoritarians hinted at: the idea of a fast moving (counter-)revolution which spreads across borders, with development in one country reinforcing another, and this process of mutual emulation and competition and radicalisation causing the (counter-) revolution to deepen itself so that what you get is a process more like 1917-19 (or at least 1917 as understood by its most consistent advocates) except that what you end up with is a counter-revolution of the right.

For people who know their left theory, what I was really thinking about is what we used to call permanent revolution, except this time it would be a counter-revolutionary transformation of the right, which would change the parties of the right turning them from advocates of electoral power and compromise with the existing order (reformists of the right, i.e. conservatives) and transformed them into something different and worse.

One of the things this loose analogy captures, I hope, is what conditions would be needed to make the threat of a genuine new fascism real.

Essentially, you would need to have several states falling into practices that looked like fascism, and a number of them doing it at once, and copying the parties of each other’s programmes that were most like fascism.

If history really wanted us to put us back in the 1930s you’d need two Trump regimes, one in American and one of equal status except in India or Brazil, and the two leaders in a constant right-wing shouting match, each as much on social media as they were in politics, and each bombarding each other with taunts and reasons to go further. Each of them would have to be, meaningfully, post-democratic regimes. Not just excluding millions of voters from the franchise (as had been prevalent in American politics since 1945, with poll taxes and other forms of electoral disqualification being used routinely, and for decades of that history by each of the country’s two main parties). But ruling without term-limits, or caring about elections at all.

To speak like this is to recall how far away that future remains.

There are any number of social processes which tend to make fascism more monstrous a possibility than it has ever been: the decline of inter-personal violence in the last fifty years, the acceptance of human equality as an organising concept in our culture, our society and our law. The residual legacy of the Second World War, including the stigma against fascism.

While the legacy of Trump in terms of building up the public profile of the far right has been grotesque, his record as an authoritarian has been much less impressive. If you think about the physical expressions of Trump government that many of us expected in 2016, we assumed by now that there were would dozens of extra miles on his wall with Mexico, we expected the number of deportations from America to have soared. Some of us (I certainly did) expected Trump to have tried his deal-making style on other international leaders, to have been rebuffed, and for crisis to have escalated to the brink of war. None of these have happened.

For all Trump’s boosting of his authoritarian friends, for all his lying and his threats of violence; his actual record as an aspirant dictator has been pitifully small.

I suppose that’s why I want Trump to lose; not because I think of him as a fascist, but because I want to laugh at him. I want to find some pleasure in the contrast between the ambitions of the people he summoned onto the streets, and the poverty of what he’s achieved. Make American great again? He hasn’t even managed to make the US state any crueller than it was already. For all the fire and fury, Trump in office has been the same, in every important way the same as what passed for ordinary government before.

But I, or anyone else I know, won’t laugh at him till he’s gone.



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