One of the things I’ve discussed in this blog is my 1999 book Fascism: Theory and Practice (FTP) and in particular the metaphor I used there of the 1990s as being like the 1930s albeit in slow motion. Now this idea was not mine alone but was happily plagiarised – as any reader at the time would have spotted – from the Socialist Workers Party of which I was then a member. For within that part between about 1994 and 2001 that was one of the group’s verbal tics.
The words suggested that the world would see quite quickly (i.e. possibly by the end of the decade) the emergence of mass fascist and mass Communist parties, or their apparent successors, and that these two camps would then face off in an ideological civil war akin to the conflict at Spain in 1936, etc.
Those auditioning for that part on the right were the Euro-fascist parties (FN, MSI/AN, Freedom Party, here the BNP) while on the left there was the SWP which had grown in recent times to a claimed 10,000 members (a figure which was not a fantasy in 1993-4, although the group began to shrink again soon after). The SWP’s international affiliates in the US, Germany, Turkey etc, were also cast to play huge roles in history.
This perspective was not quite as inflated as I’ve made it sound. Depending on who you spoke to, and what was in the news that day, the emphasis might be put either on “the 1930s” or the “slow motion”. By about 1996, for example, it had become apparent that in Britain Tony Blair was popular. And would remain so for some years to come. (I remember SWP conferences where we used to debate how long the honeymoon would last: some thought there would be none, pessimists suggested perhaps as long as a year). But, as soon as Blair started to lose ground with voters, we predicted, everyone to his left would grow. And the SWP with its Marxism conference, its members in the unions, its credibility arising from involvement in student, anti-war and anti-fascist campaigns, was as well placed as anyone to win over disappointed Labour supporters.
My sole tweak to that perspective in FTP was a literary one, to speak of the 1930s as a mediated experience – one captured on newsreel: “the film winds, but for the moment at a slower speed”.
Here what I want to do is explain where that perspective came from – and what it meant for the SWP and the way we thought about the far right. In a second piece I’ll then try to explore it in its own terms, asking how much value there is or was in drawing that analogy between the 1930s and our own times.
The 1930s and Trotskyism
Plainly, the distant origins of the term lie in a particular reading of world history, and in the Trotskyist tradition to which the SWP increasingly obviously belonged.
If you go back to the 1938 founding congress of Trotsky’s Fourth International, the programme published by its founding congress was titled, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International.
Here, Trotsky argued that the victory of fascism in Germany, and the collapse represented by the failure of the German Communists, hundreds of thousands strong, to organise any resistance to Hitler represented a break in Socialist history.
1933 and the events which followed it were “the greatest defeats of the proletariat in history.” They were the fault of international Stalinism which now lay utterly discredited: “The cause for these defeats is to be found in the degeneration and perfidy of the old leadership.”
At any moment, there was available only one party of the working class: “The class struggle does not tolerate an interruption.” Therefore it was legitimate to launch a new party, indeed a series of parties, which would soon take over from the Communists as the most significant forces of the global far left. “Workers – men and women – of all countries, place yourselves under the banner of the Fourth International. It is the banner of your approaching victory!”
The SWP had previously had quite a conflicted relationship to this passage in Trotskyist history. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the predecessors of the SWP had argued that this programme offered hardly any useful guidance at all.
For the Trotskyists of the 1930s had been in no position to lead the global working class. They were too few, too weakly rooted. What they built (in 1938-9) were discussion groups, factions without armies. Then, the SWP argued, between 1945 and 1968, the world had gone into an extended boom. Thus, a perspective which saw the world as being on the verge of revolution had been invalidated by events. Rather the 1950 and 1960s had been an epoch of reformism, the peaceful growth of trade unions, etc.
Here is one SWP leader Duncan Hallas writing in 1971, on the difference between the 1930s and the situation of the postwar left:
“When, for example, Trotsky described the German Communist Party of the 1920s and early thirties as the vanguard of the German working class, the characterisation was apt. Not only did the party itself include, amongst its quarter of a million or so members, the most enlightened, energetic and self-confident of the German workers; it operated in a working class which, in its vast majority, had absorbed some of the basic elements of Marxist thought and which was confronted, especially after 1929, with a deepening social crisis which could not be resolved within the framework of the Weimar Republic.”
“In that situation the actions of the party were of decisive importance. What it did, or failed to do, influenced the whole subsequent course of European and world history. The sharp polemics about the details of tactics, history and theory, which were the staple output of the oppositional communist groups of the period, were entirely justified and necessary. In the given circumstances the vanguard was decisive. In Trotsky’s striking metaphor, switching the points could change the direction of the whole heavy train of the German workers’ movement.”
“Today the circumstances are quite different. There is no train. A new generation of capable and energetic workers exists but they are no longer part of a cohesive movement and they no longer work in a milieu where basic Marxist ideas are widespread. We are back at our starting point. Not only has the vanguard, in the real sense of a considerable layer of organised revolutionary workers and intellectuals, been destroyed. So too has the environment, the tradition, that gave it influence.”
A first lurch to catastrophism
The perspective of the 1930s in slow motion was drawn up in sight of what was plainly going to be a coming Labour government.
This wasn’t the first time that the SWP (or, at least enlarged post-1968 IS/SWP) had had to respond to a Labour government.
In 1974-9, the group had gone into a previous Labour government with an unspoken perspective of expecting strikes to break out and the stewards’ movement to continue. That perspective had smashed against the actual experience of Labour government, the mass increase in unemployment, the demobilisation of the trade unions, etc.
But rather than dial down expectations, the 1974-9 International Socialists (as the group was then called) and then SWP (the name was changed in winter 1976-7) had ramped them up.
So that in 1974-9 the group had already swung towards an over-inflated sense of what it could do (save that this was seriously moderated by the group’s involvement in the mass movement of the Anti-Nazi League). Rank and file groups withered, emphasis was placed instead on a nascent unemployed workers’ campaign (Right to Work).
Socialist Worker was changed into a “punk paper” with a sports column and soaps and a perspective of winning thousands of new readers.
Candidates stood in elections, often winning derisory votes.
The name SWP, and its underlying perspective that the group was capable of being transformed into a mass party was adopted with a minimum of discussion, save only for the notable dissent of one former long-time member Peter Sedgwick:
“Since we cannot, in the present bad political climate, change class reality very much, the conclusion is drawn that we have to perform changes on the name of IS itself, in the delusion that this is some step towards the actual construction of a revolutionary socialist workers’ party. If the CC decided that we should walk around with our bottoms painted bright green, doubtless it would have a electrifying effect on the morale of our membership (for a short time at least). There might even be a case for some such publicity venture; joking apart, we can always do with fresh propaganda on party questions. But what would anyone think of a Party whose Central Committee produced its suggestions for Green Bottoms in a few badly argued paragraphs, circulated, without real District discussion, before a Party Council, got a resounding 99 per cent vote for the proposed face-lift from the Council with virtually no argument on this or the obvious points about the election, and proceed to give us six months to declare ourselves to the world in this new disguise. This is not a party, but a circus. it does not form the basis for a democratic workers party but for a bureaucratic charade, sanctioned by plebiscite without discussion.”
Sedgwick blamed the shift on the founder of the SWP Tony Cliff, and his still-recent shift to a model of organisation which Cliff termed Leninism:
“How easy it is in these circumstances to shoot off-course, trusting to the ‘intuition’ which Comrade Cliff has celebrated in the life of Lenin but which is, at its worst, impressionism mingled with emotion.”
Tony Cliff was also the most important (but not the only) person advocating for the adoption of the “slow motion” phrase, and the thinking which underpinned it.
I recall attending a student event in February 1995 at which he spoke, suggesting that fascism was on the rise, and that the people in the room had only a few years left. Either Marxism or fascism would triumph, and we should apply ever sinew to make sure it was the former.
I recall the speech, and my surprise at it, for its vision of soon-coming millennial transformation was at odds with anything I had heard in the group until then.
Even when the idea of the 1930s in slow motion became more pervasive, which it did over the next few months, the way most people argued it was as kind of structuring idea, a warning an ambition, rather than a prediction of imminent catastrophe.
“Sometimes,” writes Cliff’s biographer Ian Birchall, “Cliff seemed torn between two timescales.” In this period, he was still capable of pointing out that the transition from feudalism to capitalism had taken several centuries.
But alongside these moments, you could also see Cliff writing (as in one late book, Trotskyism After Trotsky) that Trotsky’s 1938 programme “fits reality again”.
I want to focus on what this strategy told us about the fascist groups. For in 1922 and 1933, Mussolini and then Hitler had come into power alongside other parties and capable of governing (it seemed) only with the support of parties closer to the centre: conservatives, nationalists and representatives of the army.
For half a year between spring 1994 and early 1995, a party of fascist origin the National Alliance held several seats in Berlusconi’s Cabinet. Again between 2000 and 2005 a second party of fascist origin the Freedom Party was a minority within an Austrian government.
Was this history repeating itself? If not, why not?
Fascist in government: Italy and Austria
“Fascists are in government for the first time since the end of the Second World War,” Dave Beecham warned in May 1994, on the announcement of the first Berlusconi government.
“Anyone who doubts the true nature of the MSI merely has to open their eyes and unblock their ears. Before the election the MSI leader Gianfranco Fini made a ‘pilgrimage’ to the graves of murdered partisans to demonstrate his repudiation of the past. Directly the results were announced, Fini appeared in Rome surrounded by 1,000 goose stepping thugs. He then gave an interview to the newspaper La Stampa in which he declared that Mussolini was ‘the greatest statesman of the 20th century’ and that Berlusconi would have great difficulty in living up to him.”
So should we expect concentration camps to be built, and the Italian left jailed?
Well, yes it seemed, “These are critical days for Italian socialists.”
And then straight away no: “The new government is riddled with contradictions. Berlusconi is attempting to ride three horses moving in different directions. There are clear signs that many of those who voted for the League want nothing to do with the MSI.”
We predicted the worst. But then, when it failed to materialise, we had no explanation for why it had not come.
Lindsey German wrote, in the aftermath of Berlusconi’s fall: “The danger in this situation is that the fascists can grow from the weakness and divisions of the other right wing parties. While Berlusconi himself could not create a stable government, he could pave the way for the much greater threat of Gianfranco Fini’s MSI.”
Thus we lived in a present where fascism was always coming, but it never quite arrived.
We were like Atalanta in Zeno’s paradox, who can walk from place to place only by covering half the distance between where she is now and her final destination. She covers a half the ground in one stride, and then in her next step a quarter, then an eighth, with the result that she never quite arrives at the point she was aiming.
So it was with us when we thought about fascism. It could be a small minority party in government, an equal partner. Its ministers could have responsibility for the army and the police. But still we were warning about the prospect of fascism in the future.
And this, I want to suggest in my next piece was not a unique position to one small group on the British left. It is also the main way in which much larger numbers of people have been thinking about the far -right in the US and Europe since 2016.