Saturday July 14 will see the next mobilisation of the Tommy Robinson fan club in central London; large parts of the left have settled on a (perfectly sensible) plan to confront him, i.e. to attend the anti-Trump protests and to seek to persuade as many of the participants as possible to turn out the next day against Tommy. Over the next few weeks I’ll post material in support of that approach – explaining what sort of movement this is on the right, why the convergence of electoralism (UKIP) and non-electoralist bits of the right (the causals) is possible, and what I think the strategy of the organising core is. I’ll also try to explain why the mobilisations on the left have been so painfully small and why (irrespective of what happens on 14 July) a new anti-fascist politics and new organisations are urgently needed. Unlike the rest of the left, who have rushed out hot takes – many of them with a pretty poor sense of who the forces are that we are facing (Nigel Farage supports Tommy? No he doesn’t…) – I won’t rush to produce these articles, probably most of my pieces will appear in the last week or so before we get to July 14. If anyone is interested in what I write and wants to help out – contact me.
“Saranson [had] thin flaxen hair … His eyes were sparks at the bottom of two dark wells”
Let me start with the origins of my book Fascism: Theory and Practice. I will then set out – using a deliberately old-fashioned, Marxist term – what my perspective would be if I was to think today about the same questions now.
When I wrote the book, I had gone straight from undergraduate work to a PhD and the book originated as a literature review to accompany a project of mapping out the relationship between fascism and anti-fascism in Britain in the three key periods of 1936-9, 1941-1951 and 1972-1979.
My PhD looked, in a very British History purely empirical fashion, at the second of these periods. I later published a further monograph looking at the 1970s. Whatever the merits or otherwise of my two books on the 1940s and 1970s, they were animated by a key insight, namely that the right has always had to deal with the problem of hostility from the left and that its strategies for dealing with opposition have at certain key moments been central to what the right has been.
Whether that’s Mosley’s turn to National Socialism in 1934, or his Hegelianism in the 1940s and 1950s or the BNP’s electoral strategy in the 1990s – every one of these moves, it can sensibly be argued, did not rise “from within” but principally to address the problems caused by determined opposition.
Similar thinking, of course, informs my book on fascism. Although the focus there is not on British but on generic (Italian, German and post-war) fascism.
A further idea in the book was that if war or genocide were ever to return to the most wealthiest countries of the world this could come about only through fascism. Here, I want to explore today some of the unspoken assumptions that underpinned this belief. One was an unspoken idea that countries such as the United States or Britain had made a long-term shift towards both political and social democracy. For someone who grew up, as I did, in the 1970s it was easy to tell yourself that a society which prioritised health care, pensions, etc, would never except in the very most extreme circumstances adopt a policy of inter-power war or domestic genocide. Of course, even I was a younger I was well aware that there were still wars, but these were exported to what we used to call the Third World.
That could change, I assumed, but only as a result of the emergence of political forces which called publicly for return to genocide and war. And the only political movement which had advocated these as options at any time since 1914 were fascists.
Another idea which lay behind the book was that there were structural limits to the number of political forms which were capable of becoming majority movements. In other words, capitalism gave rise to conservatism, socialism, liberalism, communism and fascism. And there the list ended.
Fascism was a recurring presence in the 1970s, in memory of the 1920s and 1930s when it had taken the feelings of bewilderment and alienation that arose in an epoch of reformist modernisation, and the perceived threat of the far-left, and sought to build against them both a counter-revolutionary alternative. But because the post-war period was an epoch of polarised near-majorities, there was a limited space for ideological diversity.
In the 1970s and 1980s, it was common for commentators to use the term “far right” as a short-hand for mimetic fascist parties formed in conscious emulation of the 1930s. In my book, I am very critical of that language.
One possibility I excluded, however, was a genuine “far right” – i.e. a series of parties, in several countries, working in more or less alliance, who were permanently at ease in a political space which was different both from traditional conservatism and fascism. A party like UKIP, in Britain. Or the victory of Donald Trump.
When I wrote Fascism: Theory and Practice I was interested in how fascist parties had been radicalised to the right. This was a phenomenon which had no other sustained counterpart at any time since the adoption of democracy. We are more than familiar with the process by which legality had tamed outsider movements of the left. IE presented with a dominant politics which was close enough to their own, the socialists had reached a rapprochement existing capitalist elites. And in the 1960s and 1970s something similar happened to the European Communist Parties, most coherently in Italy. And of course there have been several outsider movements of the right which crashed and burned and left no legacy.
Through the early post-war years fascism, irrespective of its different goals and origins, maintained a fascination partly because it had not gone through a similar process of self-domestication but had in fact radicalised in office.
The reasons for fascism’s radicalisation were in part internal, there was a tension between fascism’s popular base and its reactionary politics and in order to resolve this tension fascism had to promise ever more things to its supporters, i.e. because it couldn’t offer them social utopia it had to give them genocide and war. This was the core argument of Fascism: Theory and Practice, that a contradictory political formation might in fact draw energy precisely from its unsustainable, broken nature.
This dynamic was also in part external (and in my book I underestimate the way in which fascism was the product of relationships between rival international parties), i.e. that there was an epoch of emulation and competition in which Hitler copied Mussolini’s march on Rome, his influence over other right-wing states in Austria and Spain, etc. He took Mussolini’s victories, drew on, and overreached them.
Fascism’s energy is why its definition of fascism mattered – because if fascism could be identified, the threat of war and genocide would be averted.
Where I think the anti-fascism I argued in the 1990s was principally wrong is that I failed to see that the historical context had changed. While I borrowed from the left of which I was part the phrase that the 1990s was like the 1930s in a slow motion, there was no analysis behind that phrase, no real sense that for twenty years we had been living in a world characterised not by reforms but by their opposite.
If I was going to begin defining fascism today my starting point would be this: that the age of social reform is over. Whether it ended in 1973 (Chile) or 1979 or 1980, it has been over for an entire historical epoch.
In addition, outside an epoch of social reform, there is no structural limit to the forms of politics which are capable of winning majorities
In an age of social reform, it was possible for reformist parties to bind workers to them by passing laws to increase trade union rights or build social housing, these benefitted specific voters, who would in turn vote for that party. There was a consensus that reforms were desirable and politics was in many countries a contest between two managerial parties who converged on the aim of politics and challenged each other in the realism of competence. This meant that many political systems were in essence two-party competitions between one main social democratic and a conservative party. These was a limited space at each fringe for fascists and Communists, and no-one else.
In an epoch where reforms are being destroyed, the dominant form of voting is negative, people vote against neo-liberal parties which destroy industry, against social democracy which no longer delivers, against incumbent parties. We are no longer in a moment where the forms of politics are limited to a few main options which are reproduced internationally. Instead political forms are splintering. Indeed new forms emerge, of course, on the left as well as on the right.
In addition, the stigma against war and genocide has been radically diminished. We have had wars, Vietnam, Iraq, the constant ongoing war since 9/11. Meanwhile, although no developed country is formally at war some live under emergency regimes in response to the threat of terrorism and in others the threat of Islamism is used to justify the extension of the authoritarian state e.g. deportation regimes that would normally be sustainable only in wartime.
The monopoly of military technology by 5-6 of the richest states means that their inhabitants are never casualties of war, never saw death, and become glib about the consequence of war returning even between major states.
For all these reasons, we are seeing increasing numbers of states – not just in the periphery but also in the global core – whose political instincts are military and authoritarian. Attacks on migrants, refugees, travel bans are the new normal.
The utility of the equation “fascism = war and genocide” was that it was reversible (i.e. only fascism could returns us to an age of horrors). Outside an epoch of social reform, the equation has less use. War may come from other sources.
Fascism was only ever one form of mass, reactionary politics. And there is no particular reason why the reactionary mass movements of the future might not share some but not all of fascism’s external forms.
Moreover, because fascism’s name still has an overwhelming stigma, a future “fascism” would be far more effective if it emerged on a seemingly brand new basis, with the minimum copying in relation to the past. In consequence, the post-war history of the far right is of a series of attempts to reproduce the dynamic of fascism without needing fascism’s surface forms.
Yet, precisely because the right feels that it has escaped the past and is not vulnerable to the criticism “but you are just fascists”, you are starting to see a re-convergence between various aspects of interwar fascism and today’s non-fascist right.
Unlike the short twentieth century when the structure of the political system itself put real limits on what forms of politics were achievable, the structural limits of the present against authoritarianism are much less than they were.
The leading figures of the far right are well aware that fascism retains a considerable historical stigma and the further they distance themselves from fascism the more successful they are likely to be. Yet at the same time, they are aware that fascism was a complex and sophisticated reaction to historical opportunities. And that in so far as they want to emulate the rapid, dramatic changes that fascism once enacted, they have a motive for reassembling parts of fascist organisation and ideology.
So we see a return to executive rather than parliamentary rule, to anti-semitism, not from mere nostalgia or mimicry but because these behaviours help the non-fascist right achieve goals which are harder to win if the entire past has to be rejected.
The relationship of the non-fascist authoritarian right to inter-war fascism is therefore always of a dual character, with elements of both disavowal and re-adoption and indeed a constant shuffling between rejection and return.
The theory I am aiming towards is an “anti-fascist” theory of the far-right but I mean by that something very specific.
In the 1970s it was possible to shame a member of the National Front by calling them a fascist, by saying that they were the slaves of a leadership which was both indebted to its past and embarrassed by it. The same approach still worked, to some extent, as recently as the early 2000s. The extent of the contemporary far-right’s distancing from fascism means that this approach has lost its edge.
What is needed is a theoretical counterpart to the activist realisation that the crimes of Steve Bannon or Marine Le Pen are not the things that a different generation did before them, but what they will do in future, if only we let them.
… The closer Brexit comes to reality, the more that centrist voters have rebelled against the idea that last year’s 52-48 majority for exit justifies a complete break from Europe and its model of social liberalism.
Brexit is *not* the principal reason for Corbyn’s success. He has done well because of a manifesto which promised redistribution and renationalisation, and because of a turnout by young voters engaged by Corbyn’s record and his relaxed, personal style.
But it has helped to neutralise the attacks against him. Brexit’s irrationality, its unpopularity with young voters, and its premise that what the country needs is to restrict the migration of foreigners: these have helped Corbyn – in contrast to the autocratic-seeming Theresa May – to look like the leader whose time has come…
Me for Africa is a Country
The question of whether Donald’s Trump victory marks a triumph for fascism in the US depends, as always, on which definition of fascism you use.
For most of the past fifty years, the principal way in which theorists of fascism have defined it is by drawing up a list of surface phenomena which were shared by the Italian and German fascisms of the 1920s and 1930s: a belief in a strong party, a style of authoritarian leadership, an ideology which positioned itself as neither right nor left, racism, a belief in a new fascist man, etc.
Under the list method, Trump or Trumpism looks more unlike than like fascism: there isn’t a Trump “party”, Trump doesn’t demand the same sort of loyalty that Hitler or Mussolini expected, he is not offering a universal alternative to liberalism, socialism, etc.
Within liberal definitions of fascism, political scientists have long been aware that there is a problem. Around Italian and German fascism there were a series of other fascist parties some of which were more similar than not to them (eg the British Union of Fascists) some of which shared some but not all of these external forms (eg Francoism). How much would a “mimetic” (i.e. copying) semi-fascist movement need to share with fascism in order to qualify as fascist? There is no agreed answer.
The trend in liberal scholarship has been to replace the list method with an emphasis on one single factor which is said to define the essence of fascism, namely an ideology of national rebirth (“palingenesis”). The problem, as I argued in my book Fascism: Theory and Practice twenty years ago is that even national rebirth turns out to be a slippery place from which to view and understand fascism.
Almost every centre or right-wing politician of the past 100 years has said that their election will result in an improvement of the nation and more than a few have promised its transformation on their watch.
Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” undoubtedly looks like a promise of national palingenesis, but Ronald Reagan used exactly the same slogan, as did Margaret Thatcher. Silvio Berlusconi’s “Forza Italia” was barely different.
Compare for example this speech from a British political leader in 1996:
“Just think of it – Britain, the skills superpower of the world. Why not? Why can’t we do it? Achievement, aspiration fulfilled for all our people. Because a great people equals a Great Britain…”
“This is our mission for Britain today. We knew we could do better. And we did. We knew we could be better, we the Labour Party. And we are. Britain, too, can do better. Britain can be better than this. A thousand days to prepare for a thousand years – not just turning a page in history but writing a new book, building the greatness of our nation through the greatness of its people.”
And this from Trump on the campaign trail:
“Our failed establishment has brought us nothing but poverty at home, and disaster overseas. We are tired of economic and foreign policies that have bled this country dry. It is time for real change that puts the people back in charge. This election will decide who runs this country: the Corrupt Political Class – or you, the American People. That’s the choice. She’s with them – I’m with you. This is our last chance.”
Trump’s has an urgency which Tony Blair’s speech lacks, Tony Blair’s conversely has an idea of the nation as an organic being with its own history of decline or advance which is in these respects closer to the way in which the politicians of the 1920s and 1930s thought.
In case anyone misunderstands me, I am not saying that Tony Blair was a fascist; I am saying only that we live in a political culture where politicians are competing for the right to govern nation states and in that context national palingenesis is not a rare and unusual message limited only to the fringes of the extreme right, actually it is a near universal message of politicians of the parliamentary centre and right.
In Fascism: Theory and Practice, I argued that fascism was best understood as a specific form of reactionary mass politics.
The least important part of this definition was the phrase “specific form,” which was a partial nod to the list-definitions I have referred to already.
More important was the notion of “reactionary mass politics”. Here I was saying that the goal which fascists set themselves was to abolish social democracy (note, not revolutionary socialism but social democracy) and that the means the fascists chose to do so was a popular mobilisation (i.e. an organisation of people, whether small owners or white-collar or unemployed workers) to destroy the buildings, organisations and people of the trade unions and the parliamentary left. The paradox or if you like the motor of fascism was precisely the mobilisation of a group of people (workers) against the very organisations which were conventionally assumed to represent them.
Looking at Trump through this model it is plain that Trump is not a fascist and in fact bears very few points of comparison with the politics of the 1930s.
He isn’t waging a war against conventional democracy and neither does he possess a private army to achieve this victory.
He does have a counter-revolutionary ambition, as (of all people) Nigel Farage rightly remarked as he stood waiting to ascend in Trump’s golden elevator, but the focus of Trump’s ambition is not against social democracy but against the social victories that have been made after 1945 and belong to a different epoch from it – reformist feminism, LGBT rights, today’s (minimal) toleration of migrants rights etc.
Nor does a consciousness of social democracy play any recognisable part in his philosophy.
He is socially illiberal, and the way he used rust-belt voters against the Democrats shares a certain resemblance with the way in which Hitler and Mussolini turned unemployed workers against the organised working class (with the important caveat that of the course the Democrats never had been a workers’ party in the way that the SPD, for example, still was in Germany prior to 1933). But Trump’s victory was a battle of votes, not guns. The Democratic Party is not about to be banned by law. The NAACP has not had its offices occupied by militia nor were its leading members killed before Trump had even been elected in a violent civil war.
The people who vote for Trump are, for the moment, just that: voters rather than political soldiers in training.
To my mind, the search for comparisons with the 1930s is a mistake. We do it, because in every political moment we take our images of evil from the experiences of the past.
Between 1945 and 1989, we lived in a world that was recognisably post-fascist. Politics was divided, in every country, between blocks of opinion that allied with either of the two main powers that did most to defeated Nazi Germany. You could be (in British terms) pale pink or deepest red, or on the other side of the political spectrum yellow or Royal Blue. The side you chose owed its politics to large blocks which had coalesced as far back as the 1940s.
Social liberalism, in so far as it retained a distinct project, gave itself the task of completing a liberal agenda still set by the events of 1945: such demands as refugee rights, prohibitions on torture, universal declarations against racism, all made sense because they were an attempt (admittedly through the state) to prohibit a return to 1933 for ever.
Conservatism was credible only if it nodded back to Churchill (and not to the appeasers).
Conversely, when ultra-right parties emerged they did so led and funded by people who had been participants in 1939-45, or defined themselves by that moment.
In Britain, the memory of anti-fascist resistance was weaker than in almost any other country in Western Europe, but even here it left behind a certain moral calculus which was well established on activists on the far-left and which went something like the following.
1. Fascism is different from any other political philosophy under capitalism era. 2. It is different because if it triumphs it would abolish not merely revolutionary socialism but parliamentary socialism and in fact democracy itself. 3. Fascism is in addition the only political force which has enacted genocide against a domestic racialised other (plenty of European parties enacted racial wars against people in other countries, what was different about fascism was that it constructed death camps at home). 4. Because of 2) and 3) fascism is a repugnant enemy of all social progress. 5. Therefore it is appropriate to conduct a war against fascism, to fight it with violence if need be because the alternative is that fascism will defeat – and perhaps kill – everyone on the soft and hard left.
This theory was summed up in the phrase “no platform”, where the important word was not the second: we should try to prevent fascists speaking. The important word was the first: if fascism was to be stopped, it had to be stopped everywhere.
The problem with anti-fascism as an approach to politics is that Europe and the world ceased to be recognisably post-fascist at some point in our recent past. Either in 1989, where Communism vs anti-Communism ceased to be the main fault line in politics. Or on 9/11 when the right acquired a “big story” which was no longer about 1939-45 but Muslims. On in 2008 when a series of ostensibly liberal or social democratic governments wagered the future of the welfare state on protecting the banks.
However it has happened, we have acquired a new and successful far-right which isn’t constantly replaying in its mind the battles of 1933-45.
In British terms, we saw this shift with the decline of the British National Party and its replacement by the EDL and UKIP. To say to an activist from the BNP, “You are a Hitler supporter,” was to call their politics bogus, was to point out the flawed, apologetic nature of their party’s relationship to the past. Supporter of the EDL, however, a party whose members met in pubs and sang themselves the Dambuster theme tune had less difficulty laughing off the same insult. And to be an anti-fascist against UKIP is, once again, to look for a secret point of shame among people who don’t see themselves as Hitler’s descendants and find the comparison not upsetting but bemusing and laughable.
This process, whereby the far right slowly frees itself from its historic fidelity to the politics of the 1933 is much further gone in the United States where the most successful advocates of proto-fascism were radio celebrities (Father Coughlin) and not party-builders.
A problem with the “no platform” politics of the 1970s was the idea that under developed capitalism you could have liberal democracy or you could have fascism and there was no space for anything in between. What we find today, instead, is that increasing number of states combine the forms of democracy (i.e. periodic elections) with style of politically authoritarian and nationalist leaderships in which large parts of civil society serve not check the state, but (just as under any dictatorship) choose rather to serve it. In what meaningful sense could Russia be called a democracy, or Hungary? How much democracy is left in India? Who will win the next elections in Austria or Italy or France?
Trump represents a new kind of politics. One enabled by conventional right-wing Republicans (think of all the old-school plutocrats who had to rally behind him in order to sell his candidacy to a sceptical Republican electorate, 90% of which ended up voting for him) but a regime in which the most extreme figures have all the advantages (powers of patronage, the legitimacy of a mandate) over the old guard. He brings to the White House narcissism and paranoia. His programme is to use the state to smash the few welfare reforms which still protect the most vulnerable, while reducing taxes on the rich as close to zero as can be reached while still paying for an expanded army and police force. He will ally with every nationalistic, militaristic leader he can find whether actual fascist (Assad), of fascist origin (Le Pen) or on some other trajectory (Putin, Farage) and they, along with the likes of Steve Bannon and the alt-right, will be invigorated by him.
The movement against Trump needs to find its own language, to sound through the world as “They shall not pass” once did. But it must be slogans for our times not for the past.
Hunger, republished this year to mark the 125th anniversary of its original appearance, is one of those rare and compelling books which feel like they were written decades out of time.
With its sparse writing, modest plot and starving and dishonest narrator, Hunger feels like it should have been written three decades later by a Kafka or a Camus, responding to the horrors of the trenches, the possibilities of a revolution or the threat of its defeat.
Even to speak of Hunger’s plot is to give the impression of substance when, for the majority of the book, the story meanders between seemingly unrelated incidents.
The narrator comes to a city, he starves. He offers articles to a newspaper, he worries about his rent. He sells an article but even this successful commission leads only to further moments of hunger. He is evicted from his room.
The narrator neither learns nor changes and the reader never has a sense of a mission for him to complete or fail. He flirts with a girl, unsuccessfully. At the end of the story and, without purpose, he leaves the city.
Two scenes give a flavour of the book. Near the beginning, the narrator encounters an old beggar. Drunk with hunger and despising the old man’s frailty, the narrator decides to pawn his waistcoat and give the money to the beggar. The recipient is stupefied by the gift and silent. The narrator shouts and swears at his ingratitude.
Returning to the pawnbroker, the narrator seeks the return of the pencil-stub which he has left in one of the waistcoat pockets. The broker lets him take the pencil. Filled with energy, the narrator tells him that it was used previously to write a three-volume philosophical treatise. The pawnbroker humours his blatant lie.
Many generations of readers have sought to impose a logic on Hunger by calling it an existential novel or portraying the narrator as a zero in search of meaning or the opposite: a person seeking to discard meaning by starving himself to death.
The process of giving the novel meaning is encumbered by the events of Hamsun’s life.
The older the Norwegian writer got, the more right-wing he became. Wooed by Hitler, he wooed the nazis back and although his eventual meeting with the fuehrer in 1943 disappointed the latter, Hamsun never disowned fascism.
A letter to Hamsun by his publisher in 1946 strikes a chord with many disappointed readers: “There are few people I have admired as much as you, few I have loved so. None has disappointed me more.”
The conventional response to Hamsun’s politics is to say that he adopted them later in life and that the novel should not be blamed for the author’s subsequent follies.
This is too simple. Hunger does have a philosophy and is coherent in its own terms. If not fascistic, it is certainly misanthropic.
Reading Hunger in 2016, it’s not hard not to feel that the “personality” of the book is hostile and yet the novel is a thing of beauty — a frosty winter’s landscape to watch and admire but not to live in.
Originally published in the Morning Star
A couple of weeks ago I was thinking about not running a marathon, since then I’ve not been running at all. When you see a physio, what they are usually looking for is evidence that you’ve been overworking your body, most often by running too far. If not, then by running too fast. The more memorable cases are ones where there has been some change of technique without increased effort. In runners, that might be something like a new pair of shoes subtly altering your “form”, ie your running technique.
The following (me at the start of this month) constitutes a kind of full house: new running shoes, increased mileage (60 miles in one week), two races in successive days, the second of which was a pb of sorts (10k on the road). In the same seven days which had seen all of these changes, I’d also been experimenting with running with music. Normally, that isn’t my thing at all but I was enjoying playing my phone on shuffle and seeking how even the dullest and most formulaic music (Fields of Athenry by the Dropkick Murphys, bless them) would give my tired muscles a jolt. Six kilometres into my last race, I could feel a soreness in the middle of my left calf. By the race’s final 100 metres my leg was a sniper’s victim taking bullet after bullet.
Three weeks with no running, the physio says. Three weeks at a minimum.