Is History repeating itself? The 1930s and now

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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.

 

 

“The 1930s in slow motion”: origins and (mis)uses

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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.”

1990s

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.

A new street movement, heading in an old direction

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Over the past month, a strange alliance of demonstrators have been seen on the streets. After several thousand people attended a demonstration through Nottingham on 22 August, journalists at the local Nottingham Post tried to explain to readers what the march had been about. They did so by looking at the flags the protesters brought.

Some of them carried military flags (one from the Royal Engineers Corps) or raised veterans’ issues. One spoke of a “war on PTSD”.

Another demonstrator carried a poster embossed with the letter “Q”, emblazoned in fire. This was a reference to the QAnon conspiracy theory, which claims that the Rothschilds, George Soros and various Hollywood celebrities are stealing the bodies of American children and harvesting them for psychedelic drug called adrenochrome.

Others presumably believed that England herself was under attack: they held flags including the Yorkist White Rose, or an Anglo-Saxon White Dragon flag.

Quite a number seemed to get their nationalism mixed up: carrying flags for Nazi Germany’s SS Werewolf Resistance or the Neo-Nazi band Whitelaw, or a banner reading, “God Bless Donald Trump” (in QAnon fantasy, Trump is always just about to lead a successful popular uprising against the few conspirators who run the world).

Further demonstrations have been held – in Liverpool, and one bringing out ten thousand people in London last Saturday – where protesters were joined by the two stars of this new movement, David Icke and Jeremy Corbyn’s once-Marxist brother Piers.

To grasp where this movement has come from, we need to understand it as the confluence of two kinds of politics: some of purely British origin, and some deriving from events in the United States.

Here, there are any number of people who dislike the lockdown. Some have broadly left-wing reasons for objecting to it: they don’t like the proliferation of new laws, or the requirement to wear a mask in shops. Often, they are relatively young: opinion polling suggested that young men were the most likely to have broken (or to admit to having broken) the lockdown rules.

It seems intuitively true that different solutions should have been employed to fight Coronavirus: vitamins perhaps, or maybe the drug hydroxychloroquine that was touted for a time by Donald Trump (before even he had to admit that it did no good).

As for QAnon – while most socialists reject conspiracy theories, seeing them as myths which take people away from understanding how the system works, it only takes one Prince Andrew for the idea of a cabal of rich paedophiles to suddenly “make sense”. 

Others are participating in this new movement for right-wing reasons: like the demonstrators in Nottingham with their neo-Nazi flag, or the elderly supporter of the New British Union of Fascists who left his flag dangling over the balcony at Trafalgar Square (with him we can be clear – his group is no more than a dozen people who like dressing up in the clothes of their interwar fantasy. They, at least, are a joke).

It’s hard not to feel that the major force which produced this new street movement isn’t anything that happened in Britain so much as developments in the United States. August 22nd, for example, the day of the Nottingham march, had already been chosen by QAnon supporters in the US to be a day for hundreds of “Freedom for the Children” protests.

Through spring and summer 2020, the Trump presidency was in crisis. Mainly, this was because of the Coronavirus pandemic, to which his response was singularly inept. Another factor was the rise of Black Lives Matter, a social movement against police killings and against the institutional racism which allows them to happen.

Against both stories, Trump set in train his own right-wing street movements. They would defeat the pandemic by keeping the United States open for business. As rightwing paramilitaries gathered against the lockdown, Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MINNESOTA”, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA”.

By and large, that attempt failed – Trump’s voting base is predominantly elderly, and as the virus spread to central and southern US, the idea of keeping the workplaces open pitched Trump and his street movement against his own voting base.

By contrast, Trump has had much more success in eulogising the work of white vigilantes who have protested against BLM marchers, assaulting them, threatening them with guns or, as on more than 30 occasions since May, driving into them with their cars.

When one opponent of the Black Lives protests, Kyle Rittenhouse, was charged with shooting two protesters dead, “Christian” groups raised $250,000 for the young right-winger’s defence, while Trump insisted Rittenhouse was innocent.

We have, as during the 2016 election, a situation where Donald Trump is urgently calling on his furthest-right supporters to back him. As in 2016, that call is heard beyond the US: there are British people among the 3 million facebook users who joined QAnon groups.

The biggest difference between now and then is that in 2016 Trump’s wildest supporters were internet warriors, and intellectual advocates of a European-style fascism which had very shallow roots in the US.

This time around, Trump is able to call on supporters in the Patriot movements, the various gun militia, and the Proud Boys. These are groups with much greater experience of street organising. They have their weapons ready to use in his defence.

The movement in Britain is amorphous; it has its origins here as well as in the US. But as with previous similar instances of anti-political right-wing movements (the EDL, the DFLA); the longer it lasts, the clearer and worse its politics will seem.

Fascism, Theory and Practice: The Searchlight debate

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As I’ve remarked in previous posts, we’re on the 21st anniversary, give or take, of the publication of my book Fascism: Theory and Practice (“FTP”). Later this month, I’m bringing out a substantially new edition of that book. Among other changes, the new version summarises in more detail the historical record of fascism in the interwar years, and set out with more care what exactly was the shared point of agreement around which most Marxist theories of fascism were based.

Here, though, I want to keep on with a discussion of how FTP was received in 1999, especially by historians and political scientists of fascism.

The anti-fascist magazine Searchlight organised a written debate around the arguments of the book, with contributors including myself, Roger Griffin the doyen of political scientists writing about fascism, David Baker and the historian of french fascism, Jim Wolfreys.

Before coming to the substance of what each of us argued, do bear in mind all the time that at this stage I was just 26 years old, this was more or less my first book (my Phd on fascism and anti-fascism in 1940s Britain had also been published, but few people had read it). While the other contributors had behind them years of thinking about fascism.

My own contribution (published in the August 1999 issue) was structured in two halves. In the first, I criticised the dominant “fascism studies” approach of the likes of Roger Griffin, Roger Eatwell and Zeev Sternhell, accusing them of the error of idealism. IE they exaggerated the coherence of ideas to fascism, and failed to integrate a focus on ideas with a focus on fascist acts (i.e. its style of organisation, its recurring bases of support, and its outcomes – war and genocide). I warned that we were in a moment when prominent theorists of fascism were portraying it in an increasingly positive light (here, I had in mind the writings of Mussolini’s biographer the former Communist turned anti-anti-fascist Renzo de Felice). In the second half I tried to summarise in a few sentences, my own basic approach of seeing fascism as a specific form of reactionary mass movement, in which the “reactionary” and the “mass” aspects of fascism were in a constant, dialectical tension:

“Fascism has been reactionary, in the sense that it has opposed all forms of democratic practice. Fascist parties have intimidated their opponents, threatening or physically attacking them. Fascist regimes have jailed or executed liberals and feminists, socialists, communists and trade unionists. The reactionary practice of fascism culminated in the Holocaust, with the murder of 6 million people simply because they were Jews. Meanwhile, fascism has also been a mass movement, or attempted to be one. Fascist leaders have employed a populist language, promising their supporters all manner of gains, while there never was any intention to deliver on these words.”

Roger Griffin went next, I think in September. He insisted that while his approach to understanding fascism took at face value fascism’s claim to be “revolutionary” and in that sense it understand fascism as “positive” (i.e. as an ideology with its own agenda and not merely a series of negative grudges, anti-capitalism, anti-communism, etc) – this did not mean that he or the other academics within the new consensus approach saw fascism itself as having anything worthwhile to say. He rejected the comparison with De Felice.

(And, at this point, I have to say that with 21 years hindsight, he was right and I was wrong – whatever capacity there might have been in the new consensus school to paint over some of fascism’s legacy – the overwhelming role played by the political scientists has been to articulate a principled non-fascist understanding of fascism. We never have seen in Britain the kind of revisionism that worried me).

Griffin took issue with my theory of fascism. He objected to the term “reactionary”, saying that the term had no content. Marxists saw themselves as revolutionaries and everyone else in history as a reactionary. It’s a point he and I have debated more than once since. He insisted that, whatever I had written to the contrary, I (and all Marxists) tended to collapse our understanding of the mass character of fascism into its reactionary politics, so that the latter always won out over the latter. We saw fascism as “essentially reactionary … simply an epiphenomenon of capitalism”.

The third contributor was David Baker. He spoke up for a kind of “methodological puralism”. He pointed out, for example, that the distant origins of the new consensus approach lie in the historical works of Ernst Nolte, in which capitalism played a significant part, as the source of the “cultural crisis necessary to give birth to and sustain [fascism’s] anti-liberal and anti-communist revolutionary actions”. This paralleled Marxist understanding to a greater extent than anyone was willing to acknowledge

Baker welcomed my arguments that “fascism, understood purely on its own intellectual terms, will sell itself short on violence and hatred and long on high-flown ideals and rhetoric, assisting in the collective power to forget its violent and genocidal past”. He also agreed with me that the new consensus “downplays the dynamics of the wider and impersonal forces of political economy in creating and sustaining fascism”.

Finally, Jim Wolfreys tried – very gently – to remind my critics that what I’d in my book wasn’t that fascism’s autonomous mass and revolutionary content was trivial, but that it was in constant tension with fascism’s politics and that it was this unresolved contradiction which enabled fascism to grow so fast. In his words:

“Once installed as a regime … there is no evidence to suggest that fascism acts as a revolutionary force … This is not to deny that the Nazis had a degree of autonomy. Indeed, it is this autonomy, in the shape of its armed wing, capacity for mass mobilisations and the extremism of its ideology, that gives fascism its specificity. But this autonomy does not extend to transforming existing property relations.”

I don’t want to set out here, how I try to integrate these varying perspectives into the new edition of my book, other than to say that I’ve not forgotten that debate. Rather it has continued to be a touchstone for my work. The issues continue to polarise researchers, because they reflect certain real and partial truths about how the far right organised, each of which need to be combined if we’re going to understand fascism.

FTP: anti-fascism as a mirror for left-wing politics

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Continuing on with my recent series of blog posts about my 1999 book, Fascism, Theory and Practice (“FTP”)…

One of the implied assumptions of that bookwas that it is possible to understand all other politics through a prism of anti-fascism.

That relates initially, and most obviously, to fascism. What I argued was that a general approach of uniting reformists and revolutionaries in a common struggle was an all-purpose strategy for combating the far right. The only practical question was whether fascists were “small, isolated and squabbling” (in which case, the work might be unnecessary and other demands more urgent). If they were beyond this stage, then the task for anti-fascists were expose, education and physical confrontation.

It wasn’t something I stated in FTP but in the book which accompanied it, a monograph on Fascism and Anti-fascism in the 1940s, I argued that that decade had witnessed a series of competing innovations by fascists and anti-fascists. For example, after 1945 Mosley had begun with a very great fear of public opposition. His movement had therefore emphasised the launch of small and diffuse fascist groups, often with different names and different leaders to test the water for a proper comeback. They had proved highly vulnerable at that stage to attack by the relatively small number of highly motivated anti-fascists in the 43 Group. That innovation had been answered with a fascist change of tack. Mosley had centralised his forces into a single flashpoint (Ridley Road), at which he had such large numbers that the 43 Group were unable to simply overwhelm the platform. But his move had merely created the space for new anti-fascist tactics with trade unions, Communists and Labour, able to turn out the numbers for a different form of mass anti-fascism.

So, although this isn’t expressly argued in FTP, it was very much written on the assumption that there was no such thing really as a history of just anti-fascism (without fascists) or a history of just fascism (that substantially ignored its opponents).

But FTP also envisaged a series of recurring relationships, with anti-fascism providing a means of understanding not merely fascism but also other political traditions: revolutionary socialism, reformist socialism, conservatism and liberalism.

I argued that “Publicly, fascists pose as nationalists or racists – therefore anti-fascists should not simply expose fascism for what it truly is, they must also spread a broader message of antiracism.” I described the role of institutional racism (in “the tabloid press, immigration controls, the legacy of the British Empire, the behaviour of the police and the language of elected politicians”) as processes that caused fascism to recur, suggesting that the latter could be defeated finally only if they too were set back.

I warned against the attempt to resist fascism by stealing from its ideas, citing Socialist and Conservative responses to the success of the Front National as a case study of how the centre left and centre right got this wrong.

I also warned against the politics of liberal universalism. Fascism was a crisis ideology which appealed to the angry and alienated. Saying only that racism was bad didn’t work.

I argued for No Platform as a recurring strategy to resist fascism: “Since fascists oppose freedom of speech for black people, Jews, feminists, socialists, trade unionists, and lesbians and gays, and since, when they speak, they encourage racial violence and pose a threat to everyone, the most effective strategy is to insist that they shall not be heard.”

I argued that a coherent struggle against fascism could win only through a revolutionary defeat of capitalism: “It is only by creating a different society where production is designed to meet human need, where there is no unemployment, no poverty, no despair and no racism, that fascism can finally be stopped.”

When I re-read these passages now, I think they are along essentially the right lines. What is right about them is the insistence on seeing anti-fascism and all other forms of politics as a totality.

To take a familiar example: a part of the left-wing charge sheet against fascism is that regularly falls into racism against Jews. To be a consistent anti-fascist, you therefore much challenge all forms of anti-Jewish racism even where you encounter them relatively near at hand, in left-wing movements.

But I would acknowledge three possible criticisms:

First, reading FTP now, it is all over the shop when it comes to the question of anti-fascist violence. The book was criticised at the time in AFAs Fighting Talk for a sentence insisting on the necessity of “mass” as opposed to “military” anti-fascism. After three paragraphs insisting on the necessity of anti-fascists “smashing” fascist marches and rallies, I wrote: “physical confrontation against fascism has to involve large numbers, must be primarily non-violent, and should involve layers greater than any professional anti-fascists, in order to build a truly mass opposition”.

It remains my position that I would prefer anti-fascism to be mass where possible. And, as someone who has been shot at by police officers (not in the UK), physically attacked by police and fascists, and who has been part of crowds resisting both, I still dislike the left-wing habit of romanticising violence. If the romanticisers had “done” violence, they wouldn’t idealise it. That said, I have also been parts of groups who have organised physical resistance, and I know both how necessary and difficult that work is.

In short – the “has to” and “must” in my 1999 book don’t remotely convey the way I’d try to speak about the same question now.

Second, in some of the passages I’ve quoted above, there is still a tendency to treat fascism as merely racism turned up to 11 – even though that was something I’d argued against repeatedly throughout the same book.

If you want to think of fascism as being racism made militant and generalised you will understand some of it.

But you will understand fascism no less well if you see it as sexism made militant and generalised. Or homophobia or transphobia, or disability discrimination, or class privilege.

Third, FTP proposed the United Front as a general approach for combating the far right.

Again, that strikes me as broadly right, but it was written twenty years ago, and the argument belongs to a world which is lost – one in which a solid 30 percent of the population could be assumed to identify with the values of the social democratic left, and a further 10 percent of the population could be assumed to be communists (whether of the Stalinist or Trotskyist sort), and each group was reflected in the existence of organisations which were credible beyond their ranks. So that, if the Socialists and the Communists could just unite, the 40 percent of opinion they represented would become very quickly 50, 60 percent of society or more.

The most I would say now is that the same instincts – of seeking unity in order to turn defence into offence – are right. But we don’t have the same fixed organisations as previous generations enjoyed, rather we have a shifting of people, causes and platforms that can act briefly akin to parties, but have to re-establish their credibility constantly anew.

So the United Front – yes – but by analogy at best.

FTP: through the eyes of its reviewers

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When Fascism: Theory and Practice came out, back in 1999, it had three main purposes. One was to provide a simple, straightforward, account of how the interwar Marxists had understood fascism. That part of the account drew heavily on David Beetham’s Marxists in Face of Fascism, a book which had been published twenty years before but was then out of print (Haymarket have since brought it back into print). The other main ideas of the book were to summarise the main trend in English-language writing about fascism – the “new consensus” approach, and point out some certain methodological weaknesses in it. Both of these were then joined to a quite standard 1990s-SWP narrative about the risk posed by fascism.

People who know my writing well should be able to guess which parts of this I’ve kept in the new edition, and which have been radically rewritten. (There’s also a very large amount of new content – but I’ll leave that to readers to find for themselves).

All I wanted to do here was give a flavour of how FTP was received at the time: who liked it and why, as well as who didn’t.

A couple of people gave positive quotes for the book’s back cover: the historian David Baker, chosen because of his biography of the fascist writer AK Chesterton and the German socialist Florian Kirner. Coincidentally, both are now much better known as cultural producers – David as a digital collage artist, and Florian as the singer Prinz Chaos. I’m not quite sure what that says about me that I chose them!

A small number of reviewers actively disliked the book: Larry O’Hara because I hadn’t footnoted him, Martin Smith disapproved of its title, and Red Action, because it reminded them of the SWP , and that party’s shoddy dealings with them.

There were balanced by a further group of people who noticed the book and praised it actively while only making brief comments on it. Martin Blinkhown for example described my book as “forthright” and stated that he shared my disagreements with the new consensus school. The Routledge Companion to Fascism and the Far Right includes a list of the fifty major historians of fascism. On the basis of my book, I made the cut: “DAVE RENTON. Modern neo-Marxist whose Fascism: Theory and Practice is a useful guide to leftist interpretations of fascism…”.

One of the fullest reviews came in Revolutionary History, where the historian of Italian fascism Toby Abse welcomed the way in which, after a long period that leftist historians had been abandoning the study of fascism, finally we were writing about it again. “The principle merits of Renton’s book, Abse wrote, lie in its clear and concise exposition of the various Marxist theories of Fascism from 1920 to the present. “Although Renton predictably believes that Trotsky’s theory, whilst requiring further development, is the best one, he provides readers with a fair and balanced assessment of the merits and weaknesses of the theories put forward by Thalheimer, Gramsci, Silone and others, as well as engaging in the perennially necessary polemics against the Stalinised Comintern’s theoretical monstrosities.”

Abse was also kind about the passages in which I explained how and why I disagreed with the new consensus school: “Renton’s spirited attack on Roger Griffin, Stanley Payne, Roger Eatwell and Zeev Sternhell in the second chapter, ‘The Prison of Ideas’, is probably the first Marxist onslaught on the whole school of ‘Fascist Studies’, as distinct from individual practitioners of the genre, and could be regarded as required reading both for older Marxists unaware of the recent developments in bourgeois historiography and social science, and for any left-wing university students seeking an initial avenue for critical engagement with prescribed course texts.”

In the journal Extremism and Democracy, Stein Ugelvik Larsen summarised my critique of fascism studies as follows, “What they do (wrong) is focus on the pronounced ideology of fascism thus trying to understand fascism in the way the fascists themselves wanted to be seen. Ideology cannot be understood separated from political practice, Renton holds, and it is a gross misunderstanding to ‘read out’ political practice by studying programs and written proclamations etc.. When you study fascism as an independent variable i.e. what they did (the ‘effect of fascism’) you get the right understanding of what fascism was about, and then you can also transcend the problem of analyzing fascism from the fascists’ own premises.” While Larsen was not altogether convinced, he described my book as “fresh and useful” and expressed his agreement with its anti-fascist politics.

The review which I enjoyed best, and has shaped my own subsequent writing the most was a critical one from Chris Brooke in the pages of Voice of the Turtle (a non-sectarian left website – a precursor of the likes of Tribune or New Socialist today). It is still up on Brooke’s Academia.edu page. While at times praising what I’d written, Brooke staked out a serious and theoretical position one step closed to the socialist mainstream. “Dave rightly mocks the claim that fascism was in fact a variant of leftist or Jacobin politics,  but the affinities between left politics and fascism do run deeper than he is prepared to acknowledge.” The last three years would make me think that he’s right on that – there were battles which I thought had been won in terms of (eg) excluding anti-Semitism from ordinary left-wing discourse, which don’t feel nearly as won as they once did.

Brooke also chided me for using the metaphor (borrowed unreflexively from the SWP of which was a member) that the 1990s could be compared to the rise of fascism in the 1930s (“the film winds, but for the moment at a slower speed”). In turn, he reminded me of the famous opening to the Eighteenth Brumaire, and the point being made there that “Marx’s contemporaries reenacted the dramas of the 1790s, but the historical context had changed, changed utterly, and with it the meanings and implications of their otherwise-identical actions changed also.”

It took me nearly twenty years to do justice to his points – I had them very much in mind when writing The New Authoritarians which confronts exactly this question of repetition in history, and how traditions can fight and lose a battle, and then their successors came and they too fight – at once for the same goal, and for something different – and in any event under a new name.

Writing online – in the 1990s

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In a few weeks times, I have a book coming out – Fascism – which tells the story of the far right in the 1920s and 1930s through the eyes of its militant opponents – socialist feminists such as Klara Zetkin, those jailed by fascism such as Antonio Gramsci, queer Marxists such as Daniel Guerin shocked and horrified to see the insurgent working class of Red Wedding submit to Nazi rule. The book is a wholly-rewritten second edition of an older book, published by the same people (Pluto Press) back in 1999 Over the next few weeks I’ll publish some pieces here celebrating the anniversary of the first edition, explaining why I wrote it, and conveying something of the reception it had.

What I want to do here is contextualise the 1999 edition in a different way. For even before the book had been published, I’d begun (in about 1995) posting key chapters online. And I thought some readers might enjoy it if I gave a flavour of what the online left was like in the last five years of that decade.

The first thing you need to grasp is that the online left was vastly smaller than it is today. Most left groups had a presence, but they used it to simply post online material which had been written off-line and was mainly accessed in a newspaper or magazine which you could buy in a paper copy – from street stalls or from one of the leftwing bookshops (Housmans, News from Nowhere, Bookmarks, etc).

I’m going to talk about the political tradition to which I was then attached – the SWP and its international affiliates – not because they were at the vanguard (actually, they were relatively slow to migrate online) but only because these were the sites I was following closest.

By far the best website in the International Socialist tendency was run by an Australian Marxist Rick Kuhn. Unlike everyone else, it had actual content: links to the Communist Manifesto and to sound files of the Internationale (in an mp3 format, Kuhn advised, “requires special software”).

The “Contemporary Material” took you to an early list of all the IS newspapers and magazines which also published online. And to, my own favourite bit, a page in which Rik wrote about Marxists who’d had a fascination with bird-watching:

There were also, as I’ve said, a number of pages in which left-wing newspaper made their content freely available. I don’t think anyone yet had – or could have – worked through the problems this would cause for the same left groups.

Papers were being written to be sold. They were supposed to be self-financing. Once all the content was online, and as the membership of the group which spend time on line increased from 10 to 50 to 90 percent – the nature of reading changed. You stopped giving money in order to “buy” a newspaper, but rather as a kind of solidarity donation. “I’ve already read the paper, thanks, but here’s 50p anyway to subsidise its writing”.

Back in 1998, the position of Socialist Worker was that it could be advertised but not read online, eg here:

Although within a couple of years, the paper gave in and published its online as well as on paper:

In the 1990s we didn’t have youtube, or social media. The internet was predominantly text. Logging on was done at computers rather than through phones, and through land-based telephone cables. So that you could pick up the phone in a house and not know if anyone else was online, and find out only from the clee-clew-cler of a computer connecting.

Where the left did post material online, we tended to do so in the same way that groups was advertise an event locally – ie by announcing here is some content, advertising its presence, and inviting people to access it.

The more interesting leftwing projects tried to get away from that model and create a sense of community and participation.

The left was well represented in various Yahoo groups. There was an online IS discussion group for some time in the 1990s – and, if I remember correctly, an instruction in the SWP’s Party Notes that members should stop participating in it.

Dissident SWP members and SWP-exes tended to congregate on the discussion boards at Urban75 (until around 2013, when those discussions moved to social media) or at Socialist Unity Network, although that didn’t get going till about five years later.

Finally, since what I’m really interested in is the late 1990s, it’s worth recalling how widespread was the belief that all of this online malarkey was doomed.

Articles in the press laughed at the launch and hyping of e-commerce sites and predicted that the largest websites would never turn a profit. Or predicted a universal online censorship.

There was even a website you could click on if you were looking for the last page the last page on the internet.

More speech; less racism

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Writing about the politics of the present is tricky. The minimum time it takes between having an idea for a book and seeing it in print is 18 months (usually it’s longer). Any writer asks themselves: if I write about X now (whatever X is), will people still be thinking about it in a year’s time? It must be strange for Gavan Titley; because since he wrote his book free speech has only grown in importance. No platform, cancel culture: its jargon has escaped the milieu of a few impassioned people arguing with one another on social media, and all over the mainstream press the same story repeats itself again and again: the left is closing down people’s opinions, the left is made up of bullies and petty despots…

Most of the leftists I know are doing their hardest to balance between two competing imperatives: 1. We want to see more speech, not less. We know that the banning instincts of the state and the political right have hardly gone away (think the blacklisting of trade unionists, or the way claims of anti-semitism have been used to cancel any discussion of Palestine). We also know that neo-liberalism constantly recreates itself from below, inviting public denunciations of people who breach this week’s social taboo (e.g. think of the way the police dished out fines to those accused of petty breaches of the Coronavirus regulations). On both those scores, any principled leftist is surely against the state, and against the cop that sits in all of our heads – communists and conservatives alike.

On the other hand, 2. We distrust intensely the way in which free speech has become an ideological weapon of the right. Think of the “trans wars”. A group of people want to exclude trans people from women’s toilets, domestic violence refuges, and feminist events. This notion of exclusion is overtly a means towards keeping trans women out of spaces they might otherwise go in. And yet, any time trans people respond (which they do sometimes with the utmost wit, and sometimes with grotesque fury) the answer comes back: “look how trans politics silences women”. In that way, a project of exclusion and insubordination repackages itself as the instrument of the weak protecting themselves against those who would silence them. And this is hardly an isolated example. Today’s ideological version of “Free speech” is to politics what Persil is to clothes: it repeatedly cleans the powerful, making them into the new oppressed and turning the vulnerable into their oppressors.

Now, as you balance these two imperatives (the need to support free speech while opposing its politicisation), it’s easy to lose your compass. If you only talk about the ideology, you can end up sounding as if you support censorship. If you’re not careful, you can become a censor.

But if you don’t talk about the ideological treatment of free speech then your view of politics will cause you to side with the people complaining loudest about being silenced, who today are the people in the United States (and in the UK) who want to see the statues of slave owners to stay up and not the ones calling for them to come down.

I am saying all of this to locate Gavan Titley’s book, which is one of the clearest accounts that has yet been published of the second of these dynamics – i.e. how free speech is being misused by those who have turned it into an ideology.

What Titley’s interested in rather is how racist speech, and in particular the racist speech that was used being between against Muslims during the height of the War on Terror shields itself from criticism then counter-attacks, through using the gambit that its opponents (the left and racial outsiders) are in favour of silencing others.

Just to take a single example, about 2/3 of the way through his book, Titley tells the story of how following the terrorist attacks in November 2015, the French state carried out more than three thousand raids on Muslims (six of whom were later investigated for possible terrorism offences). French politicians insisted that in carrying out these violent and punitive measures they were protecting the nation from Islam, which was incompatible with free speech. French President Hollande boated that “The Republic equals freedom of expression.” The French Prime Minister hinted at a return to France’s colonial mission: “France carries freedom of speech everywhere”.

Titley uses a single example to break through this miasma of ideological posturing. He recounts a raid which was described by one lawyer Ramzi Kassem, in which a Muslim man endured armed police busting unwarned into his home, and pointing automatic rifles at the faces of children. Finally, they found an image of a figure that would justify the raid: a picture on one wall of a man with a fist-length beard. Who was this Muslim, this terrorist? Was it Bin Laden? Tell us, the cops demanded. With as much dignity as he could summon, the man answered, “It’s Victor Hugo.”

I’m not going to summarise the whole of Titley’s book – it’s lively, compelling and principled, and anyone who cares about the topic should buy a copy – but only provide an outline.

In speaking about racism, Titley has in mind a kind of supposedly universal liberal politics which is about as radical as most employers’ HR departments. From the perspective of those who champion it, this liberalism insists that racism is a universal evil which can never be tolerated. But spinning against this idea is another idea which at times complement and at times contradicts it, that free speech is a universal good.

Titley writes about “Closure,” i.e. what happens when the forms of racism which we associate with the far right (i.e. the supposedly hipster racism of a Richard Spencer or a Milo Yiannopolous) clashes with the competing desire of liberals to prohibit such speech as racism or to allow it on free speech terms? His answer is that there is a recurring and shallow debate in which the latter priority repeatedly wins out over the former. Racism is a universal evil, a something to which no right-minded person can agree, until it becomes “opinion” at which point it is sanctified.

“Liberal free speech theory,” Titley writes, “assimilates speech to thought, a move which configures speech as ‘costless and priceless’, that is, as of intrinsic value as an expression of conscience, but of no causal impact as an action in the world.”

Titley is also interested in “Culture”, meaning the idea that it is possible to write off an entire category of people on the grounds that they are primitives who do not accept the superior moral virtue of “our” commitment to free speech.

Finally, he writes about “Capture”, in other words the way in which the far right has captured free speech discourse and uses it in a narrow but effective way (think of the attacks on British and US universities where students have closed down talks by far right speakers and have been threatened in response – with Trump even proposing to cut off federal funding to Berkeley if it wouldn’t platform his favourite speakers).

This summary doesn’t do justice to the nuance of Titley’s argument or the way on which, again and again, he comes up with a novel and memorable way of describing processes which are likely to be familiar to any reader: in speaking of the claimed “virtuous marginality” of the people who lead online debates, or the way that claims of being silenced are plainly about “generating publicity within the accelerated dynamics of the attention economy.”

Titley is also wise about No Platform, insisting that it is “a strategy, not a position. It recognises that protest cannot fully unsettle the generative dynamics of a free speech event, and can rarely puncture the claim of victimhood that de-platformed speakers are usually only too happy to parlay into political and media currency.” If I read this right, then what he’s saying is that students are wise to be open to the possibility of closing down speaking events when the speaker is actually a fascist, or close enough so that their proximity is widely accepted. But, that this move carries a tactical risk: that by over-extending No Platform, the student left can gift the right a moral victory. Being principled isn’t easy. It requires a moral intelligence and a willing to consider the possibility that you’re wrong.

“Free speech”, Titley concludes, has become a way of silencing disagreement. What then is the answer? Pretty clearly to me, it can only be a liberated ideal on the universal right of expression – even for those who aren’t racists – even for those who don’t have the backing of millionaire book publishers.

Titley isn’t really arguing that Free speech is racist – if he or anyone else really thought that, then the poet William Morris would have to be a racist for leading the campaign that established Trafalgar Square as London’s free speech zone, Rosa Luxemburg would have to be a racist when she spoke out against wartime censorship, and even James Baldwin – didn’t he debate William Buckley Jr, when he could have no-platformed him? There’s an awful lot of good politics you’d have to junk if you really thought the left was about closing down speech, rather than opening and democratising it.

The logic to which the book is pointing is rather our shared need to take over the printing presses and the internet, and to build models of direct conversation without the wretched media platforms through which we try our hardest to communicate.

No Platform: its history and prospects

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This is the last of three reviews I’ve been writing looking at books on the far right published during the lockdown. I’ve previously reviewed Graham Macklin’s Failed Führers, and Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter’s Reactionary Democracy, today it’s Evan Smith’s new book No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech.

I do need to make a declaration of interest at the start: I’ve known Evan for years, heard him speak at events in the UK, and was one of a dozen people he names in his acknowledgments as having read the book in whole or in part. I don’t think any of that influences my views on his book, but it would certainly prevent me from posting a simple encomium (“just go out and buy this book now”) – although of course I hope you do…

Rather than simply review his book, I thought I’d use as a chance to jot down my own views of no platform today – and I’ll try to show how they emerge in dialogue with Evan’s book.

No Platform follows a broadly chronological structure. The first sixty or so pages look at Britain prior to the evolution of a language of “no platform” in the early 1970s. What Smith argues is that long before this happened, the left had developed a practice of seeking to close of opportunities for fascists to organise and to speak. The clearest possible instance of this is in the late 1940s, when the postwar 43 Group set itself the task of preventing any postwar fascist from speaking.

Stepping away from his account for a moment, to really make sense of how the 43 Group worked you need to imagine this in practice. We’re talking about a period before television, when most people would get their news from the radio, the press or perhaps even cinema. Entry to all these media was utterly closed off to the far right, as indeed to the far left and to religious minorities, but particularly the right because this was after the Second World War in which hundreds of thousands of British people had died fighting fascism. While beneath the formal world of public debate, that there was a busy tradition of informal debate, with dozens of towns, and urban markets in which people would literally just stand on a wooden box and speak to the public. In 1947-8 in particular a number of of British fascists were able to build up huge audiences in this way: hundreds in Bristol and Brighton, thousands in South Hackney’s Ridley Road market.

Fifty years later, Morris Beckman (the historian of the 43 Group), published a memoir which described the group as repeatedly knocking over any fascist “speaker’s platform,” which they did zealously.

In other words, no platform in its original form was a narrow and specific tactic limited strictly to fascists (not Conservatives or other allies of fascism). It was intelligence-driven. It was based in a particular context: not universities, but the street. And when speaking of “platforms”, the 43 Group were almost inconceivably literal. The tactic emerged in a Britain where, if it was possible to shut down 20 platforms on a good afternoon, then to all intents and purposes, Mosley’s fascists would have no other opportunity to speak to any group of people publicly at all.

If this was the historical practice of No Platform, its theory emerges somewhere quite different – in debates on the university left, twenty-five years later. These are the subject of Smith’s next fifty pages or so.

Before coming to them it is worth noting that there is seemingly no transmission mechanism between this first period of no platforming and what would come later. The people who formulated No Platform in the early 1970s came from a specific intellectual tradition (the International Marxist Group and Trotskyism). They might have had some knowledge of the Battle of Cable Street, which would be commemorated in a huge mural just a few years later (and a memoir published by the CP’s Phil Piratin was widely read in the 1970s) – but they probably wouldn’t have heard of the 43 Group, as that was associated with different left-wing traditions (Jewish and Communist) and didn’t figure to any meaningful extent at all in the discussions of student anti-fascists until the Group’s rediscovery, with the publication of Morris Beckman’s book, twenty years later.

What Smith show is that in this interregnum between about 1950 and 1974, there were numerous occasions when centre-right university bodies would court publicity by inviting speakers further to the right, defending the invitations on free speech grounds, while the left protested the invitations: Mosley was invited to Cambridge and Oxford, etc. In the late 1960s, there were protests following invitations given to Enoch Powell and the psychologist Hans Eysenck, who was seeking to reestablish a link between racial difference (genetics) and IQ.

Smith’s distinctive contribution to understanding no platform is the discovery that this slogan can be traced back to a single source: a front-page article in Red Mole magazine (the newspaper of the IMG) published on 18 September 1972: “No Platform for Racists”.

At its spring conference in May 1974, the National Union of Students – through the intervention of its Secretary Steve Parry (a supporter of the Communist Party and the Broad left) passed a motion, committing the NUS to a policy of no platform for racists and fascists. Ever since then, Smith writes, despite one or two brief reverses, this has been NUS policy. The Union has had a consistent policy supporting groups who oppose inviting racists and fascists to speak on university platforms and that this is turn has given moral encouragement to any number of anti-racist and anti-fascist students. Their protests have popularised the concept of no platform. Meanwhile the phrase has spread intentionally and has become part of the anti-fascist lexicon, in Smith’s Australia, in the US, and elsewhere.

Smith’s focus is on the history of no platform (whereas my own interest is much more in the politics of it).

From my perspective, what really strikes me is that there were two distinct justifications given for no platform. If you wanted to be specific you could call them the “IS” and the “IMG” approaches, but in saying this the reality is that there were different opinions in each group, and plenty of people outside either of them who expressed both views.

In the first of these approaches, no platform was a tactic to be employed strictly against fascists. It was based on what I have called elsewhere “the anti-fascist wager” ie an analysis that fascism had greater potential for growth and for violence than other kinds of right-wing politics (even than, say, armed conservatism) and that unless the fascists were silenced there was a real and actual risk that at some point they would conquer, and would remove free speech rights for everyone else.

In the second of these approaches, no platform was a tactic to be employed against any form of racist. It was based on the idea that racism was a kind of politics which asserted on the superior moral worth of one individual over another, that it was hurtful and caused suffering, and that the closing down of racist speech was necessary in order to make universities a space in which everyone could flourish.

Here is a speech by Steve Parry, the NUS President in 1974, and an article by him, both cited in Smith’s book.

(1) “Did reasoned argument stop the fascists lef by Mosley in the Eat End in the 1930s? Of course it did not. Had reasoned argument stopped Colin Jordan and his cronies in the Union Movement having armed camps in the Britain and working with ex-Nazis in Germany?”

(2) “One must accept that to deny racists and fascists a platform is to ‘limit freedom of speech’ but one cannot see this freedom as something which exists in the abstract … In refusing to assist the spread of racism the NUS is fighting for a freedom of even greater importance: the the freedom to live without discrimination on the basis of race.”

If you look carefully at these approaches, the former suggests that No Platform remains (as it was in the 1940s or for IS in the 1970s) a tactic to be strictly limited to overt and recognisable fascists; whereas the latter portrays it as a tactic of much wider applicability.

In Smith’s account, the tension between these two approaches is a creative one – it doesn’t matter if people moved from one justification to another, or if the use of no platform was wide at the start and has widened over time.

Moving away from his book to commentary, I’m not at all sure I agree.

The historian in me would have to acknowledge that the ambiguity of 1970s No Platform was unresolved by the end of the decade, and that this vagueness caused no practical difficulties to Rock Against Racism or the Anti-Nazi League.

If anything, this amibiguity was positive in 1976-9, in that it enabled a generation of anti-racists and anti-fascists to defeat what was a complex, dynamic and ideologically unstable opponent (the National Front) which was characterised by a ongoing faction fight between two major wings, a fascist and a populist one (this isn’t to fall into anachronism: the non-Hitlerite wing of the NF really did call themselves “Populists”). It is a good thing that the left didn’t get caught up in worrying whether the NF were really fascists or which justification was needed to oppose them.

The problem has come about with the history since. The dominant approach on the British and American left since about 2000 has been to choose the second (“anti-racist”) approach to no platform.

The danger is not just one of incoherence. Part of the problem, in this model of no platform, is that we (the left) require a good faith response from others to our right. Even in the simplest example: a right-wing student group has invited someone further to the right to speak. A strong left will hope that university administrators silently tolerates their campaign, and does not call the police on them. A weak left might even petition the same administrators to do the banning on their behalf. Either kind of left hopes that a group of administrators who have acquired a taste for banning will stop there and will not then silence the left, Muslims, etc.

The problems can be seen both inside the university (Smith’s real interest) and outside. Amongst the earliest groups of people to be prosecuted under Race Relations’ legislation when those laws were first passed were black opponents of inequality. In the 1980s, you saw the first attempts to exclude transwomen, sex workers, and supporters of BDSM from feminist events on the grounds that these women were – in the exclusionary logic of the likes of Janice Raymond or Sheila Jeffreys – somehow male supremacists.

Or, to take a more recent example, when Jeremy Corbyn was accused of anti-semitism the political centre was turning against the far left the weapons we had made, an argument that the suffering oppressed should have a veto over who could speak in public.

The anti-fascist / 43 Group / IS approach to no platform sought, by contrast, to disengage from “hate speech” arguments, and argued for a general toleration of free speech, albeit with the specific exception of fascism.

While this approach would avoid many of the dangers I have set out, it does of course have its own difficulties today, when faced with a right which generally does not take part in armed attacks on its political opponents, and appears to most people to have given up on the old fascist ambition of the creation of a one-party state.

Here, I believe, the principled approach is to maintain something no platform but to use it more sparingly than the left has – when groups behave like fascists (i.e. in their use of political violence) we can employ it. But it should not be a general measure.

The above thoughts have taken me a long way from Smith’s book.

What I should say is that through the final 100 or so pages of No Platform, Smith gives a very large number of examples of no platform campaigns, in Britain and elsewhere. They include protests in 1981 against the musical act Hot Gossip, calls to deplatform SPUC and the’pro-life’ campaigner Victoria Gillick, and bans on homophobic speakers in the late 1980s, immediately prior to the introduction of Section 28.

He cites critics of no platforming from within the NUS, some in good faith (eg a widely circulated article by Lindsey German which attempted to claw back against the second model of no platform in the 1980s) and some made in bad faith (eg the opposition of the Revolutionary Communist Party – today’s Spiked – to the 1984 attempt to exclude Patrick Harrington a leader of the National Front, from North London Polytechnic). The Harrington affair was in the newspapers for over a year and was a clear instance of the hostile reaction of administrators to which I have referred: the Poly called in the police and courts on left-wing protesters.

In his conclusion, Smith insists on the continuing validity of no platform as a tactic, insisting that it (or at least its 1970s incarnation) remains the appropriate response to racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. “Prejudice needs to be challenged – in the electoral sphere, in the streets, online, in the workplace, and in our communities, in activist circles, and in our educational institutions.”

As I hope I’ve made clear, my criticism of Smith’s book aren’t in any way intended to diminish the research he has done, the quality of the examples he gives, or his project of explaining the historical roots of no platform. In showing exactly where the idea of no platform comes from, he has done a wide group of historians and activists a real service.

My question is about the use of the tactic today – how does it apply in a world where the people enabling far-right speech include some of the most popular video bloggers on youtube? Is it any longer the right approach to call for people to be silenced where they cause distress to oppressed groups; can we sustain the distinctions on which that notion of the oppressed is based, especially in the context of online culture wars which pit different groups of oppressed people against each other? Or, if the focus in future is going to be more on using no platform against fascist-type groups – how do we apply the tactic to a far right whose politics are significantly unlike either fascism or conservatism?

[For anyone who has enjoyed this post; on Friday at 6pm BST, I’ll be speaking at an event on the New Authoritarians and Covid with Sita Balani. Details here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-new-authoritarians-and-covid-19-tickets-105000497314]

The problem with populism

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9781788734233

This is the second of three reviews I’ve been writing looking at books on the far right published during the lockdown. Yesterday it was Graham Macklin’s Failed Führers, tomorrow I’ll take a look at Evan Smith’s No Platform. Today, it’s Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter’s new book Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right became mainstream.

Unlike the other two books, this is a work of political sociology. Mondon and Winter are writing about the present not the 1930s or 1970s. Their focus is international (Mondon has previously written extensively about the right in Australia) – although in practice the majority of their examples come from Britain, the United States and France.

Their book explores how after 1945, racism regrew in Europe and the US, using case studies of Republican electoral racism in America (Nixon, Reagan), GRECE and the project to make the far right palatable in postwar France, and UKIP in Britain. In each case, the authors argue the dominant mode of racism was contemporary rather than “traditional”: racists rejected the overt, biological racism of pre-1945. They sought (in an American context) to exclude black voters from electoral registers because they were poor, because they had criminal convictions, rather than expressly because they were black. The dominant mode of racism, they argue, was “liberal” rather than “illiberal”. Indeed “illiberal racism” (the extreme right) often functioned as a “convenient enemy” – so that Thatcher or Farage could insist that anti-racists should vote for them because only they could protect you against the phantom scourge of the far right.

A chapter on “liberal racism”, reminds readers that economic racism is endemic: in each of Britain, France and the United States, black people suffer high employment rates, are more likely to be incarcerated, live in worse housing, etc. Indeed liberal racism, the authors argue, has provided the key ideological openings through which the far right has recently advanced. So, since 2013, the dominant way in which racism has justified and deepened itself is by way of false claims that Muslims are sexist, homophobic, etc, for which they should be punished with state harassment. Further, liberal commentators (even if they would vote for a centre-left or centre-right party themselves), have repeatedly championed the rights of illiberal racists to their right to cause offence, insisting that their free speech rights are a more urgent priority than any rights of the black or Muslim people they denounce.

Another chapter of the book looks at the way in which liberal thought uses the category populism. Mondon and Winter’s concept of “reactionary democracy” explores essentially the same phenomenon as (say) the Guardian does in speak of “populism.” In either case, we are talking about a politics which claims to speak in the name of the people while using its success for reactionary purposes (i.e. to support the rich when they seek to transfer resources from the poor, to support racism and sexism, etc). But the reason they reject the term populism is that liberal politicians and journalists have repeatedly used it as a weasel word: to assume that populists must always succeed because they have the ear of the people – and to blame ordinary voters for the delusion of voting for Trump, Brexit or whatever else. In that way liberalism and much of today’s social democracy ends up reversing the old starting point of the postwar left (the people are always right, in the end), with almost the opposite assumption. Mondon and Winter insist that Republican voters were richer than Democrat ones; that the majority of Brexit voters were more affluent than the average, lived in South East England, etc.

Reactionary Democracy is well-written and nuanced. The authors are people who have been thinking about the far right for many years, and the political and intellectual conclusions they draw are good ones. I regard them as co-thinkers engaged in a similar project and I hope they think the same about as me. In that spirit, I want to set out some “devil’s advocate” points which occurred to me when reading theirs.

Because the title of their book is “Reactionary Democracy”, it makes the concept of reaction central to their work. But I didn’t find any coherent definition of reactionary ideas in their book, and I think without one the left is vulnerable to the criticism that a person can be labelled reactionary if they argue for ideas or causes that we personally disagree with. Now, I think there’s a solution to this and a way of showing that our theories aren’t special pleading: the term reactionary has a history on the left, with villains (Kautsky) and heroes (Marx, Benjamin…). But it’s something you need to argue, it’s not something you can just assume.

I felt, reading it, that there was an affinity between the ideas in the book and a kind of anti-racist critique of anti-fascism that was important in the 1970s and 1980s. I’m thinking here of something like the chapter on RAR in Gilroy’s There Aint’ No Black in the Union Jack. Mondon and Winter are criticising, amongst other things, a lazy liberal anti-fascism in which the far right is always emerging outside of normal politics, and normal politics is essentially a patient in good health (save that it is being attack by a disease from without). The result of such liberal anti-fascism in France is that politics has become semi-permanently a choice between two authoritarian projects, one of liberal origin, one of (distant) fascist origin. Liberal anti-fascism has rewritten the political camp into once which distinctly favours the far right. And yet, there is also a place for anti-fascism – an anti-fascism which is alive to the risk that the present non-fascist far right might indeed mutate into something more like fascism, but which does not cease its criticisms of the fascists’ mainstream sponsors. To the extent that they critique anti-fascism, Mondon and Winter are making valid points – without ever integrating back into their analysis as much of anti-fascism as still needs to be retained.

Mondon and Winter seek to refute the argument that the FN, Trump or UKIP have been class parties of the poor. But, in arguing that, I felt there were selective arguments at work. For example, they argue that the FN vote isn’t a significant class vote by pointing that while the FN (now the RN) has received a very high proportion of workers who vote, this proportion is less, once it is compared to the much larger numbers of voters who don’t vote at all. This is true, but it is an impossibly high standard which we on the left would almost never apply to political forces (Corbyn, Sanders, Mélenchon) of which we approve. It is far better politics, in my view, to acknowledge that the right has established a definite base within the working class, to see that clearly and without self-delusion, and to try and win that audience back.

Finally, Reactionary Democracy assumes – without expressly arguing – that the main category which the left should be fighting is racism. This is our evil, the raw material on which all reactionary traditions are based. That approach seems to me to narrow what the far right is – yes, fascism was racism, but it was equally nationalism, sexism, homophobia, etc. And beneath all of these its ideology was one of a radical inegalitarianism, that women existed in order to serve men, that the poor and workers existed ultimately in order to serve the interests of an economy (i.e. of the business owners) and that they could be employed functionally, like the cogs of a great machine, to serve the fascist aims of military conquest and racial war. And something like the same mindset applies (with less concentrated purpose) in our own non-fascist times.

[For anyone who has enjoyed this post; on Friday at 6pm BST, I’ll be speaking at an event on the New Authoritarians and Covid with Sita Balani. Details here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-new-authoritarians-and-covid-19-tickets-105000497314]