But what if it get worse from here…

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A number of friends have written to me about the piece I put up two days ago on Trump and the difficulty of making radical left-wing politics central to an anti-Trump coalition. They have said to me that the passages in which I seemed to discount any possibility of him contesting the election result were too glib. Rereading the piece, I can see how it came over that way.

I don’t want to make predictions. Part of the story of fascism and of anti-fascism is of people who at one stage in their lives thought they were doing something recognisable (they were an ordinary conservative, a socialist…), but got caught in events beyond their control, found themselves trapped in the logic of their own rhetoric. The next you knew, historic had sent them off in quite another direction. At one stage Mussolini was a socialist; at another point, he was not. At one stage Mosley was the saviour of the Conservatives. And the list goes on Tasca, Silone… You can get moments when it feels like history is just slipping out of everyone’s hands. Then, worst of all, people find themselves comfortable in what they’ve become.

If you want to think through the chance that the worst parts of 2020 are ahead of us, I am willing to acknowledge that risk. Over several years, I have been arguing that we are in a process in which events are renewing and radicalising the right, and that it has not yet exhausted itself.

If history was to somehow “stop” tomorrow, then in terms of how he has governed Trump is not a fascist, he is not even close. (Save for one really *really* important respect, which I’ll go in to) he has governed more like every other Republican administration since 1948 – each one of which faced the accusation from Democrats that it would re-run fascism.

The essential way in which Trump has been unlike fascists is that he has accepted the political limits imposed by the liberal state. When judges have told him to stop; by and large, he has. He cast doubt on the possibility of elections; he accommodated to them in reality. He has not purged the state . On the stump, he promised to jail his opponents; in office, he left them at liberty. The whole theme of my new book on fascism is that it is a specific movement, with a unique trajectory, in that it does reactionary and mass politics in equal measure. Compared to that, Trump has governed like a “reformist” of the right (albeit an aggressive one), and not a “revolutionary” (or, more accurately, a counter-revolutionary).

There is one part of Trump though which is new i.e. the intensity of his relationship with people further to the right. In Britain, every single far-right group has been buoyed by Trump and if it is like that for us, god knows what it must be like for you. When I’ve tried to explain this in recent weeks I’ve often cited the example of James Allsup, a member of Identity Evropa (i.e. a fascist, but of a particular sort) who four years ago had an audience of less than 10 people but by the time YouTube cracked down on his account it had had 70 million views. That is what Trump has done – he has listened to American fascists, he has amplified their talking points and made an audience for them – and that is even before you get into this year and the change that’s taken place in Trump’s support, its paramilitarisation around the lockdown and BLM.

In the old days, Republicans might “dog whistle” (i.e. say things knowing parts of their right-wing base would hear them), but they would also “gate-keep” (i.e. keep these people out of institutional power). Individuals like William Buckley Jr (whatever other harm he did) made it their career to keep some people in the tent and others out – while there is no-one playing that equivalent role today.

Trump does not dog whistle, he shouts out racism through a loudspeaker. Rather than keep out the likes of Laura Loomer, he acts as her number one social media fan.

The US is heading towards an election, which looks like it’s going to be miserable. I’m not worried about what happens if Trump loses by ten percentage points (in those circumstances, he will leave). I’m more than willing to acknowledge the possibility though that the result is a mess.

It’s as clear to me as I’m sure it is to everyone, that the postal votes will take days, maybe weeks, to count.

The way that the electoral college works, by artificially increasing the weight of voters who live in smaller states, means that Trump can win the election even if he loses the popular vote (cf 2016), but there is a certain point beyond which – if he does loses the vote badly enough – he must also lose the election. There’s not exact figure for that, but let’s say it’s 5 percent.

What we do know is that in most opinion polls, Trump is about 7 points behind. Sounds good, doesn’t it? But it’s not enough – a lead that small makes a “messy” election result more than likely.

A larger proportion of voters than in any previous election are likely to vote in advance, because of Covid, and because Democrats are urging people to vote postally. And checking postal votes (i.e. Democratic votes) is much slower than checking votes in person. Some states even have laws preventing postal votes from being checked before election day. Oh yes, and postal votes are more likely to be rejected. When a postal vote is checked you have to confirm that the person is on the roll, that the form is signed, and that they’ve actually voted (cf 2000 and the “dimpled chads”). All of these are likely to be disputed.

So, if Biden really wins the popular vote by 7 clear points then, on election night, as the first results come in (i.e. before postal votes are counted), you’d expect Trump to be ahead and the true scale of Biden’s lead to become apparent only long after.

In other words, it’s more likely than not that in early November, Trump will announce that he “has” won the election, and his media (Fox, Breitbart, etc) will follow him in declaring Trump the victor. That’s even – as I keep on saying – if, in reality, Biden is heading for a comfortable win.

So we’re facing a real danger of a situation where the two American don’t even agree that either candidate has won, let alone which one, and where the election result is heading towards the courts to determine (with their inbuilt partisan majority).

You don’t need to see Trump as a fascist – even if he’s just a plain old braggart authoritarian, it’s easy to imagine scenarios in which his supporters take to the streets with a view to intimidating judges and Trump starts egging them on.

In Britain, our polling companies debate whether Labour is catching up with the Conservatives. In the US, the psephologists are debating how the scenario of an unclear election result will be resolved, and whether it will be by judges or with guns. To outsiders – this is not a good look.

What I guess we need to balance – which is hard – is the way in which history provides two clear exit points from here:

a) The administration is voted out heavily, and goes, and when in 10 years time American have to explain to everyone else, “We came this close to fascism”, we’ll think you were mad. We’ll say Trump was just a nasty, ordinary, right-wing creep with a big mouth. In government – he was all talk and did nothing.

b) Trump wins the election / loses narrowly enough to drive his supporters wild. And yes, at that point, all bets – however bad are off. Political murders are already taking place in the US at Weimar rates. You have to assume, they’d go up from there. After all, we had the trial run in the spring and summer, with armed supporters of the far right invading state legislatures. At a certain point in the 1920s, the guns of the far right were a mere boast, at another point they were for real. I don’t discount for a second the possibility of Trump being trapped by his ego, the demands of his supporters, his pathological desire to flatter them…

No doubt, friends will tell me there are other routes out. But from here, they seem the main ones.

Nothing in advance of the election determines which 2020 we’ll get. Whether it will be the genuinely revolutionary politics which were once reflected in parts of the US constitution, which was after all one of the most radical systems of government in its day (it’s amazing how any politics, stuck in stone for such a long time, goes stale). Or the reality of colonial oppression, slavery and genocide, which was structured in from the beginning. No-one knows which way history will bend.

The two things we do know are that Trump has a far weaker belief in the idea of democracy than any prominent politician for years.

And that if anti-fascist do take to the streets, they will have to find ways of confronting not merely Trump’s armed supporters, but the politics of the liberal mainstream who will seek to de-escalate the situation by sending in cops to confront the left first.

It follows the the only thing which can counterbalance the risk is when people organise – when they take the streets – and make it impossible for Trump supporters to march (of for the police to disperse them).

If I was in the States I’d be thinking – is there an anti-fascist coalition in my city? What have I done to build it?

And if one doesn’t exist already: well, I talked in my other piece about the sorts of movement that could prevent the right from dominating the streets; anarchists, the DSA… Neither is enough, you’d need to pull in surviving Trotskyist groups where they exist. Maoists, people at the left edge of the Democrats. Greens.

People need to be as principled as the moment will allow, and as broad as they can be – even while knowing that these two instincts aren’t easily held together. You just have to try.

Everyone one is afraid now, and probably everyone is going be angry – the trick is to make your hope and ideas as big as the situation demands.

Because otherwise, no matter how bad 2020 is now, there’s every possibility that we’ll be look back in two months’ time on the autumn and saying, “those were the good times”.

1990s anti-fascism: a balance sheet

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One of the things I’ve written about in the last few weeks is the experience of re-reading my 1999 book on fascism, with a view to seeing how much of the analysis still stands up.

Here, I thought it might be useful to broaden my focus a little, and treat that book as reflective of a general approach towards anti-fascism. What I thought I was doing, at the time, was writing a conventional SWP-influenced “party line” guide to what fascism was and how to fight it. (Certainly, any number of reviewers took it that way). Twenty years later, it’s worth reflecting again – not so much on the book, but on the unspoken ideas of anti-fascist politics which informed it.

Joining the SWP as I did in 1991 was a natural step for any leftist to take. I’d been in the Labour Party for a year, suffered that organisation’s lack of interest in stopping the poll tax or the Iraq War. The SWP – because of its success in the 1970s (and the implosion of the Communist Party) – was able to present itself, quite plausibly, as the party of all the movements, so that if you were seriously against racism, sexism, homophobia, and if you were committed to organising in trade unions on a rank-and-file basis, or to stopping the Criminal Justice Act, the SWP was the group for you.

A great deal of the SWP’s credibility was down to the large number of people who’d joined the group in 1976-9 during the Anti-Nazi League. The SWP in that period had been able to renew itself, recruiting a younger generation of members who still led SWP branches 15 years later. They were experienced and articulate. They had a philosophy of the world which included art, science, and music. Soon after I’d joined, I went through experiences that seemed to justify my decision to join including the election of BNP councillor Derek Beackon in Tower Hamlets, the campaign to unseat him a year later, and the Anti-Nazi League carnival of summer 1994.

I met my partner at Welling. We’re still together, more than a quarter of a century later. The politics of that period shaped me – and continue to shape the socialism in which I believe.

I was in Oxford in 1992-5 and one of the campaigns in which I took part was in support of the family of a middle aged Somali man, S- G- A-, who had been killed in a racist firebombing. The police refused to treat it as a racist murder. The same attackers had, that evening, also attacked a synagogue (the rabbi depressingly, was later a prominent public supporter of Steve Bannon). Together with friends, I helped to take collections for the family, provide security for people afraid of being attacked again, spoke in schools, and helped to call a march in support of the family, attended by them and around a hundred other local residents.

These are some of the proudest memories of my life, and I want to be absolutely clear: if I hadn’t met the SWP or the Anti-Nazi League, I would not have had the confidence to believe I could be part of challenging that racism, the skills to organise a protest, or even the sense of obligation which forces you to act in other people’s defence. I owe that activism to other people’s prompting – and I am grateful to them for pushing me.

You can get a sense of the SWP in this period by thinking of just one high-profile member: Julie Waterson. The leader of the ANL on its re-launch, she was a working-class woman from West Lothian with a fierce sense of humour and an absolutely loyalty to the people around her. If you did something right, she’d tell you. And if you got anything wrong, she wouldn’t hold back from telling you. Julie inspired love and anger in equal measure. But if she had one virtue above all it was this – what you saw was what you got. What she said was what she believed; and if you were her comrade then she’d give all of herself for you. There’s no better example of that than events at Welling whe she was trying to negotiate with the police, and they responded by clubbing her. She kept on organising the crowd, defiantly, her jacket splattered with her own blood. Could you imagine the grey blurs who run today’s SWP putting their bodies on the line for their comrades like she did?

I remember Julie coming to speak to Oxford SWP in 1995; the local branch was ignoring the local Campaign to Close Campsfield – in practice (and without any ever having admitted this), because we didn’t run it and other groups did. “What are youse doing?” Waterson demanded. I also remember a couple of years later when I started writing for Searchlight magazine. At that year’s SWP conference, Julie took me aside. “We’ve had a discussion on the Central Committee,” she began. They’d had a vote and wanted me to stop writing for what was, after all, a rival leftwing publication. “If you listen to those bastards” (she meant her comrades on the CC), “I’ll never forgive you.”

Under her leadership, the anti-racist part of the SWP was in some ways recognisably like the sort of left you’d want to see nowadays – it actively cultivated the support of Jewish Holocaust survivors, it put them on platforms, it also tried to educate its members in something of the black Marxist tradition. We might not have known for the most part who Darcus Howe how was, or the origins of the Race Today collective, but we were expected to have read about Malcolm X, the Panthers, DRUM…

A surprising lot of all left-wing politics is about positioning, and the niche the ANL carved out was for “mass” anti-fascism.

Further to our left, although sometimes we pretended they weren’t there, were the “militant” anti-fascists of Anti-Fascist Action. (This is their term for themselves; we called them “squaddists”). AFA specialised in events such as confronting BNP paper sales, and physically turning them over. If a fascist was speaking in a town hall, AFA would insist on anti-fascists forcing their way in and preventing the fascist from speaking. The ANL, by contrast, emphasised numbers: winning the Labour Party and unions. The idea was to organise huge turnouts in order to physically confront and beat the far-right, but (AFA complained) there was a lot more emphasis on generating the numbers than there was on ever using them.

Meanwhile, on our right, we had the Anti-Racist Alliance, a campaign which focused much more on winning mainstream opinion to anti-racist and anti-fascist positions. It was broader than the ANL, with a much greater focus on eg all-black shortlists for Labour Party selections, a much greater opposition to institutional racism in the police. But at key moments, it was more “liberal” than the ANL.

So if you take events at Welling in 1993, the single major street confrontation in this period (albeit with certain previous AFA mobilisations, notably the “Battle of Waterloo”, not far behind it). Welling saw an alliance of left wing groups (SWP/ANL and Militant/YRE) temporarily agree to hold a joint march against the BNP. AFA and other forms of radical anti-fascism (eg anarchists, Class War) were there. At Welling, anti-fascists fought the police, defying batons, throwing bricks in return. Tens of thousands of people were there. Meanwhile, ARA were organising a rival, peaceful protest, barely a thousand strong, miles from the BNP headquarters.

Fascism: Theory and Practice was an attempt to express the perspective of my party and my left “generation” in book form. Reviewers understood that and tended to read the book either positively or negatively according to how they saw the SWP in general.

Of course, that organisation no longer exists. At the start of the 2000s, Julie Waterson was removed as the SWP link to the ANL. The SWP’s anti-racist work which was handed over to Martin Smith and Weyman Bennett, two individuals who lacked Julie’s sense of fun – or her honesty.

The ANL was folded into a different campaign “Unite Against Fascism”, whose methods of organising were both more liberal than the 1990s-era SWP, while also ceding to ARA the principle of black political leadership.

None of this was healthy for my old party. In 2004-6, the SWP put on a dozen events, including both concerts and traditional speaking engagements, for the Holocaust denier Gilad Atzmon. (One SWPer, Richard Seymour did speak out against Atzmon’s promotion; but years had to pass before anyone else in the SWP would agree publicly with him).

Black political leadership, exercised by a middle-aged white socialist, caused Martin Smith – and the people around him – to lose all sense of who they were. If you want to get a sense of what UAF’s anti-fascism became, then watch the five-minute film taken in 2010 of Smith speaking outside Westminster Magistrates’ Court after he had been convicted of assaulting a police officer. Smith had just been convicted for assault (kicking a policeman in the balls). It wasn’t part of any synchronised attack on police lines, still less on the EDL, but a juvenile piece of posturing: the sort of thing that someone might do if in their head they were Leon Trotsky, but life itself wasn’t providing the chances to lead anything real. Smith’s petulance was punished with a community sentence. Not the prison sentence it might have received had the prosecution been motivated by political malice, and the courts genuinely cracking down on anti-fascists.

Outside court, Smith told his supporters that he was in a tradition, “If you go back to the first black regiments in the American civil war, the black soldiers were sent back to become slaves and their white generals were shot … In Birmingham Alabama in 1963, people went in their thousands to prison to break the Jim Crow laws. So I stand in the best of company, with Malcolm [X], with Martin [Luther King]…” In his imagination, Smith had ceased to be like the great leaders of the past, he was one of them, as black and as poor and as unjustly victimised as all the others.

I’ve described before how the members of Martin Smith’s bodyguard behaved in 2013: the violence which they had threatened against the far-right was now turned inwards against a much more available target: a generation of young socialists who had had the temerity to argue that sexual harassment or rape were inappropriate conduct for the leader of a left-wing party. The people who were used to following Martin Smith’s lead repeated his explanation of what had gone wrong – his claims of victimhood, his sense that somehow “the state” or other dark forces were behind everything bad that had befallen him.

There is a reason why so many of the early 90s ANL generation had left the SWP by the end of 2013. We knew – better than the others who stayed were willing to admit – how far the group had fallen.

But imagine you could recreate it all – the good and the bad – highlight the former and dial down the latter. When you looked at what was left, would it be an anti-fascist politics worth salvaging?

These days, I don’t tend to see either mass or militant anti-fascism as singly “the answer”, but as successive steps the left needs to take. When fascist parties emerge from street movements (stage one of Robert Paxton’s five stages of fascism) and become electoral parties (stage two) the burden is likely to shift from “militant” to “mass” forms of protest. Saying that one form of struggle is the answer is like saying that a hammer is better than a paintbrush – you need them both, you use them for different things.

Moreover our anti-fascism has to broaden to a different kind of cultural work: not just the political struggle, including the street-fighting which Julie Waterson understood, but also that kind of free flowing and non-political campaigning in which (say) the original Rock Against Racism specialised, but ANL mark two could only ever copy.

Undoubtedly, there will be movements in future which are serious about anti-fascism and which have the same levels of support as 1930s or 1970s or even 1990s-style anti-fascism.

When they emerge, they’ll need to be better-rooted in culture – online and offline. I hope they find people to lead them with an honest sense of who they are and a commitment to the movements they lead. So yes, we’ll need more Julie Watersons, and more of the politics she lived by.

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If you’ve enjoyed this piece, my new book Fascism: History and Theory is published by Pluto on September 20 – you might like it too.

On defining fascism

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“There is a need to analyse all ideologies critically, and this is especially true of fascism, a political tradition which from its inception set out to kill millions. Indeed, how can a historian, in all conscience, approach the study of fascism with neutrality? What is the meaning of objectivity when writing about a political system that plunged the world into a war in which at least forty million people died? How can the historian provide a neutral account of a system of politics which turned continental Europe into one gigantic prison camp?”

“One cannot be balanced when writing about fascism, there is nothing positive to be said of it.”

I wanted to share again the above passage from Fascism: Theory and Practice, which I’ve seen lots of readers quote over the years (not least, Mark Bray – in his book Antifa).

You can only ever define anything by reference to characteristics which are external to it. A stoat is (in Dr Johnson’s words) a small-stinking animal; a metre is (less controversially) one 10-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator. Socialism is not simply the shared political consciousness of every working class person in history (even if, 20 years after Marx’s death that was what it briefly looked like it might become). Rather it is a specific set of ideas – a differentiated tradition, motivated by a shared conception of equality – sitting a distinct place on the political spectrum and with a recognisable history and trajectory.

You won’t, and can’t, understand fascism by simply collecting together the most memorable bits of Hitler or of Mussolini’s speeches. Or by telling yourself that “fascism = nationalism plus socialism”.

Above all, you have to connect together what the fascists said, and what the fascists did – and show what the common project was that joined them.

On the limits of liberal anti-fascism

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My new book, Fascism, begins and ends with an analysis of what fascism was. It avoids, almost entirely, any discussion of whether our period is fascist, whether its leading representatives are (Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro), or how to understand their armed supporters.

The book has very little present-day “politics” in it, which sounds strange – how could you have a book about fascism, which quotes the likes of Zetkin, Gramsci or Trotsky, without that book being intensely political? What I mean is that this book is about fascism in history, and understanding it.

As I’ve argued before, you can’t have any discussion on the left about the risk posed by fascism, unless you begin by agreeing on what fascism was. Only then can you work out whether anyone today deserves that name, and what is the best way to go about stopping them.

Part of the reason why I emphasise understanding fascism is to do with the ways in which politics has changed since the 1930s. One way to understand European politics in the 1930s, might be as follows. Imagine the working-through of a dialogue which began with a revolutionary approaching a reformist socialist and saying, “I am worried by the rise of Hitler. If he comes to power, both of us are doomed; therefore let’s work together to stop him.” Now imagine a second dialogue in which the reformist socialist approached someone from the liberal centre of European politics, and said the same to that liberal.

For the European left of the 1930s, it was possible to envisage that the first dialogue might result in action, and that it might be enough to set millions of people into the streets – without needing to get to that second conversation at all. So, for example, when supporters of the French right rioted on the streets of Paris on 6 February 1934, this caused Socialists and Communists to call anti-fascist counter-protests. The two left-wing groups mingled in the streets, and set in train two years of anti-fascist unity whose results included some of the largest strikes in French history, as well as the election of an anti-fascist Unity government in 1936. Co-operation was enough to grow each of the two divided wings of French socialism to the point where together they could imagine becoming the majority.

But in France, of course, unity continued past that election result. The Communists insisted on an alliance not merely with Socialists, but also with liberals. In office, anti-fascist unity (the “Popular Front”) became a means of de-escalating the struggle. Therefore for large parts of the left – dissident Marxists, anarchists and Trotskyists – the shared understanding was that anti-fascist unity in future should be only between different groups of socialists, and should not be extended so far as “Radicals”, “liberals”, etc.

The problem with extending this reasoning to our times, is that the different components of the left have shrunk so fast – especially in the countries where a street right is growing – that it becomes almost impossible to envisage a left alliance which would be capable of speaking for a majority of people. In the United States, what would it mean: the attacked population of Portland allying with the DSA? I’d love to see that alliance happen – perhaps friends closer to the struggle would say it has happened already – but the plan of attaching the “revolutionaries” to “the reformists” would still leave you speaking of only a tiny number of people – how would they outnumber Donald Trump, with his Republican Presidency, and his 70 million Twitter followers?

It is possible to imagine the different fractions of the US left uniting to stop the Proud Boys or the Patriots – but not an electoral force with as broad as support as the incumbent Republican President. That can only happen with the support of the Democrats, and under their control – i.e. with all the pressures towards conformism of the 1930s Popular Front.

The words of the equivalent dialogue are also slightly changed. It begins the same concern, “I am worried by the rise of Trump.” Then there is an extra step: “And Trump is a fascist.” It ends as before, “If he comes to power, both of us are doomed; therefore let’s work together to stop him.”

The sentences “Trump is a fascist”, and “let’s work together”, have a separate logic. The latter is a question of pure politics, it’s about the threat posed by the right, about the range of available other options (Could we help to stop environmental catastrophe by voting Green, or would that only contribute to an easier victory for Trump?).

The statement “Trump is a fascist” is to some extent similar – it’s a political and moral judgment – but it’s a judgment-call shaped by history. You can’t assess whether Trump or Modi or Bolsonaro are fascists untless you have an idea of what happened in the past which is independent of them.

There are, in fact, a lot of good political reasons why people might not want to be in a Popular Front dominated by anti-Trump liberals.

The most important is that liberals portray Trump as something utterly new and alien to American life. All the bad things that happen now are his fault. And any of the 30-year history which caused tens of millions of voters to see Trump as legitimate – like the existing parties but a bit more so – simply vanishes away.

In a piece I published two weeks ago, I made the point that between 2016 and 2019, Trump added just 9 miles to the Mexican wall. The first 580 miles were built under Bill Clinton and George Bush. Barrack Obama added around another 200 miles. From this perspective who is worse: the combined forces of American centrism who built 800 miles of the wall, or Trump, who increased their achivements by a mere one percent?

In eight years in office President Obama and Vice President Biden reported 3 million people. Trump in his first two years managed just half a million.

Donald Trump has added trillions to the budget of the US military, but not enough for Joe Biden.

Over the last few weeks, there have been countless occasions when people speaking on behalf of the American centre have spoken as if racism and incarceration began in 2016. On Twitter, Paul Krugman has been explaining to his followers how there was no increase in racism in the US after 2001, no detention of Muslims, no state paranoia and no “anti-Muslim sentiment“. Such a way of mis-understanding the past doesn’t just treat everyone like children, it also fails to acknowledge where Trump came from – not as the negation of the previous three decades, but as their simplification and extension. Not despite what happened to Willie Horton but because of it, not despite the Iraq War or bail-out of the banks, but because of them.

Friends will have seen the clips in which Trump is given the opportunity to say he will accept the result of the election – and he refuses it. This isn’t a good sign – the effect such words have on his base is troubling.

But it is no more healthy to see parts of the American state (the army, the Secret Services) being treated heroes, standing in the last redoubt before the collapse of democracy. Or to see former officers speculating on the necessity of a coup to unseat Trump, using “the once-unthinkable scenario of authoritarian rule in the United States,” as a justification for the sending the army to the streets. After Grenada, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iraq (again), maybe it’s time to grasp that sending in the US army doesn’t result in more democracy for protesters but less.

The argument that Trump is akin to fascism rests on his campaign rhetoric, and the threat posed by his alliance with an extreme right online and on the streets, not on his record in office.

If Trump really was a fascist then some of this blindness about the past might be justified. If, for example, Trump was about to steal the election … If he was about to show a vastly greater contempt towards American voters than (say) even George Bush in 2000 … If he was about to call an army of his supporters onto the streets to invalidate a popular vote, and you could realistically expect the Patriots kill hundreds of people. If the left was genuinely facing that immediate catastrophe – then an alliance with liberals would make sense, even if meant biting our collective tongues and keeping silent through a great deal of annoying myth-making.

On the other hand, if Trump isn’t a fascist, then how could that alliance be justified?

The theme of my book is not whether Trump (or Modi or Bolsonaro are fascists). Back in 2019, I tried to answer that question, and nothing since has changed my understanding.

What I’m trying to do in this book is slightly different. It invites readers to look the past square in the eye, and set out in clear terms what fascism was.

We need a book which speaks of the role played by fascism in the Holocaust and the World War – the millions of lives that fascism took – and tries to explain what it was about fascism that caused it to become more militant in office. Why it played a different role in office not just from conservatism, but from the other reactionary regimes most similar to it.

That’s the book I’ve written.

Fascism – a playlist

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As part of the build-up to the launch of my new book on Fascism, I thought I’d make the book a playlist. For people who’ve got Spotify, I’ve also posted this playlist there (daver1917/My antifascist songs)

Joy Division, Atmosphere

Cabaret, Tomorrow Belongs To Me

Johnny Cash, Folsom Prison Blues

Stranglers, No More Heroes

Siouxse and the Banshees, Metal Postcard

Elvis Costello, Night Rally

Jan Delay, www hitler de

Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit

British Sea Power, Something Wicked

Ana Tijoux, Mi Verdad

A letter to my readers

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In a week’s time (on September 20th), I’ll be publishing a new book called Fascism. If you follow this blog then you’ll know already that it isn’t altogether new.

Twenty year ago, I published a first ‘Fascism’ book, and it remains one of my books of which I’m the proudest. Among the people who read it and corresponded with me where people I’ve known ever since: friends from Glasgow and Belfast and Dunedin. Friends from uni whose ideas, whether about fascism or about the crisis of our own times, I’m still grappling with. The idea, that we might be living in a world whose constituent parts were heading towards fascism, was taken up by readers. I received letters from Tehran. I saw the book behind passed from hand to hand in Grahamstown in South Africa. Maoists in India invited me to write for their magazines.

It was my real first book, and for any writer that’s a moment to remember: you make yourself naked before the whole world. And you wait, and you watch, and you hope you don’t look ridiculous.

From the 20th, I’m hoping that reviews will start appearing. When they do, I’ll share them here.

In advance of then, I wanted to explain what’s different about this edition.

First of all, the book is now called Fascism: History and Theory. Last time, I began with the theory, this time I begin with history. In the last four years, more English-speaking writers have been talking about whether we are returning to a moment like the 1930s than at any stage in my lifetime. And the people most animated by this possibility aren’t even the far left. They’re Judges for the Booker prize, they’re Barack Obama, they’re advocates of American power like Madeleine Albright.

The political activist in me understands why you need to ask the question. Occasionally, I’ve been asking it too.

But the more that people fix on that possibility, the more they seem to invoke the least important parts of fascism. So fascism is now said to be a movement which creeps into power. (No movement in history shouted more or crept less). Or it is evil because it promoted separate routes of national development rather than an international order (when for four hundred years capitalism has alternated between periods of “autarky” and of “globalisation”). Or because it directed some of its appeals to workers. (Without that, how would any right-wing party win an election?).

For that reason, my book doesn’t say very much at all about the analogy between the 1930s and today, rather it focuses on explaining fascism was, in its own historical context. Maybe afterwards, people will say “sure, we’re heading that way”, or maybe not – either answer is capable of satisfying me. But neither answer can be convincing unless both sides have a shared understanding of the past and one which is true to the past. Unless you’ve got that shared understanding – unless you understand for example both the scale of the Holocaust and its origins in older forms of colonial rule – then both sides are just talking past each other.

Second, I try to explain in more detail than in any other book I’ve read what the sharpest left-wing theories of fascism had in common. (The book is essentially about “Marxism”, but you’ll find in the book Marxist-feminists, Black Marxists, Socialist, Communists, dissident Marxists, even anarchists).

To put that explanation together I’ve had to think hard about certain things I left vague twenty years ago. About debates between Trotsky and Thalheimer. About Walter Benjamin and his critique of a certain kind of productivist thinking, and where that leaves “Marxism“.

I don’t want to be more specific than that here – these issues are what the book’s about, and will determine whether people are still reading it in five or ten years’ time.

Last, the book – in it’s opening pages, talks about anti-fascism as well as fascism. It tries to explain what people do when they adopt an anti-fascist consciousness, and the wager they make to themselves. And the thought processes which are common to almost all anti-fascism.

Hope too, I hope you’ll find ideas which speak to you.

[The book itself can be ordered here or here].

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.