Tag Archives: Far right

Trolls, shit-posters… you have nothing to lose but your self-made chains


Friends who only know me from me from my books about fascism sometimes ask whether I’ve ended up on far-right hitlists. Not really. There was a death threat I was sent when I was at university – more a chain letter with some pornographic cartoons than anything more serious. There was a time in Sunderland when the organisers of the BNP branch read a letter of mine in the local paper, and tried to knock on every door of the street I lived until they found me. (The street ran to number 800 and, as far as I can tell, they never got anywhere near the flat where I was staying).

Years ago, in Liverpool, a former BNP member who’d been on trial for attempted murder got hold of my email address, and that only. But, to be honest, he was more looking for someone -anyone – to read his turgid memoirs than to do any harm to me.

In the last decade, most of the hatemail has come from other socialists. Like the person in the SWP who wrote to me, “Fuck off back to Eton you filthy rich tosser … you snivelling piece of shit.” When I pointed out that he’d sent what he plainly thought was an anonymous message from his private work computer, and therefore that I could identify him, the comrade had the good sense to respond, “I was completely wrong to say the things I did and I would like to offer my apologies.”

Then there was the fellow antizionist who wrote to me last year, “I suspect that the only thing you have fought for is a good seat at a restaurant … I won’t congratulate you on becoming a class traitor, not least because you were always of the wrong class anyway”. Which was at least better-written, and me laugh, even if the rest of the letter was annoying, stupid and rude.

What intrigues me is why people send this “red-on-red” fire? Obviously, there’s the narcissism of small differences, the way in which when you’re stuck at a point on the political spectrum it can feel as if people with a similar politics to you are operating as gatekeepers, keeping your voice from getting the attention it deserves.

But I think there’s something more than that, to do with the long-term consequences of the relocation of life from off- to online. Some readers will recall a time when online discussion was minimal, when it was something which took place in universities and through an electronic infrastructure which excluded the vast majority of people, and when other means of international communication was prohibitively expensive. (Don’t you remember having saying to people: I need to make a call, it’s international – I’ll pay you?)

If you had said to anyone 30 years ago that we were on the verge of a transformation in people’s ability to speak, opening up interpersonal communication to billions of people, the prospect would have filled every one of us with delight.

Plainly, social media is not only a negative phenomenon. Billions of people devote their creativity and ingenuity to the effort to make that experience as pleasant as possible. A shared experience on this scale could not simply be unpleasant, any more than all “food” or all “water” could be bad. Yet the fact that speech is mediated – i.e. communication controlled by huge businesses – has replaced the prospect of liberation with something less.

We spend hours of our lives, dozens of them a week, hundreds a month, thousands a year – doing what, exactly? We want to be liked; we want our posts to be read. We know that the most effective means of obtaining a like – a follow, a friendship request – is by “taking down” something we disagree with. This behaviour isn’t an attraction to someone else. It is alluring to you, dear reader. It is alluring to me.

There are a thousand fine gradations between making a well-deserved point, puncturing someone else’s nonsense, and mocking them openly, harassing, calling for them to be dismissed. And yet these are all fine distinctions within one total set of behaviour: lines drawn on the same piece of cloth.

Anyonymous posting, commenting beneath the line – they change the people who do them.

The free speech battles of our time thrive on fume. Both sides present the enemy as capable of dealing to them a fatal defeat from which they could never recover. Typically, one side makes this claim with greater truthfulness than the other. But, typically, that justice claim gets lost, shrouded in the claims of mutual victimhood.

Somehow, we have to detach ourselves from the social media companies. The last time I looked, the wealth of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was $80 billion, almost all of it contained in the share price of his company. He was the world’s fourth richest person. Since 2012, Facebook’s share price has been growing at the rate of roughly $50 billion a year, earning Zuckerberg an effective income of about $8 billion a year.

We need to stop feeding their personal wealth; we also need to stop behaving in the ways that their products encourage.

(If you’ve enjoyed this piece, my next book, No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics, is published by Routledge in June. It can be ordered here or here. Tickets for the book-launch – with Evan Smith and Kate Doyle Griffiths – can be ordered here).

The far right and Coronavirus


  • If you look around the world there is no single far-right response to the pandemic.

In Britain, we often assume that everyone on the far right has responded to the Coronavirus by denying its reality. If you look at US, Brazil, or even the UK – the far right has responded to Coronavirus, like it does to global warming, by calling it fake news, and blaming globalists for panicking unnecessarily. There are many on the right who think like that. But there are other countries where the far right has taken the opposite approach.

In Hungary, and Poland, presidential governments have been perfectly happy to announced quarantines. In India, the BJP introduced a lockdown. In doing so, it strengthened the position of Prime Minister Modi who had previously been facing mass protests for laws intended to remove citizenship from the country’s Muslims.

Over the next 6 months the parts of the far right which deny the reality of Coronavirus are likely to look cruel and dangerous – they may lose support.

If the crisis causes, say, the Brazilian regime to collapse I’m sure friends will celebrate – but we should do so cautiously. There are plenty of other authoritarian right-wingers who have taken a different approach and whose popularity is growing.

  • The adoption of emergency powers in Europe threatens to normalise the suppression of democracy

Think of France. In March 2020, after the first round of local elections in which his En Marche party did poorly, President Macron deferred to the future the crucial second route of that vote. Parliament then passed a “health emergency” law, which made the breach of lockdown rules punishable by six months in prison. It also closed the French borders to non-EU citizens.

For years France has been living under a series of emergency laws – giving the police previously unimagined powers Under them the French government has ruled by Presidential decree whenever possible, and is openly contemptuous of Parliament. For a time this was explained as an emergency reflex, designed to stop terrorism. Then it was emergency action to stop the far right. Now it is an emergency to stop Coronavirus.

“We are at war,” Macron said repeatedly in his speech justifying the new laws. When advocates of liberal democracy adopt this sort of language they make life easier for the far right. And the problem with such “preventative” authoritarianism is that the longer you live under it, the harder it becomes to portray even fascism as anything different from politics as usual.

So, while anti-authoritarians should welcome any measure which genuinely protect health – where they start becoming something more sinister, we must oppose them

  • When thinking about the crisis and the right, the real problems are likely to be felt not now but in the months ahead

It is unlikely that there will be a vaccine until 2021 at the earliest. But Coronoavirus is a lung infection – it is most deadly where air quality is bad and in cold weather. In Britain, we have been incredibly lucky that the disease hit here in spring rather than winter. After all, if you look at deaths from pneumonia, in a typical year they spike in December and January – these are by far the worst times of the year for lung infections.

When the pandemic started this year, the far right had a simple answer. In Italy and France, it argued “close the borders”

That never became a central demand in European politics – largely because by the time had reached Europe, and action was needed, the disease had already crossed borders. The right’s answer would have made no difference.

But if we go into a second wave of Coronavirus in this winter, this direction of travel is likely to be reversed. At that stage it will be post-lockdown Europe fearing a disease coming back to Europe from outside. In those circumstances, it will be easier for the right to blame foreigners

The reality is that affluent, travelling, Europeans have been among the people most likely to spread the disease in central and southern Africa and to Latin America and to other countries where it was previously absent.

We can’t let the virus be used as an excuse to stir up fears against migrants

When I warn of a second or third round of Coronavirus politics, I am also thinking of how the global economic crisis of 2008 panned out

That crisis came at a time when in most countries politics was still, essentially, a two-way contest between a moderate left and an electoral right. Many of us assumed that the left, as the anti-capitalists, would grow

What actually happened was different. Where the left was in power, in Britain and the US, it was blamed for bailing out the bankers. For eight years, politics turned in the direction of a neo-liberal cutting right

Then, when that part of the right was exhausted, the right was able to renew itself globally from 2016 onwards by offering nationalist and racist solutions to the crisis. We saw an increasing convergence between the positions taken by centre-right politicians and a previously marginal far right

During the first weeks of the Coronavirus epidemic, governments offered massive stimulus packages to keep employers in business. In many countries, the people authorising that spending are politicians who have made their careers by insisting that budgets must be balanced. It follows that as soon as the present crisis calms there will people calling for another round of austerity as protracted as the one we’ve just lived through

They won’t say, simply, “We must balance the budget,” as the state spending has been so great that that that goal will seem incredibly distant. But the rich will resist any measures to pay for the crisis that will put the burden on them.

The left has a number of historic solutions to a debt crisis – increased taxation of capital, increased inflation – any government that follows them will face opposition from within the right.

And if politics feels (as it has, too often in the past five years) like just a battle between two different elements of the right – the cutters and the social authoritarians – the legitimacy of the latter will grow.

The far right falters


photograph: Steve Eason

Heavens knows the Tommy Robinson fans are miserable now. That’s why they’re sharing pictures from Egypt in 2011 rather than London yesterday.

There were somewhere between three and five thousand Tommy Robinson supporters on Whitehall. That sounds like an impressive number, except that it’s barely a third of the crowd that his followers turned out in June.

The Robinson fan club can’t share pictures of Whitehall from above, because the truth that picture would reveal is that the numbers mobilised by anti-fascists were almost as large as those turned out by the right. Four thousand in London to celebrate Trump? It’s not much to celebrate when 250,000 people opposed him the day before.

You could hear the Robinson fans as they joined their protest singing “Hey, Tommy Tommy.” A brutal two hours later, having endured some of the dullest speakers available to the international right, they headed towards the tube: grim faced and miserable.

This movement is losing energy fast. Its rank and file know precious little of their leaders. And they have more defeats ahead of them than victories.

Once again, the core demographic was men in their fifties. They were in their club strips, singing their fan songs. But to the Arsenal fans who were there with their Gooner, chants; how do you think Michael Thomas would feel if he knew you’d been there? Or Mesut Ozil; or Granit Xhaka? Don’t tell me you know about football, if Tommy Robinson is the only name you know.

The strangest thing about the present incarnation of the far right is the vigour with which its leaders insists that they are the world’s only campaigners against the problem of child sex abuse (by Muslims).

It’s a demand that appeals to a group of people with deep insecurities and who are prone to wild visions of alliances between the state and Britain’s ethnic minorities. But if this was truly a movement of justice for the victims, where are the victims? Where are the nurses who’ve sat with them, shared their pain, held their hands? Where are the dozens of local people who actually exposed the injustices in Telford or Rotherham?

What both the left and right learned yesterday is that while Robinson is in prison, and his movement is in the hands of people who have no bigger ambition than another street meeting, another bore fest, its prospects are strictly limited.

If they weren’t so busy glassing a mixed group of male and female trade unionists as they drank in a pub, you could almost feel sorry for them.

My love goes out to my friends and comrades who were there standing up to them. To the comrades from Plan C and AFN who are trying for the first time in a decade to recruit a new generation of people to the anti-fascist cause. To the trade unionists who were there, who recognise that justice comes fighting the rich and the state, rather than making yourselves into a street army for the right.

To all the people (whatever group they came with) who built the human barricade that for one hot afternoon held back this new incarnation of the right. My heart goes above all to those – from both demonstrations – who cheered as the two marches of anti-fascists joined together. That’s what the united front means in 2018.

Links, round-up


Back in May, I gave a talk at a London RS21 meeting with Jairus Banaji on the far-right. There’s a video of that meeting at that meeting here  and the text of the talk is on the Socialist Worker (US) site. I spoke to Quartz magazine post-Charlottesville, and some of my comments made it into the article here.

The big news for lawyers in the UK over the next few years will be the shift to an online court system. I’ve posted some early comments about it here, and was interviewed as part of a BBC programme about online courts here.

Fascism and the far right; twenty years on


“Saranson [had] thin flaxen hair … His eyes were sparks at the bottom of two dark wells”

Let me start with the origins of my book Fascism: Theory and Practice. I will then set out – using a deliberately old-fashioned, Marxist term – what my perspective would be if I was to think today about the same questions now.

When I wrote the book, I had gone straight from undergraduate work to a PhD and the book originated as a literature review to accompany a project of mapping out the relationship between fascism and anti-fascism in Britain in the three key periods of 1936-9, 1941-1951 and 1972-1979.

My PhD looked, in a very British History purely empirical fashion, at the second of these periods. I later published a further monograph looking at the 1970s. Whatever the merits or otherwise of my two books on the 1940s and 1970s, they were animated by a key insight, namely that the right has always had to deal with the problem of hostility from the left and that its strategies for dealing with opposition have at certain key moments been central to what the right has been.

Whether that’s Mosley’s turn to National Socialism in 1934, or his Hegelianism in the 1940s and 1950s or the BNP’s electoral strategy in the 1990s – every one of these moves, it can sensibly be argued, did not rise “from within” but principally to address the problems caused by determined opposition.

Similar thinking, of course, informs my book on fascism. Although the focus there is not on British but on generic (Italian, German and post-war) fascism.

A further idea in the book was that if war or genocide were ever to return to the most wealthiest countries of the world this could come about only through fascism. Here, I want to explore today some of the unspoken assumptions that underpinned this belief. One was an unspoken idea that countries such as the United States or Britain had made a long-term shift towards both political and social democracy. For someone who grew up, as I did, in the 1970s it was easy to tell yourself that a society which prioritised health care, pensions, etc, would never except in the very most extreme circumstances adopt a policy of inter-power war or domestic genocide. Of course, even I was a younger I was well aware that there were still wars, but these were exported to what we used to call the Third World.

That could change, I assumed, but only as a result of the emergence of political forces which called publicly for return to genocide and war. And the only political movement which had advocated these as options at any time since 1914 were fascists.

Another idea which lay behind the book was that there were structural limits to the number of political forms which were capable of becoming majority movements. In other words, capitalism gave rise to conservatism, socialism, liberalism, communism and fascism. And there the list ended.

Fascism was a recurring presence in the 1970s, in memory of the 1920s and 1930s when it had taken the feelings of bewilderment and alienation that arose in an epoch of reformist modernisation, and the perceived threat of the far-left, and sought to build against them both a counter-revolutionary alternative. But because the post-war period was an epoch of polarised near-majorities, there was a limited space for ideological diversity.

In the 1970s and 1980s, it was common for commentators to use the term “far right” as a short-hand for mimetic fascist parties formed in conscious emulation of the 1930s. In my book, I am very critical of that language.

One possibility I excluded, however, was a genuine “far right” – i.e. a series of parties, in several countries, working in more or less alliance, who were permanently at ease in a political space which was different both from traditional conservatism and fascism. A party like UKIP, in Britain. Or the victory of Donald Trump.

When I wrote Fascism: Theory and Practice I was interested in how fascist parties had been radicalised to the right. This was a phenomenon which had no other sustained counterpart at any time since the adoption of democracy. We are more than familiar with the process by which legality had tamed outsider movements of the left. IE presented with a dominant politics which was close enough to their own, the socialists had reached a rapprochement existing capitalist elites. And in the 1960s and 1970s something similar happened to the European Communist Parties, most coherently in Italy. And of course there have been several outsider movements of the right which crashed and burned and left no legacy.

Through the early post-war years fascism, irrespective of its different goals and origins, maintained a fascination partly because it had not gone through a similar process of self-domestication but had in fact radicalised in office.

The reasons for fascism’s radicalisation were in part internal, there was a tension between fascism’s popular base and its reactionary politics and in order to resolve this tension fascism had to promise ever more things to its supporters, i.e. because it couldn’t offer them social utopia it had to give them genocide and war. This was the core argument of Fascism: Theory and Practice, that a contradictory political formation might in fact draw energy precisely from its unsustainable, broken nature.

This dynamic was also in part external (and in my book I underestimate the way in which fascism was the product of relationships between rival international parties), i.e. that there was an epoch of emulation and competition in which Hitler copied Mussolini’s march on Rome, his influence over other right-wing states in Austria and Spain, etc. He took Mussolini’s victories, drew on, and overreached them.

Fascism’s energy is why its definition of fascism mattered – because if fascism could be identified, the threat of war and genocide would be averted.

Where I think the anti-fascism I argued in the 1990s was principally wrong is that I failed to see that the historical context had changed. While I borrowed from the left of which I was part the phrase that the 1990s was like the 1930s in a slow motion, there was no analysis behind that phrase, no real sense that for twenty years we had been living in a world characterised not by reforms but by their opposite.

If I was going to begin defining fascism today my starting point would be this: that the age of social reform is over. Whether it ended in 1973 (Chile) or 1979 or 1980, it has been over for an entire historical epoch.

In addition, outside an epoch of social reform, there is no structural limit to the forms of politics which are capable of winning majorities

In an age of social reform, it was possible for reformist parties to bind workers to them by passing laws to increase trade union rights or build social housing, these benefitted specific voters, who would in turn vote for that party. There was a consensus that reforms were desirable and politics was in many countries a contest between two managerial parties who converged on the aim of politics and challenged each other in the realism of competence. This meant that many political systems were in essence two-party competitions between one main social democratic and a conservative party. These was a limited space at each fringe for fascists and Communists, and no-one else.

In an epoch where reforms are being destroyed, the dominant form of voting is negative, people vote against neo-liberal parties which destroy industry, against social democracy which no longer delivers, against incumbent parties. We are no longer in a moment where the forms of politics are limited to a few main options which are reproduced internationally. Instead political forms are splintering. Indeed new forms emerge, of course, on the left as well as on the right.

In addition, the stigma against war and genocide has been radically diminished. We have had wars, Vietnam, Iraq, the constant ongoing war since 9/11. Meanwhile, although no developed country is formally at war some live under emergency regimes in response to the threat of terrorism and in others the threat of Islamism is used to justify the extension of the authoritarian state e.g. deportation regimes that would normally be sustainable only in wartime.

The monopoly of military technology by 5-6 of the richest states means that their inhabitants are never casualties of war, never saw death, and become glib about the consequence of war returning even between major states.

For all these reasons, we are seeing increasing numbers of states – not just in the periphery but also in the global core – whose political instincts are military and authoritarian. Attacks on migrants, refugees, travel bans are the new normal.

The utility of the equation “fascism = war and genocide” was that it was reversible (i.e. only fascism could returns us to an age of horrors). Outside an epoch of social reform, the equation has less use. War may come from other sources.

Fascism was only ever one form of mass, reactionary politics. And there is no particular reason why the reactionary mass movements of the future might not share some but not all of fascism’s external forms.

Moreover, because fascism’s name still has an overwhelming stigma, a future “fascism” would be far more effective if it emerged on a seemingly brand new basis, with the minimum copying in relation to the past. In consequence, the post-war history of the far right is of a series of attempts to reproduce the dynamic of fascism without needing fascism’s surface forms.

Yet, precisely because the right feels that it has escaped the past and is not vulnerable to the criticism “but you are just fascists”, you are starting to see a re-convergence between various aspects of interwar fascism and today’s non-fascist right.

Unlike the short twentieth century when the structure of the political system itself put real limits on what forms of politics were achievable, the structural limits of the present against authoritarianism are much less than they were.

The leading figures of the far right are well aware that fascism retains a considerable historical stigma and the further they distance themselves from fascism the more successful they are likely to be. Yet at the same time, they are aware that fascism was a complex and sophisticated reaction to historical opportunities. And that in so far as they want to emulate the rapid, dramatic changes that fascism once enacted, they have a motive for reassembling parts of fascist organisation and ideology.

So we see a return to executive rather than parliamentary rule, to anti-semitism, not from mere nostalgia or mimicry but because these behaviours help the non-fascist right achieve goals which are harder to win if the entire past has to be rejected.

The relationship of the non-fascist authoritarian right to inter-war fascism is therefore always of a dual character, with elements of both disavowal and re-adoption and indeed a constant shuffling between rejection and return.

The theory I am aiming towards is an “anti-fascist” theory of the far-right but I mean by that something very specific.

In the 1970s it was possible to shame a member of the National Front by calling them a fascist, by saying that they were the slaves of a leadership which was both indebted to its past and embarrassed by it. The same approach still worked, to some extent, as recently as the early 2000s. The extent of the contemporary far-right’s distancing from fascism means that this approach has lost its edge.

What is needed is a theoretical counterpart to the activist realisation that the crimes of Steve Bannon or Marine Le Pen are not the things that a different generation did before them, but what they will do in future, if only we let them.

The Longue Durée of the Far Right



Thoughts on N. Davidson et al., The Longue Durée of the Far-Right (London: Routledge, 2015)

The most exciting idea in the book, and the one with which I will engage, is the analogy contained its title. The title alludes to the French Annales school and a way of thinking about history which is well expressed by Ferdinand Braudel’s extraordinary book The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II

Braudel’s story of the Mediterranean is organised around a distinction between three sorts of time, each of which he addresses at equal length: in the first section of his book, the time of people in relationship to their environment, as he calls it, “a history in which all change is slow, a history of constant repetitions, ever-recurring cycles … almost timeless history”

In his second section, he turns to social history, the history of economic states, and civilisations. In his third and final section, he writes on the scale of traditional history, the history of events

Now, writing about the far-right has undoubtedly suffered from an over-focus on the history of events at the expense of longer history (the longue durée). The shortness of the timescale structures the story that is written

To give an example: in 2002, I was living in the North East of England, where the British National Party was hoping to win council seats in England. I met a journalist, a left-winger, whose job was to report on the election for the national press. His newspaper ran a piece saying that the BNP was on the verge of a breakthrough – locally and nationally. After he had left, he sent me a short, kind note thanking me and other anti-fascists who he had interviewed. “I wish I could come back next year, and report the good news of the BNP being held, pushed back. But of course that would not make a story that we could publish”

He had an idea of the far-right as a perennial outsider, newsworthy only when it seemed on the verge of entering the mainstream.

You could imagine a historian of the future trying to analyse the BNP’s growth only from the snapshot-reports about its success in the mainstream press; every report would say that the BNP was growing (and yet it never achieved such a breakthrough as to become significantly larger than it always had been). Such a historian could tell that it was growing not from the content of the reports, but only from their frequency (it was only when this story became weekly or daily news that the BNP was actually in a condition of ascent).

What is true of people who write for newspapers is also true of people who write books. There is an enormous and ultimately unsatisfying literature of books which have been published over the past 30 years whose message could be simplified down to “watch out: the FN, or the FPO, or the BNP (or whoever) are coming”

Just to speak of the longue durée is already to raise the possibility of a richer way of thinking about these movements – a history which recognises their troughs as well as their peaks, the work of their opponents, the economic and social cycles that sustain or limit them

That said, there are at least two specific conceptions of the longue durée raised in the book, one of which makes me cautious, while the other I find more interesting

First, a caution: at times, at least some of the contributors write as if the longue durée is expressed in what one of the editors terms a “persistence” between the far-right of early twentieth century France and the far-right of today

France is a key case because it has both the most successful far-right party of contemporary Europe (the FN) and because it had a vibrant far-right milieu expressed in Boulangism and the Dreyfus affair (see image, above), which has immensely well mined by historians such as Ze’ev Sternhell. It is superficially a strong case of continuity; whereas if you were to start in Britain, a heroic effort would be needed to find in Edwardian politics a neat precursor to, say, Nigel Farage.

But the notion of a persistence in French or European politics between 1914 and 2014 is a sociologist’s not a historian’s comparison, which is polite way of saying simply that I distrust it.

The people of 100 years ago who seem superficially to be the predecessors of Le Pen (Peguy, Barres, Maurras…) were writers who for the most part supported Catholicism, the return of the monarchy, and the defence of the army. They were, in other words, the militant champions of conservative politics, not the harbringers of an independent politics with a hostile relationship to the existing state.

In English terms, they were not Robert Kilroy-Silk or even Douglas Carswell, rather they were noisy followers of Boris Johnson.

(And who, if you look to the Britain of 1914 for continuity was a premature Nigel Farage?)

Second, in Neil Davidson’s chapter of the book, there is a slightly more diffuse and therefore actually more compelling, use of the longue durée focussed on the key question of whether capital needed either the historic or the contemporary far-right.

Among the points he makes are these

• That some aspects of far-right politics are counterproductive to the needs of capital
• That fascism performed services for the interwar capitalist class without being a movement of capitalist or reducible to these aspects of its programme
• That, there is a wide span between the far-right groups, both within and between countries
• That within the contemporary far right there is a key distinction between parties that aim to challenge the democratic regime as such, and those that do not
• That in the contemporary world capitalism does not need, nor the far right offer, to crush the working class
• That a unifying factor within the contemporary far right is extreme social conservatism – always involving fear of immigration, but potentially with other sources; and that

His key point is that the crises of 1929 and 2008 belong to different periods in the history of capitalism, and that the movements which emerge from them are consequently different (eg in terms of the salience within their programmes of opposition to capitalism and plans for smashing the working class) in terms of their ambitions, programme, etc

Which seems just about right to me.