“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.
Continuing on with my recent series of blog posts about my 1999 book, Fascism, Theory and Practice (“FTP”)…
One of the implied assumptions of that bookwas that it is possible to understand all other politics through a prism of anti-fascism.
That relates initially, and most obviously, to fascism. What I argued was that a general approach of uniting reformists and revolutionaries in a common struggle was an all-purpose strategy for combating the far right. The only practical question was whether fascists were “small, isolated and squabbling” (in which case, the work might be unnecessary and other demands more urgent). If they were beyond this stage, then the task for anti-fascists were expose, education and physical confrontation.
It wasn’t something I stated in FTP but in the book which accompanied it, a monograph on Fascism and Anti-fascism in the 1940s, I argued that that decade had witnessed a series of competing innovations by fascists and anti-fascists. For example, after 1945 Mosley had begun with a very great fear of public opposition. His movement had therefore emphasised the launch of small and diffuse fascist groups, often with different names and different leaders to test the water for a proper comeback. They had proved highly vulnerable at that stage to attack by the relatively small number of highly motivated anti-fascists in the 43 Group. That innovation had been answered with a fascist change of tack. Mosley had centralised his forces into a single flashpoint (Ridley Road), at which he had such large numbers that the 43 Group were unable to simply overwhelm the platform. But his move had merely created the space for new anti-fascist tactics with trade unions, Communists and Labour, able to turn out the numbers for a different form of mass anti-fascism.
So, although this isn’t expressly argued in FTP, it was very much written on the assumption that there was no such thing really as a history of just anti-fascism (without fascists) or a history of just fascism (that substantially ignored its opponents).
But FTP also envisaged a series of recurring relationships, with anti-fascism providing a means of understanding not merely fascism but also other political traditions: revolutionary socialism, reformist socialism, conservatism and liberalism.
I argued that “Publicly, fascists pose as nationalists or racists – therefore anti-fascists should not simply expose fascism for what it truly is, they must also spread a broader message of antiracism.” I described the role of institutional racism (in “the tabloid press, immigration controls, the legacy of the British Empire, the behaviour of the police and the language of elected politicians”) as processes that caused fascism to recur, suggesting that the latter could be defeated finally only if they too were set back.
I warned against the attempt to resist fascism by stealing from its ideas, citing Socialist and Conservative responses to the success of the Front National as a case study of how the centre left and centre right got this wrong.
I also warned against the politics of liberal universalism. Fascism was a crisis ideology which appealed to the angry and alienated. Saying only that racism was bad didn’t work.
I argued for No Platform as a recurring strategy to resist fascism: “Since fascists oppose freedom of speech for black people, Jews, feminists, socialists, trade unionists, and lesbians and gays, and since, when they speak, they encourage racial violence and pose a threat to everyone, the most effective strategy is to insist that they shall not be heard.”
I argued that a coherent struggle against fascism could win only through a revolutionary defeat of capitalism: “It is only by creating a different society where production is designed to meet human need, where there is no unemployment, no poverty, no despair and no racism, that fascism can finally be stopped.”
When I re-read these passages now, I think they are along essentially the right lines. What is right about them is the insistence on seeing anti-fascism and all other forms of politics as a totality.
To take a familiar example: a part of the left-wing charge sheet against fascism is that regularly falls into racism against Jews. To be a consistent anti-fascist, you therefore much challenge all forms of anti-Jewish racism even where you encounter them relatively near at hand, in left-wing movements.
But I would acknowledge three possible criticisms:
First, reading FTP now, it is all over the shop when it comes to the question of anti-fascist violence. The book was criticised at the time in AFAs Fighting Talk for a sentence insisting on the necessity of “mass” as opposed to “military” anti-fascism. After three paragraphs insisting on the necessity of anti-fascists “smashing” fascist marches and rallies, I wrote: “physical confrontation against fascism has to involve large numbers, must be primarily non-violent, and should involve layers greater than any professional anti-fascists, in order to build a truly mass opposition”.
It remains my position that I would prefer anti-fascism to be mass where possible. And, as someone who has been shot at by police officers (not in the UK), physically attacked by police and fascists, and who has been part of crowds resisting both, I still dislike the left-wing habit of romanticising violence. If the romanticisers had “done” violence, they wouldn’t idealise it. That said, I have also been parts of groups who have organised physical resistance, and I know both how necessary and difficult that work is.
In short – the “has to” and “must” in my 1999 book don’t remotely convey the way I’d try to speak about the same question now.
Second, in some of the passages I’ve quoted above, there is still a tendency to treat fascism as merely racism turned up to 11 – even though that was something I’d argued against repeatedly throughout the same book.
If you want to think of fascism as being racism made militant and generalised you will understand some of it.
But you will understand fascism no less well if you see it as sexism made militant and generalised. Or homophobia or transphobia, or disability discrimination, or class privilege.
Third, FTP proposed the United Front as a general approach for combating the far right.
Again, that strikes me as broadly right, but it was written twenty years ago, and the argument belongs to a world which is lost – one in which a solid 30 percent of the population could be assumed to identify with the values of the social democratic left, and a further 10 percent of the population could be assumed to be communists (whether of the Stalinist or Trotskyist sort), and each group was reflected in the existence of organisations which were credible beyond their ranks. So that, if the Socialists and the Communists could just unite, the 40 percent of opinion they represented would become very quickly 50, 60 percent of society or more.
The most I would say now is that the same instincts – of seeking unity in order to turn defence into offence – are right. But we don’t have the same fixed organisations as previous generations enjoyed, rather we have a shifting of people, causes and platforms that can act briefly akin to parties, but have to re-establish their credibility constantly anew.
So the United Front – yes – but by analogy at best.