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.