Instead of the ‘battering-ram’ fascism of the 1930s, we face a ‘creeping’ fascism of street thugs, right-wing politicians, and increasingly militarised policing, surveillance, and internal security.History repeats itself, but never exactly. If history did not repeat itself at all, we would be paralysed, for every situation would be completely new and we would have no idea how to act. If, on the other hand, history repeated itself exactly, we would have no need for theory, merely memory. The relationship between theory and practice hinges on the fact that there is repetition in history, but at the same time every conjuncture is unique.
Capitalism crashed in 1929, the ruling class imposed austerity, and the world economy was plunged into the Great Depression. One in three German workers was unemployed by 1932. Capitalism crashed in 2008, the ruling class imposed austerity, and the world has been plunged into what might be called the Great Stagnation. But there are differences.
Ten years after the 1929 Crash, the Second World War began and the Great Depression was ended by state arms expenditure. Ten years after the 2008 Crash, the world economy remains stagnant. The crisis this time is shallower, but more protracted.
There are other differences. In the 1930s, the massive working-class movement created in the great revolutionary upsurge of 1917-23 remained strong enough to contest austerity and fascism. Especially fierce class battles erupted in Austria (1934), France (1934 and 1936), and Spain (1936-39).
The situation today is radically different. The power of the labour movement has been eroded by a generation of defeat and retreat. Union membership in Britain is half what it was in the 1970s. Rank-and-file workplace organisation is virtually non-existent across most of industry. Unofficial strikes are unheard of. The strike rate has been rock-bottom since the 1980s, and is now at a level not seen since the 1890s. Wages are falling and the welfare state is being destroyed, but organised resistance is minimal.
We argued in Creeping Fascism, published a year ago, that the weakness of the labour movement means that ‘battering-ram’ fascism is largely unnecessary. We also argued that, even in the 1930s, this kind of fascism was far from universal.
By ‘battering-ram’ fascism we mean the recruitment and deployment of mass paramilitary formations to physically destroy the unions, the socialist parties, and other forms of opposition. In fact, there are really only two ‘pure’ examples of this in history: Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
In Italy, with the working class in retreat after the Biennio Rosso (‘Two Red Years’), the Blackshirts (squadristi) grew rapidly and succeeded in winning the battle for the streets across large swathes of the country and destroying the workers’ and peasants’ mass movements, preparing the ground for the ‘March on Rome’ of October 1922, when Mussolini was elevated to power by King Victor Emmanuel.
In Germany, a divided but potentially powerful working class found itself under attack by a Brownshirt (SA) movement that swelled to around 400,000 in number between 1929 and 1933. Again, the success of this movement on the streets, its ability to smash working-class organisation by violence and intimidation, proved the value of the Nazis to the ruling class, and Hitler was elevated to power by President Hindenburg in January 1933.
A process of gleichschaltung followed – that is, the construction of a totalitarian state by a process of merging of party and state and the purging of state institutions of oppositional elements by a mix of dismissal, intimidation, and indoctrination. The process was more protracted and incomplete in Italy than in Germany, but in both cases we can speak of a one-party fascist state.
But even in the 1930s, these are the only ‘pure’ or ‘classical’ fascisms. Yet, by 1939, virtually the whole of continental Europe was under some form of far-right authoritarian rule. Let us consider two examples among the many other variants of interwar fascism – Spain and Romania.
The Spanish fascists – the Falange – grew with exceptional speed during the Spanish Civil War. At the time of Franco’s coup (July 1936), they had about 75,000 members, but this had grown to around a million within six months, some 80,000 of whom were under arms. The Falangists functioned as Nationalist militia and death-squads. Most of the estimated 200,000 to 400,000 Republicans murdered by the Nationalists during the conflict were probably killed by Falangists. Despite this, the Falangists were only ever auxiliaries; they never controlled the Nationalist movement, they did not take power after 1939, and they were not able to construct a Falangist totalitarian state. Spain became a right-wing military dictatorship. Nationalism, Catholicism, and social conservatism were central to the ideology of that state, but it was not ‘classically’ fascist.
The main fascist party in interwar Romania was the Legion of the Archangel Michael. Its paramilitary wing was the Iron Guard (Greenshirts). This viciously racist mass organisation was involved in exceptional levels of violence against the Left, the Jews, the Roma, and sometimes against liberal and conservative opponents. Its activity both reflected and augmented Romania’s sharp shift to the right in the 1930s. King Carol II installed a far-right government in 1937, then banned all political parties and assumed dictatorial control of the country in 1938. He in turn was overthrown in 1940 and replaced by a pro-Hitler general, Marshal Antonescu, who took Romania into the Second World War on the Nazi side and unleashed the police and the paramilitaries against the Jews. Half a million Romanian Jews perished in the death-camps. But again, at no point did the Romanian fascists succeed in taking state power on their own account; the Romanian fascist programme was implemented by the old ruling class and the existing state apparatus.
The Spanish and Romanian examples are not exceptions; they are two among a range of variants. If anything, Italy and Germany, are the exceptions, in the ‘purity’ of their fascism and totalitarianism.
What are the implications of these historical comments for the present?
Fascism cannot be defined in relation to a checklist of distinguishing marks. Politics is a social science, not a natural science. Theoretical understanding follows from observing two rules of interpretation: that the truth is the whole; and that the whole is motion.
That is why we argued in Creeping Fascism that fascism can be defined only in the context of a specific historical conjuncture, in terms of the fascist movement’s interactions and collisions with other social forces; and why we also argued that we have to see fascism not as a thing, fixed and fast-frozen, but as a process, a dynamic, a development, a movement always in a state of becoming, never in a state of being.
This understanding brought us to our definition. This is what we said last year:
Fascism can be understood as the active mobilisation of atomised ‘human dust’ around the right-wing nexus of nationalism, racism, sexism, and authoritarianism – just as socialism can be considered the active mobilisation of an organised class around the left-wing nexus of internationalism, equality, and democracy.
Formed of human dust, spewing the shit of ages, bloated with psychotic rage, fascism is the mechanism by which a deeply dysfunctional, crisis-ridden system of exploitation and oppression seeks to smash democracy, civil liberties, and any effective resistance to the rule of the rich and the corporations.
We stand by that definition. But I want to push the argument a stage further. Our analysis seems to have been confirmed by events, but perhaps we should now insist that no meaningful distinction exists between forces that tend to be labelled ‘right-wing populist’ or ‘far right’ and forces labelled ‘fascist’.
We are dealing with a spectrum where there are no hard lines, either in theory or in practice, and it is essential that we view the Far Right as a whole, as a form of fascism in motion, since the inner dynamic and long-term trajectory represented by suited politicians like Trump, Farage, and Wilders is the same as that represented by the street thugs of Golden Dawn, the Ku Klux Klan, and the English Defence League.
That does not mean that different expressions of fascism do not require different responses. We need close analysis of fascism’s many faces, and nuanced strategy and tactics when we act. But that is not the same as endorsing the fiction of the mainstream media (and, regrettably, all too many left-wing commentators) that we face something more moderate, something more mainstream, something less dangerous than fascism.
So I will say it again: the enemy is fascism, it has already assumed a mass social scale and accumulated much political power, and if the Left does not recognise it for what it is and develop strategies appropriate to confronting and defeating it, the world is likely to be plunged into an abyss of barbarism.
The fascist international
The signs are there. An estimated 20,000 joined the Free Tommy Robinson demonstration in Central London on Saturday 9 June. If this estimate is correct, it was probably the biggest fascist demonstration in British history, larger than any single mobilisation by either the National Front in the 1970s or the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s.
The slogans, the rhetoric, and the online posts from that demonstration confirm that Islamophobia is now playing the same role today as anti-semitism in the 1930s. Visceral racism is at the core of the new mass fascist movements. Platform speakers declared that ‘The enemy is Islam’, ‘The Koran is a licence to kill’, ‘The Muslims are colonising the West’, and ‘Freedom ends where Islam begins’. The echoes with interwar Nazi claims of an ‘international Jewish conspiracy’ are obvious.
Note that the headline speaker was Dutch fascist leader Geert Wilders. Here is an example of a politician that many commentators prefer to call ‘right-wing populist’ or ‘far right’. So let me reiterate the point: Wilders should be described as a fascist. You do not need Brownshirts and swastika flags if you can enter the mainstream without them. You do not need paramilitaries if there is no mass organised opposition on the streets. You can wear a suit and talk about ‘freedom of speech’.
Wilders’ pitch was to present himself – in ‘classic’ fascist style, incidentally – as ‘a man of the people’, speaking up for the excluded, the marginalised, the despised, against ‘them’, the powerful, the Establishment, the corrupt cronies of the System. ‘Our governments have sold us out with mass immigration,’ he proclaimed to cheers, ‘with Islamicisation, with open borders. We are almost foreigners in our own lands.’
The presence of Wilders tells us something else about modern fascism: it is international in character. A message of support was sent by former Trump advisor Steven Bannon, who has become a roving ambassador for the global ‘Alt-Right’ movement. Last week, interviewed on Channel 4 News, he announced that in the ‘popular nationalist revolt, Europe leads’. A message of support was also sent by the Front National in France. The fascists are, of course, holding regular international meetings and conferences. We face not just national fascisms, but a fascist international.
Far-right parties now control or participate in national governments in Austria, Hungary, Italy, and Poland. Across most of the rest of Europe, they have established themselves as mass electoral formations. Nationalism and anti-Muslim/anti-migrant racism have become mainstream politics. In this context, more extreme, violent, street-based fascist organisations are growing fast.
The EU is paying Turkey to prevent migrants moving to Europe. Others are detained and held in camps inside Europe. Even the Pope has described European migrant centres as ‘concentration camps’. Others have been victims of sometimes murderous rampages by police and right-wing thugs. The new fascist interior minister in Italy, Matteo Salvini, wants to deport half a million migrants.
In the United States, despite everything, polls show that Trump regularly has approval ratings above 40% and sometimes as high as 45%. This and the consolidation of far-right electoral blocs across Europe points to a deepening of nationalist-racist opinion. In this context, state racism becomes more visceral. There are reports from the States, for example, that courts are processing ‘illegal immigrants’ in batches, and that children are being separated from their parents in detention centres. Equally alarming are reports of a gleichschaltung process under way, with liberal administrators being driven out of senior positions and replaced by Trump loyalists.
A very British fascism
Tommy Robinson is the founder and former leader of the English Defence League. He was jailed for 13 months for contempt of court after filming and live-streaming pictures of defendants in a court case over the grooming of children. An online petition calling for his release on ‘freedom of speech’ grounds has attracted 600,000 signatures.
If Robinson represents the booted Far Right, Nigel Farage and Aaron Banks represent the suited Far Right, along with Tories like Jacob Rees-Mogg. This is the global pattern. The advance of fascism is meeting minimal resistance, so the politics of the sewers comes perfumed. Instead of the ‘battering-ram’ fascism of the 1930s, with its Blackshirts and Brownshirts, we face a ‘creeping’ fascism of street thugs, right-wing politicians, and increasingly militarised policing, surveillance, and internal security. The danger is that we do not recognise what is happening – that we do not wake up to the form of fascism in the early 21st century – until it is too late.
Neil Faulkner is the author, with Samir Dathi, of Creeping Fascism: Brexit, Trump, and the Rise of the Far Right
The pages of Public Reading Rooms are open for analysis and debate on how we meet the challenge of the rise of the far right. See all articles here… To join the debate, please send contributions to firstname.lastname@example.org.