What is fascism? An introduction

DonaldDuckInNutziLand_zpscc10584aThis article by DAPHNE LAWLESS appears in Fightback’s upcoming issue on “Fascism and Anti-Fascism”. For subscription information, contact fightback.australasia@gmail.com.

Part of the problem with any discussion of fascism today is the widespread ignorance about what that word actually means. This comes from decades after the defeat of the Fascist states in World War 2, since when “fascist” has been used and overused as the worst swear-word possible on the Left (and by parts of the Right). This is the “everyone I don’t like is Hitler” method of arguing, often mocked in internet memes.

A slightly more sophisticated use of “fascism” is just to indicate any authoritarian or dictatorial government. One example of this “10 steps to fascism” which were drawn up by the American writer Naomi Wolf – and were often overused in the period of the Iraq war to be able to “prove” that the US government under George W. Bush was fascist. We can only say now that, if the “Dubya” administration was fascist, then there are no words left to describe the current Trump administration (of which more later).

At the other extreme, there is an attitude that only the regime of Benito Mussolini and the National Fascist Party in Italy from 1922-1945 can be called “fascism”. By these standards, not even Nazi Germany counts as fascism, let alone any other similar regimes across the years – or even the successor parties of Italian Fascism, such as CasaPound or Forza Nuova, which carefully state both their admiration for and their differences from Il Duce and his regime. This means that this method is not useful for our analysis here – which is precisely about how the Left should be responding to “fascist-like” organizations and movements.

The definition of fascism which I am using in this article is mainly based on that of the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who watched the growth of fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany with horror at the inability of the Stalin-led global communist movement to counter it. As I’m going to use it in this article, fascism means:

  1. a bottom-up movement, which while it might be funded by some parts of big business, is based on the support and activism of the insecure middle classes and the most impoverished layers of society;
  2. which promotes the idea of the “traditional” nation as one big community, and seeks to defeat and eliminate “outsiders” or “traitors” who are seen as threatening that community. These might be “corporates” or “international bankers” (distinguished from honest local capitalists), “greedy” workers’ unions, LBGT people, religious or ethnic minorities, immigrants or anyone who promotes ideas which are seen to threaten the nation’s traditions – such as socialists, liberals, feminists, “cosmopolitans” (people who see themselves as citizens of the world and embrace cultures and ideas from overseas), or even any kind of intellectual;
  3. which promotes a myth of what British social theorist Roger Griffin called palingenesis, a word meaning “rebirth, or return to the good old days”;
  4. which is not afraid to use, or even glorifies the use of, violence to achieve these goals;
  5. which opposes the ideas of the “Enlightenment” (and of socialism) such as democracy, rationality and equal justice, and promotes a traditional authoritarian model of a (usually male) Leader who is always right. Author Max Bray comments: “…Fascism emerged as a rejection of the rationalism of the Enlightenment… It was really founded on an emotional appeal towards power and domination.”

If you read part 2 above carefully, you might be able to see why the Jewish minority in Germany were a perfect scapegoat for Hitler’s fascist movement. A religious and an ethnic minority at the same time, many of whose members were successful intellectuals and business people, but also including many socialist and working-class leaders, who – as a people scattered across the globe –could not help but be “cosmopolitan”, not 100% “German” in the eyes of many of their neighbours.

Anti-fascist author Alexander Reid Ross, however, points out that fascism is sometimes hard to identify and call out because it has always been a syncretic movement. That means that fascists will take over whatever icons and ideas happen to be popular among the movements, from either left or right, trying to appeal to “all the people all the time”. Ross comments:

[The original fascists] …stole symbols and language from the left-wing workers’ movement, but redirected it towards wildly different goals… this difficulty in forming a definition is built into fascism itself… taking elements from both the political left and right, but always striving towards greater levels of social hierarchy and domination.

For example, fascists might present themselves as anti-Zionist when trying to appeal to a left-wing, pro-Palestinian audience, but on the other hand might strongly support Israel when trying to appeal to an Islamophobic right-wing audience. (Fascism is not necessarily anti-Semitic; and even many anti-Semitic fascists may support the State of Israel because they want all the world’s Jews sent to live there.) In this sense, a fascist group acts like a parasite feeding off the movements – like a cuckoo laying its eggs in other birds’ nests (ironically exactly the kind of metaphor they would themselves use to smear migrant communities).

A recent example in New Zealand is the fascist groups who attempted to join the Occupy movements and the mass street demonstrations against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – attempting to harness public hatred of globalised neoliberal capitalism to their own conspiracy theories about how ethnic “outsiders” (Chinese or Jewish, usually) are to blame for our economic problems and avoiding any critique of “our own” capitalists. It is worth noting that the American far-right uses “anti-capitalist” language to target the liberal-tending Hollywood culture industry, as well as the Jewish liberal billionaire George Soros.

For those of us in the revolutionary socialist movement, it is most important to try to understand fascism as a movement, rather than a regime. This is for three reasons:

  1. No fascist movement has ever seized power on its own – they have always taken power with the support of other right-wing or ruling class forces. Hitler was invited into a coalition government by the big German conservative parties; Mussolini was appointed Prime Minister by the King of Italy. The Spanish dictator Francisco Franco led a regime in which a fascist party, the Falange, was only part of a coalition with capitalist and monarchist forces. Military dictatorships which took on fascist-like traits after they seized power are a different matter
  2. With its violent methods of organizing, a fascist movement can create great damage and terror to workers, leftists and all marginalized or oppressed people, while still being far away from ever taking state power. It must therefore be fought on the streets and in our communities as soon as it raises its ugly head.
  3. The syncretic and parasitic nature of fascism, “blending into the background” of popular movements, means that it is sometimes very difficult to spot when you are not looking for it. Sadly, many sincere Leftists may unwillingly fall for fascist ideology if it is cunningly disguised as anti-capitalist populism. I will attempt to argue in my second article on the “Red-brown convergence” that this is precisely what has happened for a large and perhaps dominant section of the global activist Left in the era of Trump, Brexit and the Syrian war.

The big question you’re waiting for is this: are we saying that US President Donald Trump is a fascist? The question is to some degree not relevant. Donald Trump is clearly a racist, sexist and objectionable person on every level, but it’s impossible to look into his mind and find out what he really believes. He is clearly fuelled by ego and narcissism rather than any properly thought-out politics. But the same is true of Benito Mussolini, who once edited the Italian Socialist Party newspaper.

As for the US government, it is clearly not (yet?) a fascist regime. It is a site of struggle between many different ruling-class and middle-class forces, with some parts of the Federal government backing Trump’s agenda (e.g. the immigration cops) and others resisting (much of the FBI). Trump’s power is still contingent on the sometimes-unwilling acceptance of traditional conservatives in the Republican party, who could unite with their Democratic party opponents to obstruct or even impeach him. However, for now, the big-business backers of Trump (such as the secretive Mercer family) and their willing servants in Congress seem to be willing to go along with Trump, as long as he signs huge tax cuts into law and as long as he doesn’t damage the profitability of their investments.

On the other hand, the Trump-backing movement is – as survey after survey has shown – based not on the “economically anxious” working class, but on relatively well-off whites, especially but not entirely white men (see for example here and here). This social movement is racist and xenophobic, looking back to an American “good old days” which never really existed except in fantasy, motivated mainly by hatred and resentment towards Muslims, migrant communities, African-Americans, feminists and queers. The slogan Make America Great Again is almost the definition of Griffin’s idea of “palingenesis”.

Perhaps most disturbingly, with the help of the compliant FOX News TV channel, Trump has successfully trained his base to rely on his pronouncements (usually via Twitter) as the real truth, no matter what inconvenient facts might be reported elsewhere. The Trumpists angrily reject any mainstream media coverage which disagrees with their prejudices, and happily accept the truth of Trump’s increasingly erratic claims as long as they confirm their own feelings of entitlement and victimhood.

While the Trump administration is so far only a particularly nasty right-wing capitalist government, the base of Trump’s support, the crowds at his rallies, the social media mobs who phone in death threats to people who criticise him, fit our model of a fascist movement almost perfectly. And it is Trump’s incredibly fortuitous victory as President which has encouraged these elements to “come out of the woodwork” and to yell their abuse and commit sometimes-deadly violence in public. This movement may well decide many “primary” elections for Republican congressional candidates in the safe “red” states, and even those Republican Congresspeople who might privately despise Trump and recognize him as a would-be tyrant will pander to his base if and when necessary.

In general, in times of peace and prosperity, the ruling factions in capitalist society want nothing to do with fascists, who are considered unpredictable and uncouth. However, in times of crisis, some parts of big business might see a fascist movement as their ally. The lessons of history show that a sufficiently greedy, venal or frightened ruling class will tolerate a fascist movement’s violence, or even invite it into power, if they think there is political capital in doing so. A fascist movement, based as it is on parasitism and on the shifting prejudices of alienated and despairing individuals, can only take power if invited to do so. With their “God-Emperor” Trump in the White House, American fascism is not in power, but it has a “foot in the door”.

What happens in the United States is often a ghastly foreboding of what will happen in the rest of the advanced capitalist world. The only way, therefore, to defend not only the hopes of socialism but the basic freedoms which come from capitalist liberal democracy, is for socialists to disperse and disrupt fascist movements on the ground, so that they can never accumulate enough social and political capital to be seen as a base worth pandering to. We will return to the question of exactly how anti-fascist activism works in practice, further in this issue.

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