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.

Video: Relevance of Socialism in Seattle, Kshama Sawant

Presentation by Kshama Sawant, Socialist Alternative Candidate for Seattle City Council.

See also:

USA: Election breakthrough for a Seattle socialist

kshama sawant

Chris Mobley reports from Seattle where a revolutionary socialist challenger for a seat on the City Council has surged into a narrow lead. Reprinted from SocialistWorker.org

SOCIALIST ALTERNATIVE candidate Kshama Sawant had a narrow lead over four-term incumbent Democrat Richard Conlin in an election for a seat on the Seattle City Council, as of November 13–a stunning result for a revolutionary socialist and a powerful symbol of the discontent with the political status quo.

Washington state votes by mail, and a majority of ballots typically come in after Election Day, since votes are accepted as long as they were postmarked by that day. As of the end of Wednesday, Sawant was ahead by 402 votes, with some 13,000 ballots still to be counted, according to the latest announcement from election officials.

The results could still turn against Sawant, but momentum is on her side–she has had the edge in each round of counting in the days since Election Day on November 5, helping her to overcome what appeared to be a narrow defeat based on where the vote count stood on election night.

Even while trailing on election night, however, it was clear that Sawant and Socialist Alternative candidate Ty Moore, who lost by just 229 votes in an election for city council in Minneapolis, have scored breakthroughs. Well before Election Day, Danny Westneat, a columnist for the mainstream Seattle Times daily newspaper, summed up the electrifying impact of these campaigns: “The election isn’t for 10 days, but we can already declare the big winner in Seattle. It’s the socialist.”

Westneat pointed out that Sawant was responsible for Democrats like Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and his victorious challenger in last week’s election, Ed Murray, suddenly declaring their support for left-wing initiatives such as the Fight for 15 organizing drive for low-wage workers. As Westneat concluded:

You can’t look at the stagnant pay, declining benefits and third-world levels of income disparity in recent years and conclude this system is working. For Millennials as a group, it has been a disaster. Out of the wreckage, left-wing or socialist economic ideas, such as the “livable wage” movement in which government would seek to mandate a form of economic security, are flowering.

Sawant’s edge in the late-arriving ballots is another indicator of the grassroots energy that made her campaign stand out, as David Goldstein, writing in The Stranger, an alternative weekly newspaper, explained:

Part of [the reason Sawant is winning in each day of counting after Election Day has] to do with demographics; younger voters tend to vote late and more lefty. Part of it has to do with hard work; Sawant’s impressive grassroots campaign had a couple hundred volunteers calling voters and knocking on doors to get out her vote, while Conlin had little ground game at all. And part of it has to do with momentum; voter preferences shift over time, and her surprisingly strong campaign clearly moved support in Sawant’s favor.

The final vote totals are scheduled to be certified on November 26, but the uncertainty could go on longer with the possibility of a recount if the margin of victory remains closer than 0.5 percent and 2,000 votes.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE SUCCESS of the Socialist Alternative campaigns is directly connected to their roots in grassroots struggles.

In Minneapolis, Ty Moore made the Occupy MN Homes movement–with its call for a moratorium on foreclosures and a ban on police carrying out evictions–central to his campaign for a city council seat representing an area under assault by gentrification.

In Seattle, Sawant, an economics professor and respected activist, focused on several key issues to galvanize support from working people and the left. Building on the energy of the national Fight for 15 campaign to organize low-wage workers in restaurant and retail, Sawant positioned herself as the candidate who supported a living wage for all.

The popularity of the Fight for 15 demand was dramatized in SeaTac, a Seattle suburb where the regional airport is located. A union-backed ballot measure–bitterly opposed by business interests–that would mandate a $15-an-hour minimum wage for airport and hotel workers was winning as of November 13, though by only 19 votes at the latest count.

Sawant also focused on proposals for rent control in a city where rents have risen by 6 percent in just the last year alone, on top of increases year after year, according to Reis, which compiles and sells data to the commercial real-estate industry.

She also advocated for a tax on millionaires, in a state with no income tax, to fund mass transit and other infrastructure improvements. This call is especially timely with the local public transit agency, King County Metro, planning to cut bus service by as much as 20 percent next year.

Gaining the endorsements of several unions and social justice organizations, as well support from prominent local activists, the campaign was able to mobilize several hundred volunteers, who covered the city with distinctive “Vote Sawant” posters. Though far outspent by her opponent, Sawant did raise more than $100,000, mainly from small contributions.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

SAWANT AND those who worked for her ran an effective campaign, but her success is the result of tapping into voter discontent with the political status quo, particularly in a liberal city like Seattle.

According a recent Gallup poll, Democrats and Republicans have reached an all-time low in public opinion–only 26 percent of Americans believe the two mainstream parties do “an adequate job of representing the American people.” Some 60 percent said there was a need for a third major party.

In Seattle, where the Democrats predominate, this discontent translated into heavy press interest in Sawant. She won an endorsement from The Stranger before her strong showing in the August primary election–the alt-weekly wrote in an article headlined “The Case for Kshama Sawant”: “Sawant offers voters a detailed policy agenda, backed up by a coherent economic critique and a sound strategy for moving the political debate in a leftward direction.”

After coming in a close second in August, Sawant continued to pick up broad support, including a small group of “Democrats for Sawant”–a stark symbol of the bitterness with the incumbent Conlin, who has a long record of pandering to business interests. Sawant won backing from local hip-hop artists and several prominent local activists, notably left-wing journalist Geov Parrish. Sawant also got support from immigrant political organizations, including the Somali American Public Affairs Council. In the final weeks of the campaign, volunteers made a push to hold “100 rallies for Sawant.”

As a socialist challenger in a liberal city against a Democratic opponent, Sawant was able to avoid one of the key difficulties that third party candidates typically face: the so-called “spoiler effect.” Without a Republican in the election, the Democrat Conlin wasn’t able to browbeat his party’s much more liberal base into supporting him as a “lesser evil.”

Now, Sawant stands a good chance of taking a seat for four years on the nine-member City Council. This will open up a new opportunity for the left–both Sawant and Moore pledged that they would use the resources of their offices to assist grassroots struggles involving workers, the oppressed, immigrants and the community.

There will be more days of vote-counting to come, but the Sawant campaign has already accomplished an enormous amount by proving that there is a thirst for an alternative to the status quo–and that socialists can confidently put forward a different vision for society, knowing it will connect with the aspirations of more and more people.

See also:

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Chelsea Manning’s gender identity

article by Anne Russell, reprinted from Scoop.co.nz.

The Queer Avengers (Wellington) are holding a solidarity action with Chelsea Manning on 2pm Saturday the 7th of September, at the US Embassy [Facebook event]

For the most part, gender minorities operating in the public sphere are recognised by their gender first and the content of their work second. This is why Rolling Stone articles on“Women Who Rock” kettle together artists as musically and lyrically diverse as Taylor Swift, Missy Elliott and Sleater-Kinney, as though ‘woman’ is a subgenre of music. Even at comparatively progressive activist events, cisgender women and transgender people—particularly trans* women—rarely dominate the overall speaker line-up. Rather, they are given separate sessions to discuss sexism and/or transphobia, implying that these issues are only problems for the oppressed parties in question.

In contrast, issues like mass surveillance and military crimes are framed as issues that everyone should be concerned about, evidenced recently by the scale of controversy around the NSA leaks and the recently-passed GCSB Bill. This is not to say that they are not important or damaging problems, merely that they receive much more cultural attention than the routine struggles of oppressed gender minorities. While the soldier formerly known as Bradley Manning was hitherto widely considered a hero in radical movements, figures like radical activist and trans* woman Sylvia Rivera are not widely known outside the trans* rights movement itself. It is arguable that the activist world, like everywhere else, is still somewhat divided into gendered categories, at least on a surface level: the cis men examine military documents while the cis women and trans* folk talk about unequal access to healthcare, cultural invisibility and sexual harassment.

Private Manning’s recent announcement that she is a transgender woman—to be known as Chelsea Manning from here on—thus represents a stunning collision of different activist factions. Manning released a statement last week announcing that she identifies as female, and wishes to undergo hormone therapy as soon as possible. This is not entirely new or unexpected information, as Manning’s chatlogs with informant Adrian Lamo in May 2010 read: “I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me… plastered all over the world press… as a boy.” Moreover, her lawyers attempted to use gender identity disorder as a defence in her trial. However, many of Manning’s supporters felt uncomfortable referring to her as female without the explicit go-ahead from her.

That time has come, and yet many commentators remain confused orhostile(trigger warning: transphobia) to the announcement. Manning’s requests have been fairly straightforward—“I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun”—but many media outlets, particularly Fox News and CNN, continue to use her historical name and masculine pronouns. Since swathes of information about transgenderism are merely a Google search away, this misgendering demonstrates how heavily entrenched transphobia and the gender binary remain in public discourse. [Read more…]

US Election: Four more years of Obama

Byron Clarkobama-2012

This year’s American presidential election saw a victory for incumbent Barack Obama. Obama was elected in 2008 on vague promises of ‘hope’ and ‘change’. While the election of the first African American president was historic, there has been very little change in foreign policy. Disillusionment is what could have cost Obama the election, but American liberals (and many of those further to the left) voted against republican challenger Mitt Romney. Much of the organised labour movement,
under attack in a number of states by right-wing state senates, also came out for Obama and Democrats on Election Day. While keeping in mind the bombs falling around the Middle East, there are some positive victories on reproductive rights, equal marriage and drug law reform. [Read more…]

The story of May Day

In this article originally published by the Socialist Workers Party (USA) Elizabeth Schulte tells the history of May Day, a socialist holiday founded to honor the Haymarket Martyrs and celebrate international workers’ solidarity.

“THERE WILL be a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.” Those were the last words of August Spies, one of four innocent men executed for an explosion at Chicago’s Haymarket Square in May 1886.

The real “crime” for which Spies and his comrades were condemned was being labor militants fighting for workers’ rights and the eight-hour day. The national strike for the eight-hour day that they organized was called for May 1, 1886–it was the first May Day.
Their struggle, and the struggle of thousands alongside them, convinced a generation of labor militants and radicals to devote their lives for the fight for workers’ rights and for socialism.

Still, although May Day was founded to honor a U.S. labor struggle, few workers in this country typically know its origin, because the history is largely untold. This has changed, however–since the mass immigrant workers’ May Day marches that began in 2006. [Read more…]

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Reviewed by Mike Kay

 The Help is an ambitious novel set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. It encapsulates a city that was a bastion of Jim Crow racism – a phalanx of state and local laws that were designed to keep black and white people separate from cradle to grave. [Read more…]

The flag is symbolic, imperialism is real

Victoria university members of the Workers Party are facing charges of serious misconduct after burning the New Zealand flag. This leaflet explains the political background to the act.

Why burn the New Zealand flag?

The New Zealand flag is a symbol of imperialism. This is most obvious in its design, a tribute to the British Empire. This design was adopted after the Second Boer War, which devastated South Africa but resulted in a surge of Kiwi patriotism.

Lest we forget

Lest we forget

A simple re-design, while reflecting our emergence from the shadow of the British Empire, would not change the imperialist nature of the flag. It’s a tool of the ruling class, inseparably linked with militarism. From the Boer War through WWI and II, right through to armed involvement in Vietnam and Afghanistan, the flag has marked New Zealand’s presence. Flags mark military conquest, the subjugation of nations.

Flags and borders divide the working majority. ANZAC soldiers had more in common with their Turkish counterparts than with the bureaucrats who sent them to Gallipoli. The working majority has interests in common worldwide, including an end to imperial war. Ruling class nationalism is a barrier to recognising this.

What purpose does ANZAC day serve? [Read more…]

Obama – managing the US war effort

John Edmundson

During the lead-up to the 2008 US election, Barack Obama made much of his plans to end the war in Iraq. His bold declaration – that “on my first day in office, I would give the military a new mission: ending this war”. Across the world, many people pinned their hopes on this promise.

Obama’s policy was never really about ending America’s imperialist war policy. It was always about managing the US war effort more effectively. [Read more…]

Deer Hunting with Jesus

Dispatches from America's Class War

 Reviewed by Jill Brasell

(The Spark February 2009)

Journalist and blogger Joe Bageant grew up among the working-class people of Winchester, Virginia, and a question has evidently itched him ever since he escaped from (and then returned to) that community. Why do the working class reject liberalism, and instead hold tight to ideas that work against their own interests?

Deer Hunting with Jesus (Three Rivers Press, New York, 2007) is a series of loosely connected essays that attempts to answer that question. Bageant is a sharp observer and the book is a thought-provoking and often entertaining read as he takes a bottom-up look at globalisation, home ownership, healthcare, guns, Abu Ghraib, Christian fundamentalism and what he calls “the American hologram”.

[Read more…]