Fascism: then and now

Josh O’Sullivan gave this talk to the Auckland branch of the International Socialists in September.

This talk is both a reflection and a call to arms. Political movements around the world are growing and although people are clamouring more and more for an alternative to capitalism, so to are people looking to the most backward elements of society to prevent any challenge to the status quo – to even thrust society backwards to darker times.

The political and institutional framework that has regulated and stabilized capitalism since the end of World War Two is facing concerted challenges that threaten to tear it apart. In much of Eastern Europe, far right parties have swept into government and gained a heavy foothold in Western European countries. Russia, under the authoritarian rule of Vladimir Putin, has begun to reassert itself as a reactionary force on the world stage. Then there is the dramatic rise of China,wWith now possibly lifetime President Xi Jinping. Most dramatically, the U.S., still the world’s most powerful state, is headed by a president who openly champions fascists and ultranationalists and is attempting to tear apart the liberal play book.

This is the context in which we find ourselves in, capitalist society in a continuing recession with no answers, resulting in a deepening polarisation between the left and right, with radicalisation on both sides. Socialist organisations, anti-capitalist movement and trade unions have swelled with the realisation that capitalism can offer no answers to our plight. But at the same time fascist organisations and sympathisers are growing, developing international links, supported by the racist rhetoric by those in power and emboldened by the growing support they have received.

In the wake of the emboldening of the far right globally, far right speakers have now made it to Aotearoa. This makes it all the more important to learn from the lessons of history and the links between the far right, fascism and its relation to capitalism.

Firstly, what is fascism?

Almost everyone has an idea of the character of fascism, Fascists have long been the bogeyman in popular culture, the faceless enemy that populates all manner of films and games since the last world war. Characterised by an intense support for authoritarianism, built upon racism, anti semitism and violence. However much disagreement still exists on the left over exactly what fascism is, and at what point a racist, conspiratorial bigot becomes a fascist. This definition is important for developing an understanding of how to beat the forces of the right in order to ensure that society never again falls into the barbarity that has made fascism so infamous. Being able to recognise fascism and denounce it is a key weapon of the left – we need to show the danger that these groups pose for society and to unite all progressive forces against them.

However, when you ask someone to describe the difference between the far right and fascist organisations often the responses are blurred. There a few different theories on what fascism is.

For some, fascism is simply an extreme form of capitalism, the outright rule of big business and imperialism. The imposition of rule from above in order to correct the failings of capitalism and ensure its survival through the crushing of working class elements seeking to replace it.

For others they see it as an extreme form of right wing nationalism – proclaiming superiority of one nation or racial grouping above all others. This is evidenced by the horrific crimes of the Nazi regime, the Italian regime, and indeed today with the increasingly violent rhetoric against immigrants the world over, such as Trump border forces, Australia’s internment camps and the rise of groups like English Defence League and the German Pegida.

However while both of these explanations contain some element of the truth, they are not the full story, both do not recognise how fascism organises itself – how it places itself in the sphere of politics and how it imposes its will on others.

Fascism is not the only form that far right politics takes, and it merges and blurs between these different lines of the far right all the time. Fascism lives on today in groups like the English Defence League, the French Front National, Hungary’s Jobbik Party and even locally in attempts to create groups such as the “European Students Association” and the “Western Guard”.

So what defines this difference then between the far right and fascism? Ideologically, very little. Both fascism and the far right support different shades of a return to “traditional” family roles, of ending choice for women, attacking trans rights and sexual fluidity, in limiting the role of women to that of a caregiver and mother, a violent racist ethos, supporting Islamophobia, attacking migrants in general and supporting an extreme version of Nationalism. If the difference doesn’t come from their political views, then where does it come from? It comes from the method of organisation and how they seek to take power.

Let us look at the Historical perspective to show how this has worked.

Peculiar to all fascist movements form the early 20th Century and even through to today has been the attempt to build a mass, right wing movement in the streets as an alternative to the ususal political parties of capitalist democracy. These groups – working in tandem with right wing parties within parliament use their force as a mass base to support the suspension of democracy and supplication to authoritarian rule, and then implement heinous atrocities. To reinforce this point i want to look historically at both Germany and Italy to show exactly how these infamous fascist regimes came to power, what kind of society they arose from, and the failings of the left to stop them.

The early 20th century saw a wave of upheavals across the european continent. The new industrialisation in the cities meant that a new working class had developed that could make its demands felt. After years of the Great war and the inspiring events of the russian revolution Europe was in turmoil. Within Germany the end of world war 1 was signalled by a revolt of German sailors, combined with workers across Germany. Wary of losing control of the state to organised workers, key political parties, notably the German Social democratic party sought to control the events and partnered with the army to destroy the workers councils. The deaths of leading communists Karl liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg would ferment hatred between the social democrats and communists long into the future.

Until 1923, Germany was still under the “dictatorship of the street”: conditions close to civil war threaten the country with collapse. Revolutions and revolts from right and left almost always lead to the imposition of martial law. The tense situation of martial law gave way to a more liberal parliamentary government by the social democrats, called the Weimar Republic.

The Weimar republic, coming after a revolution supported by the social democrats and then stopped by their party leadership, resulted in a shift change in culture in Germany. Always under pressure from the left, the government granted many reforms. Indeed this time was considered the golden era of inter-war Germany. A wide range of progressive social reforms were implemented such as, 48 hour working week, health insurance, unemployment benefits and massive housing construction. A dramtic growth in intellectual pursuits, such as science and philosophy, fine art, poetry and the like flourished in Germany. Influenced from other countries a cultural explosion occcured, German film, literature, theatre and musical works brought great creativity. Modern young women in the cities broke with traditional mores and began demanding more organising their own entry into the political realm.

In 1919, the Institut fur Sexualwissenschaft and the attached museum of sexuality was opened by Dr M. Hirschfeld, a vocal advocate for homosexual, bisexual and transgender legal rights repeatedly petitioning parliament for changes. This School had an extensive library and was the first institute in the world to offer sex reassignment surgeries. 1920’s Germany became more modernised due to the arrival of the working class on the stage of history. However, this cultural explosion of more acceptance and tolerance was not welcomed by all. Germany still had a large contingent of nationalists that demanded a return to tradition and authoritarianism.

The economic recovery was not to last as the Great depression – the next cycle of boom and bust in captialism removed the financial supports from Germany. A succession of caretaker chancellors or technocrats were placed in power to right the ship. With no ansers to the crisis the parliamentary parties foundered resulting in the growth of both the Nazi party and the KPD – the communist party. this increasing polarisation of society marked the demise of the Weimar Republic.

In Italy, waves of strikes, militant unionism and socialist parties had developed in the northern industrialised cities. Italy had suffered long during world war 1, half million dead in the trenches and bread shortages and hunger at home. With the new exploitations in factories, mass strikes and mass desertions from the army in 1917 took their toll. New found solidarity and strength of the working class in Italy saw the rise of the two red years aka Biennio Rosso.

The spring of 1920 saw Turin Metal workers go on strike demanding more political control for the factories councils. The movement itself peaked in August of that year, with over 500,000 workers taking part in occupying factories in Turin and Milan, peasants emboldened by the workers started seizing their own land. A revolutionary situation was unfolding, posing the question of a fight for state power. But the trade union federation refused to see the struggle as anything other than just another important union battle. The capitalists capitulated, and the union won the battle – but lost the war. In a situation where workers held the means of production in their hands, giving up the factories in exchange for empty promises simply amounted to surrender. The defeat of the movement led to widespread demoralization within the working class. Fascists stepped up their recruitment and carried out an escalating wave of attacks against the organized workers’ movement. They were able to seize power two years later and crush the unions entirely.

The backlash was brutal, the police and the first fascist militias smashed the workers, mass lay offs, wage cuts and jailing of the leaders of the movement following. Mussolini – previously a member of the right wing of the socialists now lead this movement of violence against the workers. Building on the inaction of the parliamentary left parties to support workers and the brutal crushing of the workers movement By 1922 the fascists would march on Rome and seize power. The communists however under the leadership of Amadeo Bordiga refused to participate in parliament and argue for parliamentary support for workers struggles – dismissing it as just a tool of capitalism. This Abstentionist policy was then further extended when the Fascists were increasing in power in 1921 to a refusal to work with social democrats within the parliament. This lack of unity against such an existential threat as the fascist movement would have dire repercussions.

Rise of Fascism

In both Italy and Germany The fascist forces were not arrayed as parliamentary parties. In both cases the parties began as street fighting groups attempting to appeal to a mass base of a dissaffected middle class, betrayed by the depridations of the capitalists and at odds with the workers movements and their demands for a better life.

In Italy, the fascists were initially an urban phenomenon, motivated by nationalist fervor in antagonism to the socialists who refused to support and participate in the great war. During the Biennio Rosso, socialists made huge electoral gains and the wave of strikes and occupations in the North of Italy created virtually a state within a state. The political culture had been irrevocably changed, For landowners and the middle class, living under the virtual take over of the socialists was not something they could accept.

Fascist groups were used primarily to destroy the socialist participation in the state. Fascists interrupted meetings, beat elected officials, and made impossible the work of local government. The consequence of this was devastating to the socialist party of Italy – who without connection to the workers struggles of Turin and Milan could not defend themselves. Fascist violence largely took adavantage of petty feuds and personal rivalries to gain power. They offered young men power over others, and had elaborate initiation rituals when taking over a town. In the provinces the socialist party was demolished, fascists destroying the meeting places, offices and records of the socialists. The violence at the local level was far more personal than just political opportunity.

This violence directly lead to the assumption of power from the fascists, in 1922 their March on Rome finalised their grip on power. After just a few years of being organised the Italian fascists and their sympathisers controlled virtually all of Italy, they embedded themselves in every collective institution, they used this power to further their political violence to suppress opposition to their authoritarian rule.

For Germany the story was very similar in many respects. The Nazi street fighting group the Sturmabteilung, SA existed long before the formation of Nazi party itself. It carried on the same activities as the fascists in Italy – attacking socialist organisations, intimidating and beating up opponents, and implanting themselves in as many collective institutions as possible.

In 1923, a coalition of the Nazi party and the “Freikorps”, the troops that put down the communists in 1919, invigorated by Mussolini’s victory attmepted to wrest control of power in the beer hall putsch. This attempt was broken very quickly, the fiasco was a serious blow to the Nazis. Hitler was arrested along with Ernst Roehm another leader in the nationalist side. After reduced terms in prison both men were released within the year and began a long rebuilding period for the Nazis. In this period due to the economic successes of the Weimar republic Nazism was in deep decline, by 1928 Nazi support in parliament was just 2.6% of the total vote.

By 1930 the situation had changed drastically, The collapse of the German economy increased polarisation – the business class decided to put its full weight behind the fascist movement in order to save capitalism from workers revolt. Within just two years the Nazi party went from becoming the weakest party in the Reichstag to the second largest. Despite fighting the fascists valiantly on the streets, and having a combined vote that was generally greater than that of the Nazis, the left-wing parties were divided against each other – the communists going as far as to call the social democrats “social fascists” and decry them as an even greater threat than the Nazis. Where a united front could have on several occasions blocked their advance, the Nazis were able to take advantage of the disarray on the left and march into the corridors of power.

In 1930 Hitler appointed Ernst Roehm to head the SA, also known as the Brown shirts. Roehm concentrated the leadership of the different regions into the hands of some of his close friends – so that the SA only answered to Roehm and Hitler. By 1933, the SA numbered over 3 million, dwarfing the military (only 100,000). Roehm ensured that SA supported strikes and targeted strikebrikers, as most of the SA forces actually came from working class backgrounds. Roehm employed a kind of cynical and distorted ‘left’ rhetoric. This was not a problem for Hitler so long as the Nazis were building a support base but, as soon as the part looked to real state power, it became an impediment, and a possible rival power base.

Hitler had Roehm killed in the night of the long knives, SA leadership was arrested and excuted and the SS who were Hitler’s personal bodyguards, could now take charge nationally. The SS was formed solely of officers from middle and upper class backgrounds were much more suited to Hitler’s and consequently the German Capitalists aims to attack workers organisations and bring their dissent under the control of the Nazi party.

Nazi’s implemented horrific programs to reverse the progressive policies of the Weimar republic. Upon attaining power in 1933, women were totally excluded from political life, exiled to the realms of motherhood and caregiving. Removed from teaching, law, medical professions, political positions and barred from attending or teaching at university women were relegated to produce the next generation of Aryans.

The violence against LGBTQ people started almost immediately after the assumption of power; along with executing Roehm and other high ranking homosexuals, the Nazis purged Berlin of all “homophile” clubs (including gay, lesbian, trans and bisexual) outlawed sex publications and banned gay organisations. Dr Hirschfeld who set up the Institut fur sexualwissenschaft was sent to a concentration camp, and the famous photos of Nazi’s burning books was the library of the institute, destroying the largest collection of literature on sexuality in the world. After this a special division of the gestapo was created to develop lists of gay individuals and hunt them down. The LGBTQ community was to join the Jewish, Muslim, Socialists and trade unionists in the camps, another cog in the machine of death the Nazis manufactured to supress all dissent and carry out their vile ideology.

From this short history we can see a bit more of the nature of fascism. Preceding the growth of fascism is a prevailing collapse of the capitalist economy. Unable to answer the question posed by the crisis, bourgeois democracy remained impotent and as such society polarised. The workers united in their struggle for survival joined their trade unions and used their collective institutions to support themselves. The middle class, suffered just as terribly as the workers, losing their livelihoods with no unemployment insurance and support mechanisms. But unlike the working class, they have no trade unions or political parties of their own to defend them, as such they are more likely to blame their situation on the working class rather than the capitalists as the source of the trouble and instability.

Fascism takes this atomised anger and desparation and forges them into a organised force to smash the working class with. In this way the fascists gain some support from the capitalists to ensure the survival of capitalism and presenting a way out of the crisis, by blaming its opponents. Beyond the ideology that they share with the wider far right, their organising model is one of an appeal to a mass base of the disenfranchised middle class, backed up with racist rhetoric and extreme violence against their political opponents.

Iit’s important to point out that racism isn’t confined to fascism – racism has deep roots in the structure of capitalist society and is utlilised by politicans of all stripes, not just facists. We can’t therefore defeat racism simply by defeating facism. But racism is fundamental to fascist ideology in a way that it isn’t to other political currents. Racism provides ideological cement for fascist organisations, by displacing the tensions of class society – between workers and capitalists – onto an imaginary, mythologized, racial divide. By displacing anger at the failure of capitalism from the real capitalist class to a mythical conspiracy of Jewish bankers; the Nazi Party was able to provide the semblance of an economic critique. The chosen target of neo-Nazis since might have changed – to migrants, refugees and Muslims, – but extreme racism has remained a constant of fascist organising. The growth of fascist organisations has been followed everywhere not just by hate speech, but by increased attacks and violence against minority communities.

This violence forms another facet of fascist organistations as shown by the histories of the both the German and particularly the Italian fascists. By smashing workers organisations, opposing parliamentary parties and using political violence to silence opponents. Political violence was justified by both the Nazis and the Italian fascists though claiming victimisation, as being notably a white people under assault from barbarians and vile subversives. Key to this victimisation and the accompanying violence is shifting the public view towards violence – making it acceptable and as stated by fascists – moving the “overton window” shifting the range of ideas tolerated in political discourse further to the right.

Fascists are supported by capitalists when capitalism fails and parliamentary democracy cannot answer the crisis. This is done to smash workers revolts against capitalism and prevent their ascendancy. Fascists organise disenfranchised middle classes into a street fighting force to take power in parliament and institute their violent far right ideology – an ideology based on mysogyny, homophobia and transphobia and rascism.

Fascism can be smashed however, by coordinated mass action of workers and other progressive forces in a united front. Fascism represent an existential threat to all on the left – and we must not underestimate its ability to take power through violence and intimidation. In Italy and Germany social democratic parties, and communists refused to work together, in part due to Stalinist influence through the comintern to reject the call for a united front. In both cases the fascists smashed apart the left and took power.

But when workers act in concert, they have had remarable success in opposing fascists. In 1930s France, the Fascist “Croix de Feu” was gaining momentum, and emboldened by fascist victories in Germany and Italy, attacked the Parliament in February 1936, forcing a change of government in a right-wing direction. As news of the Fascist action circulated, resistance was organised by the workers. Almost five million workers downed tools in a general strike, forcing the leaders of the rival Communist and Socialist parties to march together. The fascist advance was halted – temporarily at least – while workers went on the front foot pushing for better wages and conditons.

Mass demonstrations on the streets can demonstrate that the fascists are a minority current and cut them off from their potential support base. This has been done many times in history. The concerted opposition of socialists, communists, anarchists and the Jewish community was key to stopping Oswald Mosely’s “British Union of Fascists” in the 1930s. The anti-fascists scored their greatest victory at the “Battle of Cable Street” in 1936, when over 20,000 anti-fascist demonstrators faced off against Mosely’s attemt to march his goons through London’s East End. Outnumbered more than 10:1 by determined resistance, the counter demonstration forced Mosely to call off the march – something a 100,000 signtature petition to the Home Secretary had been unable to achieve.

Fascism today.

To survive the post war years – fascism changed dramatically. Fascists groups reformed and rebranded themselves as parties of the far right, emphasising their nationalism and attempting to distance themselves from the past all the while training a new layer of fascists. This is emphasised by parties like the French Front National, which under the leadership of Jean-Marie Le Pen recognised the obstacle the atrocities of the Nazis posed to bulding a fascist party. What Le Pen argued is that in order to build their strength, fascists could no longer openly proclaim their admiration for Hitler and genocide, but instead present themselves as nationalists concerned about the effects of immigration and multiculturalism.

The British National Party is another example of this eurofascist style of party. Its leader Nick Griffin described its strategy thusly:

Instead of presenting the party as a revolutionary alternative to the system, we must present them

[the electorate] with an image of moderate reasonableness… Of course we must teach the truth to

the hardcore. But when it comes to influencing the public, forget about racial differences,

genetics, Zionism, historical revisionism and so on.”

The Euro-fascist turn is something we see much more evident today in right wing politics. It’s speakers such as Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux among many others that decry the attack of multiculturalism and immigration in western nations. The layering of their message to present this reasonable front achieves two ends. Firstly it moves what is called the “overton window” further to the right. In this respect as we saw here in New Zealand these far right hate mongers were able to get substantial support to defend their right to spout hate speech – simply by presenting their arguments as against immigration and multiculturalism. This is despite the fact that all of their arguments belie a deep seated racism and even open admission of ethnonationalism and extreme forms of sexism. The second factor that this allows is victimisation and a support for violence in “self-defence”, presenting themselves as victims of an evil left wing agenda that encompasses everyone who thinks racism is abhorrent, from grassroots left wing movements to governments.

Intertwined within this wider far right movement is an intense misogyny, a hatred of the rights of women and a repudiation of so called attacks on masculinity. The alt right is often framed with its white ethnonationalism and racist agenda – but little is talked about its hatred of women and in particular feminists. The alt right has built itself as an amorphous movement largely through activity as Pick up artists, the red pill movement and mens rights organisations which we have seen on university campuses.

Here communities are formed in which feminists and women at large were villified and blamed for all the changes in society. These groups give the inital appearance of a support group but really they function as a channel to gather disaffected and entitled white men and draw them further into racism, bigotry and far right hate. This presentation to newcomers is well defined and practised with many scripts online detailing how to subtly move someone over a period of years into more explicit fascist ideology. Make no mistake while the membership of these far right groups are not all fascist – they provide cover for them as front groups to recruit and shelter for their disgusting views.

Years of conservative backlash, Islamophobia and anti-migrant rhetoric have created a cultrual climate in which fasicst organisations can recruit principally through the toxic online world of the “Alt-right.” The danger is that a convergence of these phenomenon – the proximity of far right and even fascist parties to electoral power, the emerence of far-right street movements and the new “alt-right” mileu could act as an incubator for new threats.

There is a hardened fascist core within these groups that has international links across Europe, North America and Australia. Nigel Farage exmplifies the connections of the far right and their cover for fascist sympathisers and organisers. They are on the same side as Trump, Steve Bannon, France’s Marine Le Pen, Lauern Southern and Holland’s Geert Wilders. Our enemies are organised and patient, they are aware of how they play their politics to a wider audience.

There are a few salient points I want to bring out of this talk that have serious implications for how we fight the far right. Fascism is defined not just by its vile views on the rights of women, its abhorrent racism and islamophobia, but also its method of organising – it is focused on building mass movements – to infiltrate and control every collective institution to prevent opposition to it gaining power. It uses political violence as its main weapon – and in the early stages attempts to shift society to an acceptance of that violence or at the very least an indifference to it. This analysis implies several important points that must be at the forefront of our politics whenever we organise against the right.

Firstly – we must be accurate in our reporting and statements. One of the most powerful tools we have is being able to identify a fascist publicly. This means that we must preserve the power of that term and not use it just to identify the people we disagree with. Being able to denounce fascists is a key weapon in our arsenal and we cannot dilute it. The ideology of the right relies on conspiracy theories and falsehoods – being careful and defined with our evidence sets us apart from them in our writing and our agitation. Again the right makes no bones about being hypocritical – they don’t need to be accurate; confusion and disorientation are important to how they operate, that is their goal. But for us on the left we cannot operate in that fashion, confusion and mistrust only serve to divide us as a class and make us easier to be broken.

Secondly – we cannot appeal to institutions to stop them. The far right has been successfully shifting the window for whats acceptable and tolerable in society further to the right, supported by neoliberalism’s dog -whistle rhetoric over the past 30 years. Public institutions within a capitalist state exist to manage capitalism in some way or another and their interests lie along that plane. If a intractable crisis in captialism does occur they will not side with us who a trying to make a better world without captialism. These institutions seek to continue the status quo – the bedrock of sexism and racism that underlies capitalisms success.

Whatever we ask of the powers that be can then be used to justify attacks on us, if appeal to authorities to deplatform a far-right speaker, then the next talk on the Palestinian cause or Black lives matter movement in the States may also suffer the same fate. We know where the sympathies of capitalist institutions lie, especially in a crisis, they lie with supporting the business class against the workers.

Thirdly – we must be mass focused, fascism is a movement risen up out of the streets – as such it is on the streets that we must break them. Every time they organise, we must be larger, more vocal and more encompassing. They must understand that their hatred and bigotry has no public support. Our public support demoralises them, makes it harder for them to organise and recruit.

In order to ensure this we must make sure that our tactics support this. This means not encouraging strategies that exclude people or put a high barrier to entry and participation in the movement. As a consequence this means limiting or stopping violence and clandestine activity from our side. Being public focused means holding everything in ways that are accessible to the public and a recognition that the safest place for us is in the public eye. This is not just for our safety but also for public scruntiny, the right will be worried about putting the public offside. Antifa is already denounced by right-wing pundits as a terrorist organisation, and if that propaganda is taken seriously, no matter how ridiculous the accusation, the state has a huge ability to disrupt our lives and our organising. We must give them no opportunity to do so.

As the fascist threat grows however, more will be needed than simple demonstrations. In view of the special threat posed to workers’ and left-wing organisations, Leon Trotsky and other leftists in the 1930s recommended a strategy called the “United Front.” The united front essentially means uniting all workers’ and left-wing organisations in a common struggle against fascism. It doesn’t mean for a moment suspending disagreement or debates on other issues, but in recognising the urgent threat posed by fascism and agreeing on a method of combating it. “March seperately but strike together!” Trotsky argued “Agree only on how to strike, who to strike, and when to strike”.

Uniting amongst the left, not just the different left wing groups outside parliament but even parliamentary parties to recognise the grave threat that fascism poses – not just to the left but to the entirety of society. We don’t have to agree on political principles to fight an existential threat; and we must fight that threat – so that those fascists know that wherever they go, wherever they try to organise we will be there to oppose them and fight against them for a better future.