This piece was originally presented as a public talk to the Whanganui-a-Tara branch of the ISO in July 2023. The audio of the talk is available on our Youtube channel.
Tēnā koutou katoa. Ko Te Whanganui-a-Tara tōku whenua tupu ko tōku kāinga hoki. Ko Taranaki Whānui ki te Upoko o Te Ika, rātou ko Te Atiawa, ko Ngāti Toa Rangatira, ko Muaūpoko ngā iwi mana whenua. He tangata tiriti ahau. He mema o te International Socialist Organisation ahau. Ko Serah tōku ingoa.
What is fascism, and how do we fight it? This title intentionally echoes the title given to a collection of Leon Trotsky’s writings on the subject. Trotsky obviously carries a lot more mana than I in analysis, organising, and fighting the fascist menace. I’m using that collection of writings as one of several touchstones for this discussion because I think Trotsky’s analysis is highly relevant today; I truly hope I can do justice to this echo from one of the figures the International Socialist Organisation claims in its analytical heritage. But also I hope to extend the discussion beyond what fascism meant to people in Trotsky’s time. It’s been 83 years since the most recent of Trotsky’s writings from that collection, and I think you’ll agree that in that time there have been many social and economic developments, adaptations, analyses, commentaries, struggles, wins, and losses. Let’s take a little time to consider what fascism is, how it looks in today’s world, and what we can do — are doing — to fight it in the present day.
First, though — a brief note and warning. I will be talking about fascism and fascists. This isn’t a nice subject. I won’t be going into gory details or showing gruesome images, although those certainly exist because fascists have done some truly horrendous things. This talk will, however, include some uncomfortable imagery, symbols, and discussion. With that in mind, please know that it’s ok to step out from this talk at any time as you see fit to look after your well being.
So what is fascism? It’s a term that’s been thrown around in casual conversation and political argument to describe everyone from egotistical presidents to antifa to public health workers to man babies. But the Nazis were defeated in 1945 — back in a time when most movies were still black and white, back before commercial jetliners existed, before the polio vaccine, before personal computers or GPS and before Wikipedia. It’s ridiculous that we would be dredging up something so ancient and done-with, and that we’d be applying the label to people in the present day, right? To help us get a better understanding of what fascism is, let’s consider first its form and then its function — that is: first what it looks and feels like, and then what its purpose is.
Fasces is the name for a bundle of sticks carried by state authorities in ancient Rome, apparently as a symbol of justice. The sticks themselves could be used to mete out physical punishment, and the bundle is sometimes depicted with an axe which represents the potential for capital punishment. In 1919, a little over a century ago, Benito Mussolini founded the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento – the Italian Combat Leagues; ‘fasci’ in this context simply meaning ‘groups’. Over the next several years Mussolini ended up developing a whole new political doctrine, which he named Fascism, and the fasces were chosen as a symbol of a glorified Roman past and of the justice the Fascists imagined bringing to Italy. Here are Mussolini’s words describing the doctrine: “Fascism does not, generally speaking, believe in the possibility or utility of perpetual peace. It therefore discards pacifism as a cloak for cowardly supine renunciation in contradistinction to self-sacrifice. War alone keys up all human energies to their maximum tension and sets the seal of nobility on those peoples who have the courage to face it.” And also: “The Fascist accepts and loves life; he rejects and despises suicide as cowardly. Life as he understands it means duty, elevation, conquest; life must be lofty and full, it must be lived for oneself but above all for others, both nearby and far off, present and future.” You might already be getting a sense of this philosophy glorifying violence, and channeling some deeply conservative values including that weird niche of individuality that does not actually include bodily autonomy.
Around the same time, Hitler had joined the so-called German Workers’ Party, a group which anti-fascist journalist Paul Mason (2021) describes as: “dedicated to anti-communism, state ownership, authoritarian government and anti-Semitism.” The group soon changed their name to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, which Mason states was done so that: “Nazism would be sold initially to the masses as a nationalist revolt against capitalism.” The German term for ‘National Socialist’ was mispronounced by English-speakers as ‘Nazi’, and so we end up with that term in our modern lexicon.
The beginnings of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf describes intensely impoverished economic and social circumstances that wouldn’t have been out of place in Karl Marx’s Capital. However, whereas Marx was motivated to address such problems by working towards a more egalitarian future, Hitler’s approach was instead to blame Jews and socialists. Hitler quickly rose to prominence as an orator, though apparently not so much as a writer. His manifesto is as much personal fanfic as it is political work, but nonetheless showcases his belief in the necessity of hierarchy and violence: “Just as Nature does not concentrate her greatest attention in preserving what exists, but in breeding offspring to carry on the species, likewise, in human life, it is less important artificially to alleviate existing evil, which, in view of human nature, is ninety-nine per cent impossible, than to ensure from the start healthier channels for a future development.” And: “Only when an epoch ceases to be haunted by the shadow of its own consciousness of guilt will it achieve the inner calm and outward strength brutally and ruthlessly to prune off the wild shoots and tear out the weeds.”
Those quotations from Mussolini and Hitler express a degree of fanaticism, and it seems fascism is appealing particularly to those who feel wronged and either downtrodden or at risk of losing status. [German socialist] Clara Zetkin (1922) described this appeal: “We must realise that Fascism is a movement of the disappointed and of those whose existence is ruined. […] We must realise that they are not only trying to escape from their present tribulations, but that they are longing for a new philosophy.” And according to Mason: “for fascists, a myth is not a fantasy or superstition, it is a story you can make come true by believing in it hard enough, and centring your life around it.”
There have been numerous attempts to characterise fascism. Umberto Eco’s 1995 list of features of fascism is one of the most well known, and might be summarised as: following a cult of tradition; irrational; promoting action for action’s sake through permanent struggle and warfare; upholding a fantasy of personal heroism and machismo; unable to tolerate disagreement and fearing difference; restricting language to restrict critical thought and criticism; deriving from individual or social frustration and a sense of being besieged by an arbitrary powerful other, with a selection of the population considered to be ‘The People’, and decisions handed down by a self-appointed Voice of the People. Researcher Roger Griffin provided this definition in 1991: “Fascism is a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic [reborn] form of populist ultranationalism.” Paul Mason (2021) created this succinct definition: “Fascism is the fear of freedom, triggered by a glimpse of freedom.” And The Third International led by Stalinist USSR labelled social democracy as “the moderate wing of fascism,” thus conflating the entire spectrum of capitalism with fascism. Defining fascism is clearly tricky, and some descriptions and definitions are more useful than others.
Mussolini created the doctrine of Fascism (capital ‘F’ referring specifically to the Fascism of inter-war/WWII Italy), and Hitler became the leader of the most renowned fascist regime thus far (lower-case ‘f’ referring to fascism as a generalised political philosophy.) However, it’s important to note neither of these individuals invented fascism in any sort of ideological void. Mason identifies philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas of the Superman (Übermensch) and of ‘positive eugenics’ as some of the cultural precursors of fascism, and says fascism: “sprang more fundamentally from the wider culture of colonialism, nationalism and militarism that flourished among conservative-minded people before the First World War.” Reading this, we might start to get an uncomfortable awareness that those precursors of fascism are also present in our own colonial New Zealand heritage.
So now we’ve got an idea of a social context in which fascism arose, and a sample of the attempts to describe fascism, let’s turn our attention to discussing what fascism actually does. If we return to the post-WWI period for a moment, we can observe the social forces of the time which fascism was engaged to counter. The world’s capitalists were having to come to terms with a successful revolution in Russia and the potential for revolution to spread elsewhere. Returned Italian soldiers inspired by the Russian Revolution started farming unused land. The exploited peasant class went on mass strike until they were able to guarantee co-management of the farms they worked. In factories, workers set up factory councils similar to those recently established by Russian workers, and they undertook multi-day strikes for improved conditions. Socialists won a third of Italy’s popular vote, becoming the largest group in parliament. In Germany, economic hardship and social unrest led to socialists setting up citizen protection squads. The anti-capitalist and liberal parties together held nearly half of parliament, and industrial strikes and rent strikes proliferated.
In response, the ruling class of Italy gave Mussolini increasingly free reign to suppress first peasant farm occupations, then whole working class movements, then the entire democratic process. Mussolini was very clear about his goal of ensuring the subjugation of the working class. In his words, Fascism was: “the resolute negation of the doctrine underlying so-called scientific and Marxian socialism” and “Fascism denies the equation: well-being = happiness, which sees in men mere animals, content when they can feed and fatten, thus reducing them to a vegetative existence pure and simple.” Similarly, Hitler appealed to Germany’s industrial elite by offering to destroy any chance of working class uprising. Martin Niemöller’s famous poem starts with “First they came for the socialists,” because the Nazi’s first target was the labour movement. Ralph Manheim, who translated Mein Kampf, noted that even the particular style of German writing Hitler used appeared designed to appeal to the petty bourgeoisie.
According to Clara Zetkin: “Fascism is the concentrated expression of the general offensive undertaken by the world bourgeoisie against the proletariat.” Trotsky described this offensive in a context of three stages of capitalism: its dawn, its bloom, and its decline which is when “the bourgeoisie is forced to resort to methods of civil war against the proletariat to protect its right of exploitation.” Trotsky also described fascism as: “a razor in the hands of the class enemy.” In other words, fascism is the political program deployed by the ruling class to maintain their power.
Trotsky describes fascism as:
Special armed gangs, specifically trained to fight workers, like certain breeds of dog are trained to hunt game. The historical role of fascism is to crush the working class, destroy its organisations and stifle political freedom, at a time when the capitalists are conscious that they have become incapable of governing or dominating through the democratic system.
We earlier discussed how fascists may not view themselves as being a tool of the ruling class. And it seems many academics who study fascism believe that if fascists succeeded in their own goals they might create some other sort of society that was neither capitalist nor socialist. If this is true then certainly when capitalists support fascists they’re taking a risk that might backfire on them. On this, Trotsky said rather eloquently: “The big bourgeoisie likes fascism as little as a man with aching molars likes to have his teeth pulled.”
Gramsci theorised that Fascism might also be capable of gradually eroding the capitalist system until it had achieved a ‘passive revolution.’ Those living in the USA and the UK, for example, may well feel like Gramsci has a point as they watch hard-won rights being eroded before their eyes. From our perspective on the left we certainly see the capitalist class, including the bourgeois state, enabling fascists and the early growth of fascist ideas. From police protecting fascists rallying and marching, to large national and multinational media companies promoting fascist ‘talking points’, to petty bourgeois business owners directly financially supporting far-right mobilisations, to billionaires promoting so-called ‘free speech’ which protects far-right fascist attacks on minorities in social media and other online spaces… It certainly appears that right now as capitalism is being increasingly challenged by renewed interest in socialist ideas, by bank collapses, by logistical failures, and so on, capitalists are once again more and more willing to cede ground to fascists to counter challenges from the left.
If fascists identify themselves explicitly then that’s obviously pretty handy. But note that while identifying their symbolism can be useful, only looking at symbolism might lead us to draw incorrect conclusions because symbols can be used for a variety of reasons. For example, the fasces which inspired Mussolini and were the symbol of Italian Fascism have also been used by the British Union of Fascists and as a symbol of state by the USA. The swastika, appropriated by the Nazis, is prominently displayed by the Mongrel Mob and adapted in the far-right Kekistan meme. More reliably than just focusing on symbolism, we should try to determine whether an individual or group is fascist through its whole form and function.
We’ve established that fascism exists in opposition to concepts of fair and egalitarian systems of social organisation, and fascists are therefore enabled, encouraged, or deployed by capitalists as a high-risk tool to suppress the left when capitalism is under threat. Fascists believe in and value hierarchies, so when a leader emerges in a nationalist context then fascism is authoritarian, but there are other forms of authoritarianism than just fascism. Fascists vilify one or more groups of ‘others’, who are used as both scapegoat and focus for rallying against, and desire to recreate some idealised vision of history wherein the ‘other’ was subjugated or imagined non-existent. And fascists view violence as useful and appropriate to establish and maintain hierarchies and to punish the ‘other’. In other words, fascism is all of the following: 1) anti-egalitarian; 2) hierarchical and authoritarian; 3) exclusionary and othering; 4) glorifying of an idealised past; 5) violent and vindictive. To explore the application of these criteria, let’s briefly consider a few modern-day real-world and pop-culture individuals and groups.
The Freedom and Rights Coalition in Aotearoa.
Led by Destiny Church pastor Brian Tamaki, this group promotes Covid conspiracism, is against queer people, and against abortion rights. It certainly adheres to religious fundamentalism, conservatism, othering, and has a not-so-subtle threat of violence in its speeches and rallies. While perhaps not quite so explicitly anti-egalitarian, hierarchical, and pro-violence as to be fascist, it certainly sits very nearby on a political spectrum. We could therefore comfortably call this group far-right.
The Galactic Empire of the Star Wars movies
Led by Emperor Palpatine, the Galactic Empire is depicted as hierarchical and authoritarian, and extremely violent. While its actions are clearly anti-egalitarian, it isn’t clear that it primarily exists to smash the working class. The Empire doesn’t seem to engage in othering at a systemic level other than to maintain power, and to my knowledge doesn’t aim to recreate a heroic past. Although George Lucas channelled Nazi imagery for his visual portrayal of the Empire, it seems it is authoritarian and dystopian but not fascist.
The Oath Keepers in the USA
Consisting of several thousand members across the USA, this is a so-called militia or patriot “movement” alongside groups such as the Three Percenters and Atomwaffen Division. The Oath Keepers are extremely and explicitly anti-socialist, hierarchical, othering of people of colour and of Muslim people, want to recreate an idealised historical USA, and are extremely and explicitly violent. They fit all of the criteria discussed earlier, and so I call this group fascist.
Posie Parker from the UK
A YouTube personality who is primarily known for her anti-transgender posturing. She seems at home with conservatives, and has an identified ‘other’ in transgender people. She seems happy to hint towards violence, and we can assume she would be happy with violence being carried out against her chosen ‘other’. It’s been suggested that she is fascist given the support she has received from fascists, the sponsorship she has received from far-right groups, and so forth. However while she is an intensely unpleasant person opportunistically hinting toward fascist ideas, she does not quite currently fit the criteria for actually being a fascist herself.
Counterspin Media in Aotearoa
The budget Aotearoa version of the USA’s Info Wars or Daily Wire, operated by Kelvyn Alp and Hannah Spierer. Counterspin is certainly anti-left and extremely conservative in their politics; promotion of Covid conspiracism and sharing footage of the Christchurch Mosque shooting certainly ticks the boxes for othering and for promoting violence. I’m not clear on whether these people have explicitly stated they envisage a heroic past that we should return to, but they do clearly oppose de-colonial efforts. It seems Counterspin do meet the criteria for promoting fascist ideas even if they are also a laughing stock.
From historical experience, ignoring or appeasing fascism guarantees fascists political space in which to grow their movement. Trotsky (1938) said:
Only audacious mobilization of the workers against reaction, creation of workers’ militia, direct physical resistance to the fascist gangs, increasing self-confidence, activity and audacity on the part of all the oppressed can provoke a change in the relation of forces, stop the world wave of fascism, and open a new chapter in the history of mankind.
If fascists weren’t opposed, if they were allowed to grow to the point where they openly mobilise in street gangs, then they would need to be opposed directly and physically.
But what about when there are only a few isolated and mostly reclusive fascists, rather than open gangs? And what of far-right ideas that enable fascism without quite fitting a definition of fascism? Should we mobilise against individuals, or against the fascist-adjacent? This branch of the International Socialist Organisation supports and is active within the Pōneke Anti-Fascist Coalition. This is a campaign organisation made up of left and liberal activists with diverse experience including from peace movements, climate activism, and abortion rights campaigns. Despite the need for political unity, to be able to access broad networks, and to have people to share the organising mahi, the ISO is currently the only socialist organisation active in PAFC. We’re proud of our involvement in this collective work, and since PAFC was formed following the 2022 far-right parliament occupation we’ve already been able to contribute towards a number of useful pieces of work. In August last year, PAFC organised a hundreds-strong counter-protest against Brian Tamaki’s Freedom and Rights Coalition march on parliament. In December last year, we worked together to protest against the anti-abortion March For Life, blocking the street in front of them. This year, we’ve countered transphobes at parliament and we’ve disrupted an anti-Māori speaking tour, as well as providing support for several other rallies at parliament and Civic Square.
It’s important to note that this work has been undertaken in the context of 21st century Aotearoa, not early 20th century Europe. I’d like to highlight three significant differences that have been recently guiding PAFC’s anti-fascist approach. First, Aotearoa has suffered and still suffers from British colonialism and US imperialism. This is visible in numerous forms, such as historical attempts to erase Te Reo Māori, ongoing disproportionate state violence towards and incarceration of Māori, and the potential for extreme reaction against Māori such as seen in the 2008 police raids against Tūhoi. Second, while racism is rampant and many people have resigned themselves to neoliberal ideology, and while there are some fascists and numerous far-right threats and enablers across the motu, the situation isn’t currently as dire as it was in Europe in the inter-war period of last century. Third, we acknowledge that systemic social and economic failings create an environment in which far-right ideologies can gain a following, and we must leave open the possibility of rehabilitation and re-integration of the far-right’s followers.
Bearing these factors in mind, our approach has as much as possible been to organise non-violent protest and disruption of the far-right’s propaganda rallies, and to provide public education to inoculate against their toxic ideas. Thus far, this approach has been successful in resisting and undermining the foundations of fascist growth, and in promoting anti-fascist ideas to a point where we have built a reasonable anti-fascist following in social media. In addition, our organising group has been gradually growing. In line with Trotsky’s analysis, we have seen the need for anti-fascist work to be about mass-mobilisation and not isolated ‘direct action’ of an activist core, and we’ve been successful in mobilising hundreds of people for some of our rallies which I view as a very good first step with much more mahi to be done to continue building. As International Socialists we also understand that unless we overthrow capitalism we will always have to address the threat of fascism – therefore we support immediate changes which address the social and economic deprivation which provides fascism its soldiers, while also seeking to build to where the whole working class can fundamentally replace capitalism with egalitarian distribution.
Fascism is a threat which cannot be ignored. Unchecked, fascists would usher us into a brutal future absent of all that we love. We developed a simplified criteria for identifying fascism, which was that fascism is all of the following: 1) anti-egalitarian; 2) hierarchical and authoritarian; 3) exclusionary and othering; 4) glorifying of an idealised past; 5) violent and vindictive. We were able to utilise those criteria to consider whether various examples were fascist or not. We’ve covered how at least some fascists seem to believe these pretty sad features of their ideology are somehow good, and that they imagine a revolution of their own making. However, despite fascists’ imagining themselves to be Übermensch, they are actually enabled and deployed to suit the needs of both the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie, specifically to crush working class uprising, a manoeuvre that is both high-risk for capitalists and devastating for the working class. To avoid such destructiveness, anti-fascism must become the norm in Aotearoa and around the world. To protect vulnerable populations throughout this work, anti-fascism must be anti-colonial, inclusive, and organised from the roots up. To spread, it must communicate its ideas in terms that resonate with a relatively depoliticised society, because to be successful it must connect with and mobilise the masses. All of this mahi is already well underway here in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, and the ISO is proud to be a part of the communal effort.
I started this talk with a brief mihi. As I am Ngāti Pākeha and tangata tiriti, doing so was an intentional and important acknowledgement of mana whenua and of Te Ao Māori. If fascism sprang from ideologies including colonialism, I don’t believe I could reasonably have discussed anti-fascism in the context of Aotearoa without first taking that small step towards a decolonised space. Fascism is anti-egalitarian, hierarchical, exclusionary, glorifying of an idealised past, and violent. In contrast, anti-fascists in Aotearoa are making a conscious effort to support tino rangatiratanga, and to acknowledge historical and ongoing injustices against Māori and minority groups. We envisage an egalitarian and just future, inclusive and welcoming.
I’d like to conclude with these words from Tony Cliff (2000), another important figure in ISO’s analytical heritage. I think these words beautifully summarise all of the last half-hour’s kōrero:
Because fascism is a movement of despair, while socialism is a movement of hope, to fight fascism it is necessary not only to fight the fascists but also the conditions that lead to despair. One has to fight the rats, but also the sewers in which the rats multiply. One has to fight the fascists, but also capitalism that creates conditions that breed fascism – unemployment, bad housing, social deprivation, etc.
I hope you want to fight fascism, and I hope you will be a part of the socialist movement that can build towards a hope-filled future where fascism cannot ever take root.
Britannica (n.d.). Italy’s entry into the war and the French Armistice. Accessed 26 June, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/event/World-War-II/Italys-entry-into-the-war-and-the-French-Armistice
Cliff, T. (2000). Marxism at the Millennium. https://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/2000/millennium/index.htm
Umberto Eco, U. (1995). Ur-Fascism. New York Review of Books, USA.
Griffin R. (2018). Fascism – an introduction to comparative fascist studies. Polity Press, UK.
Hitler, A. (1924). Mein Kampf. English translation by Manheim, 1943; The Riverside Press, USA.
Mason, P. (2021). How to stop fascism. Penguin Books, UK.
Mussolini , B. (1932). The doctrine of Fascism.
Trotsky, L. (1930-1940). Fascism: What it is & how to fight it. Collection originally printed in 1944, reprint 2022 by Resistance Books, Australia.
Zetkin, C. (1922). Fascism. https://www.marxists.org/archive/zetkin/1923/08/fascism.htm