Hitler leaving the Nazi party headquarters in Munich on 5 December 1931. Photo: Flickr Hitler leaving the Nazi party headquarters in Munich on 5 December 1931. Photo: Flickr

To stop a violent movement set on crushing democracy and the left, we must begin by building a mass united front of the working class, writes Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Today there is a small but growing fascist threat across the globe. For a long time fascism failed to break out from the fringes of society, following its disastrous defeat in the Second World War, but times are changing.

Since the 1970s, the neoliberal transformation of capitalism increased instability and insecurity across the globe, erasing worker gains made in the immediate post-Second World War boom. The ‘Great Recession’ of 2008 has greatly accelerated the ensuing erosion of living standards.

Over this long period, the seeds of fascism, long dormant, periodically began to sprout. Sometimes far right parties made electoral breakthroughs. For example, the French National Front did well in the 1980s, and this raised the confidence of fascist groups across Europe in the early 1990s.

In Britain, the National Front threatened to break through in the late 1970s and early 1990s, but was beaten back both times by mass mobilisations associated with the Anti-Nazi League.

Similarly, the British National Party made localised breakthroughs in the 2000s but waned in the wake of mass anti-fascist work organised by the left.

The growing threat

But there is something different about the recent rise of the far right globally. It comes on the back of a sustained period of establishment racism – Islamophobia – that accompanied the War on Terror since 2001. 

It also comes on the back of anti-migrant rhetoric that increased during the recent migration crisis in Europe, following the West’s destruction of the Middle East and Central Asia, the economic crisis of 2008 and the rise and fall of the Arab Spring since 2011.

We have duly seen the weakening of the long-dominant “extreme centre” and polarisation of politics globally. 

But it was the 2016 victory of Donald Trump, the most right wing president in living memory in the United States, which opened the door for a change of gear on the right of the political spectrum.

On the coattails of the establishment right, various populist right, alt-right and fascist parties are reorganising and recruiting. The rise of reactionary bigotry has been so sudden and intense that the word ‘fascist’ has come back into everyday use, even though its meaning seems to encompass anything from Boris Johnson to Tommy Robinson.

The lessons of history

To begin to see the fascist threat for what it is, and to find the right ways to confront it, we need to understand the term more precisely. We can do this by going back to the writings of political activists who analysed and resisted fascism’s rise in the interwar period of the twentieth century. And no man more clearly warned about the dangerous rise of Adolf Hitler than Leon Trotsky.

Trotsky was already an exile from the USSR in fear of his life by the time that the Nazis made an electoral breakthrough. They shot up from just under 3 percent of the vote in 1928 to over 18 percent of the vote in 1930. They had clearly been the main beneficiaries of the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Six and half million voted for them.

But, as Trotsky pointed out, the combined vote for the left – the Social Democrats with eight and half million and the Communists with four and a half million – was more than double what the Nazis had. Trotsky called for a united front of the working class to stop the Nazis. Mass demonstrations and strikes to weaken, divide and demoralise the Nazi forces could still stop Hitler.

The resistible rise of Adolf Hitler

By 1933, however, Hitler could claim he was coming to power ‘without breaking a window pane’. To understand how this happened, it is necessary to see why Trotsky’s advice was not followed. The Social Democratic leaders did not want to ally with revolutionaries on principle: they resisted revolution in Germany after the First World War and equated the extreme left and right as enemies of democracy.

Meanwhile, the Communists followed the line laid down by Stalin and the Communist International. This saw Social Democracy and the Nazis as two sides of the same coin: servants of big capital in the struggle against the workers. But the Communists could see that Social Democracy had a working class base, so they tried inconsistently to draw Social Democrats over to their side.

They tried to build the ‘united front from below’. The idea was that the Communist Party could win workers over from their reactionary leaders by denouncing the latter and calling the former to its side. As Trotsky aptly put it: ‘this was a united front with itself!’ The proof of the pudding was in the eating: the Communists had only managed a small set of electoral gains in 1930.

This led to desperate shifts in tactics. The Communists initially backed a Social Democratic government in power in Prussia, when a Nazi-supported referendum was called to remove it in 1931. When the government failed concede to Communist demands, however, instead of persisting and creating pressure on the Social Democratic leaders, the Communists simply switched their position and supported the referendum. But they lost the confidence of the workers, who boycotted the referendum.

Such tactics were bound to lead to Nazism if they were not corrected. Trotsky warned,

‘Should fascism come to power, it will ride over your skulls and spines like a terrific tank. Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. And only a fighting unity with the Social Democratic workers can bring victory.’ 

But no such unity came as the Communists confidently predicted ‘after the Nazis, us!’. When the Nazis did come to power in 1933, they proceeded to dismantle any form of workers’ democracy: left parties, trade unions, newspapers. They then re-armed Germany. 

From one mistake to another: the popular front

This frightened Moscow, so it signalled a new line: what was now needed was a ‘popular front’, uniting not just workers, but all capitalists who were against fascism.

The result was another series of miserable failures. Popular fronts took power in Spain and France in 1936 but failed to stop fascism. To maintain the good will of the anti-fascist capitalists, popular fronts demobilised workers, leading to the victory of a fascist-inspired military coup in Spain and the fall of the government in France. Fascism was only stopped by the Second World War, at the price of tens of millions of deaths.

At the root of the failure to stop fascism in the 1930s was not just a one-sided understanding of Social Democracy. It was also a one-sided understanding of fascism. Fascism was not just right wing capitalist reaction to the working class – and so splitting capitalists was not the way to stop fascism. 

Fascism, as Trotsky was at pains to argue, was an independent and violent movement of the ruined middle classes that sought to smash the left. Most capitalists reluctantly supported fascism when faced with a strong left, but could not control fascism in power.

The united front for today

The economic crisis we face today has not been as sudden and dramatic as the one in the 1930s. But it has proved protracted and devastating. Society is polarising and it impossible to tell if another round of crisis could allow the fascists to make a breakthrough. Knowing what fascism is helps us fight it. 

We need to see that not all reactionaries are fascists: misnaming the threat now can disarm activists and lead to a repeat of the popular front experience. Notice how some ‘centrists’, like Alistair Campbell, use the term ‘fascist’ in an alarmist way to scare people to continue to support failing neoliberal policies. That approach can only reinforce the growing fascist threat.

Thankfully, growing numbers on the left see through such cynical ploys, but often go the opposite extreme. If, as one study published in BMJ Open in November 2017 claims, austerity has caused the deaths of over 120,000 people in Britain, what threat are a few far right demonstrations? Should they not be ignored in favour of fighting the Tories? Sections of the Labour Party leadership think this way. 

But failing to confront the fascist threat can confuse people drawn by the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right. And it cannot prevent the rise of a violent fascist street movement. With thousands beginning to march under the banner of Tommy Robinson and the Football Lads Alliance this summer, and an electoral vehicle like UKIP potentially opening its doors to them, we should understand that a fascist core is beginning to reshape the British far right.

Resolute anti-fascists cannot stop this threat by trying to counter it ourselves, even though we can mobilise thousands. We need to reach out to the hundreds of thousands of those who joined Labour to support the left policies of Jeremy Corbyn and of those who routinely march against Trump, the destruction of the NHS and imperialist wars in the Middle East. We need to mobilise the big battalions of the labour movement to nip the fascist threat in the bud. If we do not, the consequences could again be dire.

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.