Alberto Toscano, Late Fascism: Race, Capitalism and the Politics of Crisis (Verso 2023), 224pp. Alberto Toscano, Late Fascism: Race, Capitalism and the Politics of Crisis (Verso 2023), 224pp.

The current rise of neo-fascist parties in Europe cannot be separated from the role of imperialism and the loss of ruling-class legitimacy at home, argues Chris Bambery

Our ruling classes do not require a ‘revolution against revolution’, as Robert Paxton described fascism, having been on the offensive since the mid-1970s, not just against working class but ideologically, going a long way to wipe out the traditions flowing from the 1917 October Revolution, no small gain for them.

Alberto Toscano writes in Late Fascism that: ‘… for the time – it [contemporary capital] is not rushing en masse towards an exceptional state to counter existential threats to its reproduction’ (p.4). But it’s not hard to look forward to a conjunction of climate crisis, mass migration and state repression along the borders, and see a situation where fascism emerges as a mass force. This is a society marred by permanent war. As far as European societies are concerned, none of these have reached the scale of destruction of 1914-1918, which tore apart the certainties of old Europe and created hundreds of thousands of radicalised veterans, providing a base for fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany.

In contemporary Europe, the rise of the far right has pushed the political agenda rightwards, particularly in regard to migration. In Italy, Georgia Melloni heads a government of the right and her party, Fratelli d’Italia, is rooted in post-war neo-fascism, to which it belonged. It is neo-fascist in the sense that it accepts parliamentary democracy and rules out seizing power, but remains proud of its roots. Similarly, Vox in Spain incorporates a number of fascist and Francoist groups and its slogans stand in continuity with those of Franco.

It is, therefore, important that we analyse today’s far right, and see how it links to what is usually called right-wing populism, associated with Donald Trump in the USA, Javier Milei in Argentina and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and with the sectarian politics of Narendra Modi in India.

Fascism stands aside from the capitalist state, building an autonomous movement, which in the inter-war period meant building a mass paramilitary wing, which could be used to destroy working-class organisation. Hitler and Mussolini always had a degree of support among the ruling class, but the bulk of the bourgeoisie withheld their support until both men seemed the only option left for their collective survival. Trotsky compared it to going to the dentist, you put it off over and over again until the pain is just too much.

Once in power, both in Italy and Germany, fascism reached an accord with the bourgeoisie at the very moment of coming to power. Toscano looks back to the fascist ventennio (twenty years) and Mussolini’s absorption of Italian liberalism. At the Third National Fascist Congress, in November 1921, Mussolini said fascist economic policy was ‘anti-socialist’ describing it as ‘liberal’.

What he meant by that was a return to pure economic liberalism, similar to the meaning of today’s neoliberalism, declaring before the October 1923 March on Rome: ‘… we want to strip the State, the postman State, the insurer State. Enough with the state operating at the expenses of all Italian taxpayers and aggravating Italy’s exhausted finances’ (pp.57-8).

Neoliberalism and the conditions for fascism

Toscano points out regarding this: ‘Contemplating the ravages of neoliberalism-as-civil-war in the early twenty-first century, we should not forget that fascism first came to power in a civil war for economic liberalism’ (p.59). In terms of Hitler’s coming to power in January 1933, his ambition and those of the ruling class – to destroy not just the organised working class but the welfare provisions of the Weimar Republic – coincided. But neither Hitler nor Mussolini ‘stripped back the state’, particularly in the case of the Third Reich. The Nazis expanded German military might and the coercive powers of the state. Writing in 2023, neoliberal governments are doing this at the current time, with a Social-Democrat-led coalition government in Germany hiking up military spending at the behest of Washington following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and attempting to ban demonstrations in support of the Palestinians during the Israel-Hamas war following the latter’s attack in southern Israel on 7 October 2023.

Of course, the Third Reich adopted state-capitalist measures, Goering created his state-owned industrial Empire, as did the SS, while the rise of I.G. Farben depended on state orders. But private capital remained. The bargain it made with Hitler on the eve of his taking power was that it retained its position as long as the private capitalists accepted his agenda. This was not hard for them, because they broadly agreed with German expansionism and the previous three authoritarian governments had put in place many of the economic and social measures associated with Nazism in power. That’s a reminder of how authoritarian governments can pave the way for fascism.

Neoliberalism, as Toscano writes: ‘… is unable to generate socially acceptable solutions, … all it can offer is a seemingly endless horizon of austerity, stagnation, declining living standards, increasing inequality, accumulation by dispossession, organised abandonment and a repressive hardening of the state against any challenge or alternative. The recombinations of neoliberalism manifest the hardening of authoritarian tendencies, in the context of domination without hegemony in which the ruling classes undergo a process of radicalisation, a context in which their continued supremacy is dependent on a hollowing out of democratic rights and capacities (p.71).

One might add to that the hollowing out of social democracy – which acted to limit working-class action, but was also a shield against all-out capitalist aggression at times, and offered the hope of reform, as with the Attlee government of 1945 in Britain. That’s largely gone, though the rise and fall of Jeremy Corbyn was illuminating as to how popular that sort of agenda could be, and as to how ruthless the British elite and their allies within the Labour Party were in removing him.

But Toscano is right to say neoliberalism has not maintained hegemony. Instead, the neoliberal ruling class is hated. The 2016 Brexit vote was a combination of working-class people getting revenge on it, and middle-class people doing so too because they hated the social liberalism and globalism they saw encapsulated in the figure of David Cameron.

In passing, Toscano mentions Thatcher associating muggers with Afro-Caribbeans. The latter still suffer from ‘stop and search’, disproportionate exclusion from schools and various other forms of state racism, but racism in Britain today is focused overwhelmingly on Islam and migrants, as is the small far-right, which in my lifetime has never been so peripheral. Why Britain is currently an exception in this in Western Europe is not something Toscano addresses. He quotes Stuart Hall’s writings on Thatcherism, but does not address what has changed in the intervening decades. My two teenage sons, living in London, speak a language heavily influenced by British Afro-Caribbean culture.

Changing shapes of the far right

The last far-right group to gain a degree of support was the English Defence League, which made a great show of having Afro-Caribbean members, and attempted to develop links to Sikh and Hindu groups. Leaving aside the hypocrisy in that, it fitted with their anti-Muslim agenda. As with much of the far right elsewhere, it was pro-Israel.

But the prominent racism today is that against Islam, and it’s clearly connected to anti-migrant racism, as can be seen by Vox in Spain and Fratelli d’Italia, with their narrative of a conquest of Europe by Islam. Just a month or so ago, I heard Benjamin Netanyahu claiming Israel was on the front line in Gaza in defending Judeo-European civilisation against Islamic barbarism. That ‘Clash of Civilisations’ narrative, so beloved by neo-cons twenty years ago, hasn’t gone away; it’s entered the mainstream of Western Society. When Melloni or Vox’s Santiago Abascal claim Europe is being taken over by Muslims, they are playing on those very fears, sustained by the constant wars we have lived through for four decades.

The current Rishi Sunak government in Britain reflects a ruling class which has no problem with social liberalism (except in regard to Islam and migrants) and is very internationalised (there is now a significant Anglo-Indian bourgeoise). That of course can fuel a far-right, racist reaction but, as I write, the refusal of the Sunak government, and Sir Keir Starmer of the opposition Labour Party, to call for a ceasefire in the Gaza war has brought huge numbers onto the streets, not seen since the Iraq invasion of twenty years ago, with large numbers of Muslims, but representing the multi-racial working class of today’s Britain.

The effect of neoliberalism in hollowing out the traditional labour movement creates a space for the far right, but it also creates volatility, resulting at times in mass mobilisation against particular effects of neoliberalism.

Rather than exploring this, however, much of Late Fascism is taken up with the psychology of fascism. Nazism used the idea of the Volk to give hope to atomised sections of society, the petty bourgeoisie and the unemployed. It offered a version of freedom in the sense that the SS man was free to use his whip or pistol on the Untermenschen.

Toscano devotes much of the book to examining the writings of Black radicals in the USA, insisting on their importance to an understanding of fascism today. Black radical writings from the USA do offer important perspectives, not least those of W.E.B Du Bois in explaining how the poor whites of the Southern States, whose living standards and conditions compared most closely to those of the ex-slaves, could gain a sense of pride from white supremacy.

Racism and imperialism

The discussion of racism takes place in the absence of a discussion of imperialism, yet any Marxist analysis of fascism needs to take that into account. Fascism was very much based in the horrors of European and American colonialism and imperialism. British fascism in the 1930s centred on support for King and Empire (all fascisms reflect their own nationalist traditions). The Nazi Party followed, in many ways, from popular right-wing, militaristic organisations created before the war, such as the Naval League and the Pan German League, and the German Fatherland Party, founded in September 1917 to support the maximum German war aims and in opposition to growing support for peace.

Pre-war Germany already had experience of the slaughtering of indigenous people in what is now Namibia. Then, the Nazi Party incorporated the Frei Korps who not only suppressed the 1919-20 German Revolution, but fought a racist war with Poles and Lithuanians in territories awarded to those two countries post-war.

Hitler was a huge admirer of the British Raj in India, frequently watching Hollywood’s The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, and drawing inspiration for his genocidal plans to settle swathes of the Soviet Union. Toscano does make the point that he drew a direct comparison between those plans and the eradication of the American indigenous people.

Italian fascism drew a great deal on the authoritarian nationalist Italian Nationalist Association, founded in 1910 in support of Italian expansion into the ‘lost territories’ of South Tyrol and Istria and in support of imperialist expansion; it enthusiastically supported the conquest of Libya in 1911-12.

Fascism would complete the conquest of Libya using chemical weapons, which it went on to employ on an even greater scale in its conquest of Ethiopia in 1935. This was justified on racist grounds and was the springboard for the regime’s turn to full blown anti-Semitism; a natural development and not something foisted on Mussolini by Hitler, as apologists for the Duce like to claim. Italian fascism had its own genocidal ambitions, as it would display in occupied Yugoslavia, but it simply did not have the means to emulate its German ally.

One thing which is missing in Late Fascism therefore is that we still live in an imperialist world and that forces us to take sides. Lenin with his critique of imperialism championed an anti-imperial vision of it, within the new Soviet Union and beyond, arguing about the need to ‘earn the trust of indigenous populations … [and to] prove that we are not imperialists’.

The Palestinians are facing a European settler state based on apartheid, financed and armed in part, by the USA. In countries like South Africa and Ireland that speaks to the experiences of suffering under similar conditions. I mentioned that today’s far right supports Israel. The left has to champion anti-imperialism in response to that, and in regard to the imperial adventures of the USA. That must sit with opposition to Islamophobia and support for a world without borders.

The problem, often, is when there is a debate on migration, the ‘pro-migration’ case is too often passed to neoliberals who boast the advantages of cheap labour. That encourages myths such as that migrants are taking ‘our’ jobs. We need an anti-racist, pro-humanity message that points out the West has created the wars, climate change, dictatorships and economic ravages from which these people are fleeing.

One person missing from Late Fascism is Leon Trotsky. I say this not because I insist anything I write has to mention him, but of all his writings, his analysis of fascism is the most incisive and groundbreaking, plus he offers a way to resist it. Toscano ends his book by warning against any repeat of the Stalinist pre-1939 Popular Front. The best critique of that was, precisely, Trotsky’s. Two supporters of the tradition represented by Trotsky, Daniel Guérin, author of Fascism and Big Business (1936), and Abraham Leon, author of The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation (1946), do make it into the book, but only into the footnotes, which does not do them justice.

The working class survives (though it’s not clear if Toscano would agree), it is the majority of the world’s population, including the great majority in developed countries, but it is no longer organised in the way it was in the 1960s and early 1970s. What existed then will not return in the same way, but it is vital not to lose sight of the centrality of class, and of organising the working class anew. There is a shocking lack of discussion on what today’s working class is, about the realities of how capitalism operates, of work and how organisation could be built. That is essential if we are to turn the situation around.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.