Is Trump a fascist? What is fascism anyway? Chris Bambery takes a look
Fascism has never crept to power. While it did not come to power in Italy in 1923 or Germany in 1933 via revolution, both Mussolini and Hitler were appointed prime minister and chancellor, they were very open about what they were out to achieve. Before, and after, their thugs were on the streets attacking the left.
Drawing on what happened in Germany in 1933 when Hitler took power we can draw a blueprint what would fascism coming to power mean in a developed Western country like Britain mean?
First, within hours of Hitler taking office, his Stormtroopers unleashed a wave of terror against the radical left, arresting and beating Communists and throwing them in improvised concentration camps. They also unleashed a similar wave of violence against the Jewish population, an indication of the horror that was to come.
In today’s Britain that would probably mean immediately targeting the far left, Muslims and migrants.
Within a few months, the equivalent of the Labour Party was banned along with the trade unions. Shortly after all parties outside of the National Socialist movement were barred from functioning. Parliamentary democracy was abolished. Civil liberties scrapped.
All organisations independent of the state, like the Scouts or cultural associations, were scrapped. Every aspect of life had to be under state control.
Women were relegated to being mothers and excluded from various jobs.
In the UK of 2017 the Scottish Parliament, Welsh, Northern Ireland and London Assemblies would be abolished as well as directly elected mayors.
What is fascism?
When we talk about fascism we are talking about mass movements, autonomous from the existing state. The Italian fascists and German Nazis main support was among the middle classes but it included a section, fairly peripheral, of the ruling class, and, particularly in Germany, a section of the working class, mainly among the unemployed, who’d been so ground down they could be won over by racist and nationalist ideas and the promise Hitler would create work.
The attraction of fascism to the Italian and German ruling class was that it could deploy tens of thousands of thugs on the streets. In Italy fascism developed in the immediate wake of the 1919-20 revolutionary crisis, which the left let slip through their hands. Italian state forces had not been capable of suppressing that. As Mussolini’s squads began to attack the left and the unions support mushroomed among those who wanted revenge on the working class.
In Germany Hitler rose to prominence in a country devastated by the Great Recession, with mass unemployment, where the ruling and middle classes feared a repeat of the revolution of 1918 which brought down the Emperor and forced and end to the war. They also looked to recover territory lost to Germany by the post-war peace treaties. Added to that was their resentment of the state welfare measures adopted in 1918-1919 to buy off working class discontent.
Germany had the most powerful trade union movement in the world, the largest Social Democratic Party and the largest Communist Party outside Russia.
Hitler’s Stormtroopers looked like a blessing, a weapon to be used against the left.
Neither the Italian or German ruling classes wanted to give power to adventurers like Mussolini and Hitler. The Russian revolutionary, Trotsky, compared them to someone with toothache who does not want to go to the dentist but is finally driven there by the pain.
What was fascism in power about?
It was about the atomisation of the working class and wider society, the removal of civil liberties, a war drive and vicious racism which easily developed towards genocide – Italian fascism came later to this but made a smooth transition under its own steam and was genocidal, though less able to deliver on that compared to the Third Reich.
What were the conditions in which fascism came to power?
In Italy, it was the threat of revolution and in Germany, a deep economic crisis affecting not just the working class but the middle classes; who Trotsky describes as being driven mad, created intense political polarisation.
Middle-class voters deserted the conventional liberal and right wing parties and moved en masse to the Nazis. On the left, the Communists gathered support, mainly among the unemployed, but not on the same scale. Workers in work largely remained loyal to the Social Democrats.
In Italy, it was a more violent reaction with ex-officers and NCOs (often brutalised in the war), students and middle-class youth forming squads and going on the offensive against the unions and the left. The conventional and liberal parties lost support and, as in Germany, could not form a stable government.
Today, with the exception of Greece, no country is experiencing an economic and social crisis on a scale similar to the Great Repression. The recession which followed the 2008 financial crash was a hard one but it was not on the scale of the 1930s.
Neither is the ruling class anywhere globally currently in fear of imminent working class revolution? Nowhere is the ruling class suffering such pain that it forced to go to the dentist of fascism.
Neo-liberalism still prefers to rule through parties of the centre right or centre left and does not feel shackled by parliamentary democracy.
Contrast that with 1933 Germany. When the time came for them to parley with Hitler the head of Germany’s corporations and banks found they agreed on destroying the welfare measures put in place by the Weimar Republic, agreed on their hatred of the post-war constitution, shared a desire to expand Germany’s borders.
Nothing like that situation exists today.
That could change of course. One scenario might be that global warming could lead to an environmental breakdown forcing huge numbers to migrate northwards to North America or Europe. Others could be a recession greater than that of post-2008 or defeat in a war creating nationalist grievances on a mass scale.
Are the likes of Donald Trump or Nigel Farage fascists?
Since the Second World War fascism has existed under the dark shadow of Auschwitz. That necessitated it to drop the uniforms and jackboots of the inter-war years, to don suits and to prioritise electoral politics over street brawls. In Italy, the post-war MSI (Movimento Sociale Italiano) took some time to make that transition but by the 1980s had dropped much of its adulation of Mussolini and downgraded street violence. In the 1990s and 2000’s under Gianfranco Fini, now re-named the Alleanza Nazionale entered the coalition government led by Silvio Berlusconi, and moved further away from its fascist legacy. The party eventually split and Fini was sidelined but by then it could no longer be considered fascist.
The French Front National was formed from an alliance involving the fascist group Ordre Nouveau, veterans of the Algerian war of Independence who had never accepted France’s decision to accept defeat there and various right-wing groups. It too has taken to mainstream parliamentary politics but has not gone as far down the road away from fascism as its old Italian counterpart.
On the other hand, the last decade has seen the emergence of two “pure” fascist organisations, complete with street squads and openly anti-Semitic, Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary.
In comparison to these organisations, UKIP is scarcely a well-oiled machine, which was how the Nazi Party was described by Hitler. Farage's attempt to mobilise people on the streets have ended in farce rather than a coup d’etat.
Trump is scary but he is not proposing doing away with Presidential or federal elections or a full-scale assault on the working class, as did Hitler and Mussolini. Indeed he finds himself in conflict with other arms of the state: the judiciary and the FBI so far.
One of the major mistakes of the German Communist Party, following Stalin’s line from Moscow, was to dismiss the danger of Hitler coming to power would pose. “After Hitler us,” they told their members, arguing Hitler would not last long in the Chancellorship.
But this also reflected the fact that they labelled the three short-lived governments that preceded Hitler of being fascist, and they attacked the Social Democrats as “social fascists.” It seemed not only was everyone a fascist but Germany had gone fascist before Hitler had taken power.
This created confusion and demobilisation in the face of the Nazi threat.
Similarly, today if Donald Trump and Nigel Farage are labelled fascists by the left then not only should we take to the hills but it downplays the danger real fascist movements could pose: in countries like Hungary and Greece.
Marine le Pen has tried to move her party away from its fascist pedigree, but as with the Austrian Freedom Party, it has fascist roots. In that sense, they differ from Trump and Farage. Their election in France of Austria would not mean fascism taking power but it could help create the conditions for that.
But we are still a long way from that.
If fascism was a real threat in Britain what resistance might it meet?
Firstly, the trade union movement is nowhere near the size and confidence it had in the 1970s, the last period of working class insurgency. But it retains 6.5 million workers. Of course, there are no guarantees they would resist, the cowardice of the union officials in Germany meant they did not. But today’s unions are multiracial and anti-racist. It is hard to see them going quietly into the night.
Again there is no guarantee Labour’s leadership would resist, they did not in Germany, but they would be under intense pressure to do so.
The abolition of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh, Northern Ireland and London Assemblies would also create conditions for resistance. In Spain, in 1936 the Basque devolved parliament tried to negotiate with Franco but there was no possible deal with him. They had to join the republican resistance in the ensuing civil war. In Catalonia, the working class revolution which met the military uprising left the Catalan government with no choice but to fight.
If fascism was on the agenda south of the border it is hard to see Scotland not going independent, if it had not done so already. There would be huge grassroots pressure in Wales and London to resist.
And of course, there is the question that if people took to the streets over Trump’s Muslim ban how would they react to the threat of fascism coming to power? How might they react to Muslims being segregated and discriminated against?
Since the start of this century, we have seen people take to the streets on a scale not seen before. Simply demonstrating would not stop fascism but it could create the conditions to create self-defence forces, mass ones.
One argument might be that the working class has suffered such a crippling defeat since the 1980s it is not capable of fighting back. There is an element of truth to that but there are still groups of workers who do remain organised, and some, like London tube workers, have experience of battle. They cannot simply be written off.
It is also true neo-liberalism has gone a long way in hollowing out democracy and mass memberships of the main parties. But we’ve seen a huge influx of people into Labour since Corbyn became leader, similarly with the SNP. And it is hard to see the scrapping of parliamentary democracy going through on the nod.
None of this means we should not be opposing the far right and the fascists at every turn, nor can we bask in complacency.
The danger is we move from recognising a degree of polarisation – benefitting the right in the main, but also the radical left - to vastly inflating the immediate threat of the far right and fascism.
There is still everything to play for here.
Event: Revolution - Russia 1917: One Hundred Years on
25 Feb, Rich Mix London
With Tariq Ali, Paul Le Blanc, Lindsey German, Lucia Pradella and many more.
Storming heaven: the achievements of 1917Paul Le Blanc, August Nimtz, Lindsey German
Democracy and the RevolutionAugust Nimtz, Judy Cox
War, nationalism and revolutionMaria Nikolakaki, Chris Bambery, Alastair Stephens
Lenin and LeninismTariq Ali, Paul le Blanc, and Kate Connelly
Revolution in the 21 CenturyJohn Rees, Stathis Kouvelakis, Tamas Krausz, Lucia Pradella
August Nimtz is Professor in the Political Science department at University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Minneapolis. He is a leading thinker and writer on socialist strategy, race in the United States and politics in Africa as well as an internationally recognised expert on Marx.
Lucia Pradella is an activist and writer who has written two acclaimed books on Marx's Capital.
Paul Le Blanc is a world renowned writer on revolutionary history and the Russian revolution in particular. Currently Professor of History at La Roche College in Pittsburgh, since the 1960s he has been active in struggles for human rights and economic justice.
Lindsey German is a socialist activist and writer. As convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Tariq Ali is a socialist writer and broadcaster. A lifelong leader in anti-imperialist and socialist campaigns, he has been at the forefront of protests against war from Vietnam to the Middle East. His new book on Lenin is out in March.
Maria Nikolakaki is a Greek intellectual and activist. She is a founding member of the Cooperative Institute for Transnational Studies.
Tamasz Kraus is a well know radical intellectual in Hungary and on of the editors of Marxist journal Eszmélet, he published the award-winning Reconstructing Lenin: an intellectual biography in 2015.
Judy Cox is a lifelong socialist writer and speaker. Now a teacher in East London, Judy was on the editorial board of International Socialism and has written amongst other things on Marx’s theory of alienation, Rosa Luxemburg’s economic theory, William Blake and Robin Hood.
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.
More articles from this author
- Sails and Winds: A Cultural History of Valencia - book review
- Imperial calculations: why World War Two was declared 80 years ago today
- Westminster is broken, it's time for Scotland to quit
- Defending the Indefensible: the British Army in Northern Ireland, 1969
- Labour Country: Political Radicalism and Social Democracy in South Wales 1831-1985, and Stories of Solidarity - book review
- How we should remember D-Day
- Spanish election: the left win but society polarises