As fascist organisation grows across Europe, assisted by the populist right, our history of struggle directs us to a path of united resistance led by socialist ideas, argues John Westmoreland
The rise of right-wing populist parties and movements across Europe is providing cover for fascist groups to organise, presenting themselves as an alternative to the crisis created by neoliberal capitalism. Workers are being encouraged to see other workers as the real threat, and to believe that elite figures who claim to stand against the elite offer a way out of the mess. The likes of billionaire Trump and banking spiv Farage are championed by sections of the media as speaking up for working class people.
Workers are patronised by the dog-whistle politics of the elites. Say ‘jobs’ and they are supposed to salivate, say ‘immigrants’ and they growl. Everything is presented through the lens of a simple jobs-versus-immigrants narrative.
This is the context for the growth of fascist parties. If scapegoating immigrants doesn’t work, or if Jeremy Corbyn poses a serious threat to the power of the one percent, elements of the ruling class could encourage fascists to cause mayhem and use the chaos to impose authoritarian rule.
What is fascism?
The aim of fascism is to smash the organised working class. When working class anger spills on to the streets and parliament is no longer seen as an adequate agency for change, then the one percent look to street fighters who will smash socialist and trade union organisation, smother hope and demand submission.
Fascism is capitalism without a democratic mask. They take the main ideological prop of class rule – nationalism – to its barbaric conclusions. In Germany the Nazis’ idea of national perfection was brought about through a mixture of terror and persuasion. Their prejudices became the law. Women were told their duty was to have racially pure babies. Boys were nurtured as soldiers that embodied the idea of submission to the leader and hatred of others.
Those that did not fit in were wiped out. People with learning disabilities, LGBT people, Gypsies, Communists and above all Jews were to be annihilated. Fascism is a war on compassion and solidarity, a denial of a common humanity, and the glorification of racial victory.
Hitler came to power by being an effective tool of the ruling class. Big capitalists like Fritz Thyssen, the steel magnate, bankrolled the Nazis. For committing treason in the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch (an armed insurrection against the Weimar government) Hitler served just nine months in a prison that resembled a luxury hotel, and where he dictated his rambling, racist manifesto, Mein Kampf. His racist criminality was normalised.
Fascists come to power through terror. Hitler knew that his thugs would march, protected by the police. The Nazis made street marching a war against socialism. Marching bands, Nazi songs, torch light parades were taken to the heart of working class towns and cities.
Every march was a festival of reaction. It had the effect of transforming the petit bourgeoisie who lacked any social weight of their own into a fighting force. As Hitler contemptuously put it:
Mass demonstrations burn into the little man’s soul the conviction that though a little worm he is part of a great dragon.
Fascism has to be stopped before it has the strength to dominate the streets.
Stopping the fascists
If the aim of fascism is to smash the organised working class, then the organised working class is the means by which fascism is crushed. We have the benefit of over a century of resistance to fascism. We know what works and what doesn’t.
Germany in the inter-war years has to be our starting point. The failure of the left led to the midnight of the century. The German working class had brought down the Kaiser at the end of World War One, stopped a counter revolution in 1920, and remained loyal to the parties of the left throughout Hitler’s rise.
It was the leaderships of the left parties – the SPD (German Labour Party) and the KPD (German Communist Party) – that let Hitler triumph. Leon Trotsky pleaded for the KPD to forge a united front with the SPD. Trotsky warned that a fascist victory in Germany would spell disaster for both parties. He argued that the petty sectarianism of the two parties would see them defeated separately.
Trotsky advocated a united front to defeat the Nazis - differences should be set aside until the Nazi menace was crushed. Trotsky’s advice was ignored. Together, even on the eve of Hitler becoming Chancellor, they outnumbered the Nazis. An appeal to the working class in the name of both parties would have stood a very good chance of seeing off the Nazis. Sadly, the two parties would only come together in the concentration camps.
The KPD thought that they could outfight the Nazis on their own. This proved to be disastrous. The state and the ruling class feared and loathed the Soviet Union. When Hitler talked of the need to crush the Communists the ruling class enabled him to do it.
The SPD fought shy of confronting the Nazis head on, because they argued Hitler was legally elected and appointed. When he came to power in 1933, he immediately changed the constitution with the blessing of the ruling class, and started to murder his opponents.
We have to remember these lessons today. If the left pursued a tactic of forming small squads of fighters to attack selected Nazis, not only would many face prison, but the Nazis’ core message that the left is an enemy that needs crushing would be reflected in the press and parliament. The state would gain extra powers against the left.
A more common mistake that survives the SPD in the 1930s is to see fascism as objectionable, but valid. Some people have advocated defeating the fascists through debate and giving them a platform. It fails to acknowledge the consequences of giving fascism a hearing: it normalises barbarity and gives fascists more confidence to attack. Normalising fascism through liberal debate sees an increase in physical attacks on the fascists’ targets.
The Anti-Nazi League – a broad coalition
In the 1970s fascism was, for the first time since the end of the war, a serious threat in the UK. In 1977 the National Front stood candidates in 85 of the 92 seats in the Greater London Council elections, got 119,063 votes and drove the Liberals into fourth place.
A few months later the NF called a Hitler style march in Lewisham. The context was a crackdown on ‘black crime’ in the area. The police had launched Operation 39 PNH (which stood for ‘Police Nigger Hunt’) and the NF expected (and got) police protection for the march. Socialists united with black youth to oppose the march which the Labour Home Secretary had refused to ban, despite a request from the TUC.
On the day the fascists were routed. Despite massive police protection anti-fascists broke through police lines and attacked the Nazis. It hugely demoralised the fascists but was roundly criticised by the Labour Party leadership. Michael Foot, the left-wing Labour MP said:
You don’t stop Nazis by throwing bottles or bashing the police. The most ineffective way of fighting the fascists is to behave like them.
Of course the ‘effective’ way of fighting the fascists never came from the Labour leadership. The launch of the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) was the answer.
The ANL was set up on the basis of uniting all those who were the sworn enemies of fascism – the trade unions, ethnic minorities, LGBT people and campaigners. It followed the advice of Trotsky in the 1930s by setting aside differences and uniting for the sole purpose of smashing the fascists. The ANL put thousands onto the streets to confront the Nazis, and helped organise two huge Rock Against Racism festivals that won many young people to political activity for the first time.
Today this means calling trade unionists and campaigning groups together at a national and local level, to organise against the far right and fascist threat. We need to expose the connection between the right wing populists and their fascist progeny, and fight them on both fronts.
The connections are clear. Steve Bannon, Trump’s right hand man in his Presidential election campaign wants to organise the right across the western world as a whole. He met with Boris Johnson in London and Marine Le Pen in France. He defends white supremacists in America and supports Tommy Robinson here.
This can help us to mobilise working class people to fight fascism. It requires calling out the fascists for what they are. Tommy Robinson and his street thugs are not patriots defending the country. They are the foot soldiers for the one percent. Far from fulfilling their claim to “take our country back”, they would hand it over to corporations lock, stock and barrel. Furthermore, Bannon’s aim is to lock the European right into supporting the extreme Republican agenda Trump is leading.
The role of socialists
The rise of populist right wing parties and fascism comes directly from the crisis in the system. The crisis is hitting workers and small producers across the planet. Liberal democracy is increasingly exposed as serving corporate interests and standing by as life gets worse for the many. The two favourite channels that governments use to prop up their support – racism and war – are increasingly understood as just that.
The crisis we are in is heralding massive changes as states become increasingly dysfunctional and a new politics has to be found. The job of socialists is not only to organise the broad movement we need to see off the fascists, but also to offer people an analysis of the crisis, and point to a way out of it. The massive anti-Trump demonstration on 13th July was a great start.
John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.