Capitalism is beset by a multi-sided crisis, writes Tom Baldwin, Socialist Party (England & Wales CWI). There are extreme weaknesses in the global economy, rapidly falling living standards and social and environmental crises. It is almost impossible to build stable political formations on these unstable foundations. As the status quo is incapable of offering any kind of prosperity to a majority then what has long been considered the ‘centre ground’ of politics is failing to hold.
We’ve seen the rise of parties and movements of the left such as those around Bernie Sanders in the US and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France. But where left forces have failed to offer an organised political alternative there has also been a rise of forces on the right, some of which have come to power, such as Donald Trump in the US, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy.
Many capitalist strategists are aware of the dwindling faith in the institutions of their system, including the social base of many political parties. As working-class struggle grows in many countries, and in anticipation of greater clashes to come, in many countries the capitalist classes have increased the strength of the state and authoritarian powers available to them.
As sections of the capitalist class look to the right and to authoritarianism to defend themselves, the workers’ movement needs to consider what forms this reaction is likely to take and how best to fight against it. That includes considering whether fascism could take power and, indeed, whether any of the right-wing governments around the world are themselves fascist.
The capitalist journal The Economist, recently carried an article claiming Putin’s regime in Russia represented a form of fascism. Similar claims have been made from various quarters about the likes of Donald Trump and Giorgia Meloni. Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), has described the Conservative government here as fascist.
All of these, and other right-wing political forces, have often been willing to take a page from the fascist playbook. They take an authoritarian approach: Jo Grady’s tweets about Tory ‘fascism’ related to the government’s draconian police, crime, sentencing and courts bill, which hugely restricts the right to protest.
They have deployed divisive politics like racism and homophobia: Trump used anti-Mexican rhetoric at many election rallies, and Putin implemented a law banning ‘gay propaganda’. Often they wrap themselves in patriotism, religion, or ‘traditional values’. They are defenders of capitalism but can make criticisms of elites to try and win popular support.
The populist-right and far-right take different forms around the world and do share these features with classical fascism. But these methods are also deployed to a greater or lesser extent by all shades of capitalist politicians.
US President Joe Biden, supposedly the liberal antidote to Trump’s right-wing authoritarianism, has brought in a 10% increase in federal funding for police. French President Emmanuel Macron drew much of his second-round support in the last two elections by not being the far-right Marine Le Pen. He has signed emergency powers into law, bulking up the power of the state.
In Britain’s EU referendum, the main Leave campaign promoted by the establishment was not that led by the RMT union, for example, which campaigned against the EU as a neo-liberal bosses’ club, but a collection of capitalist politicians with right-wing, anti-immigrant views. But the Remain side, representing the interests of the majority of the British capitalist class, and styling itself as more liberal, also appealed to some of the more reactionary views on immigration. It claimed, for example, that a vote to leave would mean migrant camps moving from Calais to Britain. Under the leadership of Ed Miliband, Labour famously branded mugs and even a giant monolith with the slogan ‘Controls on immigration’.
To take these features as a complete definition of fascism is to look only at a surface impression. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky made a far more scientific analysis, mostly writing about the rise of the Nazis in Germany. He described them as a mass movement of the middle layers, resulting from the capitalist crisis.
He wrote that “the chaotic post-war years [post-First World War] hit the craftsmen, shopkeepers and office workers no less than the working class. The agricultural crisis devastated the farmers. The pauperisation of the middle layers of society… devoured all belief in parliamentary democracy… [they] rose up against all old parties which had betrayed them. The deep frustrations of the small property owners… demanded the restoration of order with an iron fist.”
Fascism promised to defend this middle layer from threats from above and below; from the big corporations, on the one hand, which were squeezing out smaller proprietors, and from the working class and the prospect of socialist revolution, on the other hand, which they feared would confiscate their property.
The violence of the fascists, however, was primarily directed against the organisations of the working class, as well as all those they considered inferior.
Trotsky wrote that “fascism is not just a system of repression, acts of violence, police terror. Fascism is a particular form of state system, based on the extermination of the elements of workers’ democracy within capitalist society. The task of fascism is not just to smash the leadership of the workers’ movement, but to atomise the entire working class, and maintain it in this atomised state. To achieve this aim the physical extermination of the revolutionary layers of the working class is not enough. It aims to destroy all independent and voluntary workers’ organisations, to annihilate all its points of support, and to wipe out the political and physical structures.”
In order to achieve this, fascism did not just use the forces of the state, increasing the authority of the police and military. Prior to coming to power, it built a semi-mass movement, including detachments of street fighting thugs – the Brownshirts in the case of the Nazis and the Blackshirt ‘squadrisiti’ in Italy. These pursued a campaign of terror against the workers’ movement, breaking up meetings, and smashing up the offices and printing presses of unions and workers’ parties.
It is this force, and the social basis on which it rested, which are the hallmarks of fascism compared to other forms of reaction.
None of the various shades of right and far-right populists which are in power in parts of the world fully fit this description of fascism. They have not mobilised this kind of movement, and there is nowhere that a movement of this character is threatening to take power at this moment.
Even some parties with fascist roots have tried to distance themselves from this past and no longer have paramilitary forces. These include the National Rally (formerly National Front) of Marine Le Pen, who came second in this year’s presidential election in France, and the Brothers of Italy, which emerged from the fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI). The Economist, which decried Putin as ‘fascist’, said there was “good reason to believe” their leader Giorgia Meloni’s claim to have “handed fascism over to history”.
The current situation is certainly not identical to the one in which classical fascism came to power. In the advanced capitalist countries, its social base is no longer the same force that it was. The layer of small shopkeepers and producers has been decimated by monopolisation – the concentration of wealth in the biggest businesses.
Fascism was only able to succeed in Italy and Germany after repeated failed attempts by the working class to take power themselves over a period of years. Revolutionary movements had ebbed and were not so easily able to bring the middle layers of society behind them. But the capitalist class still felt threatened by the possibility of revolution, as embodied by the existence of the Soviet Union.
The Nazis could only come to power once significant sections of the big business class began to back and to bankroll them. Fascism was the last roll of the dice for them to protect capitalism. But that came at a great cost to the capitalists, who lost direct control of their state.
Having learnt these lessons, they would be very cautious about resorting to fascist rule again. They’ve also been uneasy about right populist, capitalist politicians from outside the mainstream political trends.
Things can change very fast in this unstable world and old certainties can quickly crumble. While there is no immediate threat of fascist rule, fascism is still something the working-class movement must have an understanding of and be vigilant against.
Even small fascistic forces still pose a danger and can potentially grow in number and confidence. The ruling class has been willing to use fascists as an auxiliaries to the forces of the state, in order to disrupt movements against them.
Donald Trump neither came to power nor governed as a fascist, but he clearly emboldened fascist groups in the US. In a debate in the 2020 presidential election he told the Proud Boys to stand down and stand by, adding “someone’s got to do something about anti-fa”.
In the January 6th events of last year, the Capitol building was entered by a rag-tag group of around 2,000 of Trump’s supporters, with organised and open fascists in their midst. This showed the growth in confidence, but also the limitations of fascist organisations in the US at the time. While not a mass movement, these groups are armed and clearly dangerous.
Saying that right-populist leaders in the mould of Trump could not be accurately described as fascist is not to ignore the threat they pose. Their divisive politics and anti-working class policies mean they must be countered. There is also the potential for the situation to get worse. The prospect was raised at one point of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro attempting to cling to power after the election there. That would have been potentially a far more serious threat than the farcical attempt by Trump supporters. It would have meant a military coup, primarily coming from within the existing state forces.
Using the word fascist as an insult or by-word for any right-wing or authoritarian politician is not useful, however. A clear analysis and accurate description of the nature of reaction and the right is important in understanding what the threat is and how to protect against it.
If it is a case of more authoritarian laws or attacks on things like abortion rights, then a movement which may include protests, strikes or direct action to make the laws unworkable might be enough to resist that.
If the threat we face is physical attacks on the working class and its organisations, then we need to be prepared to meet that with physical force and to defend ourselves. Even small fascist forces should be blocked when they attempt to rally, their attempts to build must be cut across from the outset. Counter-protests should be well stewarded to prevent the risk of attack.
If the workers’ movement was facing a situation which was heading towards a dictatorship then it would have to prepare in advance with an appeal to the rank-and-file of the armed forces. It would also need to arm workers and to create democratically organised workers’ militias for self-defence.
Trotsky, in ‘The struggle against fascism in Germany’, called for united fronts of the mass workers’ organisations against fascism. He was writing in the context of the threat of a fascist takeover, but that approach is still very useful.
It recognises the difference between fascists and other capitalist forces. But also, that even the most liberal capitalists are capitalists first and democrats second; that the working class cannot ally itself with the capitalists to defeat fascism which is a consequence of the crisis of the system they support.
The united front means an alliance of only the working class. The revolutionary left works with other trends within the workers’ movement to block the fascist right. However, at the same time, it maintains its political independence. It is summed up with the phrase ‘march separately but strike together’. In whatever guise the right exists today we need to confront them. In the case of fascist forces that can be both physical and political. But in every case, it means fighting to build a working-class political force – in most countries in the form of new mass workers’ parties – with a socialist programme that can provide an alternative, not only to the right but to the capitalist system that gives rise to it.