What is fascism and how do we fight it today?
Michael Nassen Smith | Amandla! 63 | April/May 2019
Not since the 1930s has the word “fascism” loomed so large over our political horizon. The term has been trotted out by liberals and socialists to refer to a range of modern political figures including Trump, Bolsonaro, Salvini, Orban and Modi. In South Africa, several political formations, including the EFF and BLF, have been called “fascist” or “pseudo-fascist” or “proto-fascist” by the liberal mainstream and socialist left alike. Fascism seems to be everywhere.
But what exactly is fascism and why is it such a threat to contemporary political life?
Fascism is commonly associated with a number of repulsive political features: authoritarianism, patriarchy and extreme nationalism based on ethnicity or race. These combine with nostalgia for a mythologised past. Fascism is suspicious of rationality and but celebrates will, instinct, violence, spectacle and raw emotion.
But it is clear that not all patriarchs are fascists. Neither can we say that racial nationalism is inherently fascist. A dictatorship need not be fascist in character, as the left wing totalitarian governments of the 20th century illustrate.
So what, after all, makes fascism fascism?
Fascism then and now: mass politics in time of crisis
Fascism is a modern political tendency that emerges in distinct social conditions of economic and political crisis. European 20th century fascism emerged first in Italy after the devastation of World War 1, and again in Germany in the aftermath of the Great Depression in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Fascism feeds off the material and psychological anxiety that ordinary people feel in times of social decay. It preys on a natural instinct to find both a cause and remedy for suffering. It exists where there is no principled left-wing movement with strong links to the working class and dispossessed. It proposes conspiratorial theories about an insidious “outsider” (racial, ethnic, religious or otherwise – even big business) that has infiltrated and corrupted local society. It calls for the expulsion of this element, mobilising all the regressive potentials of human psychology – unchecked emotion, hero-worship, fear, aggression – in order to acquire power.
One of the central features, therefore, of fascism is that it is a mass movement. While its politics in power serves the elite, its political energy during its rise to power comes from the petty bourgeoisie and not from the aristocracy, monarchy or big capital. This was the case in both Italian and German fascism.
Crucially, in its infancy, fascism has no qualms about using socialist rhetoric. It does so to get mass appeal and to swell its ranks with members of the working class. In Germany, the fascists attacked big business which, for them, was dominated by Jews. So it is possible to be a fascist and demand nationalisation, even socialism. Indeed, we should never forget that the Nazis were officially National Socialists.
But after fascism comes to power it robs the working class of agency and annihilates its independence. Fascism, in keeping with its class roots in the petit bourgeoisie, moves from an energetic and mass movement to a bureaucratic machine. It is more than willing to accommodate big capital – as long as it is of the right national character – in a corporatist and authoritarian state.
Today, neoliberalism is suffering under the combined weight of the global financial crisis of 2008 and significant political upheavals that have taken place in recent years. Our contemporary era holds many disturbing parallels with the late 1920s and early 1930s. We are witnessing an alarming rise of right-wing nationalism, in response to growing inequality and unemployment across the globe. This rise has been accompanied by an ostensibly anti-establishment attack on “globalists” and veiled (and not so veiled) anti-Semitic conspiracy theories concerning rich Jewish capitalists (George Soros in particular). It cannot be said that Trump holds a coherent politics, but his backers and supporters have clear white supremacist and neo-fascist affiliations or sympathies. In the Global South, two of the globe’s larger democracies, India and Brazil, have recently succumbed to a militant right-wing politics.
What is more alarming is the global ambition of the resurgent right-wing. Matteo Salvini, Italian Deputy Prime Minister, has made it his goal to reform the EU in keeping with his narrow nationalist anti-immigration politics. He is supported by Marine le Pen in France and Viktor Orban in Hungary. Steve Bannon’s trips across Europe and Bolsonaro’s upcoming meetings with the Trump White House, must also be seen as part of a growing effort to unite the right in a new anti-liberal, anti-democratic (needless to say anti-socialist) and imperialist project.
The urgency to fight fascism
The left was not strong enough to defeat fascism before it came into power in Italy and Germany in the last century. Much of this had to do with the Communist International’s (Comintern) theory of “social fascism”, which made no distinction between capitalist social democracy and the fascist movements of the time. Under the direction of the Comintern, the communists were told not to confront the fascists as a distinct and dangerous political force in their own right. This direction proved disastrous.
Theory, therefore, matters. And as we confront the global surge in right wing politics, we need to develop a program based on clear thinking that draws on past lessons.
Fighting the potential of a new fascism requires that we attend to the worst consequences of economic crisis. There are many projects worthy of our energies including an attack on austerity, the effort to secure ecological justice, redistribution to confront obscene inequality and the fight for decent well paid jobs.
Yet to win the economic and social victories needed to fight contemporary threats requires the building of local and global anti-fascist progressive movements. Those movements will need to pursue concrete economic reform whilst also combating the ideological and social features that fascism plays on, including authoritarianism and hero-worship, racialism and nativism, conspiracy, hyper-masculinity and patriarchy, and the celebration of force and aggression over reason, both within and outside left-wing politics.
Anti-fascist politics in the Global South
The first wave of anti-colonial resistance in the Third World was a continuation of the struggle against fascism in Europe in the 1940s. It expanded and extended the anti-racism and anti-imperialism that underpinned left-wing anti-fascist politics.
Fascism emerged as a consequence of a failed revolution in the West. In the same way, former colonial countries are potential victims of right-wing degeneration in the context of a failed or halted decolonisation project. No one was more insightful and prescient than Franz Fanon in advancing this point.
In South Africa today, the hopes of the liberation movement have been stunted in the post-transition, neoliberal turn. We are experiencing high levels of inequality and unemployment in a state plagued with corruption and incapacity. In this context, Fanon’s warning remains decidedly relevant.
South Africa’s political and social history makes us acutely vulnerable to the degeneration outlined by Fanon. We have failed to confront and contest racial categories inherited from our colonial and apartheid past. Indeed, in recent years we have seen the emergence of militant, narrow nationalism, whether Africanist or coloured, not to speak of the ever-present threat of white nationalism. This has risen at the same time as our continuous problems of xenophobia.
It is time to reformulate a militant and radical non-racialism. It must be willing to take on persistent racial injustice and inequality, but not succumb to racialism or narrow nationalism.
South Africans should also be alert to the mass character of fascist politics and the history that has gone before us. Socialist rhetoric is not to be taken at face value. Militancy should not be confused with progressive radicalism and neither should “nationalisation” and other radical slogans be immediately associated with left-wing politics
This vigilance should extend to our praxis – how we live our theory. In our organising and in our relationships we should be aware of authoritarianism, of creeping narrow nationalism and racialism, of patriarchy and celebration of force over democratic debate and solidarity.
A rallying call: for Universalism and Internationalism
Let me end with a rallying call.
The current crisis in neoliberal capitalism presents a threat to us all. Contemporary forms of fascism are emerging as a distinct form of a potential future politics, both globally and nationally.
In order to confront fascism, we need to do more than attend to economic crisis. We also need to reaffirm a commitment to democracy, to left-wing internationalism, to humanism and a socialist cosmopolitanism. We need to fashion a universalist politics that centers the specific struggles of anti-racism, feminism, anti-homophobia, environmentalism and other forms of politics, fighting for those who are most directly impacted by the crisis in neoliberal capitalism and the rise of right-wing chauvinist nationalisms.
If fascism comes into power then it will be the left that shoulders the brunt of the blame, as it did in the 1920s and 1930s. Let us not allow it to happen again.
Michael Nassen Smith is the Deputy Director of the Institute for African Alternatives (IFAA).