Sometimes distinctions between conservatives, right-wing populists and fascists are easy to make. But increasingly often, argues Dave Renton, there is some overlap – and we have to understand today’s right wing on its own terms, not by assuming it fits the categories of the past.
One theme of the last twelve months has been the convergence of people and groups emanating from a conservative or a fascist starting point which, despite their different origins, have been working together since Brexit.
Not all European parties of a fascist origin have converged at this point. There is no sign of Jobbik or Golden Dawn giving up their private armies. Equally, most conservative parties have not become far-right parties. Theresa May is no more comfortable in the presence of Donald Trump than she is with a class of Liverpool schoolchildren. That said, even where conservatives haven’t followed Trump closely, you can see his pull on them.
Here are some examples of this convergence. In the aftermath of Brexit, Marine Le Pen tweeted that it would be “great news for the English.” Donald Trump hailed it as a “great victory” against the “global elite.”
On Trump’s victory, Trump met with Nigel Farage – embarrassing Theresa May, whom Trump hadn’t yet even phoned. Farage was photographed in Trump’s golden elevator and told journalists that Brexit and Trump had both been “counter-revolution” elections.
In the build up to the French Presidential election, Breitbart – the website until recently owned by a company where Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, was Executive Chair – ran daily articles calling for a Le Pen victory. Trump himself declared her the strongest candidate, to all intents and purposes endorsing her.
In France, Le Pen was endorsed by Nicholas Dupont-Aignan, a Gaullist (that is, conservative) candidate who secured 5% in the first round. She reciprocated by saying that if she won he would serve as her Prime Minister. Parts of the right were plainly willing to serve under her.
Moreover, beneath these arrangements of mutual congratulation and boostering, there has been a process of ideological convergence, marked on the one hand by Trump’s appointment of Bannon, and on the other by the complaints about Le Pen from within the Front National. For example, her father, Jean-Marie, who was always her most important financial backer, criticised Marine Le Pen. In particular, he said, she had overemphasised Frexit. She should have modelled her campaign much more on the old-style campaigns which the Front had run in the past, campaigns like his.
The conservatives who have chosen this path are looking more authoritarian, the fascists are looking more like ordinary conservatives.
How can we think analytically about this convergence?
Are they populists?
The most common way in which the press deals with the likes of Trump, Le Pen or Farage is by characterising them as populists.
When you first hear the term the initial response is to find it shallow. These are politicians standing for election. They want people to vote for them and they make promises to people. This not a surprising dynamic. It does not deserve its own “ism.”
There is a second meaning of populist though which is useful, to a limited extent. In this formulation, the populism of Trump and the others is paradoxical. A populist is someone who says that the whole people supports them. But, no politician in history has ever been universally popular. A populist is, therefore, someone who deals badly with the issue of dissent. Because they are by their own definition popular therefore any protesters are somehow outside the category of “the people” and since they are not fully human they are entitled to be repressed. Populists in other words are suspicious, vulnerable to conspiracy theory and authoritarian.
In an American context, in particular, there has been a history of racialised populism going back to the nineteenth century. The Trump of the Muslim bans and the Mexican wall can be located within that tradition.
But populism is a always an awkward term for the left because like the word “totalitarian” in a different era it makes no distinction between rulers of left and right, military and non-military rulers, people who are rapidly becoming more authoritarian and others who move in that direction but more slowly.
Are they fascists?
The next common approach on the left is to call Trump and Le Pen fascists. I dislike this approach essentially for three reasons:
First, it seems to reflect a kind of Marxism in which the first impulse on encountering something new is to assume that it has the same logic as the movements of the past. The present conjuncture, in which we have a non-conservative President of the US, is shocking and different enough to be plainly “new” and if you begin by forcing it to follow the patterns of the past you will probably misunderstand it.
Second, whether the term is accurate or not, the fascism of the 1920s emerged from a different crisis. There was an economic crisis then and there is one now – in both epochs the far right put forward a programme of economic nationalism (military spending and a willingness to return to tariffs after a previous epoch of free trade) – to that extent, there is a similarity. But fascism was also the product of a revolution, the Russian revolution of 1917, and it emerged in a world in which the revolutionary left was a main player. That couldn’t be said today – the weakness of the left places limits on the quote I used earlier from Farage about the far right being counter-revolutionaries. What revolution are they against? Further, fascism emerged after war. At the end of the First World War there were hundreds of thousands of soldiers who were young, angry and still armed. Fascism rejected the state’s monopoly of violence and was able to mobilise tens of thousands of armed people in militia loyal to a fascist party. We face a different threat.
Third, the terms strikes me as inaccurate in that it conceals what is really going on: elements of the conservative right and people with fascist origins are meeting. The balance of forces varies from country to country, but they are converging at an actual point which is between the two traditions.
A knowledge of the history of fascism can help to understand the far-right today, so long as people understand that the far-right of today is not fascist. At most, what is being used is an analogy to explain something new.
One thing that the history of fascism reminds us is that when new political traditions emerge they do not do so fully-born. Both Italian and German fascism made early declarations of what their principles were, in both cases those declarations were later disowned. Fascism began with an identification of a political opportunity, the justifications came letter. The new authoritarianism of the right shares this aspect.
Another lesson that the history of fascism reminds us of is that politics doesn’t always direct itself to the centre. On the left, we are more than familiar with the way in which the pre-1914 socialist parties began by promising revolution but made peace with capitalism. Something similar happened with western Communists in the 1960s and 1970s.
Even in the US, there has been an echo of this process in the contrast between the high hopes that people had in Barack Obama’s presidency and its failure to offer anything economically to most voters.
Fascism is that rare phenomenon, a right-wing party which became more radical in power. It was able to do so in part because of the depth of the economic and social crisis.
Fascism also became more extreme in part because of a process of international competition between fascist parties. So Mussolini had his March on Rome, after which Hitler had to copy him. Mussolini’s Italy became a sub-imperial power with hegemony over Austria and then Spain. At every stage, Hitler copied and went further than him. It’s not exaggerating to say that something like the same process has been operating, at a much lower level, over the past year with Brexit leading to Trump, albeit thankfully not Le Pen.
Further, at the heart of the fascist dynamic was a certain kind of relationship between goals and process. Fascism saw its purpose as being to achieve a class peace based on the victory of capital over labour and the removal of all the organisations and the people that would get in the way of its success: the socialists, the unions, and the Communists (who, it claimed were an interchangeable category indistinguishable from “the Jews”).
The far right today
The present day far right is united by a sense of opportunity rather than by a shared goal. If it has an enemy it is more in the form of the shared social liberalism of most activists in the US and Europe, rather than socialism or communism. It picks up ideas from the past: so around Trump and his supporters there has been a certain turn back towards antisemitism, an ideology which enables the far right to kick up as well as down.
Fascism had a dual relationship to the working class. It arose in societies with large working class majorities. To defeat the huge socialist parties of the day it had to mobilise workers. Because it couldn’t offer them social transformation, it set off on a journey which led to war and genocide.
Sometimes with the far-right today – because it is a shadow of the right of past generations – you see a hint of a similar dynamic of mobilising the people against the left. And to that extent the far right is vulnerable in the same way that the fascists once were: to a left which succeeds at our main task of organising workers.
There are forces behind the far right which are profound enough so that they will not be satisfied by conventional politics. Moreover, for the time being this synthesis of conservatism and fascism is stable: it seems that we will be facing an enemy of this sort for years to come.
This article is based on Dave’s presentation at “The Centre Hasn’t Held: the Global Rise of the Far Right”, an rs21 meeting in London on 25 May, including talks by Dave Renton and Jairus Banaji.