What is fascism?

First published in rs21 magazine’s Autumn edition, Dave Renton delineates the types of extreme right movement and highlights the dangers of its newest form.

Britain First fascists on a demonstration through Dudley, 2015

Forty years ago the American leftist Susan Sontag wrote a piece, ‘Fascinating Fascism’. She was talking about the way in which decades after Hitler’s death a distinctive fascist look, a pornography of violence, kept on reappearing. Few people have been more fascinated by fascism than the activists of the far-right, who are torn between the knowledge that fascism is a hated philosophy and the difficulty of creating a unifying replacement for it. Their desire and their inability could both be seen in the summer at Charlottesville. For years, the press has been talking about the novelty of the American “alt-right”, its roots in new social milieux (gamer culture), its ability through websites such as Breitbart to influence the mainstream. But the moment the alt-right took to the streets, its novelty disappeared and we were left with people chanting ‘Hail Trump’, ‘Jews will not replace us,’ and carrying on their shields images of the rods (fasces) which gave fascism its name.

The Marxist definition of fascism can be summarised in a short phrase: fascism is a specific form of reactionary mass movement. The form is important but not decisive. The fascists of the 1930s believed in single rulers and party states and advocated anti-black racism, antisemitism, sexism, etc. These surface aspects recur. But they are not the heart of fascism. More important is its reactionary ambition. Fascism shared with the left a sense of historical change, that since the advent of social democracy the capitalist state had been reformed in a certain compromise between left and right, the expression of which was the welfare state. The fascists knew all this and determined to put history in reverse, to end welfare, to destroy the reformist parties and the trade unions which had won the workers these gains.

Today’s far right accepts the reactionary label, although the social transformation it pits itself against is also the one in our own time – the gains of social liberalism since the 1960s. Fascism, unlike Conservatism, is a mass politics. It needs control of the streets. It exults in the relationship between a dynamic leader and a tame crowd. The joining together of a mass movement with reactionary politics provides fascism with the means to grasp historical opportunities that are closed to other, more sedate rightwing politics. But it is also fascism’s great weakness, because even in its moments of rapid advance fascism relies on the mobilisation of thousands and then millions of people – who have no real interest in a future in which they too would be slaves.

Of course, the American right today isn’t fascist, not in the sense I’ve outlined. The far right is too small for its stunts to be characterisable as mass politics. And its patron Trump is opening the door to fascism. He is not a fascist himself. But for the left these are anxious times. A movement we hoped we’d defeated forever is stirring. Each time it does, its full return comes a little closer.


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