Kate Bradley considers the misogyny at the heart of fascism, and asks how we can better challenge it.
It is acknowledged that fascism is characterised by an ideological attachment to ethnic or national supremacy that often results in extreme racism. Whilst the subject of this racism may change, ethno-nationalism is a core tenet of fascism and so resisting it is rightly at the centre of our campaigning when we oppose the far-right. What we talk about less – and sometimes not at all – is that sexism and male supremacy also play a core role in fascist ideology. This article will aim to prove it, and then I will discuss the implications of these reflections for organising against fascism.
Fascism is sexism
A revolutionary socialist analysis of fascism sees it as the most extreme of the reactionary ideologies that seek to preserve the capitalist order against ‘progressive’ social forces – whether liberal, reformist or revolutionary. So it should be no surprise that fascist groups are sexist. Fascist groups tend to celebrate the nuclear family and demand women’s return to the home as a primary and recurrent demand. This is explicable when we consider that the family is the basic unit of the social reproduction of capitalism, and so its perpetuation safeguards the current system. For fascists, the ideal structure of society is a patriarchal hierarchy, a pyramid with God at the top, the monarch second, the male father-figure who leads the state third, the male boss fourth, and then below that the father, boss of the family. Women are subordinate to men at each level of the hierarchy. Disruptions to that order – such as female politicians, single mothers, equalities legislation – are felt by fascists as attacks on them and the natural order of society.
Far-right sexism is most obvious in its political form. When not attacking trade unionists, people of colour, Jewish people and Muslims, successive generations of fascist activists have spent their time facing down every significant legal and political advance for women’s rights of the last century. A scattergun history of European far-right governments’ opposition to women’s freedom includes: Italian fascists trying to force women back out of the workforce after World War I; incredible pressure for women to re-enter the home (and thus economic subordination) in Nazi Germany, alongside mass sterilisations of women of colour; General Franco in Spain denying women the right to open a bank account, apply for a passport or sign a contract without a husband’s permission; attacks on access to sex education and contraception by Poland’s ‘ultra-conservative‘ Law and Justice Party in the 2000s, or this year, the UK’s fascist unintelligentsia flocking to Ireland to oppose campaigns for women’s right to abortion. Imagine my surprise to see the alt-right media outlet The Rebel Media’s Caolan Robertson, friend of Tommy Robinson, on the front lines of campaigning against repealing the Eighth Amendment! Okay, it isn’t so surprising, but many anti-fascists did not see it coming, maybe because we haven’t really afforded attacks on women’s freedom their proper place in our understanding of fascism.
That’s the politics. But more disturbing, and perhaps more telling, is the sex. Sexual violence is an inherent and deep-rooted part of the far-right male psyche. German sociologist Klaus Theweleit pioneered research in this area in the 1970s. According to David Renton, author of several books on fascism, Theweleit analysed the memoirs of members of the Freikorps, the paramilitary precursors of the Nazis in the period after World War One, and showed how again and again, men who would go on to be leading figures in German fascism had had detailed fantasies about sexual violence against women. We should not be surprised that these fantasies go hand in hand with the idolisation of the mother-figure (as seen in the white nationalist Proud Boys’ tenet of ‘Veneration of the Housewife’), since all prescriptive definitions of womanhood are policed, in the far-right imagination, by the dominant sex. Women must be brought to heel if they ‘need’ disciplining, and this is something which can be achieved by male violence.
Sexual paranoia is a theme which runs through fascist political discourse up to the present day. The National Front of the 1970s showed particular fear of black men stealing their women, as Michael Billig discussed in his 1978 book Fascists. In the UK far-right over the last decade, key figures’ obsessive focus on Muslim grooming gangs, paedophiles and “rapefugees” inscribes white men as the protectors of women and children against supposedly dangerous foreigners. And yet the far-right has its own recent history full of examples of paedophilia, sexual abuse and domestic violence. For instance, current right-wing poster-boy Tommy Robinson, of English Defence League, Pegida UK and ‘Free Tommy’ fame, has a history of domestic violence. Despite his obsession with Muslim paedophiles, he has looked the other way on numerous occasions when his political associates turned out to be paedophiles themselves. Richard Price of the EDL and John Broomfield of Britain First were both found in possession of child pornography, whilst Kristopher Allan of the Scottish Defence League was convicted of sexual contact with a 13-year-old child, and yet there is no talk by Tommy of ‘white far-right grooming gangs’. In other words, the concern fascists show for the safety of vulnerable people is entirely cynical. Underlying these paranoiac fantasies about the sexual threat of the Other is the belief that British women and children should be abused, in the proper order of things, by British men.
We can see the same sexual paranoia appearing in the prevalence of the word “cuckolding” in far-right spaces online. In the alt-right, a largely digital mutation of fascism, the word cuck is a popular insult, since being sexually superseded is seen as the worst possible humiliation for a man. It means he is unable to master his female partner. Sometimes sexism from the far-right can come disguised as ‘protectiveness’ or chivalry against these foreign male intruders, but placing women on a pedestal soon turns to violence and aggression if they prove insubordinate or unhappy with their passive position.
The worst of the terrible women who evade the maiden-in-distress role are feminists, women who are seen by the far-right to be both frigid and slutty, devious and stupid, aggressive and weak. Nevertheless, right-wing men are perfectly happy to swoop in and attack women in their own ranks too. Last year, a group of alt-right women came out to complain that they face constant abuse from right-wing trolls online. One particularly facepalm-worthy comment came from Lauren Southern, a far-right video-maker, who complained that other alt-righters had turned on her for not yet settling down to have children after she had championed ‘family values’. Thus, she discovered the contradictions of her own side: while she enjoys enough freedom under liberalism to be an outspoken advocate for modern fascism, her male peers would deny her even that right if they had the power.
The alt-right is perhaps worthy of a closer look when it comes to sexism. It’s tempting to imagine that alt-right groups are more gender-equal than traditional fascist organisations since they have some loud spokeswomen. However, this is not the case, because sexism is such a crucial part of fascist ideology. In fact, lots of alt-right men are lured into white supremacy through their pre-existing misogynistic neuroses, as Aja Romano wrote for Vox earlier this year. Romano describes the “male bonding gone haywire” on online sites such as 4chan and parts of Reddit, where young men share their frustrations about women, vent their sexual entitlement, complain about feminism, and eventually get caught up in discussions of other hierarchies that need reasserting, including white supremacy and Western colonial power. These two discourses share an ancestor: a belief in a malformed evolutionary psychology that sees white men as the natural-born heirs of power. Though it is a new iteration of far-right ideology, it has all the same hallmarks as earlier fascism: biological determinism, hatred for the weak (‘cucks’), hatred for the left (‘snowflakes’), misogyny, and racism. Out of these spaces and blogs such as Return of Kings, many types of male violence are encouraged and fostered, from mass shootings of women to advocacy for the legalisation of rape. Simultaneously, these spaces produce the most overt arguments for white supremacy on the internet. The two are inextricable from one another.
Wherever fascism treads, it drags sexism with it.
Always anti-fascist, always anti-sexist?
Though anti-racism should be at the heart of anti-fascist campaigns, anti-fascism is not synonymous with anti-racism: the fight against fascism runs deeper than that. The left frequently identifies a second pillar of fascism which needs to be opposed: fascists attacking and undermining working-class self-organisation and trade union activity. Nevertheless, anti-sexism remains a neglected topic in the anti-fascist movement. We need to counter the sexist core of fascism by widening our anti-fascism to more thoroughly include anti-sexism. I’m going to suggest some remedies as a starting point.
Firstly, when we talk about fascism, we should always try to talk about racism and sexism. When we write leaflets, posters, reports and books about fascism, we should always ask: what are the far-right saying about women, about ‘feminine’ men, about sex and their entitlement to it? How crucial is their misogyny to whatever it is they’re protesting? Who do they blame for their marginalisation or struggle – is it left-wingers, women, feminists, people of colour, LGBTQ people, Muslims or all of the above? How are young men drawn into their milieu, and could anti-sexist arguments and understanding have dissuaded them? It’s time to shine a forensic light on their beliefs and show up the sexism that’s always been hiding there in plain view. This may well lead to new and creative ways to oppose them.
Secondly, we have to stamp out sexism in the groups which fight fascism – and stamp it out completely. At the moment, I believe sexism is worse in anti-fascist groups than the rest of the left, largely because it attracts the left’s more traditionally masculinist men due to the confrontational nature of much of its activity. As it stands, many anti-fascist groups put off women from even supporting them due to unpleasant personal and political experiences with their leading men. Groups and unions promoting anti-fascist activity too often refuse to deal with instances of sexual violence or coercion when it’s their comrades who have been accused, and (maybe as a result) their small membership often mirrors the social demographic of the fascists themselves – very white and very male. We cannot have an anti-fascist movement with a wide base if that base is limited to 50 per cent of the population.
When women join the anti-fascist movement, or even just turn up to a demo or event, we should welcome them and support them. If they face gender-related difficulties with their male comrades (e.g. being talked over, patronised, sidelined or sexually objectified and exploited), we should listen and take action to rectify the problems they have identified, or they will leave and take their friends with them.
Moreover, whenever we utilise the ‘diverse’ part of our ‘diversity of tactics’, we should be working all the time to empower women to be part of the action, at the front of the demo, not just celebrating those few women who already have self-defence as part of their repertoire (however amazing those women are!). This may involve teaching self-defence, street tactics, and emboldening and supporting women when they do choose to stand arm-in-arm with men defending against fascist street forces. If inclusion of angry and forthright women nevertheless leads to a reduction in a group’s usage of super-confrontational black-bloc or ‘scuffle’ tactics, then that’s not something to be mourned; it might tell us why the tactics kept appearing in the first place.
In addition to teaching women new skills, we should value the existing ‘women’s work’ that so often goes into protests and anti-fascist campaigning. So often, women are involved with organising meetings, promoting demos, answering messages, coordinating fundraisers, and so on. This work is almost always seen as less prestigious and valuable than the work of walking at the front of the march holding the flags. Again, depressingly, this echoes fascist gender roles: women back their men up, but they are seen as fundamentally less important. Given we can’t really measure the outcomes of our diverse approaches, who is to say that the poster campaign and the anti-racist festival aren’t as effective as the yelling match at the demo?
When you start considering fascists’ worship of dominant masculinity, some militant anti-fascist tactics start to look a little like fighting fire with fire. This is not intended to condemn confrontational tactics outright, since they definitely have their uses, especially when they work to block fascists’ marches and deter far-right activists from organising; they are also very useful when women and people of colour are involved and feel empowered by them to defend themselves more confidently in future. However, they aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution to fascism, and they often feed the fascists’ own masculinist view of the world as a playground of power in which the best fighter wins.
We have to envision a culture of anti-fascism which doesn’t look solely like a handful of angry men going at each other in the street – we want a proper social movement, and that has to involve a diverse and growing group of activists.
In 2017, I remember turning up to counter-protest the Racial Volunteer Force (yes, you read that right) at Royal Holloway University amongst a crowd of students that vastly outnumbered the fascists – an anti-fascist crowd which was at least half young women. Fascist ‘intellectual’ Jez Turner shouted at us: “You should all be in the kitchen!” The joke was tragically unfunny, because it showed that Turner’s view of gender roles was miserably outdated, a tired cliché. But it also brought into focus that the women who were out demonstrating were capable of doing exactly what he feared: we were facing him down on our terms, standing resolutely in his way. We laughed at his joke, but not for the reason he wanted.
Seeing anti-fascism and anti-sexism as part of the same fight could link up activists and campaigners who have previously felt that their struggles were unconnected, creating more heartwarming moments like Jez Turner’s epic fail of a joke. Showing how the far-right feeds off and amplifies sexism will draw women into anti-fascist resistance in a much more organic way. The inclusion of more feminist anti-fascists might also usher in some much-needed change to the anti-fascist movement itself.