Luigi Hay reviews a very timely analysis of the origins of fascist thought and organisation which looks critically at different strategies adopted by the left to fight fascism.
David Renton, Fascism: History and Theory (London: Pluto Press, 2020) 192pp, £18.99
David Renton has updated and rewritten this book, originally published in 1999, at a time when the far right of politics seems in the ascendancy. Trump in the USA, Jair Bolosnaro in Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Narendra Modi in India hold the highest offices in some of the world’s most populous countries. In France, Marine Le Pen of the fascist Rassemblement National reached the final run off for the last Presidential election, while in the UK supporters of ‘Tommy Robinson’ were able to turn out significant numbers for Free Tommy demonstrations last year.
Fascism is very different from other reactionary political currents, and the consequences of fascists in office need no summarising here. It is important to understand what fascism is in order to effectively fight it, and to prevent fascist parties from coming to power again.
Renton focuses, understandably, on the Italian Fascist and German Nazi regimes when analysing the reality of these types of organisation, and he outlines the origins of early fascist ideas in a late 19th century rejection by some intellectuals of the Enlightenment. The fascist parties of the 1920s and 1930s, despite many superficial differences, all shared a core ideology centred around a virulent chauvinistic nationalism, very much excluding people on the grounds of ethnic or national origin or adherence to the ‘wrong’ religion, but also a hostility to the organised working class and independent trade unions, particularly against strikes.
At the same time fascism claims to stand up for the ‘small man’ against uppity workers and (rhetorically at least) the iniquities of big business. Renton looks at the core social base of fascist parties among small businessmen and shop keepers (lots of National Front candidates in the 1970s seemed to be greengrocers), with support amongst unemployed workers with little history of collective action, military veterans and people involved in crime. He is at pains to point out that the German and Italian parties did have some support amongst sections of the working class as well, but notes that although Mussolini’s party had 150,000 members in 1921, just 2% of these were women.
Renton focuses on the arguments put forward by the left when confronted with fascism and the consequences of their analysis. The newly formed Communist International (Comintern) had to wrestle with these issues from its inception in 1919.
Firstly he looks at the ‘left’ position which suggested that fascism was merely another form of capitalist rule, along with social democracy. The leader of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) Amadeo Bordiga was an early exponent of this view, but from 1928 onward it became the official Comintern position. This so-called ‘Third Period’ line chimed with an earlier argument that ‘fascism and social democracy are sides of a single instrument of capitalist dictatorship’ (p. 79), but took this further by refusing any common work with social democrats, while the German Nazis attacked workers’ organisations and the left.
In opposition to this was the ‘right’ analysis which suggested that fascism was something completely outside ‘normal’ capitalist politics, a mass party which has its own separate dynamic. According to this school the way to defeat fascism was to unite with everyone who was not a fascist, including ‘fair-minded’ capitalists, to prevent them gaining power. The Comintern’s reaction to the disaster of the Third Period line was to adopt the ‘Popular Front’ approach, rooted in this analysis, which essentially meant subordinating workers’ interests to maintain unity, although this may have had more to do with Stalin’s counter-revolutionary regime’s desire to make alliances with Western states against the threat from Germany. However, in reality where fascist parties came to power it was very much (big) business as usual with all the promises forgotten.
Renton proceeds to look at the more modern ideas of the New Consensus school which largely follows the ‘right’ theory while also arguing that fascism could only come to power where there was political or economic ‘underdevelopment’, which he points out has little basis in fact. Although Germany was only unified in 1871 and Italy in 1870 they had relatively well-developed parliamentary systems and Germany was the third-largest economy globally prior to World War One.
There was a third analysis which recognised that fascism was on the one hand a pro-capitalist movement, despite any rhetorical leftism, but which also had a mass base, and was able to grow where the workers’ movement had stalled as the post-war revolutionary wave subsided, leaving the Russian Revolution isolated, and the crisis of capitalism continued to wreck the lives of many ordinary people. Fascism draws from the same nationalist well as capitalism, and even social democracy, despite the protestations (by supporters of the ‘right’ theory) that it can only be seen as an extreme, aberrant version of capitalist rule. The German revolutionary Clara Zetkin is quoted as saying of fascism, ‘It offered a refuge for the politically homeless, for the socially uprooted, the destitute and the disillusioned’, as part of her attempt to develop a dialectical analysis of what fascism was and how to fight it.
The book also includes a most interesting look at resistance to fascism in power and how the regimes became increasingly radicalised in a right-wing direction over time, culminating in the Holocaust in industrial Germany, and the attitude of different historians to this catastrophe.
If we accept that fascism aims to build a mass party based on manipulating real grievances, then the appropriate strategy is to unite the working class as far as possible, working with leading figures in social democratic parties, to oppose the fascists while accepting that there will not be agreement on all other issues; at the same time this unity can be used to campaign over issues which affect workers (and other sections of society, as is the case with hospital closures, for example), while the fascists won’t lift a finger. It is also important that we make no concessions to right-wing parties (while accepting individual supporters) which subordinate workers’ interests. The fascist parties which came to power all made alliances with the conventional right to achieve their aims.
So is Trump a fascist? Despite appealing to white supremacists such as the ‘Proud Boys’, he doesn’t actually control them, so I would argue not. Modi’s BJP operates in tandem with the fascistic Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and has whipped up communal violence against India’s 170 million muslims, but has not obliterated all independent workers’ organisations; so, again, far-right but not fascist. The author’s recent book The New Authoritarians looks at the contemporary far right; readers can use that book to make their own decision, but for a good summary of the history and ideas of fascism the present volume is an excellent start.