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Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Let’s Get Clear About Fascism



“Fascist” and “Fascism” are frequently used words today that are both popular and slippery. The prevalence of the words in common parlance is indisputable, but regrettable for three reasons:

●There is no common, shared, ordinary meaning of “fascism.”

●“Fascist” has often become merely an epithet, a term of abuse.

●The use of the expressions has disengaged from their specific history and context.

Today, commentators, both left and right, excoriate their targets with fascist-themed concatenations: “feminazis”, “islamofascists,” “neo-fascists,” “PC fascists,” etc. And, of course, the dinner-table discussion of the liberal intelligentsia inevitably arrives at the burning question: “Is Trump a fascist?” If you Googled “Trump, fascism, fascist” on August 25, you would have gotten nine million, one hundred, fifty thousand results.

A writer for Vox, in pursuit of the ubiquitous Trump/fascism question, consulted five experts-- academics who have studious, decided opinions on fascism-- to shed light on the subject. Every definition either overshoots or undershoots the regimes that constituted fascism in the “classic” period: 1922 until the overthrow of the Estado Novo and Francisco Franco’s death. That is, they fail to apply to every fascist government or they apply to far too many governments of the era that were not fascist.

Another Vox writer asked a Yale philosopher, hawking his new book, for his understanding of fascism. Like many post-Soviet scholars, he sought to contain it within the vessel of “extremism” so that it could be a bedfellow with Communism. His honesty (and scholarship) was betrayed when he attempted to quote the remarks on fascism by the celebrated German pastor Martin Niemöller. The learned professor states that “We should heed the warning of the poem on the side of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which says, ‘First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist…’”

In fact, the Niemöller quote begins: “First they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist…” The version cited by the Yale professor and the museum is a product of the hysterical US anti-Communism of the 1950s, a period when authorities expurgated Communism and expelled Communists, ironically, a practice shared with the fascist regimes of the “classic” era.

While we can forgive the professor’s historical ignorance, we cannot overlook the fact that the quote is nearly universally distorted in the US, a practice that effectively denies a period in US history exhibiting decided fascistic tendencies.

Has the political exploitation and abuse of the term “fascism” rendered it useless? Is there any credible definition of “fascism” that can be rescued from the confusion? Does it matter?
It does matter because something like “classic” fascism always lurks on the edges of bourgeois politics-- a tool in the ruling class’s tool box. Even after the defeat of fascism in World War II (thanks largely to the sacrifices of the scorned Communists), remnants of the old order embedded in the new governments or fled to more hospitable environments. Ignorance, frustration, and gullibility promise an endless supply of foot soldiers for purveyors of the most base ideas spawned by capitalism and its most malignant culture.

Bourgeois elites keep fascist movements at arm's length until intractable crises of governance call for extreme measures; fascism is a kind of ruling class SWAT team. Twentieth Century bourgeois governments in Italy and Germany had every opportunity to suppress or liquidate their respective incipient fascist movements well before they grabbed power. Instead, they tolerated the movements, using them as a hammer on powerful movements of the working class left. When bourgeois governance was not assured, the shock troops of fascism grabbed political power, guaranteeing the preservation of the capitalist order.

As British Communist leaders Tony Conway, John Foster, Rob Griffiths, and Liz Payne argued in a recent letter published in Communist Review (number 92), the definition of fascism developed by the international Communist movement and introduced in 1935 reflected the experiences “of anti-fascist struggle in a range of countries and a range of different forms. It rejected attempts to define fascism in terms of surface characteristics-- as the despair of a disinherited lower middle class or as a pathology of mass politics that glorified charismatic leaders and stigmatized outsiders.”

The twentieth-century fascism that arose throughout Europe (and in the US with organizations like the anti-Roosevelt, putsch-seeking Liberty League) share many contingent features that fail to explain its ascendency at that particular moment and under those particular circumstances.

The British Communist writers find their definition-- not in a static set of contingent features-- but in a process: “... the developing class contradictions of capitalism in its monopoly phase, a phase of general crisis, of direct political challenge by the working class and of intensifying inter-imperialist conflict… It was a response by finance capital when the existing form of rule, bourgeois democracy, could no longer contain the political class contradictions arising from capitalism in its monopoly stage.”

They elaborate:
It is important, we argue, to sustain this definition today. It roots fascism within monopoly capital as a product of capitalism’s contradictions. Fascism is not a sociological product of ‘mass society’-- a form of ‘totalitarianism’ that enabled the Cold War propagandists of finance capital to equate fascism with communism. It arises when, in face of working class challenge, finance capital can no longer rule in the old way… [my emphasis]

The common thread of twentieth-century fascism-- its rise, its growth, its sustenance, its assumption of power-- was the relative threat of working class power, usually in the form of a revolutionary Communist party. That thread separates fascism from the xenophobic, anti-democratic, revanchist movements and regimes of the nineteenth century and their counterparts of today.

Conway, Foster, Griffiths, and Payne explain: “Today this definition still provides us with essential guidance. We are in a period of intensifying crisis for finance capital and of rising inter-imperialist tensions. In places across the world, but not generally, the challenge of the working class and its allies does threaten imperialist rule. It does so in parts of Latin America, newly in parts of Africa. Elsewhere potential threats exist…”

Potential threats are different from an imminent clash with fascism over governance, over the fate of bourgeois democracy. Nonetheless, vigilance and preparation are wise.

Fascist movements are always lurking in the shadows or, sometimes, emboldened into the light by the political successes of vulgar demagogues like Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, George Wallace, Ronald Reagan, or Donald Trump in the US. All of these figures were/are lightning rods for fascist movements, all pressed the boundaries of bourgeois democracy.

They also exploited an electorate grown disappointed, even cynical by the failures of their more ‘liberal’ or social democratic counterparts. They flourished in the soil of insecurity, fear, disillusionment, and neglect. The ascent of these demagogues was, in fact, the product of a capitalist system that failed to offer its citizens an effective answer to sharpening contradictions.

But they were not on the verge of overthrowing bourgeois democracy. They were not fascists.

US Communists mistakenly saw 1950s McCarthyism, with all its fascistic trappings, as a precursor to fascism. The Communist Party paid a price in credibility and support for this mistaken assessment, a mistake which it later admitted. Crying fascist wolf can cost the left dearly and deflect from pressing a progressive agenda.

The danger of fascism is always possible under capitalism, though the unwarranted, premature alarm can be a distraction from the business at hand: defending working class interests and winning socialism.

Greg Godels
zzsblogml@gmail.com

5 comments:

Stan Smith said...

he capitalist rulers of any country resort to fascism as a solution to maintaining their rule when the traditional capitalist parties can no longer maintain it. This happens when they cannot respond to a system-threatening popular and working class upsurge. We see no working class upsurge in the US, so there is no need for the rulers to resort to fascism.
In the US all big social movements get co-opted into the Democratic or Republican parties. We can see that right now in the attention social movements pay to the Democratic Party presidential candidates. Therefore the present two party set-up they have in place is working fine for the maintenance of their capitalist rule. If we were decision-makers for the ruling class we would have to think that resorting to fascist rule is entirely unnecessary and counterproductive to maintaining our rule. The present bourgeois democracy in place works fine for continuing ruling class control, so why would they risk that by resorting to fascism.
Moreover, we have to keep in mind that liberals and many leftists start talking about combating fascism every election time, as a way of scaring people into making sure they vote Democratic, regardless of who is the final candidate.

ALFRED L.MARDER said...

A much needed fundamental understanding of the threat of fascism, It is imperative that we do not label loosely the dangers of fascism. This error served to literally destroy the Communist Party in the fifties, a fundamental lack of historical understanding that led to self-destruction.
It is imperative, in this period of aggressive imperialism, we recognize that the ruling class, especially, the most avaricious section, does not feel threatened by an aroused working class. The deliberate weakening of the trade union movement, the attacks on the African American community and the immigrants, the weakening of environmental controls and, most important, the 69% of the national treasure devoted to killing and the profits of the death merchants financing the 14 wars in whuch the US is engaged, have made it unnecessary for
the imperialists to impose out and out fascist control.

Roger Harris said...

I couldn't agree more with Greg's characterization of fascism as a form of governance that "arises when, in face of working class challenge, finance capital can no longer rule in the old way." Why would the US bourgeoisie want to change to brand “fascism” when brand “bourgeois democracy” has been so terrifically successful in sheep dogging the working class into accepting their rule and believing they are enjoying a real democracy?

I would also add to the analysis that the today’s monopoly capitalism has a structural trend of centralizing the political economy, which is not the same as fascism but it compatible were a section of the bourgeoisie opt for fascist governance.

I am a bit uncomfortable with the characterization of “vulgar demagogues…were/are lightning rods for fascist movements.” Vulgarity is a work style, not a political content. Just because Obama has better table manners than Trump, didn’t make him any less dangerous to the working class or any less likely to opt for fascism. Fascism could well come with a smiley-faced Democrat rather than a scowling Republican.

But my discomfort stems more so from the inference that “fascist movements” are generated by elements in the working class. To my understanding, it is a section of the bourgeoisie – failing to achieve class hegemony through the façade of bourgeois democracy – who opts for fascism. That is, the danger of fascism comes from the bourgeoisie and not from the working class.

Greg does not say the danger comes from the work class but linking “vulgar demagogues” to fascism could lead one astray in that direction. Speaking of which, that is precisely what I believe we are seeing with the Democratic Party blaming the “deplorables” for the election of Trump rather than the failure of their own neoliberal policies.

And speaking of the Democrats, another point of analysis that could be elaborated in this discussion about fascism is the function of the permanent state, including the national security apparatus such as the FBI, NSA, and CIA which are now seen by the DNC Democrats as “bulwarks of democracy” rather than precursors of fascism.

Roger Harris said...

I couldn't agree more with Greg's characterization of fascism as a form of governance that "arises when, in face of working class challenge, finance capital can no longer rule in the old way." Why would the US bourgeoisie want to change to brand “fascism” when brand “bourgeois democracy” has been so terrifically successful in sheep dogging the working class into accepting their rule and believing they are enjoying a real democracy?

I would also add to the analysis that the today’s monopoly capitalism has a structural trend of centralizing the political economy, which is not the same as fascism but it compatible were a section of the bourgeoisie opt for fascist governance.

I am a bit uncomfortable with the characterization of “vulgar demagogues…were/are lightning rods for fascist movements.” Vulgarity is a work style, not a political content. Just because Obama has better table manners than Trump, didn’t make him any less dangerous to the working class or any less likely to opt for fascism. Fascism could well come with a smiley-faced Democrat rather than a scowling Republican.

But my discomfort stems more so from the inference that “fascist movements” are generated by elements in the working class. To my understanding, it is a section of the bourgeoisie – failing to achieve class hegemony through the façade of bourgeois democracy – who opts for fascism. That is, the danger of fascism comes from the bourgeoisie and not from the working class.

Greg does not say the danger comes from the work class but linking “vulgar demagogues” to fascism could lead one astray in that direction. Speaking of which, that is precisely what I believe we are seeing with the Democratic Party blaming the “deplorables” for the election of Trump rather than the failure of their own neoliberal policies.

And speaking of the Democrats, another point of analysis that could be elaborated in this discussion about fascism is the function of the permanent state, including the national security apparatus such as the FBI, NSA, and CIA which are now seen by the DNC Democrats as “bulwarks of democracy” rather than precursors of fascism.

greg said...

Thanks for the always thoughtful comments, Roger. And thanks for the insightful comments by Al Marder and Stan Smith. I think we are all in agreement, though far too many on the left are quick to conflate right-wing trends with fascism; they set aside political goals for a Quixotic "united front against fascism", a move that surrenders the political terrain to the Democrats.

You make an important elaboration by suggesting that the DNC Democrats' courtship with the FBI, CIA, NSA cabal counts as much, maybe more towards the threat of fascism than any other trend. It's not popular to say, but the truth. And thanks for your class clarification.