Creeping Fascism Revisited

New books on the growing fascist threat are coming thick and fast. Neil Faulkner takes a look at two of them and takes the opportunity to update the theory of creeping fascism.

 

What have we learned in the five years since we published the first edition of Creeping Fascism? Does the theory still hold in the light of recent events? How does it compare with other attempts to understand modern fascism?

Let me begin by summarising our argument. Five points were critical.

  1. Fascism is the hyper-charging of a reactionary cocktail of ideas – nationalism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, authoritarianism, militarism – so as to create an active political force opposed to progressive movements and radical change.
  2. Fascism is not a fixed state-of-being, but a fluid political process. It develops through interaction with other forces in the context of capitalist crisis and social breakdown. It cannot be defined by reference to a checklist; it has to be understood dialectically and historically.
  3. The primary agent of fascist repression is the existing bourgeois state. The fascist party and fascist paramilitaries are always a means to an end: the takeover of the state and its transformation by a process of gleichschaltung (by which, through a mix of purges, intimidation, and indoctrination, state personnel are brought into line with the fascist programme).
  4. Fascism is growing in the context of a rapid shift to the right in mainstream bourgeois politics as a whole. The Liberal Centre echoes right-wing arguments on the national interest, the migrant threat, the need for border controls, etc. The traditional Right becomes more openly hostile to women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, movements for racial justice, civil and democratic liberties, etc. Fascism grows in this ideological space.
  5. The broad context for this marked shift to the right on the Right is the compound crisis of world capitalism – a compound with economic, ecological, epidemiological, social, geopolitical-military, and political-cultural dimensions. The essence of modern fascism is the same as that of interwar fascism: it is a counter-revolutionary mass movement to defend the system against the threat of revolution from below by the working class, the oppressed, and the poor.

This argument needs no revision. Everything that has happened since confirms our analysis. What we can do, however, is to add much substantive detail. In doing so, I draw upon two newly published studies, Luke Cooper’s Authoritarian Contagion: the global threat to democracy (2021) and Paul Mason’s How to Stop Fascism: history, ideology, resistance (2021). I find value in both, but also much to disagree with.

The Authoritarian Right

A common objection to the theory of creeping fascism was that politicians like Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, Erdogan, Orban, Salvini, Le Pen, etc did not match the fascism checklist of the small left groups. This was based on a partial understanding of interwar history as reconfigured in the 1970s during the Anti-Nazi League struggle against the National Front. It also reflected the disastrous mistake of Lexit (Left Exit), which involved a host of small left groups lining up with the UKIP and the Tories in support of Brexit, which, we argued, was the primary expression in Britain of the wave of nationalism, racism, and fascism sweeping across the world. That error, never admitted, has led to a constant underestimation of the fascist threat ever since.

Our argument was caricatured. To repeat: fascism is a process; arguments about whether this or that organisation is technically fascist are futile; what matters is the direction of travel of the Right as a whole.

Let us, therefore, concede the value of the generic concept of an Authoritarian Right. This allows us to place the British Tory Party and the US Republican Party in a political framework shaped by the process of creeping fascism. We can agree with much of Luke Cooper’s discussion of the concept in Authoritarian Contagion. His organising concept, authoritarian protectionism, captures a key feature of the Far Right’s ideological pitch. This is the idea that the self-appointed strongman will ‘protect’ the embattled ethno-national community – however defined – against the multiple (imaginary) threats represented by foreign powers, mass migration, minorities, feminists, progressives, liberal metropolitan elites, and so on. He sees a shift from the authoritarian individualism of Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s, with its emphasis on free markets, competition, and personal effort, to a sharp ‘Them and Us’ dichotomy framed by what is presented as a civilisational or existential crisis, where ‘They’ are to be excluded so that ‘We’ may endure.

The 2008 financial crash blew up the neoliberal project. The 2020 pandemic collapse has since doubled down on the economic crisis. We have shifted from free-market neoliberalism to state-dependent neoliberalism. We have also moved from the relative boom conditions of the 1990s and 2000s to an age of austerity and deepening social crisis. This is the context for the rise of the Authoritarian Right with its self-proclaimed mission of protecting ‘Us’ from ‘Them’.

It should be said in passing that Dave Renton’s argument, in his The New Authoritarians (2019), that we are witness to ‘convergence’ on the Right (a softening of fascism combined with a hardening of conservatism) is both misleading and disarming. Misleading because what is actually happening is that the whole of the Right is moving to the right. Disarming because the implication seems to be that we have convergence away from fascism not creeping towards it. Renton’s argument seems to reflect the widespread complacency on the left.

By contrast, Paul Mason’s How to Stop Fascism is the proverbial wake-up call. Unlike Cooper – whose refusal to use the F-word seems almost pathological – Mason is absolutely unequivocal that fascism is back, fast-growing, and represents a clear and present danger. I agree wholeheartedly with much of the analysis, including the way in which the Authoritarian Right is normalising fascist ideology and greenlighting fascist activity.

The Capitol Hill Riot on 6 January 2021 was a perfect illustration. To repeat, it is an exercise in pointless semantics to argue about whether or not Trump is a fascist. What matters is that over the preceding five years Trump has moved the Republican Party and half the US electorate sharply to the right. One measure of this is that opinion polls run during the 2020 presidential election showed that half of all Trump voters agreed with the core assertions of online QAnon conspiracy theory. When he lost the election, Trump’s last card was an attempted coup. He called on the fascist activists of the Authoritarian Right to storm the Capitol and prevent formalisation of the election result. Sections of the US state clearly collaborated, for security was minimal and initially overwhelmed. In the event, the coup attempt was chaotic, lacking leadership and sufficient social weight, but the intention was clear. As Mason makes clear, parallels from the interwar years are easy to find. The same mechanism is at work: a mass electoral bloc of the reactionary middle class and backword working class that is moving to the right; right-wing populist leaders ramping up nationalism and racism, trashing democratic norms, and inciting violence; the infection of sections of the state apparatus with fascist-type politics; an activist minority growing inside this framework that can be brought onto the streets to engage in physical struggle, sometimes alongside the police, sometime in the absence of the police.

The Global Police State

This brings me to my second point. Though we argued in Creeping Fascism that the existing bourgeois state was the primary instrument of fascist repression – and therefore the primary threat to democracy – we did not advance a detailed argument about the nature of the state in the neoliberal era. This gap has now been made good by our colleague and comrade William I Robinson.

In The Global Police State (2020), Robinson argues that neoliberalism has reconfigured the role of the bourgeois state. Traditionally, Marxists have viewed the state as essentially a repressive apparatus, the core of it comprising armed bodies of men and women (military personnel, the police, prison officers, border guards, etc), its primary roles a) to defend ‘the national interest’ against foreign enemies, and b) to smash the resistance of the subordinate classes to their exploitation and oppression.

During the great boom following the Second World War, when living standards were rising and welfare states being constructed, the repressive role of the state was less apparent. But with the onset of the neoliberal counter-offensive in the mid to late 1970s – designed to redistribute wealth from labour to capital, that is, to increase profits at the expense of wages – a shift from consent to coercion began and the state became more openly repressive. This process then accelerated sharply following the 2008 financial crash and the advent of austerity.

By this time, the dominant fraction of global capital was transnational capital – corporations which have been effectively de-anchored from their original national-territorial bases as production, distribution, and marketing have been spread across three or four continents and two or three dozen countries. But capital accumulation remains as repression-dependent as ever, so, in the absence of a single world police force, each national police force becomes, in effect, the local franchise of a global system of repression in the interests of transnational capital. Unsurprisingly, therefore, there is growing co-ordination between national police forces – of surveillance, intelligence, cross-border collaboration, sharing of experience, etc – and also growing correspondence in training, tactics, and equipment. The body-armour, the tear gas and rubber bullets, the assault rifles and armoured cars look pretty much the same the world over.

Creeping fascism and the global police state coexist in a symbiotic relationship. The former provides the ideology and the auxiliaries. The latter provides the main coercive force. The relationship between them could not have been clearer than during the 2020 Black Lives Matter mobilisations in the United States, when paramilitary police were joined on the streets by heavily armed fascist militia to confront demonstrators fighting for racial justice. 

Mediations and Variations

What we did not predict five years ago was the facility with which the Authoritarian Right would exploit the compound crisis of world capitalism to construct a series of counter-narratives. Cooper lays particular emphasis on the way in which the Covid-19 pandemic has been used to leverage authoritarian protectionism. This ranges from Trump labelling it a ‘Chinese virus’, through Priti Patel citing it in support of her anti-migrant racism, to Xi Jinping deploying the full repressive power of the state to contain it. Much the same applies to the climate crisis. Climate-change denial still animates a broad section of the Authoritarian Right – Bolsonaro is perhaps the most outspoken representative – but elsewhere the emphasis is on climate-change protectionism. The argument is that climate change is inevitable, but that the main effects will be felt elsewhere. ‘We’ are responsible only for ‘Our’ people; ‘They’ must shift for themselves. The world may end for others, but not for us.

Interesting, too, is Cooper’s discussion of authoritarian-nationalism’s varied forms, shaped by different national histories, institutions, and traditions. It is surely right to argue that, whereas the state has been captured by capital in the West, it is the state that dominates capital in China. The neoliberal model in the West involves massive incentives, subsidies, bailouts, and sell-offs to attract transnational capital investment. This means, in the United States for example, that Reaganite free-market economics and Trumpite nationalism and racism are combined in the modern Republican Party. In China, on the other hand, the state is all-powerful, in relation to both private capital and the labour force. Official ideology promotes Han-Chinese nationalism, ‘Xi Jinping Thought’, and a ‘Chinese Dream’ of rapid growth and rising living-standards. This goes hand-in-glove with a digitalised ‘social-credit’ system, where citizens are monitored for obedience and conformity, and with the most advanced state-surveillance apparatus in the world. The violent suppression of the Hong Kong democracy movement and the concentration camps for Ughurs in Xinjiang are the most obvious contemporary expressions of the repressive ruthlessness of the Stalinist state.  

The Mass Psychology of Creeping Fascism

One of the strength’s of Paul Mason’s book is his examination of fascism’s ideological and psychological roots. He traces it back to late 19th century irrationalism, an intellectual reaction to the ideas of science, progress, and reason rooted in the 18th century Enlightenment and embodied in the 19th century Industrial Revolution; a reaction triggered by the rise of socialism, the trade unions, the women’s movement, and colonial independence movements. For this irrationalism – the toxic cocktail of nationalism, racism, misogyny, and so on – to become a political force it must be internalised in millions of minds. So fascism must also be understood as a psychological affliction. Mason references the work of the Marxist-Freudian psychologists Wilhelm Reich and Erich Fromm, and uses their characterisation of fascism as the basis of his own definition: ‘Fascism is the fear of freedom, triggered by a glimpse of freedom.’ This is quite inadequate. Fascism cannot be reduced to psychology. Marxism starts with the whole, the totality of social relations; it conceives the world as a contradictory unity in motion. We have to contextualise what is happening in people’s heads within the social, political, and cultural order (or disorder) of which they are part. But psychology matters, and the disdain for psychoanalysis traditionally displayed by much of the Left is ignorance and prejudice.

We face a global upsurge of irrationalism: climate-change denial, anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown movements, far-right conspiracy theories, brazen lies about fake news and stolen elections, the demonisation of Islam and other imagined threats, and much more. A growing number of those gulled by these far-right themes are immune to fact-based evidence and argument. Many display symptoms of psychotic rage. Some give clear expression to such in explosions of violence – from the loners who gun down worshippers at a mosque to the mobs who take part in a pogrom. Indeed, as Mason stresses, violence is a central feature of fascist movements. It involves only a minority at the activist edge, but for them it can be central – a release of psychotic rage legitimised by fascist culture-wars directed against women, minorities, and progressives.

This is mass psychosis in a technical sense. Psychosis arises when the relationship between the individual psyche and the social context in which it operates is ruptured; when perception no longer corresponds to reality; when the mind is operating within an imagined reality of its own construction. This is clearly a description, at a psychological level, of an anti-vaxx protest or an Islamophobic pogrom. This mass psychosis seems to be compound of two main elements: authoritarianism and narcissism.

Both involve a fear of freedom and a flight from freedom. Both are rooted in anxiety, insecurity, self-doubt, even self-loathing. Both involve resentment and rage directed towards those perceived to be more confident, successful, and popular, especially when they threaten traditional pecking-orders. Thus, the archetypal fascist personality is an older white male consumed by racist and misogynist hatred. The authoritarian psyche seeks retreat into a stable, traditional, hierarchical, patriarchal society. Here it finds both a secure haven for its regressive self and restored self-esteem as it looks down on those beneath it. The authoritarian personality is subservient to those above and bullying to those below.

Authoritarianism was dominant in interwar fascism. Narcissism appears to be equally important in modern fascism. Neoliberalism has compounded the atomisation and alienation inherent in capitalist society, destroying much of what remained of community, civil society, and human solidarity as recently as the 1970s. People have become geographically and socially hyper-mobile. They are less likely to define themselves by occupation or residence. They move from job to job, from flat to flat. They wear multiple identities, but these are shallow constructs, formed of cultural bric-a-brac, easily discarded. They lack firm social roots. They become artefacts of consumerism, spectacles, and social media. We live in an age of self-obsessed narcissism, because, as Thatcher explained, there is no such thing as society, only individuals.

This argument needs much fuller exposition than I can offer here. Suffice to say that Trump and Johnson – both transparently narcissistic personalities – have achieved and retained mass popular support despite their obvious ignorance, incompetence, and irresponsibility. Neither is a father figure, a patriarchal leader of the nation, on the model of interwar fascist leaders. Both seem to offer a model of neoliberal narcissism in which, presumably, their voters see an image of themselves.     

Culture Wars and Digitalised Bullshit

Clearer now than five years ago is the centrality of the Authoritarian Right’s culture-war offensive against the oppressed and the pivotal role of social media in spreading its propaganda and building a mass movement. Again, whole sections of the Left are missing the significance of what is happening. Some insist that we should duck difficult ‘secondary’ issues like solidarity with the oppressed and focus on ‘bread and butter’ class issues. This argument underpinned much of the Left’s disastrous Lexit policy. We were invited to believe that working-class votes for Brexit were radical votes against the Establishment, not votes in favour of UKIP/Tory nationalism and racism. Since then – unreconstructed despite the accumulating evidence – the same Left is trying to ignore the culture war and talk about something else.

The supreme virtue of both Cooper’s and Mason’s books is that they cut through the complacency and raise the alarm; especially the latter, with its clear labelling of fascism as fascism, its rooting of the analysis in a history of ideas and movements going back to the late 19th century, and its insistence that the Authoritarian Right contains a hard and growing fascist core with a complete worldview and a ruthless determination to act which contrasts with the flabbiness and failure of the Left. Mason sees the substance of the thing despite the differences of form: that the trajectory is towards totalitarianism and genocide, even if the fascist movement is less a matter of mass parties, paramilitary armies, and Nuremburg rallies, and more a shifting kaleidoscope of online hate channels.

But to the question ‘What is to be done?’, neither Cooper nor Mason has a remotely adequate answer.

How to Stop Fascism

Both Cooper and Mason advocate a modern version of popular frontism. Luke Cooper does not make this explicit, but he sees the central political conflict of the age as one between democracy and the Authoritarian Right. Democracy is never defined, but it is implicit throughout the book that he has in mind liberal-parliamentary democracy. So in practical terms he is proposing a political alliance of the Left with right-wing social democrats, liberals, and perhaps moderate conservatives – that is, with the bourgeois forces of the Liberal Centre.

Paul Mason is much more explicit and detailed in his advocacy of a modern variant of popular frontism, basing this on summary histories of events in interwar Italy, Germany, France, and Spain. ‘The only thing that’s ever beaten it [fascism],’ he tells us, ‘was an alliance of the centre and the left.’ Or again: ‘By forming an alliance with liberals and moderate socialists in France and Spain, the communists temporarily halted the spread of fascism.’ The argument here is that the best way to stop the Authoritarian Right is for the social forces of the Left to be combined with the repressive power of a liberal-run bourgeois state – or, in Mason’s words, ‘the potential power of democratic constitutions if backed by assertive law enforcement, intelligence gathering, and judicial action’.

These conclusions reflect the desperate pessimism of the Left in the third decade of the 21st century. But our present weakness cannot be addressed by an alliance with the Liberal Centre and the bourgeois state. We need to build a real anti-fascist movement from below, not hold up a placard calling on liberal politicians and the police to save us.

This argument is a matter of life and death. So let me deal with it in detail.

The Triumph of Interwar Fascism

Mason’s argument is undermined by his own potted histories. He is far too honest to be able to avoid this, for the interwar record is clear. Mussolini was elevated to power in Italy in 1922 by the monarchy, the landowners, the industrialists, the liberals, and the police. The blackshirts did not fight their way to power. They did not carry out a fascist revolution. They were put in power by the ruling class and the liberal-parliamentary state as allies in the struggle to smash a revolutionary movement of workers and peasants.

Immediately before he was made chancellor, one in three Germans voted for Hitler in the last free general election of the interwar period. Like Mussolini, he was elevated to power by the head of state, with the support of landowners, industrialists, conservatives, and army officers. When a short while later he demanded dictatorial powers, the only votes against in the German parliament were cast by the social democrats; the liberals voted solidly for dictatorship.

In both cases, the victory of fascism could have been prevented by the working class. A revolutionary movement of workers and peasants during Italy’s biennio rosso (‘two red years’) in 1919 and 1920 was led to defeat by the Italian Socialist Party. A united working class could have stopped the Nazis in 1932 but for the sectarian stupidity of the German Communist Party, which, following orders from Stalin in Moscow, persisted in treating the German Socialist Party as the main enemy and refusing to form an anti-fascist alliance.

After the German disaster, the Stalinists flipped over from sectarian ultra-leftism to popular frontism. European communists were now ordered to form anti-fascist alliances with social democrats and liberals. This involved subordinating the interests of the working class to those of their bourgeois allies, reining back on militant class struggle, and shutting down the very idea of socialist revolution. The result was catastrophic. Though popular-front electoral alliances came to power in both France and Spain in 1936, these liberal-left governments turned on their working-class supporters.

The French working class mounted a massive general strike, backed by a wave of factory occupations and huge demonstrations, in the summer of 1936. But instead of this becoming the launch-pad for a revolutionary struggle for power, it was diverted by socialist and communist leaders committed to the popular front into a reformist struggle for immediate demands. The demobilisation of the movement had the following consequences: by January 1938, all the socialist ministers in the government had been sacked; in May-June 1940, a demoralised French army collapsed before the German blitzkrieg; France was then partitioned between a northern half under direct Nazi rule and a southern half under a pro-fascist collaborationist regime; among an estimated 600,000 French dead during the Second World War would be 75,000 French Jews deported to the death-camps.

The Spanish working class responded to a military coup against the newly elected popular-front government by taking up arms, mounting an insurrection, taking control of half the country, and, across much of it, taking over the factories and seizing the land. In this they were opposed by the liberal, socialist, and communist supporters of the popular front. Worse still, the Stalinists spearheaded a full-blown counter-revolution, smashing the anarchist-led revolutionary movement in its main centre, Barcelona and Catalonia. The disorientation, demoralisation, and disorganisation of the revolutionary movement set up the Spanish Republic for defeat by an alliance of generals, landowners, and right-wing death squads backed by fascist Italy and Germany. An estimated 200,000 anti-fascists were murdered by the death squads. Spain was ruled by a fascist-backed dictatorship from 1939 to 1975.

I do not understand how Paul Mason can argue that the popular front was the antidote to interwar fascism. This looks a grotesque violation of the historical record. We are not helped by his failure to explain Stalinism – a bureaucratic counter-revolution that first destroyed working-class democracy in Russia, then created a monstrous totalitarian dictatorship and a highly exploitative state-capitalist economic system, and afterwards played an actively counter-revolutionary role across Europe in the face of advancing fascism.

The simple truth is this: wherever there was effective resistance, it was achieved not by popular fronts – alliances with bourgeois politicians and the repressive state – but by united fronts of working-class forces. One notable success story is especially instructive: the Battle of Cable Street. Because the leadership of the British Communist Party, in obedience to Stalin’s popular frontism, was not prepared to defend the Jewish community of London’s East End against a march by Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, it was left to local communists and other local activists to organise mass resistance. What followed on 4 October 1936 was one of the greatest victories in British working-class history. The streets were barricaded and defended by tens of thousands of East Enders. They faced several hours of violent police attacks whose sole purpose was to force a passage for a paramilitary fascist march. The police eventually gave up and the fascists dispersed. Mosley’s movement never recovered. Britain did not go fascist.

What Sort of Movement?

We underestimate the danger represented by the Authoritarian Right, the global police state, and creeping fascism at our peril. Both Luke Cooper’s and more especially Paul Mason’s books are to be welcomed for sounding the tocsin against widespread complacency on the Left. But equally, if we allow pessimism to distort our understanding of history, if we foster illusions in the liberal bourgeoisie and the capitalist state, we disarm ourselves theoretically in the face of fascism.

To repeat what we argued in Creeping Fascism. The Liberal Centre is being hollowed out by the crisis of the system. It attempts to manage the crisis in the interests of the rich and the corporations and at the expense of the working class, but it has no solutions to any of its multiple dimensions as we accelerate towards ecological and social catastrophe. The bourgeois state – the organised violence of the system – is increasingly militarised and repressive in the face of mass resistance. The Authoritarian Right is on the march, projecting an ethno-nationalist dystopia, spreading the shit of ages, the old reactionary cocktail of racism, misogyny, homophobia, hatred, and violence.

The answer to this has to be the unity of the working class and the oppressed, a vision of the world transformed, and mass struggle from below to beat back the fascists and open a road to red-green revolution. It is radical vision and militant action that can win a majority for the socialist alternative – not tawdry deals with a discredited political class and a corrupt security state.


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Neil Faulkner is the author of the forthcoming Alienation, Spectacle, and Revolution: a critical Marxist essay. He is the joint author of Creeping Fascism: what it is and how to fight it and System Crash: an activist guide to making revolution.


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