By Greg Godels
August 28, 2019
“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.”
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.