I want to start again with Donald Trump’s interview with Laura Ingraham, the one in which he talked about the “shadow people” he believes lurk behind Joe Biden:
INGRAHAM: Who do you think is pulling Biden’s strings? Is it former Obama officials?
TRUMP: People that you’ve never heard of. People that are in the dark shadows.
INGRAHAM: What does that mean? That sounds like conspiracy theory.
TRUMP: No, people that you haven’t heard of. They’re people that are on the streets. They’re people that are controlling the streets…
It wasn’t the worst thing Trump has ever said. It probably won’t be the most annoying thing he says this month. But if we take it seriously, then the only conclusion which can follow is this: inside the meetings of the new Committee to Re-elect the President, or whatever Trump likes to call his equivalent, the view still remains that Trump can energize his base by telling them that the world is full of black-clad anti-fascists and the Republicans will win by promising to smash them.
Why is Trump so obsessed with anti-fascists? After all, the number of anti-fascists in the United States is relatively small. If Trump was Richard Spencer or Matthew Heimbach (i.e. one of the people whose meetings have been disrupted by anti-fascists) you could understand the obsession, but he’s the President, a Republican, no one has prevented him from speaking. Surely, he represents something different from the fascists, closer to ordinary conservatism – doesn’t he?
And then you think about Trump and his support for the very fine people marching with the neo-Nazis at Charlottesville or the way he promoted Steve Bannon or the speed with which he declared his support for Kyle Rittenhouse, after he shot three protesters, and insisted on traveling to Kenosha in order to “increase love and respect for our country”. That sort of rhetoric has a history, and its one which is just as reminiscent of interwar fascism as it is of conservatism.
Listening to the speeches at the Democratic National Convention, you could hear the speakers grappling with the question of whether Trump is a fascist. So, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez insisted, in the few seconds allowed to her, that the election was about “stopping fascism in the United States. That is what Donald Trump represents.”
As for Barack Obama, he too seemed to be saying that this was the last chance to stop fascism: “This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win … Don’t let them take away your democracy.”
In this piece, I’m not going to give you a glib answer, yes, Trump is a fascist, or no, he’s not. Rather, what I want to explain to people is how a different generation of socialists, the ones who had to deal with the real, unambiguous fascism of Hitler and Mussolini, explained that movement’s novelty.
Now, the first and most basic point is that socialists in the interwar period needed to define fascism because at a time when they were lots of different kinds of right-wing politics in Europe (conservatives, budget-cutters, military rulers, armed nationalists…) fascism went further than anything else. It employed greater violence on the streets; it was more dictatorial as a regime. It was the only system of government since 1900 which has begun wars directly between major capitalist powers, or practiced genocide within the most affluent regions of the world. How could it do that?
The answer, everyone agreed, was in separating other more humdrum forms of right-wing rule (even violent ones) from fascism. Here, for example, is one Italian Communist Palmiro Togliatti, writing in 1928, for an international audience most of whose members knew of fascism only indirectly:
It has become customary to use [the word ‘fascism’] to designate every form of fascism. A comrade is arrested, a workers’ demonstration is brutally dispersed by the police, a court imposes a savage sentence on some militants of the labour movement, a Communist parliamentary fraction sees its rights infringed or abrogated, in short whenever the so-called democratic freedoms sanctified by bourgeois constitutions are attacked or violated one hears the cry: ‘Fascism is here, fascism has arrived.’ It should be realized that this is not just a question of terminology. If someone thinks it is reasonable to use the term ‘fascism’ to designate every form of reaction, so be it. But I do not see the advantage we gain, except perhaps an agitational one. The actuality is something different. Fascism is a particular, specific type of reaction
To simplify a little, there were three main ways of understanding fascism. In the first (shared by the Italian and German Communists prior to 1922 and 1933) what people emphasized was the continuity between fascism and other forms of capitalist rule. In August 1935, for example, the Communist International defined fascism as “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinist and most imperialist elements of finance capital”. Or to quote another 1930s Marxist Max Horkheimer, “Whoever does not want to speak of capitalism should be equally silent on fascism”.
The problem in insisting on continuity is that this didn’t really explain how far fascism was unlike what had gone before. For if fascism was “the most reactionary” of capitalists finally getting to rule, then why hadn’t they ruled before, and were the other capitalists now in conflict with them?
The second main approach (shared by the Italian and German Socialists prior to 1922 and 1933) tended to emphasize the discontinuity between fascism and other forms of capitalist rule. So, one Socialist leader Giovanni Zibordi, spoke of fascism’s origins in the war, in a generation of young unemployed men with nothing to do, their glorification of violence, their hatred for the left which had threatened to destroy their parents’ shops, and the fear of people without property for the protest movements of those even poorer than them. Zibordi, in other words, had no real interest in the functional alliance between fascist governments and previous capitalist elites. Fascism was for him, rather, a movement of struggling middle-class people:
What kind of power would [fascism] have and what prospect of success, if it were indeed only the ‘bourgeoisie’, that is the class that dominates in the present order of things, enjoying advantages and privileges that it rightly fears it will see destroyed by a socialist regime? What if, in its anti-socialist offensive, it did not make use, both directly and indirectly, of the collaboration, the approval, the tolerance of surrounding classes and strata, which have nothing to do with the ‘bourgeoisie’ in the socio-economic sense of the word, but which oppose socialism from an accumulation of misunderstandings, outraged sentiments and because we never did anything to placate them?
The theorists which have interested me the most belonged to a third group which tried to stitch together these two ideas: first, that fascism had a reactionary programme, which sought to generalize the interests of every privileged group against those subaltern (the rich against the poor, men against women, white against black…), and second that it did so by summoning onto the streets a mass army of people, predominantly those without considerable capital, to whom it offered the chance of a military struggle against their opponents.
To speak of these two elements of fascism as being in conflict does not do justice to the way these two ideas were actually at war. Mobilizing the people to … defeat the people, is a programme which on its face makes no sense at all.
As Leon Trotsky argued, “In National Socialism everything is as contradictory and chaotic as in a nightmare. Hitler’s party calls itself socialist, yet leads a terroristic struggle against all socialist organizations … It hurls lightning bolts at the heads of the capitalists yet is supported by them.”
And yet, for a period of time, fascism worked. It held these two contradictory ideas in balance. Fascism was able to create a functioning relationship between its reactionary goals and its mass movement. In this way, it was different from the military regimes which surrounded it (and which by 1939 ruled Europe west as Italy as far as the Mediterranean and east of Germany up to the border with the USSR). The other interwar dictatorships, also sought to be both mass and reactionary regimes, but inside them their reactionary goals (their support for the existing Army or the Church) took priority over mass support. Quickly, the non-fascist regimes of Miklós Horthy in Hungary or Józef Piłsudski in Poland became ordinary capitalist states albeit with more prisons and with fake parliaments. Fascism, by contrast, retained its independent character for much longer.
It was this balance – the way fascism refused to become simply a reactionary politics or simply a mass movement – which compelled the fascist regimes to become more radical in power.
Seen like this, the contradiction at the heart of fascism, the relationship between its reactionary ambitions for power and its mass style of organizing, made the parties of Mussolini and Hitler both unstable and dynamic. This relationship was the source of fascism’s spectacular success, its hubris and its doom.
The most compelling of the interwar Marxists argued that fascism needs external enemies because it cannot satisfy the hopes of its ordinary supporters. The shift to military struggle kept these hopes engaged and meant that fascism’s defeat came in war rather than popular revolt.
I’ll leave it to the readers of this piece to decide for themselves whether what we’re seeing is a conventional Republican administration (measured in terms of tax cuts, or the mere 9 miles Trump had added to his Mexican wall by this time last year), or a fundamentally new – and at the same time old – form of power. One in which Trump is not merely calling on his supporters onto the streets opportunistically, to strike back against a street movement for racial justice. But where he is asking them to shape his regime now and potentially over the next four years.
The Proud Boys and the Patriots would like to play the same role in relation to Trump that the Sturmabteilung (SA) played in the rise to power of Hitler, or the squadristi for Mussolini.
The question, really, is – how serious is he about them?
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David Renton is a barrister and a professor at SOAS University of London. His next book, Against the Law: Why Justice Requires Fewer Laws and a Smaller State, will be published by Penguin in July.