We live in troubling times. Across Europe, the far right is advancing and growing in confidence.
In France, the Front National candidate Marine Le Pen entered the run-off for the French presidency in 2017 for only the second time in the party’s history. She took 10.6 million votes, double what her father achieved in 2002.1 In Austria, a party established by former SS officers, the Freedom Party (FPÖ), has entered government in coalition with the centre-right. In Germany, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), formed only six years ago, has radicalised to the right. It came third in the 2017 federal elections.
In last September’s general election in Sweden, once seen as the stronghold of social democracy, the Sweden Democrats, a party formed by Nazi street movements in the late 1980s, increased their vote for the fifth consecutive election to 17.5 percent. In Italy, the anti-migrant Lega has become the driving force of the country’s coalition government. In Hungary, the increasingly authoritarian regime of Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz Party combines anti-Muslim racism with barely concealed antisemitism through the baiting of the Jewish philanthropist George Soros.2
In Britain, arguably the biggest far-right street movement in British history has coalesced around Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the English Defence League (EDL), with a radicalised UK Independence Party (UKIP) pitching itself as the natural political home of such forces.
This is not the whole picture. The radical left is a significant force across much of Europe. Mass protests against Donald Trump; strikes across Belgium, in Portugal’s public sector and by nurses in Ireland; the sustained mobilisations in France by the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests), the wave of school student protests across Europe demanding action on climate change—all these underline the potential for resistance.
Political polarisation and the erosion of support for mainstream parties that once dominated the political scene are not new. But in the first part of this decade a left shift seemed the dominant trend—symbolised by the hopes placed in Syriza and Podemos. Today Syriza, broken by the brutal intervention of the European Union, is implementing austerity and has ceased to be the repository of the hopes of the European left, while Podemos seems divided and adrift.
Instead, it is the advance of the far right that predominates and sets the agenda. Fanned by the intensification of Islamophobia over the past 20 years, the escalating war on migrants and the success of Trump in gaining the presidency of the most powerful state in the world, the far right has gained a political legitimacy greater than at any time since the Second World War.
Alarming as such developments are, can we take comfort that the threat of fascism does not feature in this rising tide of racism and reaction? Some argue that apart from a few overtly fascist forces, parties such as National Rally in France are now simply far-right parties that accept a purely parliamentary strategy and are in effect indistinguishable from the wider radical right. For example, Enzo Traverso suggests we are mainly confronted with what he calls “post-fascism”. Post-fascist parties and movements may have had roots in historical fascism but have since “mutated” and are “moving in a direction whose ultimate outcome remains unpredictable”. So Traverso sees the Front National/National Rally as having “shed its skin”: “Unlike classical fascism, which wanted to change everything, the National Front’s ambition is now to transform the system from within”.3
This article argues that such an analysis accepts too many of 21st century fascism’s own claims about itself. It is necessary to differentiate within the broader picture of the far right’s rise and to identify a more defined fascist current within it. This requires an understanding of fascism and how it has adapted to the conditions of contemporary capitalism.
What is fascism?
“If I stand here today as a revolutionary, it is as a revolutionary against the revolution”—Adolf Hitler speaking at his trial in 1924.
In the interwar period, a wide plethora of fascist movements emerged in a Europe that had been convulsed from 1914 to 1923 by an unparalleled war between industrialised imperialist states, followed by multiple revolutionary challenges and bitter counter-revolutionary mobilisations. A brief era of political and economic respite followed in the mid-1920s, before giving way to the Great Depression, throwing millions of lives into turmoil and threatening to crack existing political structures apart. In such circumstances, fascist forces were able to move from the margins to entrench themselves in society and in some cases to challenge for power.
In two countries, Italy and Germany, fascism succeeded in attaining state power. The price of these fascist victories is well known—the abolition of democracy, the smashing of working class organisation, the acceleration of the road to renewed imperialist war and the industrialised genocide of European Jews and other oppressed groups at Auschwitz and other death camps.
But to establish whether fascism has any relevance today we must identify the nature of this inter-war fascism in its most developed “classical” forms, and examine the elements of continuity and discontinuity with the current period. The key analysis of fascism then was provided by the Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky, who identified the specific nature of fascism and the unique threat it embodied even compared to other forms of authoritarian reaction. Crucially, Trotsky grasped that fascism was not a direct political representation of the core of the capitalist class. It was not simply an “instrument of big capital” as the Stalinist Communist parties insisted.4 Trotsky’s analysis combined a number of interdependent elements.
Fascism is an extreme form of counter-revolution
The aim of fascism is the permanent annihilation of all working class organisation, from revolutionary through to conservative. This goes beyond mere repression and terror, or even the physical destruction of the most militant sections of the working class. Fascism therefore aims at the most thoroughgoing counter-revolution. As Trotsky noted:
Fascism is not merely a system of reprisals, of brutal force, and of police terror. Fascism is a particular governmental system based on the uprooting of all elements of proletarian democracy within bourgeois society… To this end the physical annihilation of the most revolutionary section of the workers does not suffice. It is also necessary to smash all independent and voluntary organisations, to demolish all the defensive bulwarks of the proletariat, and to uproot whatever has been achieved during three-quarters of a century by social democracy and the trade unions.5
Trotsky’s warnings to the German working class proved tragically prescient. Within four months of Hitler being made chancellor on 30 January 1933 not just the German Communist Party but also the Social Democratic Party (SPD) had been banned and subjected to a wave of terror from the Brownshirts and the state that destroyed them. Trade unions, including Christian unions, were taken over by the Nazis and liquidated as independent organisations.6 The Nazis succeeded in “razing to their foundation” all the “institutions of proletarian democracy”.7
Fascism develops as a mass movement
Achieving this task required more than conventional forms of authoritarian reaction reliant on the existing state—the police, army, etc. It required the creation of a paramilitary army of zealots that can physically contest the streets with the left and ultimately smash and atomise any organisation independent of the state. By 1930, when the Nazis made their national electoral breakthrough, their paramilitary wing, the SA (Sturmabteilung), was already 100,000 strong, growing to 400,000 by 1933, with the Nazi Party itself rapidly expanding from under 100,000 at the start of 1928 to 850,000 by 1933.8
To weld its supporters together, fascism projected an ideological vision of a restored homogenous nation in which “national” capital and labour could be reconciled and small producers would predominate, and which could reverse national decline. This reactionary utopia could only be achieved through purging those elements seen as threatening this imaginary national unity—workers’ organisations that foster class antagonism, liberal democratic institutions that “tolerate” this antagonism and those the Nazis saw as “alien” racial minorities such as Jewish people.
Trotsky argued that the core of such a mass movement was drawn from the petty bourgeoisie, those small producers and independent professionals standing between organised labour and big capital, who in a time of crisis fear being pushed down into the working class below and resent big business above them. The development of such an independent reactionary mass movement gives fascism what Ugo Palheta calls a “relative autonomy” from the ruling class.9
Fascism disguises itself as a revolutionary movement
To bind together a petty bourgeois mass movement the Nazis were willing to engage in rhetoric that not only targeted the “Marxist” workers’ organisations but also called for a “national revolution” directed against big business and the “reactionary” German political establishment. Such language was both demagogic and selective. The Nazis had no fundamental opposition to capitalism but distinguished between “healthy” capitalism, which was productive and subordinated to the national interest, and capital they identified as speculative and alien to the national interest, seen as “Jewish capital” in their antisemitic worldview.
Thus the Nazis disguised a counter-revolutionary movement with claims to being a revolutionary, anti-capitalist force. Such radical language combined with the existence of an independent mass movement that developed outside the structures of the capitalist class, whatever the backing it received from some individual capitalists, meant that the Nazis were far from the first choice of the ruling class. Indeed, Germany’s rulers feared that the stormtroopers might be turned not just against the workers’ movement and Jewish businesses but against the wider ruling class, whatever Hitler’s reassurances. They also feared that Hitler’s all-out assault on the workers’ movement might provoke an explosion from below—precisely what would happen in France in 1934-6, when there was a massive mobilisation of workers after French fascist “leagues” brought down the government. Similarly, General Franco provoked an insurrection from below when he seized power in Spain in 1936.
The bourgeoisie does not like the “plebeian” means of solving its problems…for the shocks and disturbances, although in the interests of bourgeois society, involve dangers for it as well. This is the source of the antagonism between fascism and the traditional parties of the bourgeoisie… The big bourgeoisie dislikes this method, much as a man with a swollen jaw dislikes having his teeth pulled.10
Turning to Hitler was a gamble and it required an extreme crisis for such risks to be taken. A combination of the erosion of support for traditional right-wing parties and the unprecedented economic collapse facing Germany led the ruling class to lever Hitler into power.
How the Nazis built: the dual strategy
The National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP or the Nazi Party) emerged from a wider milieu of antisemitic, völkisch (extreme nationalist) organisations. What marked out Hitler’s strategy was his focus on creating a Kampforganisation (struggle organisation) dedicated to overthrowing the Weimar political system, rather than focusing on propaganda alone. The Nazis also rejected bourgeois far-right parliamentary parties such as the DNVP (the German National People’s Party) as both lacking sufficient mass roots and being too embroiled in parliamentary compromises. The NSDAP, by contrast, sought to combine mass appeal with a willingness to “act with the most brutal ruthlessness”, in Hitler’s words. It was conceived initially as a wholly anti-parliamentary, militarised movement. Indeed at the 1922 Nazi Congress Hitler drove through a decision to oppose participation in elections.11
However, after the defeat of the 1923 Munich Beer Hall Putsch, when Hitler and his allies tried, and failed, to provoke a coup through a direct armed mobilisation, Hitler was forced to reassess and reorientate. Hitler abandoned the Nazis’ implacable opposition to participating in elections. Now, he argued, the Nazis should:
pursue a new line of action… Instead of working to achieve power by armed conspiracy, we shall have to hold our noses and enter the Reichstag against the Catholic and Marxist deputies. If outvoting them takes longer than outshooting them, at least the results will be guaranteed by their own constitution.12
This dual strategy, combining elections and a paramilitary street movement, in no way marked an abandonment of the Nazis’ goals. As Hermann Göring, the head of the SA, put it: “We are fighting against this state and the present system because we wish to destroy it utterly, but in a legal manner… we said we hated this state, [now] we say we love it—and still everyone knows what we mean”.13
As well as disguising their counter-revolutionary programme in the language of revolution, the Nazis now sought to advance under the mask of “legalism” and with a veneer of respectability. As the historian Joachim Fest observes:
[Hitler’s] ambition was unchanged: to seize power. For this he must build up an autocratic, military party; but he must also regain the lost trust of powerful groups and institutions. That is, he had to appear simultaneously as revolutionary and as defender of existing conditions, radical and moderate at once. He must both threaten the system and play the part of its preserver; he must both violate the law and establish credibility as its defender.14
Though the great economic collapse of 1929-32 is critical to any understanding of how the Nazis made their breakthrough, prior to this, Hitler’s pursuit of respectability and alliances with more traditional conservative forces paid off, providing legitimacy, media coverage and resources that enabled the Nazis to take advantage as the Great Depression tore apart millions of lives.
A key development was the radicalisation of the DNVP, the main conservative party in Weimar Germany. Formed in 1918 as the heir to the main pre-war conservative parties, the DNVP was deeply reactionary—pro-monarchist, antisemitic and hostile to the Weimar Republic. By the mid-1920s it had partially reconciled itself to Weimar as the threat of revolution subsided and the economy expanded. But under the media magnate and industrialist Alfred Hugenberg, who assumed the leadership in 1928, the DNVP turned sharply to the right, seeking to become a focus for the wider anti-Weimar right, including the Nazis. The party now began to adopt some of the methods and programme of the Nazis, assuming this would benefit them and not the upstart Hitler. Hugenberg launched a campaign alongside the Nazis against the Young Plan, a proposal to restructure, but not abolish, the crippling debts imposed on Germany after the First World War.
The campaign and alliance with Hugenberg provided Hitler with an opportunity to leave the political margins, while also proving that the Nazis were the most vigorous force on the radical right. The Nazis were the key beneficiary from this unity on the right. Fest describes the campaign against the Young Plan and the legitimacy it conferred as the “final breakthrough into national politics” for Hitler. In the September 1930 general election the Nazi vote leapt from 2.6 percent just two years earlier to 18.25 percent, from ninth place to second. Hugenberg and the DNVP again courted Hitler, but now as the weaker force—about half of the DNVP’s electorate had shifted to the Nazis. At a mass rally in Bad Harzburg in October 1931, designed to demonstrate the unity of the nationalist opposition, Hitler was invited to appear alongside Hugenberg and “everybody on the right who had power, money, or prestige”.15 This included a march past by thousands of SA members alongside other nationalist paramilitary formations such as the Stahlhelm (Steel helmets), the DNVP’s armed wing.
Hitler’s turn to “legalism” and the presentation of a more respectable face towards the establishment, along with participation in electoral politics after 1923, now combined with the radicalisation of a section of the existing right, played a significant role in the Nazis’ move from the margins to the centre of national politics.
At the same time, Hitler took care to ensure that the Nazis remained an independent force within their wider alliances and to signal to his supporters that the Nazis remained the most radical opponents of the Republic. At the Bad Harzburg rally, Hitler demonstratively walked off stage as soon as the SA had finished marching, ignoring the Stahlhelm’s parade. A week later he organised a huge rally in Brunswick with 100,000 SA men, telling the editor of the Leipziger Neueste Nachrichten that “you are a representative of the bourgeoisie which we are fighting”.16
The tension between the search for respectability and the need to assert its independence and counter-revolutionary radicalism constantly created fissures inside the Nazis, at times threatening to tear the organisation apart. The tragedy of the German left is that the Nazis were able to overcome such crises in the absence of effective mass opposition from the German workers’ movement.17
The re-emergence of fascism: 1970s-1990s
In the immediate post-war decades, fascism was discredited and marginalised. The defeat and destruction of Hitler’s and Benito Mussolini’s regimes and the discovery of the reality of the Holocaust, meant their open defenders were pariahs. Moreover, the long boom of the 1950s and 1960s saw full employment, rising living standards and the expansion of welfare states, leaving fascism little fertile soil in which to grow. As the sociologist Michael Mann put it, it appeared that “European fascism is defeated, dead and buried”.18
Yet 25 years ago Chris Harman, a former editor of this journal, noted signs of a revival of fascism across Europe. Harman pointed to the 14 percent of the vote won by Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 1988 French presidential elections, and to the rise of the far-right Republikaner in Germany. Such votes bore comparison to those achieved by both Mussolini and Hitler in the immediate years before they came to office.19 But Harman pointed to the differences as well as the similarities. Crucially, the fascists had a much weaker activist base than in the inter-war years and lacked anything like the mass street fighting organisations that Mussolini and Hitler possessed before coming to power.
This imbalance between the new fascists’ rising electoral support and their more modest presence on the streets reflected that while the end of the post-war boom had seen the return of economic crises and mass unemployment, such crises in the advanced industrial countries were on nothing like the scale of the early 1930s. As a result, modern fascists had difficulties turning electoral support into a bigger activist cadre prepared to launch all-out physical fights with the left and workers’ movements. Yet Harman also warned that “electorally-based fascism”, if unchallenged, could provide a framework for “street-fighting fascism” to grow.
The end of the post-war boom and the return of economic crisis was not enough to revive the fortunes of fascism; two other conditions were necessary. The first was the creation of political space for the fascists to grow. This was provided by the increasing failure of social democracy to deliver the reforms that had been possible at the height of the post-war boom. In addition, as the prospects for reform dimmed, so the politics of immigration and racism moved centre stage. But a second condition was also necessary. This was the need for a re-invention of fascism in order for it to escape its pariah status.
Crucial here was the role of the Front National in France. The fascist NPD (National Democratic Party) in Germany and the National Front (NF) in Britain were defeated by mass anti-fascist mobilisations, but in France the Front National was able to break through as disillusionment with the Socialist Party president François Mitterrand opened a space for it. As it did not face effective opposition, the Front was able to entrench itself. French fascism went through an extensive debate in the 1960s about how it might make itself relevant again in the altered conditions of the post-war era. As Jim Wolfreys has explained:
During the 1960s the French extreme right tried to come to terms with three factors to which post-war fascism had to adapt. The defeat of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime, rapid economic modernisation and decolonisation raised the question of fascism’s relevance. A former leader of the Vichy militia in northern France, François Gaucher, wrote a book on the subject in 1961. Le Fascisme est-il actuel? argued that fascism was characterised by its flexible approach to dogma. This meant that fascists were not obliged to operate in the same way as during the inter-war period.20
This involved dropping any explicit identification with inter-war fascism, cultivating an image of respectability and outward allegiance to parliamentary democracy, and understanding that the path to power would be protracted. It also meant drawing on the ideas of French New Right thinkers such as Alain de Benoist, who found ways of expressing racism in terms of “cultural difference” rather than discredited references to biological supremacy.21 François Duprat, a key figure in the early Front National, insisted that “in no way does fascism lie solely in its exterior aspects (dictatorship, principle of the leader, single party, uniforms, salute, paramilitary training, supervision of the youth)”.22 But outward respectability and the adoption of euphemistic language did not mean Le Pen and the Front National had abandoned the fascist project. The aim was to seek to transform its new audience “in our own image”, that is to forge a bigger fascist cadre from a wider racist electoral pool of support.23
This is why Le Pen, while seeking respectability and attempting to attract sections of the mainstream right, also sought to maintain the Front’s outsider status and harden up its supporters. Hence his infamous reference to the Holocaust as a mere “detail of history” on prime time radio in 1987. What were invariably misread as “gaffes” by the media and opponents were deliberate, calculated moves. An internal Front National training brochure reads:
Frightening and offending people must be avoided if we are going to seduce them. In our soft and timorous society, immoderate comments cause large parts of the population to feel apprehension, distrust, and aversion. When expressing oneself in public, it is therefore crucial to avoid comments that seem crude or extremist. Anything that can be said one way can be said with the same amount of force in established language that the public accepts. So instead of saying “let’s throw N*** to the sea” for example, say that a “return home should be organised for third-world immigrants”.24
This meant developing what Fysh and Wolfreys call a “dual discourse”:
The Front deliberately employs a dual discourse, one official and explicit, presenting itself as a legitimate part of the political establishment, the other unofficial and implicit, reflecting its anti-democratic, authoritarian agenda. The veneer of respectability must be sufficiently opaque to fool opponents and observers, but transparent enough to avoid deceiving its own members.25
As a result of these changes, any focus simply on the public programme of modern fascism risks mistaking its outward mask for its real nature. Yet much of the study of the contemporary radical right has been dominated by such an idealist approach, giving priority to doctrine over organisation and strategy, to surface appearance over underlying reality, and concluding fascism is no longer a significant force.
Moreover, as the historian Robert Paxton observed in his perceptive study of fascism, it is a political tradition which has historically shown, far more than any other, a “radical instrumentalisation of truth”. In other words, it is highly flexible about which aspects of its programme it puts forward at any given moment.26
Taking root in a favourable environment
Paxton further suggests that, far from having a fixed, static essence, fascism develops and evolves. Paxton identifies five stages of fascism: 1) the creation of fascist movements; 2) their successful rooting in political systems; 3) the seizure of power; 4) the exercise of power; 5) their longer-term fate of either “normalisation” as a conservative-authoritarian regime or further radicalisation.27 Thankfully, we are nowhere on the brink of the third phase. But Paxton’s second stage, where fascist movements “take root”—winning votes, entering parliaments, gaining entrance into and influencing the national political debate, pulling it to the right, while seeking to fashion a bigger, more confident fascist cadre—is accelerating.
The decade since the financial and economic crisis that shook the advanced industrial countries in 2007-9 has seen this process advance further, from a handful of countries in Europe possessing a significant fascist presence to something beginning to approach a universal experience—even if, as we shall see, contemporary fascists retain significant weaknesses. So, since 2009, a succession of countries have seen the entrance of fascist parties into their national parliament: Jobbik in Hungary (2010), Alternative für Deutschland in Germany (2017), the Sweden Democrats (2010), Golden Dawn, Greece (2012), ELAM, Golden Dawn’s sister party, in Cyprus (2016), Fratelli D’Italia, “Brothers of Italy” (2018), the People’s Party—Our Slovakia (2016). Harman’s observation in 1994, that the votes achieved are comparable with those of the Nazis in the 1930s, is even more true a quarter of a century later (table 1).28
Table 1: Votes for fascist and far-right parties (percentage) compared to those of the Nazis
Source: Compiled by author
Vlaams Belang (Belgium)
Golden Dawn (Greece)
Presidential elections (first round)
Presidential elections (Dec 2016 run-off)
National Rally/Front (France)
Legislative elections (first round)
Legislative elections (run-off)
Presidential elections (first round)
Presidential elections (run-off)
Alternative für Deutschland (Germany)
The rise in votes for the far right is not simply an automatic reflex of economic crisis, austerity and rising inequality. Class solidarity and anger directed towards the rich and ruling class is one possible response to economic crisis. Moreover, a crude economistic explanation for the rise of the far right and fascists is disarmed when economic growth returns and those forces fail to crumble (both Hungary and Poland are currently seeing their GDP expand at around 5 percent per year, but both possess major fascist movements). Economic reductionist explanations also lead to a narrow economistic political response—to a focus solely on fighting over wages, conditions and cuts, or to getting anti-austerity governments elected, downplaying the need to challenge fascist organisations or the racist ideas they promote and feed on.
A mirror image of economistic explanations is to locate the rise of the far right as a response to “cultural factors”, such as a supposed crisis of identity of the “white working class”. But not only does this fail to explain why racist arguments have moved to the centre of the political agenda or why this translates into voting for fascist parties, it is also an approach that can imply that racist arguments cannot be challenged but only accommodated to.
Neither the economistic argument nor the idealist approach are adequate. The key mediating link between the economic impact of the neoliberal restructuring of society and the ideologically more favourable atmosphere for the far right to grow in is politics—crucially the way the mainstream of the ruling class, especially the institutions most responsible for winning consent, such as political parties and the media, have responded to a crisis of neoliberal hegemony by radicalising to the right over racism. Far from shoring up support for the neoliberal centre, the result has been to make the far right’s ideas more acceptable.
Crisis of the party system
The impact of neoliberal assaults and spiralling inequality and the pressures this has created, combined with austerity, have hollowed out claims that neoliberalism’s promotion of the market and business interests can deliver for the mass of the population. This in turn has translated itself into a crisis of the political system, with those parties most identified with neoliberalism, conservative and social democratic alike, seeing their social roots and electoral reach ebb. This has created space for “outsiders” on the left but also the far right to grow.
The crisis has hit social democratic parties especially hard. In the German federal elections in 2017 the SPD received its worst share of the vote since 1949, 20.5 percent, half what it achieved in 1998. The French Socialist Party plummeted to just 7.5 percent in the 2017 parliamentary elections, after holding the French presidency from 2012 to 2017. The Dutch Labour Party, a regular party of government in the post-war Netherlands, crashed to under 6 percent of the vote in 2017. And while the Social Democrats in Sweden topped the poll in the 2018 general election, their vote fell below 30 percent for the first time since 1920.
However, conservative parties have not been immune. So, the German Christian Democrats also received their worst result since 1949 in the 2017 election, while in France the main party of the right, Les Républicains, failed to get into the final round of the 2017 presidential election. The Austrian People’s Party, the main conservative party in post-war Austria, sought to stem eroding support by gambling on a turn to the right under its new leader Sebastian Kurz, adopting the racist programme of the fascist FPÖ, with which it now governs in coalition. The crisis of the mainstream parties has driven the push to resort to racism in an attempt to shore up support, yet far from undercutting the support for the far right, it only makes its views more acceptable.
The intensification of Islamophobia
Islamophobia has become the sharpest edge of contemporary racism, becoming ever more entrenched since the onset of the United States led “War on Terror” at the start of the 2000s. To take one measure, the number of EU states with some form of legal restriction aimed at Muslim women’s dress has risen to nine, with either national (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Netherlands and Spain) or local bans (Germany and Italy).29
In Germany, it was not the AfD that first raised the slogan, “Islam does not belong in Germany”. It was the then federal interior minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) in 2011.30 Faced with competition from the AfD in the regional elections in Bavaria, home to the CSU, another German interior minister and CSU leader, Horst Seehofer, again declared: “Islam does not belong to Germany”.31 Nor was the escalation of Islamophobia in the mainstream confined to the right. In 2010, a former SPD Berlin finance minister and member of the board of the Bundesbank, Thilo Sarrazin, published a book, Deutschland schafft sich ab (“Germany is Abolishing Itself”) attacking the post-war immigration of Muslims into Germany. The book sold over a million copies.
In France, Nicolas Sarkozy, right-wing president between 2007 and 2012, famously vowed to use a power hose to clean out a housing estate of Arab and Roma youth, who he referred to as racaille (“scum”), a term with highly racialised connotations. Sarkozy even created a “Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Codevelopment”. During the 2012 presidential election, both Sarkozy and his Socialist Party opponent François Hollande, the eventual winner, dubbed the decision of a municipal swimming pool in Lille to allow a group of women (some of whom were Muslim) to have a separate female only aqua gym class a threat to “republican values”.32
In Britain the supposedly liberal-conservative prime minister David Cameron told a security conference in Munich in 2011, that “state multiculturalism” had failed and issued a demand for “less passive tolerance” and a “much more active, muscular liberalism”, while calling on Muslims to identify with “British values”.33 Again and again, mainstream politicians, alongside the media and the state, have escalated Islamophobia, legitimising the ideas of the far right.
Fortress Europe’s war on migrants
A further driver of the intensification of racism is the extension and entrenchment of the EU’s border regime. Stathis Kouvelakis has provided a devastating account of the reality of the EU’s external borders and internal migration regime. Kouvelakis notes the “multiplication of ‘deterritorialised’ zones deep in the interior of the [European] Union, where the rights guaranteed by the international conventions to which EU states subscribe no longer apply: detention centres close to airports and other points of passage; ‘temporary’ camps, where conditions recall those in a war zone”.34
Treating migrants as an alien threat with a distinctly lower place in a hierarchy of rights feeds racism and legitimises the authoritarian solutions offered by the far right. The rise of the far right in turn leads mainstream political forces to adapt further, convinced that the way to stop further parts of the electorate shifting over to the racists is further racist escalations.
Neoliberalism, race and culture
The neoliberal restructuring of society, especially when combined with austerity, can lead to intensified competition among workers if the notion that “there is not enough for everybody” takes hold. Such sentiments, especially where they are not challenged by the experience of collective struggle, can be mobilised in a racist direction.
The impact is not just on the working class. Sections of the middle class can also became gripped by a fear of social relegation in the whirlwind of uncertainty and spiralling inequality. The Marxist sociologist Oliver Nachtwey describes a middle class in Germany that, after decades of upward social mobility, now sees itself threatened by a “downward escalator”: “For large sections of the German middle class…it is not the actual threat of disaster that has increased, so much as the worry of disaster. The ‘status-worried middle’ has in particular been struck by a kind of panic. It seems to many people that their own stability is at an end, that ‘collapse…is completely possible’.”35
This leads to a sharper battle to maintain status:
To a certain degree the middle class has abandoned solidarity with the weak; it has built security by shutting itself off. Where there was previously a certain liberality, more rigorous ideas of morality, culture and behaviour have now returned. With increased fears of “contamination” and “infection”, people seek the greatest possible distance and strict isolation from the “parallel society” of the lower class.36
Nachtwey goes on to argue: “For the lower middle class, it is a harsh social competition, the struggle for prosperous life, and the disappointed expectations of ascent and security that lead to a ‘brutalisation’ of social conflict…[where] fear of downward mobility produces a very specific authoritarianism”.37 More broadly, the acceptance of neoliberalism across the ruling class has reframed the discussion of racism. The central tenet of neoliberalism is that the market creates a meritocratic society where an individual’s rewards are the result of effort and talent. Failure is the fault of the individual, while collective inequalities—such as lower levels of income or higher presence in the prison population—must be due to cultural practices within particular communities, not the racist institutions of capitalist society. As Neil Davidson and Richard Saull note: “Culture is left as the only explanatory residue for apparent behavioural traits that do not conform to a ‘meritocratic’ neoliberal subjectivity”.38
Boosted by Trump
The entrance of Donald Trump into the White House espousing far-right rhetoric and a hard economic nationalist programme has also given the far right and fascists in Europe an enormous boost. Moreover the emergence of “illiberal” government, such as Orban’s in Hungary and the Law and Justice Party in Poland, or the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin in Russia, offer further reference points for a challenge to the hegemony of liberal democracy.
The contrast with the international picture that faced, say, the British National Front as it grew in the 1970s is stark. Then, overall, fascism was on the retreat—Franco’s dictatorship in Spain and the authoritarian government in Portugal were overthrown in the 1970s, while the French Front National was unable to muster the signatures required to stand a candidate in the 1981 presidential election. When the NF looked around the world in the 1970s, it felt isolated.39 Today’s fascists see an international picture that provides invaluable experiences to learn from and emulate.
Fascism in the 21st century
Marine Le Pen: the abandonment of fascism?
There is a widely held view that under Marine Le Pen, who succeeded her father as leader of the Front National in 2011, the party has broken from its former complicity with fascism to become a more conventional “national-populist” parliamentary party. But, while Marine Le Pen has attempted to re-calibrate the public positions of the FN, this is purely a tactical move to increase the party’s respectability and to seek to widen the party’s potential support. As Louis Aliot, the FN’s vice president and Marine Le Pen’s partner, said in 2013: “While distributing pamphlets in the street, I realised that the glass ceiling was neither immigration nor Islam… It is antisemitism that prevents people from voting for us… Marine Le Pen has agreed on this for as long as I have known her”.40
Le Pen has tried to distance the Front from antisemitism and claims to have embraced both the French Republic and “republican values”. Yet, as the French philosopher Michel Eltchaninoff, who undertook a study of Le Pen’s speeches and interviews, notes, her formal rejection of antisemitism is combined with speeches that “contain several rhetorical elements of antisemitic discourse”. First, a central theme for Le Pen is what she sees as the antagonism between the nation state and the forces of “globalism”, defined as a form of liberal “totalitarianism” comparable to Nazism or Stalinism. She said in 2012:
Globalists from the right and left quite openly cherish the plan for a universal empire governed by the laws…of the market. Behind the ethereal myth of a world without enemies, and of a happiness that they can only imagine as materialistic, hides an unrelenting ideology, a totalitarian ideology, a market-based ideology whose monstrous project is one of a planet in thrall to consumption and production for the benefit of a few big businesses or banks which alone stand to profit.41
Le Pen links this superficially anti-capitalist argument to a claim that the triumph of the market involves uprooting populations via mass migration and rendering people “interchangeable” and powerless as their identity and their ties to their collective history are broken.42 The result is “dilution of the nation, weakening of the family, disappearance of national solidarity, negation of our identity and roots, erasing our memory, scorn towards values of effort, work, merit, courage, righteousness”.43 This demagogic pseudo-anti-capitalism seeks to harness discontent at the torments imposed on workers in the age of neoliberalism and to redirect it towards immigrants as the face of globalisation. But who is behind the “globalist” drive to corrupt the healthy, homogenous nation through mass immigration? It is the world of finance controlled by mysterious “pressure groups” and “special interest groups” which stand behind the sham of democracy. And, notes Eltchaninoff, Marine Le Pen regularly hints at who such mysterious and powerful forces are by invoking Jewish names. So, while Le Pen avoids making open allegations of Jewish dominance she borrows from almost the “entire panoply of anti-Jewish rhetoric”:
What is evident is that, in her words, the antisemitic listener or reader will find they need to feed their obsession. Accustomed to concealing their opinions, they will be pleased to detect allusions and associations, and they will fill in the gaps themselves. The non-antisemitic listener, meanwhile, can also subscribe to this discourse, though it’s only one step away from turning into socio-economic antisemitism.44
While Le Pen’s central, public target is France’s Muslim population, as Ethan B Katz has observed, she recurrently invokes Jewish “difference” when she attacks Muslims, while simultaneously attempting to divide Muslims and Jews. For example, when Le Pen called for “ostentatious religious signs” to be banned in October 2016 and again in February 2017, she mentioned not just the Muslim hijab but also the Jewish kippah, a “small sacrifice” she claimed many French Jews would be ready to make to defeat Islam. She also made clear that her demand that French citizens who hold dual nationality in a non-European country choose one or the other, while directed in the first instance at Muslims with North African links, also included French Jews with dual Israeli citizenship.45 Such loyalty tests are designed to carry the suspicion that the loyalty of French Jews to the nation is in question.
Le Pen’s proclaimed support for Zionism is a strategy to deflect the charge of antisemitism, but it is more than simply deceit. Israel, as a settler-colonial, racially exclusionary and highly militarised ally of Western imperialism, habitually invoking existential threats from “radical” Islamist movements and states, is highly conducive to the worldview of Le Pen. Moreover, Jewish Israeli citizens can be counterposed as good “national” Jews rooted in their own nation-state as opposed to malign “cosmopolitan” Jews supposedly fostering the forces of “globalism”. In this way, support for Zionism in no way precludes antisemitism.
The second strand of Marine Le Pen’s “detoxification” strategy has been to embrace Republican rhetoric. Historically the French fascist tradition has been antagonistic to the French Republic. Le Pen now proclaims that the FN is “a great republican party”, continuing and strengthening a theme initiated by her father during the 2007 presidential campaign.46 Such a move is possible because of the radicalisation of the mainstream, which, as noted above, has adopted an increasingly authoritarian racism.47
Alongside all this, Marine Le Pen still seeks periodically to engage in deliberate provocations. So she compared Muslims praying in the streets, due to inadequate space in mosques, to the Nazi occupation of France (and within a year the government responded by banning prayers in the street).48 Of course, such statements serve not only to demonise Muslims but also to trivialise the Nazi occupation. During the 2017 French presidential election, Le Pen declared that France bore no responsibility for the 1942 round-up by the Vichy regime of more than 13,000 Jews who were eventually sent to Auschwitz. To make such an argument during a presidential election campaign suggests that the strategy of combining respectability with calculated interventions to harden your support, even if it costs votes, did not end after Jean-Marie Le Pen’s departure as the Front’s leader.
Alternative für Deutschland: a hybrid
Alternative für Deutschland has grown and radicalised to the right very rapidly. Formed in 2013 by right-wing academics opposed to the Euro and critical of the EU, it contained from the beginning a small core of fascists but initially avoided overtly racist rhetoric.49 There were parallels with the British UKIP, which also began life as an anti-EU party.
The rise of Pegida, a mass racist Islamophobic street movement initiated by Nazis outside the AfD in late 2014, boosted those wishing to place racism at the centre of the AfD’s political appeal, leading to the original party leader, Bernd Lucke, being pushed out and replaced by Frauke Petry, who publicly suggested refugees crossing the border should be shot.50 Pegida and the radicalisation of the AfD strengthened the party’s fascist wing, who grew in influence and confidence. In March 2015, Björn Höcke and André Poggenburg, leaders of the fascist wing of the AfD, issued the “Erfurt Declaration” calling for the party to open up its membership to the open Nazi scene. It was quickly signed by Alexander Gauland, a former Christian Democrat politician and another leading figure in the AfD’s fascist wing (and the AfD’s current co-leader). The declaration argued that the AfD was adapting “more and more to the business of establishment politics” and that it should instead be a “patriotic alternative to the established parties…a movement of our people against the social experiments of recent decades (gender mainstreaming, multiculturalism, haphazard child-rearing, etc) and…a resistance movement against the further hollowing out of German sovereignty and identity”.51 This was a call for the AfD to maintain its status as a radical outsider capable of developing a harder fascist core. The Erfurt Declaration coincided with the launching of an internal faction, “Der Flügel” (“The wing”), to organise the fascist wing of the AfD to fight for this vision.
The 2015 AfD Congress voted to open up the AfD to former members of the Nazi NPD or Republikaner who had been barred from joining.52 Such an opening up to fascists would not take place in UKIP until Gerard Batten became leader in 2018 and orientated on the Islamophobic street movement around the Football Lads Alliance (FLA) and Tommy Robinson, a quarter century after the party’s foundation. With the AfD, this development was compressed into a couple of years.
The AfD was now flooded with fascists, marginalising further the neoliberal, anti-Euro wing. Yet the party remains a hybrid—a combination of racist neoliberals, national conservatives and fascists, but crucially with the first two groups willing to work with the fascists.
The increased confidence of the fascist wing was shown in the provocative statements they used to harden up their supporters. So Höcke, in a deliberately provocative speech to the party’s youth wing in early 2017, attacked what he called the “politics of remembrance” and, referring to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, said: “We Germans…are the only people in the world who have planted a monument of shame in the heart of their capital”.53 Gauland similarly told the AfD’s youth wing, that “Hitler and the Nazis are just bird shit in more than 1,000 years of successful German history”—a classic piece of trivialisation and relativisation of the Nazi era.54
The increased influence of the fascists saw Petry, in turn, driven out after clashing with the fascist wing, fearing it would jeopardise the party’s electoral support. An academic observer of the AfD, Matthias Quent, argues that the tension between Petry and Höcke reflects two competing strategies:
Petry wants to orient the party towards a possible coalition, and Höcke sees the AfD as a movement party that can be an instrument for making new right wing concepts socially acceptable…he just sees parliamentarianism as a means to an end… That goes beyond a simple “us against them” mentality and straight into the rhetoric of National Socialism.55
Petry was replaced as leader by Gauland and Alice Weidel, representing the two wings of the party—fascist and national conservative respectively. But the condition is that the latter accepts the former. The AfD’s fascist wing is also attempting to build among workers. For example, Höcke turned up at a protest by car workers facing closure of the plant in Eisenbach on April 2018 (they chased him away). They have also sought to put forward candidates for the works council elections in key companies, though with limited success.56
Even greater clarity about the nature of the fascist wing’s project is offered by a recent book of interviews with Höcke, Nie Zweimal in Demselben Fluss (Never in the Same River Twice), where, according to a report in the US magazine Jacobin, he argues that we are living through the “final stage of the degeneration of democracy…which will be followed by a phase of absolutist autocracy”.57 Höcke outlines a threefold strategy to advance this goal: 1) Building an electoral political party, the AfD; 2) Street movements like Pegida or the Nazi-led mob that took to the streets of Chemnitz in summer 2018; 3) Sympathetic sections of the state and security apparatus.
The rise of the AfD and its rapid radicalisation to the right is a reflection of the way in which a highly favourable atmosphere has been created for racist politics by the mainstream, in turn opening up a space for harder fascist projects to grow, eroding the “cordon sanitaire” around them to the point where some sections of the conservative right are not only willing to echo their racism but also to organisationally collaborate with the fascists, indeed to co-exist with them in the same party.
Electoral fascism and the streets: testing the water
Today’s electoral fascists possess nothing like the paramilitary organisations Mussolini or the Nazis developed in the 1920s and 1930s. There are exceptions. Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary have both developed significant paramilitary organisations and as a result have been much closer to the model of classical fascism—though recently Jobbik has been making a “Eurofascist turn” and attempting to present a more respectable image.58 But this does not mean that the electoral fascist parties make no attempt to take to the streets or that they have no relationship to smaller street-fighting Nazi groups. While the Front National/National Rally in France does not openly mobilise street-fighting squads it does maintain its own sizeable security force, ostensibly to protect party meetings and its leaders. It is at least hundreds strong and organised on paramilitary lines. This security force also maintains links with smaller Nazi groups such as the Groupe Union Défense or Jeunesses Nationalistes Révolutionnaires, which was banned after the murder by Nazis of the young anti-fascist Clément Méric in 2013. The AfD has also sought to test the water for street mobilisations under its own banner, organising May Day demonstrations, for example. The organiser of the AfD’s demonstration in May 2018 in Berlin, Guido Reil, made it clear that this was part of a dual strategy: “We are an alternative party, and that’s why we do things differently than the old parties. Parallel [to parliament], we take to the streets and give our members and supporters the chance to actively participate”.59
The past decade has also seen the emergence of racist street movements centred on Islamophobia. In Britain, this took the form first of the EDL and, more recently, the FLA, with the movement now increasingly focused on Tommy Robinson. Initially the FLA tried to keep Robinson away, not out of any fundamental disagreement but fearing it would undermine their claim not to be associated with the far right. But the movement quickly radicalised and Robinson emerged as the central figure, while UKIP is now seeking to rebuild by drawing the movement into its orbit.60 The current movement around Robinson is also more overtly linked with international far right and fascist groups, and more ideological than its predecessor. Members of the alt-right youth movement Generation Identity are a presence at many of its demonstrations and figures such as the Dutch Islamophobe Geert Wilders, Vlaams Belang leader Filip Dewinter and Steve Bannon have addressed its street rallies.
Today’s fascists are much weaker than Hitler and the Nazis were on the streets but this doesn’t preclude the electoral fascists seeking, in embryo at least, to prepare for a turn to the streets and the development of paramilitary wings under more favourable circumstances of greater social crisis and further radicalisation in bourgeois politics to the right.
Conservatives, the far right and fascism
The disproportion between the electoral strength of much of contemporary fascism and its general weakness on the streets can create a temptation for sections of their leaderships to abandon their long-term strategy of undermining and smashing liberal democracy and settle for a place within it.
Something like this seems to have occurred with the old Italian Social Movement (MSI) in Italy in the 1990s. The MSI, uniquely in post-war Europe, openly identified with Mussolini’s regime and carved out an electoral niche for itself in the Italian South, regularly winning 5-8 percent in general elections. But it was kept out of office by the dominance of the Christian Democrats. In the early 1990s, the opportunity for the MSI to enter the mainstream and government office, ending five decades of exclusion, suddenly opened up after the collapse of all the old dominant parties. It changed its name to Alleanza Nationale (AN), entering a coalition with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Northern League. The price was to claim fidelity to democracy. The AN declared itself a “post-fascist”, conservative party. Yet there was always an ambiguity about its transformation, with evidence that the majority of the membership remained faithful to the old cause.61 With the later dissolution of the AN, a breakaway from it, the Brothers of Italy (FdI), has emerged to pursue the rebuilding of a fascist party.
The Austrian FPÖ also entered government under its leader Jörg Haider in the first half of the 2000s, only to see its support plummet and the party split. It has since rebuilt itself on a much harder basis, with its leading fascist cadre playing a central role in the ruling coalition it has subsequently formed with the Austrian conservatives. As Austrian socialist David Albrich explains, it is pursuing a strategy of seeking to reconstruct the state along more authoritarian and openly racist lines to create a more favourable environment for a street-fighting wing to be built in the future.62
The interaction and mutual influence of conservatives and fascists is a two-way street. The re-emergence of an electoral fascist force in Italy, or the more successful recent efforts of the FPÖ as part of the ruling coalition in Austria, is a reflection of the direction of travel today as radicalisation of the mainstream opens much greater space for fascists to advance rather than abandon their project.
Weaknesses of fascist organisations
There is an underlying vulnerability built into fascist parties as they seek to take root. Even in the inter-war period there was a tension between fascism’s bid to present a respectable face, including efforts to reassure the ruling class that they could do business with the fascists, and building up its own organisations and motivating its own supporters. Working within the mainstream and maintaining outsider status to create a fascist cadre is much easier when fascists are making advances. Sacrifices necessary to forge political alliances or as the price of entering the mainstream to accumulate support can be tolerated if the gains they lead to are clear and palpable. But any feeling of impasse or loss of support and the conflicting elements can begin to pull apart.
Even prior to coming to power in 1933, Hitler and the Nazis were shaken by a number of internal revolts. Two episodes encapsulate this. One was the Stennes revolt. This reflected tensions between the street-fighters in the SA, who were impatient with the party’s political leadership and their willingness to make compromises with traditional conservatives, adhering, at least verbally, to a legal veneer to gain entrance to parliament. The tensions erupted into open conflict during the 1930 Reichstag election campaign. Led by Walter Stennes, the Berlin SA, fuelled by resentment at lack of funds, autonomy, and places in the party’s electoral lists of candidates, rebelled against the party leadership. They ransacked the regional offices of the Nazi party in Berlin after overpowering its SS guard. As Ian Kershaw notes:
The crisis merely brought to a head—not for the last time—the structural conflict built into the NSDAP between the party’s organisation and that of the SA… The contempt of these “party soldiers” for the “civilians”…was a constant. Regular reminders that they were subordinate to the party organisation were not always swallowed by the stormtroopers, who felt that they were the ones who went where the going was toughest, who suffered the casualties from the street warfare with the Communists and Socialists.63
To quell the revolt, Hitler was forced directly to take over the leadership of the SA and use his personal authority to pacify them. In the context of the Nazis’ rising support such tensions could be contained. But the biggest crisis to shake the Nazi Party occurred on the eve of its taking power. Though the Nazis nearly doubled their vote in the July 1932 election and topped the poll, the path to power was blocked after president Paul von Hindenburg initially refused to make Hitler chancellor. A second election in November, exerting an enormous drain on the party’s resources, saw the Nazi vote fall for the first time since 1928. In these circumstances Gregor Strasser, the second most important figure in the Nazi leadership, now sought to open independent negotiations with Franz von Papen, the conservative-authoritarian chancellor, who attempted to draw the Nazis into a governing coalition in a subordinate position.
Strasser had been responsible for rebuilding the Nazi party from 1924-5 in effect from scratch after the debacle of the Munich Putsch. He was convinced the Nazis would start to disintegrate if they saw no results for their efforts and concluded that Hitler’s all or nothing gamble on the German ruling class acquiescing in his chancellorship was doomed to failure. Strasser was wrong and Hitler forced him out.64
If there had been an effective strategy from the KPD, the German Communist Party, to draw in sections of the social democratic SPD into a united front to mobilise against the Nazis, instead of dismissing the SPD as “social fascists” and regarding the Nazis as simply another conservative-authoritarian party, then such tensions could have been widened. This might have checked the advance of the Nazis, throwing them into open crisis and blocking their path to power. Instead the combination of the KPD’s sectarianism and the SPD leadership’s illusions in the German state and its democratic trappings allowed the Nazis to recover from each crisis.
If this were true for “classical fascism”, then contemporary electoral fascism is even more vulnerable as its active base is much smaller compared with its electoral periphery. They are caught between the need to seek votes by presenting a respectable image and the demands of their activist fascist core to maintain a more radical and provocative stance and to express their real programme publicly—or at least to allow the activists to express it.
The fascist core may be willing to accept a curb on their public utterances for a time, but if such restraint does not deliver results, where they meet sustained effective mobilisations by anti-fascists that erode the fascists’ claims to respectability and drive a wedge between their softer electoral periphery and harder fascist core, frustrations can explode and internal tensions between those most identified with the electoral strategy and those most committed to maintaining the fascist project can erupt and threaten to tear the organisation apart.
What kind of anti-fascism?
No alliance with the liberal centre
One response to the rise of the far right and fascists is to urge an alliance between the left and the neoliberal centre as a necessary pact with the “lesser evil” against the greater danger. So Paul Mason, a left-wing writer and Jeremy Corbyn supporter, argues that a “new strategy” where socialists “form tactical alliances with the centre” is needed. For Mason, the main enemy of social justice is no longer the neoliberal elite but “people who would drown refugees, who are slandering Muslims as paedophiles and who would…criminalise abortion”.65
There are three problems with this kind of approach. First, it is precisely the neoliberal elite who are drowning refugees in the Mediterranean and who have carried through a sustained campaign of Islamophobia out of which the far right has grown. It has done so while presiding over the neoliberal restructuring of society, creating huge pools of bitterness and uncertainty across large swathes of the population. Allying with the liberal centre simply allows fascists and the far right to identify the left with the establishment, falsely presenting themselves as the only real alternative.
Second, reconciliation with the neoliberal centre means downplaying mass mobilisation and looking to existing institutions such as the state to curb the fascists. Yet the state is deeply structured around racism and almost always sees the left as a greater threat than the fascists. A more recent version of this argument is the belief that the European Union is a bulwark against virulent racism and fascism. Yet as we have seen, the EU itself is a powerful incubator of racism and fascism, through its pursuit of the toxic combination of neoliberalism, austerity and racism. This does not mean that people who hold such illusions in the EU, often out of fear of the far right, cannot be central to an effective anti-fascist movement, but it cannot be based around such ideas. In Britain, for example, where the traumas of Brexit have divided the working class and the left, it has been necessary to argue—against those such as the pro-EU left group Another Europe is Possible—that the anti-racist and anti-fascist movement cannot mobilise on a “Stop Brexit” basis. This would divide the anti-fascist movement while simultaneously allowing those such as Tommy Robinson and UKIP to pose as the champions of the 17 million people who voted Leave.
Third, the liberal centre will invariably demand the left abandon its battles against neoliberalism and austerity in the name of “unity” against the far right. While shutting down any challenge from its left, the liberal centre will simultaneously capitulate to racism in the belief that this will shore up its right flank against the challenge from the far right. Political independence from the neoliberal centre is a crucial condition of effective anti-fascism.
No concessions to racism
Sections of the left can also be tempted to believe that it can undercut the appeal of the racists and fascists through accommodation to their arguments—a temptation amplified in parties that are primarily electoral in orientation. A powerful contemporary example is the movement launched by two prominent figures in Die Linke in Germany, Sahra Wagenknecht and Oskar Lafontaine, called Aufstehen (Stand Up).66 Wagenknecht is the co-chair of Die Linke’s parliamentary group and Lafontaine is a veteran socialist politician who broke from the SPD to help form Die Linke. Wagenknecht claims that Die Linke’s commitment to open borders has lost the party votes and allowed the AfD to outflank it. Wagenknecht argues that “many regard free movement and immigration as the main source of increased competition for low paid jobs” and that “the refugee crisis has led to additional uncertainty”.67
Such arguments are buttressed by the claim that it was the arrival of large numbers of refugees in Germany in 2015 that led to the breakthrough of the AfD. Yet as Christine Buchholz, another Die Linke MP and a supporter of the Marx21 group, has argued, the assumption that there is an automatic link between the proportion of migrants in a population and the spread of racism is simply false. For example, racism and Islamophobia are rampant in Hungary but the country took in virtually no refugees in 2015 and has a tiny Muslim population. By contrast large numbers of refugees did arrive in Greece in 2015 but Golden Dawn was unable to make gains out of this. The difference is explained by the existence of an effective anti-racist and anti-fascist movement in Greece and its relative absence in Hungary.68
Concessions to racism only legitimise the far right, reinforcing the false narrative that migrants, Muslims or other racial minorities are the problem and allowing the far right to claim that even their opponents agree with this. Far from breaking away sections of the far right’s support it serves to solidify it and instead allows such ideas to permeate more widely inside sections of the organised working class movement.
No counterposing economic struggle to anti-racism
As argued above, it is a mistake to see the rise of the far right as solely due to economic causes and to insist that the left should simply focus on economic and social issues rather than anti-racism. It is true that the neoliberal restructuring of society is one of the roots of growth of the far right and higher levels of collective resistance can provide a basis for challenging racism. However, it is far from automatic that more economic struggle leads to the demise of the far right. Racism has deep roots and the ruling class will try to mobilise this in the face of challenges from below. A sustained campaign to challenge racist arguments and to target fascist organisations is also required, even on the more favourable terrain of a higher level of class struggle.
France provides the clearest negative example. Since the early 1990s, several waves of militant social movements have swept France, yet the Front National over the same period saw its support increase. The French left failed to build the kind of united campaign that the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) created in Britain in the late 1970s, which broke the National Front and then again defeated the British National Party in the early 1990s, or the campaign the ANL’s successor, Unite Against Fascism, organised in the 2000s and early 2010s to defeat the BNP at the polls and the English Defence League on the streets.
There was one period when such an approach began to be adopted in France. In the late 1990s, the Front National entered into a sharp crisis ending in a damaging split when Bruno Mégret, then the second most senior leader after Jean-Marie Le Pen, broke away from the party to form a rival organisation.
Two things had altered the situation in the second half of the 1990s. First, huge public sector strikes in November and December 1995 transformed the political atmosphere, marginalising the Front in public debate and creating a widespread mood of working class solidarity, which replaced the demoralisation of the preceding decade. Second, this led to a greater willingness to challenge the scapegoating of immigrants and fed into a revival of anti-racism, with two organisations, Le Manifeste contre le Front National and Ras l’Front pursuing a much more militant campaign against the Front National. So, 50,000 marched on the Front’s congress in Strasbourg in 1997, the first time a national march directly against the National Front had taken place and which also began to clearly target the Front as fascist with thousands chanting “N for Nazi, F for Fascist, smash the National Front”.69
The Front was now being targeted in an unprecedented way:
[This] brought the contradictory tendencies that made up the FN into focus and into conflict… Le Pen stressed the need for the FN to remain an anti-establishment force, Mégret argued that alliances with the traditional right would allow the FN to eliminate its weakest elements. This was partly a reflection of the FN’s twin quest for respectability within liberal democracy, and its desire to smash that democracy… The organisation had around 1,500 elected representatives by the mid-1990s… Electoral success created the potential for the bureaucratisation of a large layer of the organisation’s cadre and generated a culture of managerialism which was at odds with the more anti-system attitudes of much of the membership… Mégret shared the same outlook as Le Pen but knew he could count on the support of party cadre who saw him as the most likely to be able to deliver the short-term electoral gains which alliances with the mainstream would guarantee… Le Pen likewise won the backing of activists suspicious of Mégret’s background as a Gaullist and the danger of “parliamentarisation” he appeared to represent. These tensions, kept in check when the FN was on the up, were stretched to breaking point by the anti-racist backlash.70
At the end of 1998 Mégret was expelled and the party split shortly afterwards, with a significant section of the cadre leaving. This was a potential turning point, where the Front’s crisis could have been deepened, but the anti-racist mobilisation ended after Manifeste contre le Front National, with ties to the ruling Socialist Party, concluded that the Front was finished. This allowed Le Pen the space needed to recover and to rebuild.
Build a united front to stop the Nazis
The key to defeating the fascists requires the creation of a mass united front of people who do not necessarily agree on wider questions. It cannot be reduced to revolutionaries but must seek to embrace much broader layers, crucially those who look to reformist organisations—such as trade unions and social democratic parties. This includes engaging with their leaderships whenever possible, to attempt to work with them and draw them into the movement. The objective basis for this lies in the very nature of fascism—it is a threat to all organisations based on the working class, revolutionary and reformist alike.
A key task is to expose and unmask the Nazi core beneath the claims to respectability. This means revealing past histories of leading individuals and organisations, and exposing their wider worldview beyond what they present for public consumption. Such unmasking must go beyond propaganda; it should lead to active attempts to challenge the “normalisation” of fascist parties by denying them public space, preventing them holding public meetings, conferences and marches or appearing in the mass media, including on social media. This means challenging the argument that “free speech” should be applied to the fascists, no matter how objectionable their views. The more fascists are able to enter the public arena, the greater the confidence of their supporters to openly express racism, and the greater their ability to pull more mainstream forces towards adapting to fascist arguments.
The more successful the fascists, the more confident they will be to start to erode the free speech of opponents—through attacks on left-wing or trade union meetings, on picket lines, or racist rampages on the streets—long before they reach their ultimate goal of smashing all freedom of assembly and expression. Sometimes denying the fascists public space involves direct physical confrontation, as in Lewisham in South London in 1977, when an alliance of the Socialist Workers Party and local Black youth broke a National Front march; sometimes it means blocking the routes of their marches or occupying their assembly points, preventing them from dominating the streets, as the UAF mobilisations in Tower Hamlets in 2011 and Walthamstow in 2012 against the English Defence League were able to do.
Such a strategy requires mass forces. The approach of many influenced by autonomism or anarchism has often been to focus on a committed group of activists seeking to engage in physical confrontation with the fascists regardless of the presence of mass numbers. Such an approach reduces anti-fascism to a minority willing to risk physical confrontation, without a strategy to pull behind them wider forces. Indeed such an approach can also combine with a pessimism that restricts the anti-fascist movement to those sharing an anti-capitalist perspective or dismisses the mass of white workers as racist.
Even where the anti-fascist movement does start with a radical minority, it must seek to win over wider forces through the patient construction of a united front. This can provide the basis for mass mobilisations and mass confrontations that start to deny the fascists the streets, pushing them out of the public arena. This can also start to show that the fascists are not unstoppable and that anti-racists and anti-fascists are not isolated, creating the confidence to root the movement in more localities and workplaces. Pushed back towards isolation and pariah status, the tension between the fascists’ twin aims can turn into open conflict and start to rip their organisations apart.
It is not simply a question of proclaiming such a strategy; it must be tested in practice. Both recent history and contemporary examples demonstrate that united fronts that expose the Nazis and target their presence in public space, alongside challenging wider racist ideas, have been effective.
The rise of the AfD has not gone unchallenged. Last summer saw a wave of anti-racist mobilisations in Germany in solidarity with refugees and against the racist right, and this fed into an upsurge in anti-AfD mobilisations in the autumn and winter. The AfD demonstration in Berlin in May attracted 5,000 but was vastly outnumbered by over 70,000 counter-demonstrators.
Nazi mobilisations in Chemnitz sent a further shock-wave and injected a renewed urgency. In Chemnitz a counter-demonstration a week afterwards stopped Höcke and others from marching. Two days later an anti-fascist gig in the city attracted 65,000 people. Then on 13 October a call to demonstrate against the right supported by 500 organisations under the banner “Unteilbar” (“Indivisible”) saw 250,000 march in Berlin.71
This fed into a proliferation of protests against public rallies or speeches by AfD politicians, with groups such as Aufstehen Gegen Rassismus (“Stand Up Against Racism”) often initiating or working with others to build such protests. For example, 6,000 anti-fascists blocked Höcke in Rostock in late September and in Hamburg 178 fascists were outnumbered by over 10,000 anti-fascists a week after the Nazi rampage in Chemnitz. In Hesse and Bavaria, the two German states that held regional elections in the autumn, the AfD faced sustained counter-mobilisations:
In Bavaria…during the election campaign from August to October there were at least four demonstrations with tens of thousands of people against the AfD… They were the largest anti-racist mobilisations in Bavaria for many, many years. When the AfD called for rallies in Munich, a few dozen AfD supporters faced thousands of counter-demonstrators. It was the same in Hesse—the counter-protests meant the AfD wasn’t able to hold public rallies at all in the whole election campaign.72
The process of “normalisation” of the AfD was checked by this wave of mass anti-fascist militancy, throwing the AfD onto the defensive and creating internal tensions. One effect was a crisis in the state machine after the head of the German domestic intelligence service, Hans-Georg Maaßen, was forced out after revelations that he had met with the AfD and shared information with them.73
The AfD now sought to shore up its respectable image, trying to distance itself from open association with fascism by attempting to police the public language its members used. It set up a “Jews in the AfD” group and then moved to expel the Holocaust denier Wolfgang Gedeon who publicly criticised this move, with both Höcke and Gauland proclaiming: “No place for Nazis in the AfD.” Yet in 2015, Höcke had been recommending an antisemitic work by Gedeon as required reading for AfD members. Curbing the public pronouncements of the fascist wing of the party in turn provoked internal opposition. The “Stuttgart Declaration” signed by 1,200 AfD members denounced such restrictions on their “thought and speech”.
None of this means that the AfD is about to disintegrate, but it shows that the method of building a broad anti-racist movement combined with mass mobilisations that specifically target the fascists can begin to fracture their organisations.
In Britain there is a serious threat from a renewed far-right street movement. But since 2000, anti-fascists have successfully defeated both a significant electoral fascist project and a Nazi street movement. The BNP, like other fascist organisations in Europe, made a turn in the 2000s away from the streets and towards elections, seeking to emulate the French Front National. They achieved considerable success—far more than either Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s or the National Front in the 1970s. At its peak in 2008-10 the BNP had 55 local councillors, 2 MEPs and a member of the Greater London Assembly. They were able to win over half a million votes at the 2010 general election and nearly 950,000 votes in the previous year’s European elections.
All of these gains were wiped out by relentless, systematic campaigning by UAF and others. UAF involved revolutionary socialists, the Labour left, sections of local Labour parties—not always on the left—in those areas where the BNP were making gains, trade unionists and local Mosques, churches and other community organisations. UAF sought to rip off the BNP’s respectable mask and expose its Nazi face.
This did not mean such a united front could be held together and hegemony for its strategy could be won without argument and debate. The rapid rise of the BNP led some to see it as an unstoppable force speaking for an abandoned “white working class” that could only be won over by promoting a “progressive” British or English national identity. It was vital to reject this accommodation to nationalism and instead insist that the majority could be won to anti-racist and anti-fascist arguments. There were also pressures to make concessions over immigration and Islamophobia.74
At the same time, while an effective anti-fascist movement could not be based around such concessions, the united front could not exclude people influenced by these ideas. UAF had to insist on the need for unity in action, while over time proving in practice that its method was effective and so winning a large layer of activists to its strategy.
Under sustained pressure, the BNP lost its electoral base. The party was torn apart by internal tensions and began to disintegrate. This didn’t end the fascist threat, as sections of the BNP’s cadre and supporters, some of whom bridled at the search for respectability and avoidance of street mobilisation, now turned towards the streets again.
A consequence of this was that anti-fascists in Britain had to address the rise of the English Defence League (EDL) from 2009 onwards. The EDL presented itself as non-fascist, even anti-fascist, and eschewed any refence to biological racism, instead mobilising around Islamophobia. It had a much looser organisation that the BNP, bringing together football hooligans with organised racists and some Nazis. It had a much less identifiable leadership, at least initially.
With the EDL able to mobilise between 2,000 and 5,000 on its marches, counter protests called by UAF were initially frequently smaller. The turn back to the streets meant a reorientation for the wider anti-fascist movement and it required patient discussion and arguments. A key turning point came in Tower Hamlets in 2011 when the EDL tried to march on the East London Mosque. An alliance of local Muslims, the left and trade unions mobilised thousands onto the streets, pulling behind them the local Labour council. The EDL failed to set foot in Tower Hamlets—a deeply demoralising experience for an organisation whose whole purpose was to put Muslims in their place.
A study of the EDL by two academics who attended EDL marches and conducted interviews with their supporters, including Tommy Robinson, provides a glimpse of the impact. They note that “initially, EDL protests were well-attended, with more than 2,000 protestors regularly present”. However, “from late-2011, there was a marked decline in numbers that continued throughout the next 18 months, with some protests attracting small numbers (such as 150 in Keighley in August 2012 and 50 in Cambridge in February 2013)”. Robinson complained bitterly: “The police were successful in what they were doing, the days become quite boring… Tower Hamlets they held everyone in the road for six hours—it’s boring as fuck. Do you think I’ve just travelled down from Newcastle to stand in the road for six hours without having beer?”75
It was not the police that had created this situation, it was the mass pressure of the counter-mobilisations led by UAF. What the authors of the study describe as “marginal”, that is less committed, EDL supporters withdrew and stopped attending its demonstrations. “This led to internal recriminations that further undermined the supply of self-worth and solidarity.” The harder fascist core was more disciplined as “the exit of marginal members increased the relative salience of the EDL’s biological racists who adhered to a White supremacist ideology”.76 Further massive mobilisations in Walthamstow in 2012 and again in Tower Hamlets in 2013 put the nail in the EDL’s coffin.
In Greece, Golden Dawn went from fewer than 20,000 votes in the general election of 2009 to 440,000 and 7 percent the vote in 2012. It was able to feed off an intensification of anti-migrant racism from a political system reeling from a deep erosion of its legitimacy as it implemented a brutal austerity programme. The anti-racist and anti-fascist campaign Keerfa was launched in 2009. A key role was played by SEK, the Greek Socialist Workers Party, which sought to build a united front involving local unions and communities, including among Greece’s new migrants such as Pakistanis, together with other left parties, to challenge Golden Dawn.
A key turning point was the murder of the anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas by a Golden Dawn paramilitary squad in September 2013. Keerfa was now able to translate its earlier efforts into a huge anti-fascist movement with big protests taking place. This in turn led to the Greek unions calling a general strike against the Nazi threat which culminated in 60,000 marching on its national headquarters. This placed the state under pressure to act—within a week the entire central leadership of Golden Dawn was in jail and then put on trial. It also meant that media workers at the state broadcaster had the confidence to strike to prevent Golden Dawn having access to airtime. When the Nazis tried to break the refugee solidarity movement in 2015, by seeking to block refugee children from entering schools, Keerfa was able to mobilise teachers, parents and others successfully to stop them.
Again, the drive for united action around the specific need to oppose Golden Dawn and to deny the Nazis public space, alongside challenging the racism they feed off, has been effective at throwing Golden Dawn onto the defensive. As a consequence they have been unable to take advantage of the betrayal by Syriza of the anti-austerity programme it was elected on in January 2015, with Golden Dawn unable to grow or increase its vote, or to provoke a racist response to the arrival of large numbers of refugees on Greek shores in 2015.77
Anti-fascism, socialism and the revolutionary party
The ghosts of the past are re-emerging. Nazis are again growing, entering parliaments, gathering millions of votes and polluting the political atmosphere with their racist poison. For the first time since the liberation of Auschwitz and the destruction of Mussolini and Hitler’s regimes it is possible to imagine the victory of such forces. The fascists today remain much weaker than during the inter-war period, above all on the streets, but renewed economic crisis and the political upheavals it leads to can further accelerate their growth and move them further down the road.
We have time, provided we act and act effectively. That places a responsibility on revolutionary socialist organisations to build united fronts against fascism, not based on generalised political progammes or restricted to those who identify as anti-capitalists, but based on mobilising all those horrified at the rise of the racists and fascists. Indeed revolutionary organisations, precisely because they are orientated on extra-parliamentary mobilisations and are uncompromising in their opposition to racism, are often able to initiate such united fronts. The International Socialist Tendency across Europe has thrown itself into this task. In Britain that means building Stand Up to Racism both to challenge the wider racism in society and to build a movement that can hurl back the street movement around Robinson.
But while participating in united action against fascists, revolutionaries also need to win more people to the argument that capitalism creates the conditions for fascist barbarism to grow; the fight against fascism is also the fight to overthrow a society that breeds such horrors. Ruling classes who, faced with extreme threats to their rule, would countenance placing the fascists in power, will never simply be defeated through parliamentary votes, but must be overthrown by mass revolutionary upheavals.
Mark L Thomas is workplace and trade union organiser for the SWP.
1 In June 2018 the Front National was renamed Rassemblement National (National Rally).
2 See Sereghy, 2018, pp305-323.
3 Traverso, 2019, pp7-8.
4 This Stalinist view continues to be equated with the Marxist analysis of fascism in much of the academic analysis today. Even Robert Paxton, in his otherwise outstanding The Anatomy of Fascism, takes the Stalinist view to be the orthodox Marxist interpretation—Paxton, 2005.
5 Trotsky, 1932.
6 Evans, 2004, p347, p358.
7 Trotsky, 1932.
8 Evans, 2004, pp208-211; Wilde, 2013.
9 Palheta, 2017.
10 Quoted in Gluckstein, 1999, p38.
11 Noakes, 1971, p66.
12 Quoted in Gluckstein, 1999, p50.
13 Quoted in Gluckstein, 1999, p50.
14 Fest, 1977, p333.
15 Fest, 1977.
16 Fest, 1977, pp452-453.
17 Wilde, 2013.
18 Mann, 2004, p370.
19 Harman, 1994.
20 Wolfreys, 2002.
21 See Wolfreys, 2013, p23.
22 Palheta, 2017.
23 Fysh and Wolfreys, 1998, pp96-97.
24 Quoted in Palheta, 2017.
25 Fysh and Wolfreys, 1998.
26 Paxton, 2005, pp18-19.
27 Paxton, 2005, p23.
28 Vlaams Belang’s best result in Belgium-wide federal elections was 12 percent in 2007. It’s highest vote for the Flemish parliament was 24.2 percent in 2004 when it topped the poll.
29 Open Society Justice Initiative, 2018.
30 BBC, 2017; Davison, 2016.
31 Independent, 2018.
32 Wolfreys, 2018, p34.
33 BBC, 2011.
34 Kouvelakis, 2018.
35 Nachtwey, 2018, p133.
36 Nachtwey, 2018, p150.
37 Nachtwey, 2018, p198.
38 Davidson and Saull, 2017, p715.
39 Rosenberg, 1988.
40 Palheta, 2017.
41 Eltchaninoff, 2018, p66.
42 Marine Le Pen quoted in Eltchaninoff, 2018, p67.
43 Eltchaninoff, 2018, p69.
44 Eltchaninoff, 2018, p117. Ethan B Katz notes that a 2014 survey showed that Le Pen voters in 2012 were twice as likely as other French people to believe that Jews have too much power in the economy, media and politics and that there is a worldwide Zionist conspiracy—Katz, 2017.
45 Katz, 2017.
46 Eltchaninoff, 2018, p81.
47 Wolfreys, 2017.
48 Daily Telegraph, 2010.
49 Mosler, 2013.
50 Deutsche Welle, 2015.
51 Henning, 2016.
53 Dearden, 2017; Deutsche Welle, 2017.
54 Deutsche Welle, 2018.
55 Taube, 2017.
56 See Blauwhof, 2018.
57 Tschekow, 2018.
58 See Byrne, 2017; Bíro-Nagy and Boros, 2016.
59 Chase, 2018.
60 Walker and Halliday, 2019.
61 See Wolfreys, 2013.
62 See Albrich, 2019.
63 Kershaw, 1998, pp346-347.
64 Kershaw, 1998, pp395-403.
65 Mason, 2018.
66 Not to be confused with the anti-racist coalition Aufstehen Gegen Rassissmus (“Stand Up Against Racism”).
67 Kimber, 2018.
68 Buchholz, 2018.
69 Morgan and German, 1997.
70 Wolfreys, 2002.
71 Tengely-Evans, 2018
72 Haller, 2018.
73 Knight, 2018.
74 Bennett, 2013.
75 Morrow and Meadowcroft, 2018.
76 Morrow and Meadowcroft, 2018.
77 See also Karvala 2018, for a discussion of Unitat Contra el Feixisme I el Racisme (UCFR) in Catalonia.