On 6 January 2021, far-right protestors—many bearing Confederate flags, some open fascists—stormed the Capitol in Washington DC, seat of the United States Congress. Liberal and leftist commentators were quick to denounce the action, as a result of which five people died, as a coup. Did it fit Edward Luttwak’s classic “formal and functional definition of a coup”: “the infiltration of a small but critical segment of the state apparatus, which is then used to displace the government from its control of the remainder”?1
One obvious difference is that the assault on the Capitol was intended not “to displace the government” but to keep in office the existing administration of Donald Trump. Congress was meeting to certify the results of the presidential election of November 2020, in which Trump had been defeated by the Democrat Joe Biden. So the invaders of the Capitol were seeking to intimidate Congress into reversing the election result and keeping Trump in the White House. Naunihal Singh, another expert on coups, argues that their actions are best described as an “attempted insurrection”, because “it is the involvement of state security forces” that defines a coup.2
There were elements of high farce about this “insurrection”. The liberal historian Timothy Snyder commented, “No one appeared to have any very clear idea of how this was to work or what their presence would accomplish. It is hard to think of a comparable insurrectionary moment, when a building of great significance was seized, that involved so much milling around”.3 However, as more video footage of the assault came out, the actual and potential violence involved became clearer.
What those who chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” would have done if they had encountered Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, let alone the left-wing Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, does not bear thinking about. Ocasio-Cortez has described how she hid in her office bathroom in fear for her life.4 The FBI allege that one woman they arrested sent a video message to her children saying, “We were looking for Nancy to shoot her in the friggin’ brain, but we didn’t find her”.5 Inept the invaders may have been, but they were definitely very nasty too.
The left-wing British writer Paul Mason draws a useful comparison with the events of 6 February 1934 in Paris.6 Amid press agitation to replace the chaotic parliamentarism of the French Third Republic with an authoritarian regime, far-right leagues organised a demonstration, made up predominantly of ex-servicemen, seeking to attack the Palais Bourbon (seat of the Chamber of Deputies) and the presidential Élysée Palace. They were protesting against a politico-financial scandal surrounding the alleged suicide of the business adventurer Alexandre Stavisky and the formation of a government of the centre-left Cartel des Gauches (the liberal-bourgeois Radicals supported by the Socialist Party) headed by Édouard Daladier, who had just sacked the right-wing Paris police chief. They clashed violently with the police, who opened fire twice, killing 14 people and preventing the demonstrators reaching their targets.
Nevertheless, Daladier, despite having won two votes in the Chamber, resigned the next day. He was replaced by ex-president Gaston Doumergue, who formed a centre-right government that in effect reversed the outcome of the 1932 election, which the Cartel des Gauches had won. Doumergue was one of many right-wing politicians advocating the concentration of power in the hands of the executive. Leon Trotsky predicted that “the Doumergue government represents the first step of the passage from parliamentarianism to Bonapartism”.7
So on 6 February 1934, the far right failed to reach their targets but won a political victory. In contrast, on 6 January 2021, the far right got into the Capitol. However, they failed politically, at least in the short term. Whatever mixture of complicity, conspiracy and cockup ultimately explains the extraordinary failure of the Capitol police and the plethora of other security forces in Washington to protect Congress, the invaders were cleared out of the Capitol relatively quickly. There is no evidence of the leaders of the vast US national security state showing any sympathy with their cause. The political backlash saw key Trump enablers in the Republican leadership such as vice president Mike Pence and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell effectively disavow him. Congress reassembled to certify Biden’s election, and he was duly inaugurated on 20 January while Trump flew sulkily back home to Florida.
Nevertheless, the enormity of what had happened cannot be ignored. The US remains the most powerful capitalist state in the world. Office had been transferred peacefully from president to president since the first, George Washington, was elected in 1789. The inauguration of Washington’s latest successor took place protected by 25,000 armed National Guards. Nothing of the like had been seen since Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration in March 1861 amid threats of assassination, the secession of the slave states of the South and the beginnings of the Civil War. Even before the assault on the Capitol, the leading US Marxist Mike Davis had concluded his analysis of the 2020 election: “Deep structures of the past have been disinterred during Trump’s presidency and given permission to throttle the future. Civil War? Some analogy is inevitable and should not be easily dismissed”.8
Moreover, the polarisation of US politics isn’t just a local phenomenon, but something that can be seen on a global scale—in Europe with the growth of the far right there, but also beyond the imperialist core, for example, in Narendra Modi’s India and Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil. These developments need to be set in their proper historical context—the interplay of crisis, revolution and counter-revolution at work in the era of classical fascism and operating in modified form today. Unlike many other leftist interpretations of the rise of the far right today, my aim is to understand this as a global phenomenon.9
Classical fascism and the Age of Catastrophe
The greatest victories of the modern far right—the capture of power by Italian fascism (1922) and German National Socialism (1933) and General Francisco Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War (1936-9)—took place during what the Marxist Eric Hobsbawm has called the “Age of Catastrophe” between 1914 and 1945.10 The left-liberal historian Arno Mayer refers to this as “the general crisis and Thirty Years War of the 20th century”.11 This period had three defining features:
An epoch of inter-imperialist war: It was in these years that the economic and geopolitical rivalries among the Great Powers—the consequence of the generalisation of the capitalist imperialism pioneered by Britain—reached breaking point, precipitating two terrible and destructive world wars in 1914-18 and 1939-45. These destabilised existing economic, political and social structures and undermined their legitimacy, provoking a polarisation of politics towards both the extreme left (the Communist International) and the extreme right (authoritarian conservatives and fascists). The failure of the First World War to resolve the underlying antagonisms made a second edition highly likely;
The most severe depression in the history of capitalism: The Great Depression of the 1930s was organically connected with the inter-imperialist rivalries that exploded in the two world wars. Antonio Gramsci traced the source of imperialist expansion to Marx’s tendential law for the rate of profit to fall: “Capitalist Europe, rich in resources and arriving at the point at which the rate of profit was beginning to reveal its tendency to fall, had a need to widen the area of expansion of its income-bearing investment; thus, after 1890, the great colonial empires were created”.12 The inability of Britain, hitherto the hegemonic capitalist state, to manage the financial instability created by the First World War precipitated the deepest systemic crisis the capitalist mode of production has experienced; this intensified inter-imperial rivalries and only began to be overcome as the Great Powers switched to war production in the late 1930s;
Revolution and counter-revolution: The destruction and privations of the First World War created the context for the first socialist revolution, in Russia in October 1917, and for a wave of revolutionary upheavals inspired by it that swept through the most powerful European state, Germany, and reached as far as China in 1925-7. This in turn immediately unleashed a powerful reaction from the right, starting with the Russian Civil War and then the counter-revolutionary violence in Germany in which Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht perished. The war produced large numbers of socially dislocated young men who had become habituated to violence, many of whom were mobilised by the forces of reaction, from the Black and Tans in Ireland to the Freikorps in Germany and its borderlands. The early fascist organisations recruited heavily from this section of society.
Ruling-class politics, above all in continental Europe, was therefore dominated by counter-revolution, especially once the onset of the Great Depression had further destabilised existing structures. The tendency was towards authoritarian right-wing regimes that broke to a greater or lesser extent with the parliamentary forms exemplified by the leading liberal capitalist states of Western Europe, France and Britain, relying instead on repression by the military and the police. The historian Mark Mazower writes:
In most of Europe by the mid-1930s—outside the northern fringe—liberalism looked tired and the organised left had been smashed. The sole struggles over ideology and governance were taking place within the right—among authoritarians, traditional conservatives, technocrats and radical right-wing extremists. Only France continued its civil war between left and right through the 1930s, until that was ended by the Vichy regime. But civil war had already erupted briefly in Austria (in 1934), and more protractedly in Spain, before ending in right-wing triumph. In Italy, Central Europe and the Balkans, the right held sway.13
This trend towards a spectrum of forms of what Nicos Poulantzas calls the “exceptional capitalist state” (for example, fascism, military dictatorship and Bonapartism) is what Trotsky had in mind when he talked about Doumergue representing the beginnings of Bonapartism in France. He describes Bonapartism as “a regime of military-police dictatorship”:
As soon as the struggle of two social strata—the haves and the have-nots, the exploiters and the exploited—reaches its highest tension, the conditions are established for the domination of bureaucracy, police and soldiery. The government becomes “independent” of society… If two forks are stuck symmetrically into a cork, the latter can stand even on the head of a pin. That is precisely the schema of Bonapartism. 14
In the German case, Trotsky was thinking of the successive governments of Heinrich Brüning, Franz von Papen and General Kurt von Schleicher. Between 1930 and 1933, these administrations sought to manage the economic crisis (mainly through implementing austerity in order to appease the banks) by using the emergency powers of the president, Paul von Hindenburg, to rule by decree, thereby bypassing the Reichstag.15 Parliamentary government became a facade, behind which bureaucrats and generals called the shots in close alliance with the big bankers and landowners. This amounted to counter-revolution from above—forcibly imposing a capitalist solution to the economic crisis on the mass of the population (workers, peasants and petty proprietors) using the repressive apparatuses of the state.
As Mazower observes:
The crucial difference was between the regimes of the old right, who wanted to turn the clock back to a pre-democratic elitist era, and the new right who seized and sustained power through the instruments of mass politics. The former included Franco and the Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas, men who feared mass politics and allied themselves with bastions of the established order such as the monarchy and the church. In the Balkans, the right harked back to the 19th century, where a strong, autocratic monarch picked his ministers, supervised political parties and ran closely controlled elections.16
The prevalence of authoritarian right-wing regimes reflected the fact that, as Mayer puts it, “down to 1914 the interwoven landed and service nobilities throughout Europe continued to be dominant in the ruling classes”.17 Indeed, this continued to be the case in Central Europe for a further 25 years, despite the continent-wide financial dominance of the advanced liberal capitalisms of Britain and France. Counter-revolution therefore came as an extension of the existing political and social order.
Fascism, by contrast, represented counter-revolution from below. It emerged only rarely in its pure form (in Spain, for example, the fascist Falange was subordinated to Franco’s military dictatorship), in Italy under Mussolini and Germany under Hitler, effectively outflanking the authoritarian conservatives. It is not an accident that, aside from liberal France, Germany and Italy were the two most industrialised economies in continental Europe. Of course, these two societies were shaped by the process of uneven and combined development. They therefore exhibited what the German Marxist Ernst Bloch called in the mid-1930s the “contemporaneity of the non-contemporaneous”, the coexistence of social forms representing different historical times: the steel mills of the Ruhr or the car plants of Turin alongside the Jünker’s landed estates in East Prussia or the great latifundia of southern Italy.18 For Poulantzas, they were “the weakest links in the imperialist chain after Russia”.19
The dynamic of fascism, particularly in the purest case of National Socialism, involved especially: (i) a political style promising a revolutionary rupture with the present; (ii) an ideology counterposing a racially defined “national community” to destructive outsiders, crucially “cosmopolitan Jewish finance capital”, and characterised by virulent anti-Marxism; (iii) the construction of a mass movement with a paramilitary wing recruited especially from the petty bourgeoisie (small shopkeepers, petty producers more generally, the relatively privileged “salariat” of the inter-war years and professionals); (iv) a dynamic of radicalisation that found its fullest expression in power with the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe.20
Bloch recognised at the time the mass appeal of a kind of pseudo-revolutionary romantic anti-capitalism in Nazi ideology:
Apart from nastiness and speechless brutality, apart from stupidity and panic-stricken deceivability, which are illustrated by every hour and every word of the Germany of terror, there is an element of an older, romantic contradiction to capitalism, which misses things in present-day life and longs for something vaguely different. The susceptible situation of the peasants and employees has its different reflex here, and not merely one of backwardness, but occasionally one of genuine “non-contemporaneity” as well, namely of an economic-ideological remaining existence from earlier times… The temporal alienation of this contradiction facilitates both the deception and the pathos of “revolution” and reaction at the same time.21
Of course, the ruling class—capitalists, landowners, generals and state bureaucrats—would not lightly contemplate parties of this kind coming to power. It was only prepared to take the risk of supporting them in desperate circumstances. These circumstances were confrontation with a working class that, though weakened by defeats (the failure of the German Revolution of 1918-23 and of the Italian factory occupations of September 1920), still retained too much organisation and militancy to be dealt with effectively by what Trotsky calls a Bonapartist military-political dictatorship.
The fascist mass movements, fused and driven by a reactionary utopian ideology, provided the impetus needed to crush and atomise the organised working class. Yet, it bears emphasising, they came to power thanks to the support, however reluctant, of the ruling class. Neither Mussolini nor Hitler won a free election, although they both came to office constitutionally. They then moved to crush the left and concentrate power in their hands, with Hitler doing so particularly quickly and brutally in the “Machtergreifung” (seizure of power) of spring 1933. Fascism in power thus combines counter-revolution from above and from below.
The greatness of Trotsky’s writings on Germany lies in his understanding of the specificity of fascism amid the spectrum of bourgeois reaction and of the mortal threat it represented to the workers’ movement:
The big bourgeoisie, even those who supported Hitler with money, did not consider his party theirs. The national “renaissance” leaned wholly upon the middle classes, the most backward part of the nation, the heavy ballast of history. Political art consisted in fusing the petty bourgeoisie into oneness through its common hostility to the proletariat. What must be done in order to improve things? First of all, throttle those who are underneath. Impotent before big capital, the petty bourgeoisie hopes in the future to regain its social dignity through the ruin of the workers.
The Nazis refer to their overturn by the usurped title of revolution. As a matter of fact, in Germany as well as in Italy, fascism leaves the social system untouched. Taken by itself, Hitler’s overturn has no right even to the name counter-revolution. But it cannot be viewed as an isolated event; it is the conclusion of a cycle of shocks which began in Germany in 1918. The November Revolution, which gave the power to the workers’ and peasants’ soviets, was proletarian in its fundamental tendencies. But the party that stood at the head of the proletariat returned the power to the bourgeoisie. In this sense, Social Democracy opened the era of counter-revolution before the revolution could bring its work to completion. However, so long as the bourgeoisie depended upon Social Democracy, and consequently upon the workers, the regime retained elements of compromise. All the same, the international and the internal situation of German capitalism left no more room for concessions. As Social Democracy saved the bourgeoisie from the proletarian revolution, fascism came in its turn to liberate the bourgeoisie from the Social Democracy. Hitler’s coup is only the final link in the chain of counter-revolutionary shifts.22
Trotsky’s insight into the dynamics of fascism stopped with the seizure of power. To some extent, this reflected his acute understanding of the conflicts between fascist parties and the ruling class. However, he assumed that these would be resolved in the latter’s favour:
German fascism, like Italian fascism, raised itself to power on the backs of the petty bourgeoisie, which it turned into a battering ram against the organisations of the working class and the institutions of democracy. Yet fascism in power is least of all the rule of the petty bourgeoisie. On the contrary, it is the most ruthless dictatorship of monopoly capital.23
Trotsky predicted that, “as the Italian example shows, fascism leads in the end to a military-bureaucratic dictatorship of the Bonapartist type”.24 In fact, as I wrote some years ago:
Far from finishing up as a military dictatorship, the Nazi regime massacred the generals after the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. Poulantzas…argued that a stabilised fascist regime was characterised by the dominance of the political police within the state apparatus. Certainly this corresponds well to the final phase of the Nazi regime, in which the SS and its police arm, the RSHA [Reichssicherheitshauptamt, “Reich Main Security Office”], acquired ever greater prominence.25
The relationship between National Socialism and German capital, I continued, “is best characterised as a conflictual partnership. It was based on a limited convergence of interests between the Nazis and sections of German capital (particularly those associated with heavy industry) who shared common objectives, notably the destruction of the organised working class and an imperial programme of expansion into the East”.26 One aspect of the radicalisation of the Nazis in power—driven by considerations such as ideology, Hitler’s objective of waging a war of imperial expansion, competition between different parts of the regime and the imperatives of economic management amid a global depression characterised by the fragmentation of the world market—was the construction of a considerable state capitalist sector that simultaneously supported and undermined private capital. Moreover, the relentless pursuit of the extermination of the European Jews, which in no way corresponded to the needs of German capital and the priorities of waging a war on two fronts, highlighted the political autonomy of the Nazi regime, expressed particularly in the growing power of the ideologically driven police-military bureaucracy that was the SS.27
Ultimately, the fascist states were ended by military defeat. The Allied invasion of Italy prompted the removal of Mussolini by his own colleagues, aided by an alliance with the old regime represented by King Victor Emmanuel III, in July 1943. He was rescued and propped up by the Nazis until April 1945, when he was captured by partisans and executed. Meanwhile, National Socialism perished with the invasion and parcellisation of Germany, the physical destruction of the military and much of the country’s infrastructure, and the death of the main Nazi leaders. As historian Robert Paxton succinctly puts it, “the Italian and German fascist regimes drove themselves off a cliff in their quest for ever headier successes”.28
Gramsci argues that the “organic crisis” of the capitalist mode of production that exploded during the First World War provoked not only the Russian Revolution and the attempts to imitate it elsewhere but also efforts on the part of capital to reconstruct the system in order to allow it to survive. Gramsci used the concept of passive revolution to understand these responses. Passive revolution consists in “molecular changes that progressively modify the pre-existing composition of forces, and hence become the matrix of new changes”. This involved attempts to defend the existing capitalist mode of production and avert its overthrow by incorporating some of the pressures to socialise the productive forces. This reflected “the necessity for the ‘thesis’ [capitalism] to achieve its full development, up to the point where it would even succeed in incorporating part of the antithesis itself [socialist revolution]—in order, that is, not to allow itself to be ‘transcended’ in the dialectical opposition”.29
In the era of counter-revolution and global depression between the world wars, passive revolution took two main forms. The first was fascism, which combined elements of economic interventionism with the systematic repression of the workers’ movement. The second is what Gramsci calls “Americanism and Fordism”, which reached its climax with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the reorganisation of the liberal capitalism that had failed in Europe on the basis of mass production and the transformation of proletarian subjectivity to accommodate its rhythms.30
There is an important qualification to be made to this analysis, which Gramsci wrote in 1933, when both the Great Depression and these political responses were at their early stages. He could not therefore know that neither fascism nor the New Deal would overcome the economic crisis. The resolution came only with the Second World War, in which liberal imperialism in the shape of the US defeated fascist imperialism, and with the persistence of the arms economy that had developed during the war thanks to the new rivalry between the US and its former ally, the Soviet Union.31 Fascism may have been a response to the greatest capitalist crisis, but it was not a solution.
The contemporary far right and the “permanent catastrophe”
This historical sketch provides a benchmark for understanding the present—not, it must be emphasised, because history is repeating itself, but because it helps us to identify what is different in the present, as well as what is (or could be) the same. One thing that is the same is that this too is an age of catastrophe. However, this takes the form less (so far) of the mass killings characteristic of Mayer’s “Thirty Years War” than of the combination of mass impoverishment and destruction of nature that is expressed in a concentrated form in the Covid-19 pandemic. The German Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno used to refer ironically to the impersonal logic of capitalism, which imposes itself on and destroys individual lives, as the “world spirit”:
Society stays alive, not despite its antagonism, but by means of it; the profit interest and thus the class relationship make-up the objective motor of the production process that the life of all human beings hangs by, and the primacy of which has its vanishing point in the death of all… The world spirit…would have to be defined as permanent catastrophe.32
So what are the defining features of the present period? I’d like to point to three salient characteristics:
The decline of US imperialism and growing competition with China: The present period is not characterised by the kind of fluid geopolitical competition constitutive of the era of classical imperialism between 1870 and 1945. Rather, the capitalist state that has been hegemonic since 1945, the US, has experienced a long decline in its share of global GDP, as well as suffering a severe geopolitical defeat through its failed occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Meanwhile, China’s emergence as the leading manufacturing and exporting economy and its growing military capabilities represent the most serious challenge that US hegemony has yet faced. Nevertheless, although inter-state competition has been growing in the past decade or so, the developing military challenge posed to the US from China is restricted to the Asia-Pacific region; moreover, despite the blow that the global financial crisis of 2007-9 represented to Washington’s prestige, the centrality of the US to the international financial system has, if anything, grown since then. This is thanks to the role played by the US Treasury and Federal Reserve in orchestrating state responses to the panics of 2007-8 and 2020 and maintaining the flows of dollars on which global money markets depend;33
Sluggish, finance-driven growth (the “Long Depression”) exacerbated by a growing crisis in humankind’s relationship to nature: The neoliberal economic policy regime, installed in the 1980s and crucially involving a global restructuring of production and the deregulation of finance, has failed to overcome the crisis of profitability that developed in the advanced capitalist states in the 1960s and 1970s. The result is what Michael Roberts calls the “Long Depression”, in which even the comparatively low rates of growth achieved in the US and Europe since the global financial crisis have depended on huge infusions of cheap credit money by the leading central banks.34 The interaction between these crisis tendencies and what Chris Harman calls “the new limits to capital”, “the tendency for the system to undermine the very process of interaction on which it, like every other form of human society, depended”—what Marx called the metabolism of labour and nature—have fused in the Covid-19 pandemic, a harbinger of even worse catastrophes wrought by climate change;35
A series of movements and risings provoked by neoliberalism juxtaposed with the development of reactionary movements: The increasingly destructive nature of neoliberal capitalism has since the late 1990s generated what Joseph Choonara describes as three cycles of revolt from the left. First, the Zapatista revolt in Mexico and other anti-neoliberal risings in the South, above all in Bolivia, as well as the international movement for another globalisation and the opposition to the war on Iraq (1994-2005); second, the Arab uprisings, the occupation of the squares in Greece and the Spanish state, and Occupy Wall Street (2011); and, third, “a new cycle of revolt” beginning in spring 2019—uprisings in Algeria and Sudan and mass protests in Hong Kong, Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, Lebanon, Haiti, Guinea, Kazakhstan, Iraq, Iran, France and Catalonia.36 This cycle survived the onset of the pandemic, with the Black Lives Matter risings in the US and the solidarity they received around the world in the summer of 2020. However, these movements are counterpointed by the global rise of the far right, marked not just by electoral breakthroughs (Modi, Trump and Bolsonaro), but also by a succession of coups d’état in Egypt (2013), Thailand (2014), Bolivia (2019) and now Myanmar (2021).
To sum up: the neoliberal version of capitalism is breaking down amidst a multi-dimensional crisis that is simultaneously economic, political, and biological. The severity of this multiple crisis is understood by at least sections of the Western ruling classes. Janet Yellen wrote to her staff after taking office as Biden’s secretary of the treasury: “If you have listened to President Biden speak over the past few weeks, you have heard him talk about ‘four historic crises’. COVID-19 is one… The country is also facing a climate crisis, a crisis of systemic racism, and an economic crisis that has been building for fifty years”.37
The result is a crisis of hegemony: the decay of the dominant forms of bourgeois rule.38 Yet there has not been any breakthrough to the left, and nothing remotely comparable to the Russian Revolution of October 1917. The closest was the Egyptian Revolution of 25 January 2011, in which political opposition to the dictatorial Mubarak regime fused with discontent caused by the economic and social impact of neoliberalism and the global financial crisis. This sparked a rising that started with young people but drew in a working class with long traditions of struggle.39 However, this was crushed by the military coup launched on 3 July 2013 by Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who imposed an even more brutal and repressive dictatorship than Mubarak’s.
In the Global North, the most advanced struggles were probably those in Greece against European Union-imposed austerity in 2010-12. This led to the electoral victory of the left-wing Syriza party in January 2015, only for its leader, prime minister Alexis Tsipras, to capitulate to Brussels and Berlin six months later. The inspiring upsurges in the reformist left led by Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain went down to electoral defeat. Ireland, however, remains an important exception, with the radical left People Before Profit advancing both sides of the border—a very important development given how Brexit is destabilising the 100 year old partition of the island.
This is the context in which challenges to the existing order have been dominated by the far right. Far-right currents have grown spectacularly in the past few years thanks to the accumulated discontents of the neoliberal period, intensified by the economic suffering and dislocation caused by the global financial crisis. These currents have succeeded in directing the resulting anger, at least in certain sections on the population, onto, on the one hand, a “cosmopolitan elite”, and, on the other, migrants and refugees. In rhetorically championing jobs and welfare against globalisation, as Walden Bello puts it, “the right ate the left’s lunch”.40 What Tariq Ali calls the neoliberal “extreme centre”, whether in its conservative or social-democratic form, has found itself squeezed electorally.
Nevertheless, this has not been in any sense a simple repetition of what happened between the world wars. We can identify four key differences between then and now. The first is the wider social context within which today’s far right has emerged. In the Global North the far right has been less directly counter-revolutionary, less a response to the advance of the left than it was in the 1920s and 1930s. The last great global upturn in workers’ struggles, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, stimulated the neoliberal effort to shift the balance of class forces back in capital’s favour.41 What we are witnessing today is the disintegration of the neoliberal order without—yet—a strong enough drive of workers’ struggles from below to provide a progressive alternative capable of capturing the imagination of the masses. This has allowed the far right to capitalise on the discontent and anger created by the multiple dysfunctions of the status quo.
When we widen our focus globally, the picture changes somewhat. We see, for example in Asia, the rise of what Priya Chacko and Kanishka Jayasuriya call “authoritarian statism”. This is a concept they take from Poulantzas, for whom it referred to “intensified state control over every sphere of socio-economic life combined with radical decline of the institutions of political democracy and with draconian and multiform curtailment of so-called ‘formal’ liberties”.42
In Asia this shift represents, according to Chacko and Jayasuriya, less the breakdown of the neoliberal regime itself than its disruptive impact on the specific political forms through which ruling parties secure the consent of the mass of the population. The impact of neoliberal restructuring, for example, on the clientelistic networks through which state resources were used to subsidise employment and consumption leads to what Chacko and Jayasuriya call “political disincorporation”:
In the wake of the fracturing of dominant modes of political incorporation, political elites have struggled to create forms of legitimacy for capitalist social relations. The mobilisation of cultural nationalism and anti-pluralist politics by both societal actors and political leaders must be understood in this context.43
As Chacko and Jayasuriya point out, the BJP in India is a good example of this process. The Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party, BJP) is an electorally extraordinarily successful Hindu chauvinist party, which has at its core the fascist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Voluntary Corps, RSS), whose founders were explicit in their admiration for Hitler. The BJP has been able to exploit the disintegration of the base of the historic nationalist Indian National Congress thanks to the neoliberal policies that it pioneered. Then there is what Bello calls the “fascist original”, Rodrigo Duterte, who won the presidency of the Philippines on an anti-crime programme, and, riding a wave of popular revulsion against decades of failed neoliberalism, inspired the murder of thousands of drug users. There are also examples outside Asia, above all in Brazil. There, Bolsonaro was able to capitalise on the disintegration of the Workers’ Party (PT) administration under the impact of the global financial crisis and the exposure of the PT’s part in the corruption endemic in the Brazilian political elite.44
Sisi’s coup in Egypt also falls into this pattern. It was preceded, on 30 June 2013, by an enormous demonstration of the middle classes against the Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi. This was mobilised partly by leaders who had been allied with the left, notably the Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi, the main left candidate in the 2012 presidential election, and the independent trade unionist Kamal Abu Aita. Sisi did not just use military power to overthrow Morsi; he framed the conflict as one between secularism and Islamism, a trap into which much of the left fell.45 He also benefitted from the financial support of the Gulf autocracies, the most powerful capitalisms in the region.
Nevertheless we also see the red river of revolt running much more strongly in the Global South. The Arab risings are the most striking example—a revolutionary process that continues with the upheavals in Algeria and Sudan, despite defeat in Egypt and Syria. But consider the case of Bolivia, which, in the past 20 years, has seen two mass risings that brought down neoliberal presidents in 2003 and 2005, the election in 2006 of a left government headed by Evo Morales of the Movement for Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo, MAS) and based on the indigenous working poor, a right-wing coup in October 2019, and the presidential victory of MAS’s Luis Arce a year later. Here there is a very direct interplay of revolution and counter-revolution. Similarly, the Indian farmers’ movement of 2021 has taken militant direct action on a huge scale, confronting not just riot police but the fascist thugs of Modi’s RSS.
A second key difference between the far right in the inter-war period and today is the significant shift in the ideology of reaction. Today, the key element of far-right ideology is Islamophobia. In an important article, Ed Pertwee identifies a transnational field of anti-Muslim political action known as the “counter-jihad”:
The political geography of the counter-jihad is primarily transatlantic… The variety of white nationalism cultivated within the counter-jihad was, at the time it first emerged, a novel one. For the Hitlerian philosophy of history as Darwinian struggle between different biological “races”, in which the Jew was cast as the antitype of the Aryan, it substituted a culturalist melodrama of agonistic struggle between radically incommensurable “civilisations”, in which “Islam” was cast as the youthful and virile antitype to the moribund husk of the “Judeo-Christian West”. The influence of these ideas on far-right groups in Europe, North America and Australasia, and especially on Trumpian Republicanism, is difficult to overstate.46
Here we see the connection between the contemporary far right and imperialism. Islamophobia acquired its deep hold in Western societies as a result of the “War on Terror” launched by George W Bush and Tony Blair in their failed attempt to entrench US domination of the Middle East. The far-right version is a radicalisation of state and media targeting of Muslims as the “enemy within”. The racist stereotyping of Muslims is a response to the armed resistance and mass risings that have weakened the grip of Western imperialism in the Middle East and North Africa. Sections of the far right have shifted from their traditional support for women’s subordination as a way of highlighting the alleged incompatibility between Islam and “Western values”.47
Pertwee, however, argues that contemporary far-right discourses bear strong affinities with the “revolutionary conservative” ideologies of inter-war fascism, and in particular the Romantic nostalgia for a mythologised past highlighted by Bloch. “They share a common, counter-revolutionary temporal structure, with a mythic past mobilised to legitimate projects of cultural purification in the present.” Distinguishing between the “counter-jihad” proper, “the Trumpian Republicans” and “the avowed racists and misogynists of the alt-right”, Pertwee argues:
This counter-revolutionary temporal structure is also what places all three tendencies in close proximity to “classical” fascism and Nazism… Today, this counter-revolutionary temporal structure is inscribed in the Trumpian slogan “Make America Great Again”.48
Moreover, there are continuities in the content of far-right ideology: (i) hostility to the left remains an important element, if only because the cultural breakdown of Western societies that has supposedly allowed their Islamisation is typically traced back to the 1960s. Trump’s denunciations of the Democrats as socialist and attacks on Critical Race Theory are symptomatic of a persistent anti-Marxism. In Latin America, more traditional anti-Communism fuses with what one might call, following Pierre Bourdieu, class racism directed at poor people of indigenous origin, particularly in the movements against left governments in Bolivia and Venezuela; (ii) antisemitism remains important especially for the fascists because its continuing role in providing the basis of a pseudo-critique of capitalism that locates the source of the problem, not in the system, but in the corrupting effects of “cosmopolitan Jewish finance capital”. The two themes fuse in the discourse of “cultural Marxism”.
A third distinctive feature of the contemporary far right is the predominance of racist-populist electoral parties, though there is also a dangerous and substantial fascist element. In Europe the context is very different from the 1920s and 1930s, when authoritarian regimes developed largely as an extension of the dominance of traditional agrarian elites. The US-directed reconstruction of Western Europe after 1945 gave liberal capitalism a much more stable base, crucially thanks to the development of Fordist mass production and advanced welfare regimes. This was reinforced by the process of European integration, which was also promoted by Washington.49
The state capitalist regimes installed by the Red Army on the other side of the Iron Curtain in Eastern and Central Europe swept away the old landed classes.50 The absorption of these states into the Western neoliberal capitalist order following the revolutions of 1989 involved their adoption of liberal-democratic constitutions and incorporation into NATO and the EU (once again under US patronage). The embarrassment that the authoritarian drift of Poland and Hungary is causing Brussels is an indication that outright dictatorship is not (yet) tolerable.
So the contemporary far right tend to be outsiders who have been able to elbow their way into the big leagues thanks to the debility of the mainstream. Examples include the Lega in Italy, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), UKIP/Brexit Party in Britain and the Danish People’s Party. There are even cases of traditional conservative parties showing signs of morphing into far-right formations; this is true of the Tories under Boris Johnson, the Austrian People’s Party under Sebastian Kurz, and Les Républicains in France. In Europe, the far right tends to specialise in a mixture of Euroscepticism and anti-migrant racism. This combination of racist scapegoating and anti-elite rhetoric (whether directed at the EU or more broadly against “cosmopolitan” elites) makes it correct to describe the main tendency of the contemporary far right, Trump included, as racist-populist, and in this sense different from inter-war authoritarian conservativism.51
However, as in the 1920s and the 1930s, the contemporary far right represent a spectrum. There are fascist political nuclei that have been able to repackage themselves as electorally successful parties. They also focus on racist-populist themes, but they seek radical authoritarian solutions. The most important of these are the Rassemblement National (RN, formerly the Front National) in France, whose leader Marine Le Pen is currently running Emmanuel Macron very close in polling for next year’s presidential elections, the Freedom Party in Austria, the Sweden Democrats and the Fratelli d’Italia (“Brothers of Italy”).
A fourth characteristic element of the contemporary far right is that, although they benefit from the discontents of neoliberalism, they lack a distinctive economic programme. The RN, for example, have played constantly on the ills caused by globalisation, as has Trump. Yet none offer a coherent economic alternative to neoliberalism. Indeed, one strand—notably in the AfD and UKIP/Brexit Party—combines Euroscepticism and economic ultra-liberalism. Trump strayed from the neoliberal playbook in weaponising tariffs, especially against China, but otherwise his economic policies were standard post-Reagan Republican fare, offering goodies to business in the shape of tax breaks and deregulation. The Lega, once vocally anti-EU, now supports a government of “national unity” headed by ex-European Central Bank president Mario Draghi.
This is striking because the global financial crisis that has given the far right greater political leverage, like the Great Depression of the 1930s, represented a failure of economic liberalism. Yet, although Mussolini and Hitler moved fairly sharply in a state capitalist direction, the contemporary far right offer no comparable break with the neoliberal economic policy regime. The Indian Marxists Utsa Patnaik and Prahbat Patnaik have something interesting to say about this:
There was a brief period between the end of the Depression and the start of the war…during which the fascists succeeded in placing their economies in a better position than the liberal capitalist ones.
In contemporary conditions, however, larger state spending, no matter for what purpose, which would have to be financed either by taxes on the rich or by a fiscal deficit to be able to enlarge activity, would be frowned upon by globalised finance, which would oppose both these means of financing. And since no fascist movement anywhere is proposing controls over cross-border financial flows, this opposition would be decisive in preventing any expansion in domestic aggregate demand through state spending.52
The Patnaiks may be underestimating the economic room for manoeuvre for contemporary capitalist states. After all, the pandemic has seen states go further than they did in response to the global financial crisis, hugely increasing government spending and borrowing. In at least some cases (for example, the US and Britain), central banks have engaged in “monetary finance”: buying the bonds issued by governments to cover the extra expenditure (though opening the monetary tap will not overcome the underlying crisis of profitability, and markets are getting edgy about a possible surge in inflation).53 But the Patnaiks’ observation that the much greater internationalisation of capital today limits the ability of far-right (or, indeed, social-democratic) governments to pursue alternative economic policies to neoliberalism is important.
As this overview indicates, the boundaries between mainstream conservative, far-right and outright fascist formations are very blurred. This fluidity is unavoidable, particularly in a rapidly moving situation, when, for example, bit players such as Bolsonaro and Trump suddenly hit the big time. This leads even as perceptive an analyst as Enzo Traverso to argue that what we are dealing with is “post-fascism”. He argues that “the racism of the far right…has significantly blurred its original fascist matrix. In this sense, ideology is no longer a problem for the far right.” He continues, “all in all, its relationship with fascism is rather like social democracy’s relationship with socialism”—something that it has, in practice, abandoned in order to embrace neoliberalism.54
Traverso is right to the extent that some contemporary far-right leaders, notably Marine Le Pen, have presented themselves as modernisers of their parties in ways that are at least superficially comparable to Tony Blair’s transformation of the Labour Party into “New Labour”. However, Traverso badly underestimates the importance of the distinctive kind of anti-Muslim racism diagnosed by Pertwee in contemporary far-right ideology. The point in any case is not so much to determine what label to attach to specific formations, but rather to understand the contemporary far right as a dynamic force field that is changing rapidly. Fascism exerts a gravitational pull within this field, not primarily because of the historical legacy of different formations but because radicalisation to the right is a real political option in the present. We can see this, for example, in the factional struggle between the “national-conservative” and “national-revolutionary” wings of the AfD.
The dominance of electoral politics in the contemporary far right moreover acts as an obscuring factor, since it exerts pressure on leaders to dissociate themselves from the barbarism of Hitler and Mussolini. However, just as in the inter-war period, there is an interplay between elite politics and grassroots movements that can favour the genuinely fascist elements. The US offers perhaps the best illustration of the forces at work.
The United States: the weak link?
It seems extraordinary to describe the US as the weak link in the advanced capitalist world. After all, the US remains the hegemonic state, with military and financial capabilities vastly greater than any other polity. Nevertheless, it is a thought we must take seriously after 6 January. Three determinations seem to stand out:
The cumulative economic effects of neoliberalism and the global financial crisis: The Trumpian rhetoric of “Make America Great Again” presents the US as a victim of globalisation, but this is not a description that the big US banks and corporations would recognise. They have hugely profited from the globalisation of production and the emergence of what Peter Gowan called the “Dollar-Wall Street regime” in finance.55 Moreover, the five IT giants, the FAANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google), represent the US ambition to dominate the future of capitalism, and they are a major stake in Washington’s conflicts with both Beijing and Brussels. Nevertheless, Robert Brenner argues that the latest government bailout of markets, in March 2020, shows that:
With the US economy performing so very badly…the bipartisan political establishment and its leading policymakers have come to a stark conclusion, consciously or unconsciously. The only way that they can assure the reproduction of the non-financial and financial corporations, their top managers and shareholders—and indeed the top leaders of the major parties, who are closely connected with them—is to intervene politically in the asset markets and throughout the whole economy, so as to underwrite the upward re-distribution of wealth to them by directly political means… What we have had for a long epoch is worsening economic decline met by intensifying political predation.56
For wide sections of the US population the experience of the past generation has been compressed wages, the evaporation of large swathes of manufacturing employment, jobs, savings and homes during the global financial crisis, and family members killed, disabled and traumatised in the lost wars in the Greater Middle East. This divergence in experiences (with many better-paid white-collar employees sharing much more modestly in the prosperity enjoyed by big capital) has been weaponised by Trump and the Republican right;
Dysfunctional political structures increasingly favouring the Republicans: Capital large and small has benefitted from a constitution designed by its framers to protect property from majority rule. A number of mechanisms ensure this is the case: an executive president who, even in the era of universal suffrage, is still chosen indirectly by an electoral college weighted in favour of the 50 states; an extremely powerful but highly unrepresentative upper chamber, the Senate, in which states have equal representation irrespective of differences in population; and a Supreme Court of judges appointed for life whose power as constitutional arbiters has been enhanced by gridlock in Washington. Capital’s prerogatives have been further buttressed by a first past the post electoral system that restricts political competition to two profoundly pro-capitalist parties and by the court-affirmed right of the corporate rich to flood compliant politicians with money. In recent decades, the Republican Party, which has won only one presidential popular vote in the past 30 years, has ruthlessly used gerrymandering and voter suppression to entrench itself, particularly at the state level and in Congress. All this has been very good for capital, which has colonised all levels of the state, but the result is a political system largely impervious to popular movements for change in any direction.57 Meanwhile, the last two Democratic administrations (Bill Clinton’s in 1993-2001 and Barack Obama’s in 2009-17) operated as efficient managers of the neoliberal order, disappointing their more progressive supporters and helping the Republicans to capture both houses of Congress in 1994, the House of Representatives again in 2010 and the Senate in 2014;
The racial fracture: All advanced capitalist states are structurally racist, but nowhere is racial oppression more central than in the US. Slavery and settler colonialism are inscribed into the fetishised constitution; Article 1, Section 3 gives states federal representation based on “adding to the number of free persons…and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other persons”.58 The complex and tense balance between white slave planters and petty producers broke down as the US expanded territorially and started its own Industrial Revolution in the first half of the 19th century. Lincoln won the Civil War by, as Marx predicted, adopting increasingly revolutionary means—above all, issuing the Emancipation Proclaimation and arming the ex-slaves. Yet the defeat of the attempt by black people and their white allies to reconstruct the South after the Union victory in 1865 meant that the formal legal and political equality granted by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the constitution was denied to African Americans. This was especially so in the South, where they were subjected to the Jim Crow regime of racial segregation.59 The so-called Second Reconstruction imposed on the federal government by the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and the inner-city risings in the North that it helped to stimulate, ended Jim Crow and helped elevate a black middle class that now has some serious political clout. Yet African Americans are still stuck at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Moreover, they are the objects of systemic state violence, whether through police shootings or mass incarceration in the “prison-industrial complex”, described by Michelle Alexander as the “another racial caste system in the US”.60 It is too simple to call contemporary US society an instance of “white supremacy”, as it would have been to join the short-lived celebrations of a “post-racial society” under Obama. Nevertheless, there are plenty of white supremacists, who have been steered by embedded racist structures onto focusing their discontents on black, Latinx and Muslim people.61
Against this background, the Trump presidency represented a clear case of what Louis Althusser calls “overdetermination”, where “a vast accumulation of ‘contradictions’ comes into play in the same court, some of which are radically heterogeneous—of different origins, different sense, different levels and points of application—but which nevertheless ‘merge’ into a ruptural unity”.62 Trump, starting with his run for the White House in 2015-16, systematically sought to play on the sense of victimhood (“American carnage”), the anger at Washington corruption and gridlock (“drain the swamp”), and the racism of enough US citizens in order to win in November 2016. He then used these same factors in order to sustain himself during a chaotic term of office and to secure over 74 million votes (the second highest total in US history) in November 2020.
Trump is no fascist, but an adventurer, who has parlayed his celebrity business dealings and media stardom into at least the appearance of great wealth and used this image to reach a wider audience for his far-right account of the US being screwed by globalisation and, more concretely, by its allies and by China.63 His relationship to big capital has been far from straightforward. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of Yale School of Management claims, “I would bring Donald Trump to our CEO summit years ago and the top tier CEOs would say, ‘Don’t bring him in here. We don’t consider him a top CEO.’” When he told the president this after his 2016 election victory, Trump replied, “Well, they’re all coming by to see me now”.64
Even in the White House, however, he remained problematic for big capital. His most distinctive economic policies—trade wars with China and the EU, and repatriating the global supply chains developed in the neoliberal era—clashed directly with the interests of the main US transnational corporations and banks.
Trump’s class base came from elsewhere, as Mike Davis explains in a brilliant sketch of the social geography of Trumpism:
If Reagan came to power aligned with a historic anti-union offensive led by the Business Roundtable—a coalition of Fortune 500 corporations—Trump came to the White House thanks to the love of Jesus and a motley crew of what Sam Farber refers to as “lumpen capitalists”. Of course, defence contractors, the energy industry and Big Pharma pay the dues to the White House, as is always the case when the Republicans are in power. But the donor coalition that financed the revolt against Obama and united behind Trump after the defeat of Ted Cruz in the 2016 primaries is largely peripheral to the traditional sites of economic power. In addition to family dynasties…such as the Kochs, who have been around since the days of Barry Goldwater and the John Birch Society, Trump’s key allies are post-industrial robber barons from hinterland places like Grand Rapids, Wichita, Little Rock and Tulsa. Their fortunes derive from real estate, private equity, casinos and services ranging from private armies to chain usury.65
These “lumpen-billionaires”, as Davis also calls them, are dependent on the domestic market, and indeed often on federal and state governments, as is shown by the telling example of Forrest L Preston’s Life Care Centers of America, the largest nursing home chain in the US and the site of numerous Covid-19 deaths in spring 2020.66 Confrontation with the manufacturing and trading giants of Asia and Europe probably did not affect their interests very negatively and may even help smaller industrial firms. Transnational big business, by contrast, went along with Trump because he cut taxes, promoted deregulation and inflated a stock-market bubble. As the Financial Times Lex column sourly put it after the assault on the Capitol:
Mr Trump repeatedly staked his presidency on rising financial markets, tacitly inciting Wall Street and better-off Americans to ignore his creeping illiberalism because they were getting rich in the process. Business grew weary of his capriciousness on tariffs and trade with China.
But Mr Trump largely gave corporate America what it wanted. Emerging markets have typically had the same flavour: a political state that is untidy or corrupt but where commerce and capitalism still flourish.67
But in the longer term what was significant about Trump was less his ambivalent relationship with big capital than his transformation of right-wing politics in the US, starting with what Davis describes as “his rapid takeover and ruthless cleansing of the Republican Party in 2017–18… Trump’s nuclear advantage was his astounding popularity at the base, a frenzy routinely stoked by evangelical leaders, Fox News and, of course, his endless tweets”.68 Moreover, we now see that the famous Republican base is not just a mass of passive worshippers. Trump has given national leadership, media attention and political legitimacy to a plethora of far-right groupuscules, ranging from the “patriot” militias that started to emerge in the 1990s to the QAnon conspiracy theorists. Pete Simi of Chapman University says: “He’s kind of an ink blot of sorts where a lot of these different segments of the far right—and into the mainstream—are able to project on to him their hopes and fears and anxieties and frustrations”.69
The relationship between Trump and the far-right grassroots is an interactive one in which he cultivated and mobilised them to help him win a second term. Key signposts included: Trump’s responding to the clash between the “Unite the Right” rally and anti-fascists (in which one of the latter died) in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 by saying “there were very good people on both sides”; his encouragement of far-right groups who last summer and autumn protested against the lockdowns and clashed (sometimes fatally) with BLM protestors; his call to the fascist Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” in the 30 September presidential debate; and, last but not least, his speech to the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington on 6 January that lead to the storming of the Capitol.
In all these interventions Trump was trying to help himself rather than trying to create a new political regime, but he also helped the far right crystallise as a movement. It is important to stress here that, for the groups involved, the assault of the Capitol was a success, even if it did not save the Trump presidency. Even though the power of the federal government is now being deployed against the “insurrectionists”, the martyrs that the FBI and the courts will create can feed the mythology surrounding 6 January. Colin Clarke, a domestic terrorism expert at the Soufan Group, told the Washington Post, “The fact that the Capitol police allowed this to happen can be called a security breach or an intelligence failure, but these people do not look at this as a failure. They look at it as an overwhelming success, and one that will inspire others for years”.70
The assault on the Capitol nevertheless led to a real rupture between Trump and the US ruling class. It is one thing to be a vulgar racist and sexist bully, but it is quite another to incite a far-right mob to overturn the constitution; after all, that constitution serves capital very well. Pence and McConnell, who had used Trump to entrench the power of the Christian right—most notably by packing the federal judiciary with right-wing judges, who now have a two-thirds majority on the Supreme Court—quickly dropped him.
Even before the election, the US Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and six other corporate lobby groups had called on “all Americans to support the process set out in our federal and state laws and to remain confident in our country’s long tradition of peaceful and fair elections”.71 After 6 January, the National Association of Manufacturers, 70 percent of whose 2020 campaign contributions went to Republicans, asked Pence “seriously to consider working with the cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment”. This would have allowed him to take over as acting president if the cabinet declared Trump “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”. “There’s not a single major chief executive who’s a Trump supporter now,” Sonnenfeld told the Financial Times, as they retreated from what one called their “Faustian bargain with Trump”.72
From the perspective of big capital, then, Biden’s inauguration marked a welcome return to normality, as an administration packed full of veterans of the Obama presidency took office. However, no one should kid themselves. Trump opened a Pandora’s box from which a serious national fascist movement could emerge. Timothy Snyder draws a perceptive distinction:
Right now, the Republican Party is a coalition of two types of people: those who would game the system (most of the politicians, some of the voters) and those who dream of breaking it (a few of the politicians, many of the voters). In January 2021, this was visible as the difference between those Republicans who defended the present system on the grounds that it favoured them and those who tried to upend it.
In the four decades since the election of Ronald Reagan, Republicans have overcome the tension between the gamers and the breakers by governing in opposition to government, or by calling elections a revolution (the Tea Party), or by claiming to oppose elites. The breakers, in this arrangement, provide cover for the gamers.73
The assault on the Capitol brought the gamers—headed by Pence and McDonnell—into open conflict with the breakers: not just Trump himself, but notably Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, the two Republican senators who led the Congressional opposition to certifying the election results. On somewhat analogous lines, Davis argues that “the Republican Party has just undergone an irreparable split” between those who favour “a realignment of power within the party” and “more traditional capitalist interest groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable.” He contends that “the True Trumpists have become a de facto third party, bunkered down heavily in the House of Representatives”.74
The important issue here is not whether or not these two factions may somehow manage to stick together. The electoral strength of the “True Trumpists” is a strong incentive not to split. In a notorious YouGov poll on 7 January, 45 percent of Republicans supported the attack on the Capitol.75 Polled between 23 and 25 January, 81 percent of Republican voters said they still had a positive view of Trump.76 Only 13 percent of Republicans, compared to 92 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of independents, supported Trump’s impeachment.77 Analysis of those facing charges connected with the assault on the Capitol suggests that the “insurrectionists” were drawn heavily from the struggling petty bourgeoisie. According to the Washington Post, “Nearly 60 percent…showed signs of prior money troubles, including bankruptcies, notices of eviction or foreclosure, bad debts, or unpaid taxes over the past two decades.” Around 40 percent were business owners or white collar workers.78
Even after the storming of the Capitol, 8 out of 51 Republican senators and 139 out of 204 Republican members of the House of Representatives supported objections to the election count. Only 7 of 50 Republicans in the new Senate voted to convict Trump for inciting insurrection in his brief, half-hearted impeachment trial. This is a tribute to the power his base still gives him. Again, Snyder is perceptive:
As Cruz and Hawley may learn, to tell the big lie that the election was stolen is to be owned by it. Just because you have sold your soul does not mean that you have driven a hard bargain. Hawley shies from no level of hypocrisy; the son of a banker, educated at Stanford University and Yale Law School, he denounces elites. Insofar as Cruz was thought to have a principle, it was that of states’ rights, which Trump’s calls to action brazenly violated.79
In other words, Trump’s Congressional champions are no doubt mainly motivated by their own political ambition, and in particular by the attraction provided by the size and commitment of his base. However, in order to satisfy that base they must imitate Trump’s polarising rhetoric. Trump himself made it clear he was sticking around when he spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference on 28 February, ruling out a third party and hinting at another presidential run. This will bring the breakers into further conflict with the gamers who want to stick close to big capital.
The resulting political and ideological struggles can offer openings to genuinely fascist forces. So far these forces have failed to generate a credible national leadership. Sooner or later, however, they will tire of depending on the whims of an erratic and egotistical pseudo-billionaire, let alone the more transparent opportunism of sleazebags such as Hawley and Cruz. For now, the fascists can continue to benefit from their mainstreaming of far-right themes. Meanwhile, the Continuity Clinton-Obama administration in Washington will no doubt offer new opportunities for the whole of the far right.
The corporate revulsion at the assault on the Capitol underlines that the situation is not the same as that in Italy in the early 1920s or Germany ten years later. Big capital is no way desperate enough to gamble on authoritarian solutions, let alone fascism, either in the US or Europe. Why should it? The leaders of organised labour have acquiesced in the neoliberal offensive of the past generation and responded feebly to the devastating attacks on jobs, wages, conditions, safety—indeed, life itself—that have been launched since the outbreak of the pandemic.
Nevertheless, there are two reasons for not reacting complacently to big capital’s current reluctance to back far-right authoritarianism. First, the situation can deteriorate further, particularly for the US. Rana Foroohar of CNN and the Financial Times has offered this fascinating prognosis, linking the bitcoin bubble, imperial decline 6 January, and the Federal Reserve’s easy money policies:
The rise in popularity of highly volatile cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin…might better be interpreted as an early signal of a new world order in which the US and the dollar will play a less important role… Bitcoin’s rise reflects the belief in some parts of the investor community that the US will eventually come in some ways to resemble Weimar Germany, as post-2008 financial crisis monetary policy designed to stabilise markets gives way to post-Covid monetisation of rising US debt loads.80
The severity of the multiple crises that confront capitalism today may encourage sections of the ruling class to mount an even more brutal assault on working people and to try use a sufficiently powerful fascist movement to sustain this assault. Already we see what Ugo Palheta calls the “authoritarian hardening” of liberal capitalist states. France under Macron is a notable example, with a plethora of repressive measures and an ideological offensive against the absurd amalgam of “Islamo-leftism”.81 The Johnson government’s Police Bill and attacks on migrants are part of the same process. The classic argument made by anti-fascists for the past 50 years is that history teaches us we must mobilise against the fascists as soon as they emerge, seeking to crush them before they become too powerful easily to defeat.
Second, there is the danger of self-fulfilling prophecy: the far right may be able to sufficiently destabilise the political system that parts of the ruling class start welcoming the fascists as a force capable of restoring order. The quasi-implosions suffered by US and British politics since 2016 illustrate how apparently small changes in a complex system can unleash sudden and bewildering transformation.
Fighting fascism from below
So Paul Mason is right: “We have to face it. There is a plebeian mass base for American fascism, and Trump has chosen to lead it, even though his own political project and modus operandi was not initially fascist, and even though there is scant support among the mainstream corporate elite for that project”.82 The challenge for the radical and revolutionary left—not just in the US but internationally—is how to combat this increasingly dangerous and pressing threat. Mason’s strategy is to increase the repressive capabilities of the state and ally with the liberal centre:
I can understand the Leninist position: the state is an arm of the bourgeoisie, we want to smash it. But in the 20th century, faced with fascism, all Marxist parties who actually found themselves on the receiving end found that: a) anti-fascist violence is not enough—it cannot match fascist violence in its offensive, mobile, mercurial character; b) you have to call on the state to defend democracy and the rule of law… You’re up against the capitalist class. We either adopt a strategy of overthrowing them, and good luck with that versus 75 million armed Trump voters, or we understand the divisions within the ruling class, use the space democracy allows for the left and the labour movement to mobilise, and thus we can defend what we have…
Hannah Arendt described fascism as “the temporary alliance of the elite and the mob”.83 That’s literally what happened on 6 January… The lessons of Europe in the 1930s are that the only thing that beats an alliance of the elite and the mob is a temporary alliance of the centre and the left. And that when that happens, as in France and Spain between 1934 and 1936, you don’t only win elections but you can also create a mass popular anti-fascist culture.84
For all the illumination that Mason’s writings offer, this is a disastrously mistaken strategy. To begin with, he presents a false dichotomy. Ultimately, only a socialist revolution that ends capitalism can eliminate the threat of fascism. Nevertheless, of course, in the here and now, we should “use the space democracy allows”. In his critique of the Stalinist “Third Period” policy, which equated reformism with fascism, Trotsky displays one of his most brilliant insights with the stress he lays on the importance for the workers’ movement of defending this space:
In the course of many decades, the workers have built up within the bourgeois democracy, by utilising it and by fighting against it, their own strongholds and bases of proletarian democracy: the trade unions, the political parties, the educational and sport clubs, the cooperatives and so on. The proletariat cannot attain power within the formal limits of bourgeois democracy, but only by taking the road of revolution: this has been proved both by theory and experience. And these bulwarks of workers’ democracy within the bourgeois state are absolutely essential for taking the revolutionary road.85
Despite the transformations in working-class life in advanced capitalism since the 1930s, it remains essential to defend bourgeois democracy, for the reasons Trotsky gives. However, he argues that this requires using the methods of class struggle, not of class collaboration. The Popular Front strategy adopted by the Communist International in 1935, after the disastrous failure of its previous policy in Germany, amounted to an alliance between the workers’ movement and the liberal bourgeoisie. This is the essence of the approach Mason is advocating, and it too would lead to disaster, just as it did in the 1930s.
To see why, let’s return to 6 February 1934 in Paris. The victory of the leagues in forcing out Daladier provoked a more powerful reaction from the left. In their definitive study of 6 February, Brian Jenkins and Chris Millington write:
The Communist and Socialist Parties immediately denounced the leagues’ action as an attempted fascist coup. On 9 February, the Communist Party organised a demonstration as a riposte, during which four men died in violence with police… Yet it was on 12 February that the moment of truth for the left came. On that day, the Socialist Party and the CGT labour union called a general strike. The Communist Party had not planned to join this action. Instead, it continued to condemn its Socialist Party rival as complicit in the killing of workers on 9 February. However, the party could not prevent its members from mixing spontaneously with their Socialist Party counterparts on the streets of Paris. This display of rank and file unity raised hopes for a coalition. Official collaboration was not immediately forthcoming. However, by July 1934, the Socialist and Communist Parties had formed a formal alliance against fascism, the Rassemblement Populaire. The following year, the coalition expanded to include the Radical Party. This “Popular Front” enjoyed electoral success in June 1936 when Léon Blum became France’s first Socialist Party prime minister.86
So 6 February led to further polarisation to both right and left, the start of what Paxton calls “the virtual French civil war of the mid-1930s”.87 But in the immediate, Jenkins and Millington stress, “the combined Socialist and Communist demonstration of 12 February 1934 was much larger than that of 6 February and, moreover, found greater echo throughout France… A wave of solidarity swept through the country and there were demonstrations and strikes in 346 localities”.88 Unity was to a large extent imposed on the Socialist and Communist party leaderships by pressure from below (indeed, the Communist war veterans’ group had taken part in the 6 February march, in line with the “Third Period” policy).
However, the extension of the Rassemblement Populaire to include the Radicals and the formation of the Popular Front was not the natural culmination of this process, as Mason implies. The Socialists and Communists were working-class and nominally Marxist parties. The Radicals, however, were the dominant party of the Third Republic. Trotsky describes them as “that political instrument of the big bourgeoisie that is the best adapted to the traditions and prejudices of the petty bourgeoisie”. 89 Allying with the Radicals meant in practice subordinating the interests of the working class to those of French capital.
This became visible in May-June 1936, when the electoral victory of the Popular Front stimulated a wave of mass strikes and factory occupations. Eager to reassure panicky financial markets, the new government made its priority ending the strikes; with the Matignon Agreements, they offered some significant concessions, notably a 12 percent pay increase and a two-week annual paid holiday. However, the effect was to demobilise workers, while the new government struggled with relentless capital flight, the devaluation of the franc and the rising inflation that was eroding the gains made in June 1936. The Blum cabinet lasted a year.
Ironically it was Daladier, the political victim of 6 February, who finally buried the Popular Front when he replaced Blum’s very short-lived second government in April 1938 with a centre-right coalition. Granted the right to rule by decree that Parliament had refused to Blum, Daladier in many ways continued in Doumergue’s path. He signed the Munich agreement with Hitler in September 1938, crushed a general strike that November and banned the Communist Party in August 1939. As so often, giving greater executive powers to the state forged new weapons to be used against the left. Jenkins and Millington observe:
Arguably, in the course of 1938, the French left experienced a similar crushing defeat [to that suffered by the German working class before Hitler seized power]. The hopes and energies aroused by the Popular Front movement had been dissipated, its achievements were being rolled back, and a bitter conservative backlash was underway. Daladier’s dictature, fuelled by virulent anti-Communism and involving the extensive use of decree powers, was increasingly conservative and authoritarian. The Radical Party itself moved similarly to the right, adopting antisemitic and socially regressive positions that cast some doubt on the notion that it was one of the Republic’s key defences against fascism.90
In the event, it was the German blitzkrieg of May-June 1940 that destroyed the Third Republic, not the French far right. On 10 July 1940, the Popular Front parliament voted full powers to Marshal Philippe Pétain, whose regime would enthusiastically collaborate with the Nazis and participate in the Holocaust. The liberal journalist William L Shirer writes that the vote “was overwhelming: 569 for, 80 against and 17 declared abstentions. The majority of the Socialists and of the Radical Party, the two parties that had been the mainstay of the Republic for two generations, joined the majority of conservatives to swell the affirmative vote”.91
So the experience of France in the 1930s hardly suggests that “a temporary alliance of the centre and the left” is the way to beat fascism. The centre not only did not hold: it betrayed. This historical judgement is reinforced when we consider the nature of the contemporary “extreme centre”. Its chief political representatives include Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Matteo Renzi. These are the managers of the contemporary neoliberal order. It is their failure that is the source of the present crisis. To ally with their likes is to make it even easier than it already is for the far right to present themselves as the real challengers to the status quo.
So what’s the alternative? Mason writes, “Anti-fascist violence is not enough.” However, it’s a mistake to put it in these terms, which imply a simple choice between Popular Frontism and relying on small groups of anti-fascist street fighters. There’s another option—mass mobilisation to stop the fascists organising and marching. This is the lesson of the struggle against the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, of the Anti-Nazi League in the 1970s, and of more recent struggles against the British National Party, the English Defence League and the Football Lads’ Alliances.92
Building a mass anti-fascist movement requires, as Trotsky argues, not a Popular Front, but a united front—in other words, bringing together the different political tendencies of the left, reformist and revolutionary, and working-class organisations more generally to mobilise against the fascists. This is by no means simple, above all because allying with social democracy opens a bridge to the “extreme centre”. Moreover, reformists are more liable to appeal for support from the state, which, as the experience of the 1930s shows, will use its enhanced powers against the left. Yet without the involvement of serious reformist forces, the ability of anti-fascists to reach deep into working people’s lives and organisations is fatally limited.
So the way to defeat the fascists is to mobilise against them from below on the basis of a united front of the left. However, the analysis put forward in this article has highlighted the interplay between crisis, revolution and counter-revolution that has driven the rise of the far right both between the wars and today. The mass movements that have responded to the decay of neoliberalism helped to provoke the current reaction since the global finance crisis, but they also express the power to defeat the far right. The age of catastrophe is also, as we have seen, an age of revolts. There have been important victories during the first plague year—the jailing of the leaders of fascist Golden Dawn in Greece and the reversal of the Bolivian coup.93
The Black Lives Matter protests show that anti-racism has become a mobilising force that reaches far beyond the black community or indeed the US. Calculating that just 800 people actually invaded the Capitol on 6 January, the African American Marxist August Nimtz criticises liberals for:
Their elevation in importance of the actions of so few…over and above the maybe 25 million of all skin colours and other identities who took to the streets last spring and summer, in the middle of Covid-19, in all kinds of American nooks and crannies, to protest the murder of George Floyd. The year 2020, despite the pandemic, was not the nadir for our species, as some in pandemic locked-down mode would have us believe. To have had the opportunity to participate in any of the actions was literally a breath of fresh air.94
Movements of this kind can undercut the fascists by conjuring up a progressive and democratic alternative to neoliberal imperialism. The power to sweep away the far right has only just begun to be tapped. If it is really mobilised, it will threaten more than the latest generation of little Hitlers.
Alex Callinicos is Emeritus Professor of European Studies at King’s College London, co-editor of the Routledge Handbook of Marxism and Post-Marxism, and a columnist for Socialist Worker.
1 Luttwak, 1968, p27. Thanks to Joseph Choonara, Richard Donnelly, Gareth Jenkins, Sheila McGregor, John Rose and Mark Thomas for their very helpful comments on this article in draft.
2 Singh, 2021.
3 Snyder, 2021.
4 Ocasio-Cortez, 2021.
5 Kornfield, 2021.
6 Mason, 2021a. There is a vivid eye-witness account of 6 February in Shirer, 1971, chapter 14.
7 Trotsky, 1934.
8 Davis, 2020, p32.
9 Mayer, 2000, is an in-depth historical study of the interplay of revolution and counter-revolution in France and Russia. The Filipino intellectual-politician and anti-globalisation activist Walden Bello has written an important study of the far right based on this dialectic—Bello, 2019. It’s especially valuable for its case studies from the Global South (Indonesia, Chile, Thailand, India and the Philippines, though surprisingly not Egypt). Its two main weaknesses are that Bello’s use of the comparative method means he does not sufficiently differentiate between the historical periods in which his case studies are situated—the inter-war crisis, the long boom and the neoliberal epoch—and his failure properly to distinguish fascism from other forms of reaction.
10 Hobsbawm, 1994.
11 Mayer, 1981, p5.
12 Gramsci, 1971, p68; see also Callinicos, 2009, pp144-164.
13 Mazower, 1998, p28.
14 Trotsky, 1971, p276. See Poulantzas, 2018, for an important, although not entirely satisfactory, discussion.
15 For the economic context, see Stramann, 2019.
16 Mazower, 1998, pp28-29.
17 Mayer, 1981, p127. Mayer overstates his case: for better overviews of Europe’s contradictions before 1914, see Hobsbawm, 1987, and Stone, 1983.
18 Bloch, 2018, part two.
19 Poulantzas, 2018, p25.
20 See the excellent overview in Paxton, 2004.
21 Bloch, 2018, pp2, 108.
22 Trotsky, 1971, p403.
23 Trotsky, 1971, p405.
24 Trotsky, 1971, p278.
25 Callinicos, 2001, p395. By contrast, however, “Operating the all-important police force on bureaucratic principles…rather than as part of a prerogative state of unlimited arbitrary power was Italian Fascism’s most important divergence from Nazi practice.”—Paxton, 2004, p152.
26 Callinicos, 2001, pp395-396. In his definitive study of the Nazi economy, Adam Tooze describes the relationship similarly. See “Partners: The Regime and German Business”, Tooze, 2006, chapter 4.
27 This analysis is fully developed in Callinicos, 2001. I was delighted to discover recently it was largely anticipated in a brilliant brief essay by Peter Sedgwick—see Sedgwick 1970.
28 Paxton, 2004, p171. See the superb discussion of the radicalisation of the fascist regimes in Paxton, 2004, chapter 6.
29 Gramsci, 1971, pp109, 110. On organic crises, see Gramsci, 1971, pp175-185.
30 I am indebted to the interpretation of passive revolution in Tosel, 2016, pp121-139.
31 Harman, 1984.
32 Adorno, 1973, p320; translation modified.
33 Callinicos, 2014, and Tooze, 2018.
34 Roberts, 2016.
35 Harman, 2009, p307. See also “Part 9: Marxism in an Age of Catastrophe” in Callinicos, Kouvelakis and Pradella, 2021.
36 Choonara, 2019.
37 US Department of the Treasury, 2021.
38 Palheta, 2018, chapter 2.
39 Callinicos, 2011.
40 Bello, 2019, p166. Thomas, 2019, is an extremely valuable and informative study of the contemporary European far right, especially its fascist wing.
41 Harman, 1988 and Harvey, 2005.
42 Poulantzas, 1980, part four.
43 Chacko and Jayasurira, 2018, p534.
44 Bello, 2019, chapters 6 and 7 and postscript.
45 Thanks to John Rose for this crucial point.
46 Pertwee, 2020, pp212-213.
47 Orr, 2019.
48 Pertwee, 2020, p223-224.
49 Van der Pijl, 1984.
50 Harman, 1983.
51 See D’Eramo, 2013, however, for a useful health warning against overuse of the term “populist”.
52 Patnaik and Patnaik, 2021, p307.
53 Roberts, 2020 and 2021.
54 Traverso, 2019, p34. See also Palheta, 2018, a study of the RN that argues it is not currently fascist, although he warns this may change.
55 Gowan, 1999.
56 Brenner, 2020, p22.
57 Lazare, 1996.
59 Du Bois, 2007, Foner, 2014, and Gates, 2019, are great studies of Reconstruction and its defeat.
60 Alexander, 2010.
61 Among the reasons why the label “white supremacy” is too simplistic is the growing political muscle of black Democrats, whose organising drive delivered Biden Georgia’s two Senate seats and hence control of both houses of Congress in January. Another is the perturbing fact that in November 2020 “even as Mr. Trump lost ground in white and Republican areas in and around cities—ultimately leading to his election loss—he gained new votes in immigrant neighbourhoods”, according to Cai and Fessenden, 2020. See the case study of how this happened in South Texas in Davis, 2020, pp10-15. For an excellent critique of the “white supremacy” thesis, see Nimtz, 2017.
62 Althusser, 1969, p100.
63 See the detailed analysis of Trump and his relationship to capital and the state in Callinicos, 2016 and 2017. There is a penetrating Freudo-Marxist diagnosis of his political style in Zaretsky, 2021.
64 Edgecliffe-Johnson, 2020b.
65 Davis, 2020, p18-19.
66 Davis, 2020, p20; Davis and Shatz, 2020.
67 Financial Times, 2021.
68 Davis, 2020, p17.
69 Chaffin, 2021.
70 Barrett, Hsu and Davis, 2021.
71 Edgecliffe-Johnson, 2020a.
72 Edgecliffe-Johnson, 2021.
73 Snyder, 2021.
74 Davis, 2021.
75 The Economist, 2021.
76 Durkee, 2021.
77 Fedor, 2021.
78 Frankel, 2021.
79 Snyder, 2021.
80 Foroohar, 2021.
81 Palheta, 2021. Unfortunately Palheta uses the very problematic concept of “fascisation”, implying a gradual and peaceful transition to fascism. On Macron, see Michel, 2021.
82 Mason, 2021b.
83 See Arendt, 1973, chapter 10. There is much of value in Arendt’s study, which traces the roots of fascism in imperialism and racism.
84 Mason, 2021b.
85 Trotsky, 1971, pp158-159.
86 Jenkins and Millington, 2015, pp126-127.
87 Paxton, 1972, p254.
88 Jenkins and Millington, 2015, p154.
89 Trotsky, 1935.
90 Jenkins and Millington, 2015, p169.
91 Shirer, 1971, p952.
92 See the accounts of the struggles of the 1930s and 1970s by two key anti-fascist organisers: Piratin, 1978, and Holborow, 2019.
93 On Greece, see Constantinou, 2021.
94 Nimtz, 2021.