[Discussion Article] Paul Mason on the Fascist Threat – An Anarchist Critique

Tòmas MacAilpein

Summary: Should the Left unite with the Centre – or the so-called progressive bourgeoisie – against fascism? Thoughts from a critical anarchist — Editors

Paul Mason spoke at the online conference of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization (IMHO) recently. He said some interesting things about radical humanism and fascism mixed with, for me, more frustrating points. It persuaded me to read his latest books, Clear Bright Future (2019), and especially How to Stop Fascism, which came out last month.

What are his main arguments in How to Stop Fascism?

Fascism is on the rise big time around the world. In post-WWII society there were separate right-wing blocs: authoritarian conservatives, the populist far-right, and the extreme right/fascists. In the past decade or so the boundaries between these blocs have become fuzzy and outright fascist ideas are taking hold.

Trump’s electoral defeat doesn’t change things. He wasn’t a fascist – at least by a strict definition – but, more and more, his mass base has come to think and act like fascists. Arguably, they have now taken over the Republican party – one of the main parties of a declining superpower. Also, Trump’s US government energised authoritarian and fascist movements around the world. Not only are they not in decline; there are quite a few reasons why we should expect them to continue to grow quite rapidly.

Neoliberalism has been in crisis since the economic crash of 2008. Over a decade later, we are only just starting to experience its effects, such as the more long-term stagnation of growth and the ‘neoliberal self’s’ crisis of ideology. The reality people have come to accept in the last 40 years no longer makes sense and there seems little hope that things are going to improve for most. People’s support for ‘democracy’ is falling as is their faith in science and reason.

Fascism manages to spread in this context because it provides a coherent, compensatory reality and taps into people’s anger and hatred. Online networks which have been used as an emancipatory technology for organising and supporting mass protest movements have also had the effect of giving the far-right a platform previously unseen. The Rightist elites have responded to that threat of the leftish protest movement by means of censorship and commercialised bubbles; but most successfully by flooding networks with disinformation and weaponising anonymous trolling.

The far-right has fed off this process and mutated. Fascists latch onto conspiracy theories and populist hatred and ‘backfill’ them with a wider ideology. Its audiences are radicalised in an atmosphere where they distrust facts and are looking for an alternative, however irrational. Fascist ideology doesn’t emanate from one place, it’s mercurial and has a DIY quality to it.

There are fascists theorists, though, and they’re having an influence. What’s important is no longer national rebirth so much but the defence of ethnicity – e.g., the ‘Great Replacement Theory’, etc. This is seen around the world, although the exact ethnicity being defended differs. It’s also tied to gender in a way that the classical fascist movements weren’t. That’s because the past 40–50 years have seen massive advances for women’s rights in reproduction, work and elsewhere in society. One of the gateway drugs to fascism, in fact, is so-called men’s rights. Fascism wants to reverse the gains women have made, and to force us to accept ethnicity and gender as natural rather than historically created differences/hierarchies.

Fascism originally arose in the 1920s as a violent response to workers’ revolution and revolutionary politics. It was an anti-freedom and anti-humanist movement with a mass base in the middle class and some of the working class backed by a section of the elite, but never simply controlled by capitalists. Today, its enemies are movements for freedom,specifically Black Lives Matter, feminism, and the growing movement around climate change. There are no longer radical mass workers’ movements comparable to the 1920s but it still reconstructs ‘cultural marxism’ as a bogeyman and continues to weaponise antisemitism.

Fascism seeks to create as much chaos as possible, and to undermine democratic defences. Ultimately, it wants an ethnic civil war and, in the West, to reset civilisation so that it was as though the French Revolution, modernism, democracy, struggles for equality etc. never happened. If that doesn’t seem possible, it will do as much as it can to destroy the political system and take much of humanity down with it.

The big issue is, of course, that we have arguably 10 years to decarbonise society and, more generally, restore ecological living systems. If we don’t, things will get much worse for all of us. And that in itself will benefit fascists. The latter for now want to stop radical climate change policies from being implemented. They are able to manipulate climate change scepticism, and far-right populists have received funding from corporations trying to block anti-fossil fuel legislation. So, the broad far right and fascism are a massive ecological threat. But, paradoxically, another wing of the movement, ecofascism, accepts climate change and takes it in an anti-human, genocidal direction. Paul Mason sees this as the natural evolution of fascist views, especially as the climate crisis intensifies.

For Mason, fascism isn’t a unique occurrence in human history brought about in the specific conditions of the aftermath of WWI. It rears its head whenever the system begins to break down – ideologically as well as economically and socially – and seeks to deny freedom to those fighting to replace the system with something better. It will keep coming back until we get rid of capitalism. But we only defeated it last time through world war and, Mason argues, a cross-class alliance in defence of democracy.

I found most of the book useful. I say that despite disagreeing with Mason’s social democratic politics. On the nature and evolution of fascism, the overview of the academic literature on fascism, and even left-wing analyses, I learned a lot. In terms of the latter, we find a discussion of the views of anarchists such as Daniel Guérin and Luigi Fabbri as well as Marxists such as Antonio Gramsci, Erich Fromm and Wilhelm Reich.

The last part of the book, however, is a defence of the Popular Front as the only strategy with a chance of stopping fascism. I found myself frequently disagreeing with some of his claims here, but he does raise uncomfortable questions for which I don’t have answers.

The Popular Front is a strategy where the left unites with the centre – or the so-called progressive bourgeoisie – against fascism. It goes back to about 1934 in France following a massive riot by the Far Right outside the National Assembly in Paris. Hitler was already in power in Germany and the fascist movement in France was growing. Working class socialists, communists and anarchists decided to come together to prevent what had just happened in Germany: the crumbling of the biggest working-class movement in the face of Nazism. The French communists, for their part, were directly contradicting Stalin’s line (which, known as the ‘Third Position’, designated the socialist parties as being ‘social fascist’).

Eventually, the socialists and communists formed an electoral pact with the centrist Radicals. They formed a government in 1936 and took a hard line against the rise of French fascism. They also brought in reforms and ignited working class hopes for social change combined with a massive wave of sit-in strikes.

However, for economic reasons, the Popular Front government went back on several of its reforms. It was neutral in the Spanish Civil War and refused to support the Spanish Popular Front against the fascists. It also supported the appeasement of Hitler – albeit with the dissension of the Communists – and fell apart through its own contradictions within two years.

The Spanish Popular Front government was implicitly supported by anarchists in the CNT against the threat of the far right. In practice, during the Civil War the Popular Front developed into a strategy which surrendered the independence of the working-class movement to a bourgeois and Stalinist government. Under the cover of Popular Front unity, the Stalinists were able to gain power against the revolutionary left, reversing the revolution and then imprisoning and murdering their opponents. Mason accepts this but argues that it was a different situation to that of non-revolutionary France. Indeed, he says little about it.

But what does the Popular Front mean today? It would mean that the left, or what exists of it, tries to unite with the centre, including even centrist neoliberals; to ‘park’ many of its demands and obsessions to compromise with politicians, many of whom have spent their careers pushing austerity and pro-globalisation (rather than nationalist) capitalism; to form an explicit electoral pact or coalition to meet the rise of both the far right and fascism; to strengthen the state, police and rule of law against those who want to undermine the constitution etc; and create a mass antifascist culture and ethos like in the era of the French Popular Front.

This, however, amounts to a near-permanent deferral of revolutionary politics. Police abolitionism? Forget about it! Unite the anti-racist, feminist, and climate movements to challenge capitalism? Not until we’ve dealt with fascism!

In Homage to Catalonia (1938), George Orwell’s experience of the Spanish Civil War and Stalinism taught him that the Popular Front was a ‘temporary alliance that Fascism, in certain forms, forces upon the bourgeois and the worker’. ‘This alliance’, he wrote, ‘is in essence an alliance of enemies, and it seems probable that it must always end by one partner swallowing the other’.

What are the alternatives? Is the strategy of a united front from below, advocated by anarchists and other socialists since the very beginnings of fascism, a possibility without mass workers’ movements? Are today’s left and social movements strong enough to fight the new fascism and offer an alternative to those drawn to it? We can vote tactically for anti-fascist parties but how do we build and maintain an independent movement that goes beyond that?

The mythologising of the Popular Front in How to Stop Fascism should be critiqued. But Paul Mason’s book shows clearly that we need to take the growing threat of fascism seriously and think carefully about our strategy to resist it.

As an anarchist communist inspired by Marx and radical humanism, I’d like to briefly point to some important examples of anarchist movements confronting fascism.

Iain McKay gives a nice summary of the anarchist response to fascism in Italy in the 1920s in Fighting Fascism: Lessons from Italy. Reading it again I felt I wanted some reassessment of what in hindsight could have been done differently, and what should be done differently now. It reminded me of something that Davide Turcato said:

If the passage of time has shown anything it is that the anarchists have always been in the right. Gramsci himself implicitly admitted as much back in 1920 yet urged anarchists to acknowledge dialectically “that they were in the wrong… in being in the right”

…in other words, it’s not enough to be right! We can’t blame defeats on the – likely – betrayal of non-revolutionary or top-down movements.

It’s not clear, however, that Italian anarchists and syndicalists themselves could have done much more. They were the strongest opposition to fascism – acknowledged by non-anarchist historians like Gwyn A. Williams in Proletarian Order(1975). Anarchist strongholds held out longer than other places in Italy and they consistently supported a united front of the working class through Arditi del Popolo, reaching out to socialists, communists and even republicans. (Interestingly, anew volume of Errico Malatesta’s complete works which concerns the period 1919–1923 is coming out soon in Italian. It will be translated to English thereafter.)

David Berry in his History of the French Anarchist Movement, 1917–1945 (2009), of course, has a lot to say about anarchists during the French Popular Front era. There were attempts to oppose the top-down and Stalinist-dominated Popular Front with a revolutionary front from below. Some groups and syndicalists were very critical but also isolated and had a poor analysis of fascism. Others threw themselves into supporting the Spanish Popular Front when the Spanish Revolution and Civil War began. It was what the CNT wanted, but it also brought out a more liberal, ‘humanitarian’ section of the movement which failed to critique the trap of the Popular Front government. It seemed difficult to maintain a position both facing up to the threat of fascism, co-operating with antagonistic groups, and effectively working for revolutionary anti-capitalist politics.

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