Confronting Fascism Reviewed by Reviewed by Matthew Lyons
Ever since Italy’s fasci di combattimento rocketed Benito Mussolini to power in 1919-22, leftists have been grappling with the question of fascism — what it is and how to fight it. Fascism is a complex, contradictory enemy. It murders and vilifies leftists but often calls itself the true force for socialism and revolution. It bolsters oppression and supremacism, but overturns old hierarchies and feeds on real grievances against elites. It rules by violence and fear, but depends on active mass support to win and keep power. It glorifies a romantic image of the past, but proclaims a New Order and remakes itself again and again to fit new circumstances and opportunities.
Unfortunately, leftist discussions don’t usually deal with fascism’s complexity. More often, they fall back on simplistic formulas, such as the belief that fascism is just an extreme form of capitalist repression. This kind of thinking is dangerous because it tells us little about what gives fascist movements their appeal or what kind of threat they pose.
Confronting Fascism: Discussion Documents for a Militant Movement takes a fresh look at an old question. It argues that fascism isn’t just a ruling-class puppet or policy — it’s an independent political force that capitalists may manipulate but can never fully control. While many leftists have an image of fascism that’s stuck in the 1930s, Confronting Fascism brings the concept into the 21st century, discussing movements ranging from the World Church of the Creator to the Taliban. And Confronting Fascism also spells out why anti-fascists need to develop a revolutionary outlook and analysis — and why fighting fascism needs to be part of building a revolutionary movement.
The book is built around Don Hamerquist’s essay, “Fascism & Anti-Fascism,” which criticizes traditional leftist ideas (and current leftist complacency) about fascism, points to dangerous new potentials within the current neo-nazi scene, and offers a range of ideas for building a radical movement against both fascism and the capitalist state. J. Sakai’s piece, “The Shock of Recognition,” picks up on Hamerquist’s discussion of fascism, grounding it in more historical and global analysis and more discussion of class dynamics. Shorter pieces by ARA Chicago and Mark Salotte address points related to Hamerquist’s organizing/strategy discussion.
A strong introduction by Xtn of ARA Chicago highlights two events that shaped the immediate context for compiling the book. First, the 1999 Seattle anti-globalization protests opened new vistas for militant mass action — but also pointed to new dangers as neo-nazis praised the Seattle revolt and talked about winning over anti-globalization leftists. Second, the mass killings of September 11, 2001 disrupted radical activism and sparked a new wave of racist attacks and repressive nationalism. In particular, September 11 also showed radical activists that “we were not the only enemy of the capitalist order, and this new enemy was no friend of liberation” (p. 1).
A central theme of this book is that fascism is fundamentally hostile to both the left and the ruling class — it is a revolutionary movement of the right. Hamerquist argues that fascism is a danger both in the US and globally, not because it’s about to seize power, but because it has the potential to become the main insurgent mass movement — to “take the game away from the left” as Tom Metzger of White Aryan Resistance put it in the 1980s.
Hamerquist sees the greatest such danger in the “third position” variant of fascism, which claims to reject both the left and the right. Third positionists (such as Metzger) present themselves as socialist and anti-capitalist and often seem much more intransigently oppositional than most of the left. Many third positionists support some Third World liberation struggles and some even claim to reject White supremacy.
Third positionists also want to recruit or ally with sections of the left. While the vision of the “radical right” joining forces with the “radical left” is a standard line of liberal and state propaganda, Hamerquist argues that the danger of a right/left convergence is real, and not only because of what fascists are doing. He points to tendencies within much of the left that mesh dangerously with fascism, such as male supremacy, glorification of violence, leader cultism, hostility to open debate and discussion, and elitism. Hamerquist notes that the German Communists in the early thirties sometimes made tactical alliances with the Nazis against the Social Democrats because they thought Social Democrats were the bigger threat.
Hamerquist also argues that we need to rethink old assumptions about fascism’s relationship with white supremacy. First, there’s the potential that some white fascists may build alliances with right wing nationalist or religious organizations among oppressed peoples — something that has already happened in small ways. Second, Black, Asian, and Latino peoples may generate their own fascist movements.
Sakai picks up on this theme. He argues that the mass displacement of Black workers over the past generation, coupled with the defeat of 1960s left Black nationalism, has fueled an unprecedented growth of authoritarian rightist organizations in the Black community. And Sakai also argues that fascism’s key growth area now is in the Third World, where pan-Islamic fascism and related far-right movements have largely replaced the left as the major anti-imperialist opposition force.
Hamerquist’s discussion of anti-fascist organizing and strategy touches on a wide range of issues, from the need to balance military and political considerations, to the building of a revolutionary culture that will counter fascism’s militant appeal. Hamerquist cautions anti-fascists to look beyond the immediate situation. For example, what seems like a victory in a confrontation with fascists may be part of a process by which the fascist movement weeds out less effective tendencies and tactics. We also need to remember that the capitalist state is always a player in a three-cornered struggle with fascists and anti-fascists. The state’s role varies — often it tries to defuse street confrontations, but it can also sit back and let fascists and anti-fascists “fight it out.” Sometimes it sides with the fascists, and all along, it may be trying to shape both fascist and anti-fascist movements as part of a larger counterinsurgency strategy. “Keep in mind,” Hamerquist warns, “that in our confrontation with the fascists, the side that is identified with the state is ultimately going to lose politically” (p. 51).
Sakai’s reply to Hamerquist’s essay does not dwell on anti-fascist strategy. Instead, it focuses on fascism’s historical and class dynamics. Sakai praises Hamerquist for challenging standard assumptions and opening up key questions that leftists have generally avoided. He also takes issue with Hamerquist on certain points. While Hamerquist says that some fascists are anti-capitalist — notably Third Positionists — Sakai argues that fascism is revolutionary and “anti-bourgeois but not anti-capitalist” (p. 94). It is revolutionary in the sense that it aims to seize state power from big business, but the new order it imposes is still capitalism — in a rawer, more brutal form.
I tend to agree with Sakai on this point. Historically, fascist anti-capitalism has always been vague and slippery. Up close, it has generally meant opposition to “bourgeois values” or to a “parasitic” wing of capital (such as Jewish bankers), rather than to capitalism as a system.
Despite its genuine hostility to big business, Sakai argues, fascism often receives support from the small and local bourgeoisie and from sections of the capitalist state. German army officers hostile to the new Weimar Republic trained and funded the early Nazi Party. The Taliban was backed by Pakistani and Afghan mafia capitalists hostile to global corporatization, and by a Pakistani general who later broke with the CIA and began denouncing Western imperialism.
But Sakai and Hamerquist agree that fascists in power follow their own agenda — not the agenda of big business. As Sakai argues, German capitalists profited under Hitler. But there is no evidence that they told the Nazis to
invade the Soviet Union, ally with Japan and thereby bring the United States into the war, or put scarce resources into exterminating the Jews — all decisions that contributed to Germany’s military defeat.
Fascists in power also radically reshape the capitalist system. The business class needs workers so it can extract surplus value from their labor, but Nazi labor policy, as Hamerquist points out, involved “the genocidal obliteration of already developed sections of the European working classes” in pursuit of a racialist agenda (p. 27). Sakai describes how Hitler’s regime elevated millions of German workers into a new parasitic class of soldiers, policemen, and bureaucrats and replaced them with a new proletariat of foreign and slave laborers, retirees, and women. Note that Hamerquist and Sakai are describing German Nazism. Italian Fascism lacked Nazism’s overarching racialist imperative and never consolidated total control over the Italian state. Its impact on the social order was more limited.
Hamerquist never defines fascism in his essay. Sakai’s definition is concise: “Fascism is a revolutionary movement of the right against both the bourgeoisie and the left, of middle class and declassed men, that arises in zones of protracted crisis” (pp. 88-89). This is broad enough to include non-traditional fascisms such as the Taliban but specific enough to exclude non-revolutionary rightists such as (most of) the Christian Right. Still, there are several problems here. To begin with, Sakai doesn’t define either “right” or “left” — but as Hamerquist emphasizes, one of the reasons we need to make sense of fascism is that the line between left and right can become seriously blurred.
Sakai is in a long tradition of critics who have linked fascism to middle-class and other strata threatened or uprooted by rapid social and economic change — historical losers who hate the big capitalists and want to get back the privilege they used to have. Sakai sees this dynamic in the Germans who rallied to Hitler during the Depression; in the Timothy McVeighs who turn to neonazism as the old white settler privilege system crumbles; and in the Muslim world’s shopkeepers and unemployed college graduates hit by globalization, who are at the core of the pan-Islamic right.
Sakai’s class discussion tells us something important about fascism, but I think it’s oversimplified. First, Sakai may be too quick to dispute Hamerquist’s warning that militant revolutionary fascism could build a mass base among insurgent workers. Part of the issue here is that Sakai regards many apparent workers as really being either lower middle class or declassed. That said, several classical fascist movements seem to have attracted substantial numbers of workers. In the early thirties, workers were an estimated thirty percent of the Nazi Party and a majority of the storm troopers, the party’s “radical” wing.
Second, pre-World War II fascism didn’t just attract declining and uprooted middle classes such as small merchants, but also groups at the core of the new corporate economy, such as white-collar workers and professionals. Fascism rallied people who feared capitalist modernization, but also people who wanted large-scale industrial development. Fascism romanticizes the past — but it also claims to represent something radically new. This tension isn’t always clear from Sakai’s analysis.
As part of his definition, Sakai also claims that fascism is basically a male movement both in composition and outlook. Again, there’s an important truth here — fascism promotes a heroic community of men — but it’s only part of the story. As Xtn notes in the introduction, neither Hamerquist nor Sakai says enough about what fascism means for women. Xtn highlights the central contradiction: fascism intensifies male supremacy to the point that “women become mere property,” yet fascism also relies on mass support from women as well as men, and women have participated as activists and organizers in promoting fascism.
This contradiction has been explored by scholars such as Claudia Koonz (on German Nazism), Antonia De Grazia (on Italian Fascism), and Martin Durham (on the British Union of Fascists). Their work shows that classical fascism recruited female support largely by opening new opportunities for women and girls — in education, youth groups, athletics, volunteer work, and certain paid jobs — even as it sharpened and centralized male dominance. Sometimes fascism even promoted twisted versions of feminism. The British Union of Fascists advocated equal pay for women and included former suffragists who saw fascism as a direct continuation of the struggle for women’s rights. Like fascist anti-capitalism or anti-imperialism, this is one more way that fascism exploits leftist themes for its own ends.
Confronting Fascism offers documents for discussion — not a polished, comprehensive analysis. As the authors themselves emphasize, there are many unanswered questions and areas needing further study. But this is a valuable book that moves the discussion forward.
This review appeared in the December 2002 issue of Turning The Tide, the publication of Anti-Racist Action Los Angeles and People Against Racist Terror. Check out these websites for more info: http://www.geocities.com/ara_losangeles , http://www.antiracistaction.us , http://www.antiracistaction.ca .
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