Discussion: How to Stop Fascism (2021) by Paul Mason

Submitted by doug on October 1, 2021

Just read Paul Mason's new book. I wrote this up quickly elsewhere but thought I'd share it here.

Mason spoke at the American online conference of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization (IMHO) recently. He said some interesting stuff about radical humanism and fascism mixed with some more frustrating points. Anyway, it persuaded me to read his latest books, Clear Bright Future (2019) and 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 his mass base came to more and more 'think like fascists'. (Arguably, they've now taken over the Republican party – one of the main parties of a declining superpower). Trump's USA energised authoritarian and fascist movements around the world. Not only are they not going anywhere there are a few reasons why we should expect them to grow quickly.

Neoliberalism has been in crisis since 2008. We're only just starting to experience some of the effects of the economic crash and the more long-term stagnation of growth. This includes a crisis of ideology and of the 'neoliberal self'. The reality people have come to accept in the last 40 years no longer makes sense and there's no 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. Social media and the internet gives a platform like no other. Online networks have previously been an emancipatory technology organising and supporting mass protest movements. Elites responded to that threat through censorship, commercialised bubbles but most successfully by flooding networks with disinformation and weaponising anonymous trolling.

The far-right has fed off this and mutated. Fascist ideas are able to latch onto conspiracy theories and populist hatred and 'backfill' this with a wider ideology. People 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, and even 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 socially. One of the big drivers of fascism 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/socialism/Marxism. 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 movement around climate change. There is no longer a radical mass workers' movement but it still reconstructs 'cultural marxism' as a bogeyman and still uses 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 were 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 as much of humanity down with it.

The big issue is, of course, that we have 10 years to decarbonise society and if we don't things will get much worse for all of us. That in itself will benefit fascists. The latter at the moment want to stop radical climate change policies from being implemented – they're able to manipulate climate change skepticism, and far-right populists have received funding from corporations to try to block anti-fossil fuel legislation. So, the broad far-right and fascist 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. 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 the specific conditions of the aftermath of WWI. It rears its head whenever the system begins to break down - ideologically as well as economically/socially - and to deny freedom to those fighting for it. It will keep coming back back until we get rid of capitalism. But we only defeated it last time through world war and, he argues, a cross-class alliance in defence of democracy.

Admittedly, I found most of the book useful. On the nature and evolution of fascism, even the appraisal of left-wing analyses of fascism, I learned a lot. He quotes Daniel Guérin and Luigi Fabbri as well as Antonio Gramsci, Wilhelm Reich and Erich Fromm favourably.

But the last part is a defence of the Popular Front as the only strategy with a chance to stop fascism. I am not in favour of this and frequently disagreed with some of his claims here. But he raises uncomfortable questions for which I don't have an answer.

As you'll probably know, 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 far-right riot outside the National Assembly in Paris. Hitler was in power in Germany and the fascist movement in France was taking off. Working class socialists and communists - and anarchists, in fact - decided to come together to prevent what had just happened in Germany where the biggest working class movement in the world crumbled and failed against Nazism. For the communists this was directly contradicting Stalin's line.

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 more broadly – there was an important wave of sit-in strikes.

However, for economic reasons, the Popular Front government went back on a number of its reforms, it was neutral and refused to support the Spanish Popular Front government when it was actually at war against fascism, it supported the appeasement of Hitler, and fell apart through its own contradictions in two years.

The Spanish Popular Front government was implicitly supported by anarchists at election, 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. In fact, 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. The left needs to 'park' many of its demands and obsessions in order to compromise with politicians, many of whom have spent their careers pushing austerity and globalist (rather than nationalist) capitalism. There needs to be an explicit electoral pact or coalition to meet the rise of both the far-right and fascism. The state, police and rule of law need to be strengthened against those who want to undermine the constitution etc. We also need to create a mass antifascist culture and ethos similar to the Popular Front era.

Of course, I find all this nauseating! It amounts to a near-permanent deferral of revolutionary politics. Abolitionism? Forget about it! Unite the anti-racist, feminist, and climate movements to challenge capitalism? Not until we've dealt with fascism!

But is the strategy of a united front from below, advocated by anarchists and others since the beginnings of fascism, a possibility without mass workers' movements? Are the left and social movements strong enough to fight the new fascism and offer an alternative to those drawn to it? Of course, we can vote tactically for anti-fascist parties but how do we build and maintain an independent movement that goes beyond that?

We should take the threat of fascism seriously and think more carefully about our strategy to resist it. ¡No pasarán!


Further reading:

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 of something that Davide Turcato said:

Davide Turcato

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 just blame defeats on – likely – betrayal.

Although, I'm not sure Italian anarchists and syndicalists could have done much more. They were the strongest opposition to fascism – ackowledged by non-anarchist historians like Gwyn A. Williams. Anarchist strongholds held out longer than other places in Italy and they consistently supported a united front of the working class, reaching out to socialists, communists and even republicans. It will be interesting to read the new volume of Malatesta's complete works which concerns the period 1919-1923 and is coming out soon in Italian.

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. It was complicated! 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 very poor analysis of what fascism really meant. Others were threw themselves into supporting the Spanish Popular Front when the Spanish Revolution/Civil War began. In many respects, this was understandable. It was what the CNT wanted, but it also brought out a more liberal, 'humanitarian' section of the movement who 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, working with antagonistic groups, and effectively working for revolutionary anti-capitalist politics.