Racist populists and far right parties are breaking through in elections across the US and Europe. How do we drive them back, asks James Supple
In September fascist MPs entered the German parliament for the first time since the Second World War. Half of the 94 new Alternative for Germany MPs are linked to fascist organisations.
A few weeks later, an Austrian party founded by former Nazis, the Freedom Party, won 26 per cent of the vote and were welcomed into a coalition government.
The far right is on the rise all across the industrialised world.
The mainstream political parties have prepared the way for them by making racism more acceptable. Worldwide, they are spreading Islamophobia through scaremongering about terrorism, blaming Islam and the Muslim community. And as refugees flee the wars the West has created in the Middle East, they seek to keep them out.
Australia is no exception, with Malcolm Turnbull trying to keep terrorism on the front pages through ever more draconian anti-terror laws and security measures. He has let Immigration Minister Peter Dutton off the leash to smear and scapegoat refugees and migrants.
Nowhere is the racism in the mainstream clearer than with Trump in the US. Although he was elected as president through one of the major parties, he uses the kind of extreme and explicit racism usually associated with the far right. During his campaign he made a point of grabbing attention through racist provocations. He smeared Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals, promised to build a wall to keep them out and pledged a complete shutdown on Muslims entering the US.
Trump is a right-wing racist populist. He uses racism to appeal to bitterness at the loss of jobs, decent wages and living standards in the US and turns the blame on immigrants and Muslims.
Trump has been embraced and celebrated across the far right in the US. His election brought the so-called alt-right, supposedly a new breed of far right activists, into the limelight. Although the alt-right got its start as an online network around websites where vile sexism and racism were tolerated, it also drew in fascists and white supremacists like Richard Spencer.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist until August, declared his website Breitbart News a “platform for the alt-right”. It was Bannon who hired far right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos at Breitbart, and according to Milo, “he made me a star”. Milo has turned himself into the champion of a culture war against women’s rights and racial equality, setting out to create controversy through offending both the identity politics of the left and mainstream anti-discrimination policies.
Milo and Bannon consciously sought support from white supremacists, presenting Breitbart as the acceptable face of the far right, as a leak of emails obtained by Buzzfeed has revealed.
Bannon himself is a standard bearer for a right-wing populist revolt against globalisation, combining racist nationalism and trade protectionism. He believes Western civilisation is under siege from Islamic fascism, and defending “Judeo-Christian values” means it is necessary to “destroy all of today’s establishment”.
Despite his departure from the White House Bannon is now back at Breitbart and has boasted that he still talks to Trump every two or three days.
Trump’s response to the far right mobilisation in Charlottesville showed how he is encouraging fascists and the far right. Hundreds of Nazis, white supremacists and far right activists gathered in the town, ending in murder when one of them ploughed his car into counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer. Trump refused to condemn them and would only say that there were, “very fine people on both sides… Not all those people were neo-Nazis”.
Yet the far right came ready for violence. Groups like Vanguard America, describing itself as “the face of American fascism”, and right-wing militia groups arrived armed with clubs, shields and assault rifles.
Trump himself has flirted with violence, like the scuffles with counter-protesters during his election campaign rallies, where he encouraged his supporters to “get them out of here”.
But he is not a fascist himself.
What is fascism?
Trump is not organising the kind of violent street movement that is a distinct feature of fascist movements. There is no comparison between Trump’s campaign and the violent gangs organised by fascist parties like Golden Dawn in Greece, whose members are currently on trial for a string of racist murders.
Fascism first emerged in Europe following the First World War, taking power under Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany.
Here fascist movements managed to take power in their own right. In other cases, such as General Franco’s dictatorship in Spain, it was the military that did so, taking the fascists under their wing.
The fascists built a mass reactionary movement able to dominate the streets. This involved a campaign of violence and intimidation of left-wing political parties and trade unions.
The Nazis developed a force of 400,000 uniformed Storm Troopers, the SA, organised along military lines. Many of them were ex-soldiers, embittered by the experience of the First World War.
In Italy, Mussolini developed a similar force, his famous Blackshirts. They staged attacks on Socialist Party newspapers and officials armed with pistols and grenades, enraged by their opposition to the First World War. One of their first actions, against the Socialist-controlled Bologna council, killed ten people. They moved to carrying out attacks against peasant movements and trade unions, burning down local union and socialist party offices and beating and murdering left-wing activists.
These movements, and the fascists’ mass support, were a product of severe capitalist crisis. The Nazis’ electoral support exploded as a product of the Great Depression, going from 2.6 per cent in 1928 to 37.4 per cent by 1932.
Following the First World War, both Germany and Italy went to the brink of socialist revolution. This experience had terrified employers and the ruling class, pushing them to consider extreme solutions in an effort to break the power of trade unions and the left.
Key sections of the ruling class in both countries decided to hand power to the fascists. Hitler’s first government was a coalition with the traditional right-wing party, appointed by President Hindenburg, an establishment general. Mussolini was also invited to form a coalition government by the King of Italy, claiming power after his March on Rome without resistance.
Once in power, the fascists established an extreme form of dictatorship.
Today many people think of racism as fundamental to fascism, given the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust.
But more important was their goal of the complete destruction of working class organisation. As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotksy described, “Fascism is not merely a system of reprisals, of brutal force and of police terror. Fascism is a particular governmental system based on the uprooting of all elements of proletarian democracy within bourgeois society”.
This meant the destruction of left-wing parties of every political stripe, both the moderate Social Democratic Party (similar to our Labor Party) and the Communist Party, as well as trade unions and any organisation independent of the state.
Such a fundamental reshaping of society could not be imposed by the state’s armed forces alone, but required the mass movement the fascists provided.
There is no sign Trump is trying to establish such a dictatorship—nor could he get away with it. The courts have now blocked three separate versions of his Muslim ban. Trump might go berserk on Twitter, but he has had to accept the result.
Resisting the far right
This isn’t to deny the danger Trump poses. Trump winning the presidency is the equivalent of Pauline Hanson becoming our Prime Minister.
But recognising that fascism has not taken power has implications for how to resist. A fascist administration would mean joining any protest or campaign risked arrest, violence and even death—making it much harder to organise. Activists are not being sent to concentration camps in Trump’s America.
Calling Trump a fascist helps pressure his opponents to line up behind any politician or party prepared to defend democratic institutions. Instead of building the independent left the US badly needs, this would mean falling in behind Democratic Party politicians and their efforts to win elections.
Different kinds of racist movements require different tactics from anti-racist activists. Fascists pose a particularly serious threat because they aim to build a violent movement capable of physical attacks on racial minorities, the left and democratic institutions. Where such groups are able to grow, the union movement and the left must be prepared to physically prevent them from marching against ethnic communities, and to stop them from organising.
Racist populists like Trump or figures like Milo Yiannopoulos, who will be in Australia in December, also need to be confronted with counter-protests and anti-racist opposition. Ignoring them simply means their ideas go unopposed in the media, and their supporters gain more confidence. This can translate into an increase in violent racist attacks.
Counter-protests involving large numbers of people help to keep their ideas isolated and unacceptable. But an over-emphasis on physically confronting them or shutting down their meetings can make mobilising large numbers impossible. Small groups of activists organised for physical confrontations are no way to meet the threat of the far right.
And racist right-wing politicians don’t simply organise around public meetings or street marches. Often they avoid them altogether—Pauline Hanson for instance has attended few public meetings since her re-election as an MP. Her One Nation party, like some right-wing populists overseas including Geert Wilders, is focusing mainly on winning votes in elections.
To counter their racism we also need ongoing campaigns defending refugees, migrants and the Muslim and Indigenous communities.
We need to link the more extreme racism of the populist right from One Nation and figures like Milo to the way the political mainstream is legitimising their racism. And we also need a left alternative arguing for solutions to inequality and job insecurity through targeting corporations and the rich.