Saturday, February 29, 2020

Fascism: Avoiding Anachronism (2020)

From the January 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Anti-Fascism and Fascism
What is fascism? Or, more pertinently, what was fascism, since the ideology and movement of that name developed in the specific historical conditions of the period between the last century’s two world wars.

The word itself originated in Italy as the name given itself by an ultra-nationalist group opposed both to parliamentary democracy and to left-wing parties and which employed direct physical force on the streets as a deliberate tactic against its opponents. But it was not through street fighting that the fascisti came to power. They did so constitutionally when in 1922 the King, with the support of a section of the ruling class and its political representatives, appointed Mussolini Prime Minister. Once in control of political power the fascisti were able to consolidate their rule with Mussolini as dictator by dissolving parliament and banning other parties.

In Germany the similar ultra-nationalist, anti-democratic movement called itself the ‘National Socialist German Workers Party’, or Nazis, but were also conventionally called fascists at the time. They were able to gain considerable popular and electoral support (over one-third of voters) as a result of the failure of the democratic and reformist parties to solve the problems caused by capitalism, in particular the mass unemployment in the slump that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929. They too came to power constitutionally when the German President, with the approval of other politicians, appointed Hitler as Chancellor in 1933. From this position of control of state power, the Nazis were able to ban all other parties and the trade unions and install Hitler as dictator.

One thing that Italy and Germany had in common was that they were relatively recent unified states, in 1870 and 1871 respectively. As a result, feelings of national unity were not as strong as in longer-established states such as Britain and France. The more virulent nationalism there reflected the ruling class’s need for a stronger central state that could overcome the remaining regionalist loyalties.

In the case of Germany, its attempt in 1914 to get a place in the sun commensurate with its industrial and trading strength, inevitably at the expense of Britain and France which had carved out substantial colonial empires for themselves, had failed. But the problem remained for their capitalist class and any second attempt was going to be more aggressive because more desperate.

Fascism, then, in its proper sense was an inter-world-war historical phenomenon which is not going to repeat itself because the conditions of that time are not going to. In this sense classical fascism is not a threat. So why ‘anti-fascism’ today?

Anti-fascism was the ideology under which Britain and France, aided later by the US, fought the Second World War to see off Germany’s second attempt to find a place in the sun at their expense (they succeeded but only to see the US take their place as the dominating world power). Somewhat ironically, it was also the ideology under which their ally, Russia, fought its war over which power – Germany or Russia – should dominate eastern Europe; ironically because, apart from the institutionalised anti-semitism, the Russian dictatorship was the mirror-image of the German one (leader-worship, mass rallies, concentration camps, etc).

As a result there have been two kinds of anti-fascism, one in defence of political democracy, the other in defence of the Russian dictatorship. The situation has been confused by the fact that the latter hypocritically employed the language of the former. So some anti-fascists have not really been ‘anti-fascist’ if this is defined as opposition to one-party dictatorships. But who isn’t opposed to these?

Who today wants to replace political democracy by a one-party or a one-man dictatorship? Not even most far-right parties do. There are still some classical fascist groups around but their support is negligible. All political parties with any degree of electoral support now favour governments being chosen through parliamentary and/or presidential elections.

It is an historical anachronism to describe today’s far-right parties which do have considerable support as fascist. Their ideas are still objectionable and dangerous, but they need to be opposed on some other basis than being fascist. On what basis, then, and how should they be opposed?

Anti far-right
Far-right parties have grown in recent decades as a result of two things – their opposition to immigration into their countries and the failure of conservative, liberal and social-democratic parties to solve the problems people face.

As these problems are caused by the capitalist economic system’s imperative to put profit-making ahead of meeting people’s needs, governments formed by the conventional parties are doomed to fail and always do. The far-right parties have been able to exploit this to convince considerable numbers of people that the reason the other parties fail is because they are incompetent, self-seeking and corrupt, in much the same way as the classical fascists in the inter-world-war period were able to convince people that their problems were caused by democracy not capitalism.

The main reason, however, why these parties have attracted support is their opposition to immigration. They are xenophobic, racist, nationalist parties. That’s the basis on which they should be challenged. But how?

No platform no way
Basically, what’s involved is a battle of ideas. Such battles can only be fought through discussion – and with leaflets, pamphlets, books, meetings and, nowadays, websites, podcasts and social media. That’s the only way to change ideas, not by physically fighting with those who hold them nor by taking action, legal or extra-legal, to stop people expressing or promoting them.

That is why ‘no platforming’ far-right organisations is not the way, and is even counter-productive. Stopping them holding meetings, breaking them up, and refusing to let others debate with them, are not going to change their ideas. In fact they are more likely to reinforce them. Physically confronting far-rightists, turning their demonstrations into street brawls or beating up their members is even less effective and, besides, reduces politics generally to the more primitive level of settling disagreements by fisticuffs rather than voting.

Of course, in so far as there are fringe gangs and deranged individuals who physically attack immigrants, as happens from time to time, nobody is going to object to self-defence groups, but this is a different issue to combating the broader ideology of far-right parties which don’t engage in such attacks.

So, no, the way to combat xenophobia and racism is not direct action to stop these views being expressed but to challenge and confront them as mistaken and dangerous, even in public debate with groups that advocate them. In fact refuting their mistaken and dangerous views in a public debate can be very effective.

Anti-capitalism and anti-nationalism
What should be the content of the case against far-right ideas? This has to be more than just the general case that all humans are members of the same species with the same range of abilities and should be treated equally. This has to be an essential part of course but it is not enough on its own. Opposing these ideas cannot avoid bringing up the cause of the problems ordinary people face and which the far-right wrongly identifies and to which they offer a mistaken solution. Capitalism has to be mentioned and it has to be explained that the way-out is to establish a world of common ownership, democratic control, production to directly meet people’s needs and not for profit, and distribution of goods and services in accordance of the principle ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’. In short, socialism properly understood.

The trouble is that most ‘anti-fascists’, even those calling themselves socialists (some are supporters of third-world dictatorships), are not anti-capitalism. They think that the problems ordinary people face can be solved within the profits-wages-money system that is capitalism. This is a serious weakness when it comes to making a case against the far-right since it rules out making the point that one reason for its rise in recent years is precisely the failure – impossibility in fact – of the conventional parties to solve these problems because they seek solutions within the framework of capitalism, so contributing to a situation which the far-right can benefit from. It goes without saying that of course the far-right can’t solve them either.

The other weakness is that most ‘anti-fascists’ are nationalists, that is, they accept that the world is, and should be, divided into separate national groups entitled to inhabit a part of the globe and whose members share a common interest. Nations are in fact ‘imagined communities’ whose members are divided into two antagonistic classes – the capitalists who own the means of production and who are the ruling class and the rest who work for them for wages. Nationalism is the ideology through which a national ruling class obtains and maintains the support and acquiescence of those they rule over. The ‘national interest’ is their interest.

This is a misconception that ‘anti-fascists’ share with the far-right. It means that nationalist ‘anti-fascists’ are combating the ideas of the far-right on the far right’s territory, as when it comes to arguing whether or not immigration is in the ‘national interest’. Since the national interest is that of the capitalist class within each supposed nation in some cases the far-right is able to show that immigration controls and discrimination against ‘foreigners’ are in the national capitalist interest,

Any campaign against the far-right views has to be waged on the level of ideas, not physical attacks or legal or extra-legal bans. It has to be based on recognising that capitalism is the cause of the problems such parties exploit to gain support and so a cause of their existence, and on a rejection of all nationalism of which xenophobia is just one end of the same spectrum. In short, the struggle against racist and xenophobic views should not be separated from the struggle for socialism as a world community without frontiers.
Adam Buick

Pathfinders: Fake news? Go and boil your bread. (2020)

The Pathfinders Column from the January 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘I’ve told every candidate that I’m voting for them,’ says the voter in a Telegraph cartoon just before polling day in December, ‘this election is all about honesty and trust’. Well indeed. As polling fever mounted people were saying this was the most important election in a generation, and all manner of other hyperbolic claims, but what really was different this time was the hot shooting war between fake news and fact checking.

It’s axiomatic that politicians lie. Sometimes they are so blatant they take your breath away, as in the infamous 2016 ‘Boris and the Brexit bus’ affair. Lies by the Vote Leave campaign led to a public outcry and a large number of complaints to the Advertising Standards Agency, but the ASA had no jurisdiction over political campaigns and besides, the Remain lobby was also at it (LINK).

In September it emerged that the Tories had posted a BBC article on proposed school spending to their Facebook page but altered the headline and changed the numbers involved. Facebook removed the page but argued that it wasn’t their job to ‘fact check or judge the veracity of what politicians say’. This despite Mark Zuckerberg himself being spoofed on Facebook by Democrat candidate Elizabeth Warren, who planted a fake ad to see if Facebook would run it (New Scientist, 16 November).

Then in November a row blew up after the Tories were caught blue-handed in the act of rebranding their press office Twitter account from CCHQPress to factcheckUK. The independent charity Full Fact (, itself founded by a Tory, was furious: ‘It is inappropriate and misleading for the Conservative press office to rename their Twitter account factcheckUK during this debate.’ With astonishing chutzpah the foreign secretary Dominic Raab justified the con as a legitimate stunt, telling BBC Breakfast that ‘no one gives a toss about the social media cut and thrust’.

With just days to go before the polls, a new storm gathered over the four-year-old boy forced to sleep on a hospital waiting room floor because there was no bed for him. Footage went viral of Boris Johnson showing no interest in the boy and in fact pocketing the journalist’s phone so he didn’t have to look at the picture. But within hours a new story broke that the whole thing was fake news, on the say-so of an alleged senior nursing sister at the hospital. The hoax claim was swiftly endorsed by Daily Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson (‘Stage a photo. Cause outrage…. Jesus.’) and aptly-named Tory politician Michael Fabricant, yet within hours came the refutation, as Full Fact along with the hospital and even the Health Secretary confirmed that this senior nurse did not exist, that the Facebook account which launched the post had been hijacked, and that the original story was true in every particular.

The whole election campaign was as usual awash with dodgy claims and counter-claims, but this time the fact-checking process began almost as soon as the words were out of politicians’ mouths. All parties were predictably found wanting and not even the Greens were spared from the shredder, although it’s fair to say that Labour generally stuck closer to the truth while the Tories were the most shameless and shambolic liars.

Given the outcry over the 2016 Brexit campaign, it was perhaps predictable that similar protests would be made over the conduct of this election campaign. According to the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising, this was the ‘fake news and disinformation general election’ in which ‘at least 31 campaigns across the party spectrum have been indecent, dishonest or untruthful’ (BBC, 10 December – The Coalition is demanding that fact-checking of political advertising become a legal requirement and quotes a YouGov poll to argue that 87 percent of voters would be in favour. Many eyebrows must have launched skywards at the news that this Coalition is made up of advertising professionals, who insist that politics should be like retail advertising, in which a ‘founding principle’ is the requirement to be ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful’.

Er, come again? This must be what happens to marketing people eventually – they swallow their own hype, become delusional and think they are doing the public a service. Advertising has no such founding principle, in fact no principles at all, that’s why there’s so much legislation to keep it in line.

Will they get their way though? Will political parties be legally bound to tell the truth? Theoretically it could happen, but the ASA are afraid of becoming embroiled in political disputes and thereby bringing the regulatory process itself into disrepute (LINK). Ultimately it’s a philosophical conundrum. What is ‘truth’, and would voters really accept the ASA, or any other body, as the ultimate arbiter of it? Anyway, it’s unlikely that any government is going to see fit to enact legislation that holds it hostage.

It’s no good expecting technology to come up with a fix either. Last year New Scientist ran a story about an AI system that could generate convincing fake news stories and that therefore might, in a kind of ‘It takes a thief to catch a thief’ way, be able to spot other fake news stories. ‘Grover’, the fake news AI, produced a story about how eating bread makes your hair curly. Here’s an excerpt to show how convincing it was: ‘Many people cook a bowl of fresh bread the morning after a hard night of tossing and turning on the sofa. With little thought, people add the crust of the bread to the mix of water and flour… [H]is team found that in European girls, one third of girls had curly hair after eating the leftover crusts of fried or boiled bread and sandwiches’ (15 June, 2019). Think AI is about to take over the world? Not on this evidence.

You probably saw the brilliant ‘deep fake’ video of Corbyn and Johnson endorsing each other’s electoral campaigns. Nobody can be in any doubt now about how good the technology of fakery is. There is an arms race between the misinformation industry and its fact-checking nemesis. Now campaigners can micro-target political ads to Facebook users based on their individual data profiles, circumventing the fact-checkers. The only thing you can do is beware of and be equally sceptical of far-fetched stories supporting your own view as well as those which contradict it. Or get off Facebook. Or at least use your loaf, preferably without boiling it.
Paddy Shannon

Letter: Asked and Answered: Municipal Politics. (1908)

Letter to the Editors from the January 1908 issue of the Socialist Standard


How would a candidate of the S.P.G.B. conduct himself if returned to a council chamber? would he vote for higher wages for Council employees and better housing of the people, etc., and what course would he pursue while in a minority ?
J. T. Tyson (Stoke-on-Trent).


The answer to this question was given in essence by the election address upon which S.P.G.B. candidates ran at local elections in London. This election address, the first in this country to lay down the Socialist position on municipal elections, was also printed in the October, 1906 Socialist Standard and should be referred to.

Broadly speaking, the attitude of a Socialist member of a municipal today only becomes doubtful when the object for which such a candidate stands, together with the essential fact of the class antagonism and the narrow limits of municipal action, are lost sight of, and in so far as the electors are not at one with their representative regarding these important facts. Hence at this stage how the representative is elected is of the greatest importance in determining his attitude.

It must, therefore, be clearly understood, 1st, that any reform worthy the name from a working-class standpoint involves the conscious taking from the capitalist class of, at least, part of the proceeds and power of robbery, and thus even genuine reform is conditional upon working-class supremacy, (2nd) That to wield in the workers’ interest even the limited and paltry powers allowed by the central government to the local bodies, it is first necessary to control the local bodies by a Socialist majority.

Consequently to promise immediate reforms that cannot be granted until the revolutionary step has been taken leads to confusion, disappointment and apathy, while it means a vote worthless for Socialism followed by desertion. But to insist upon the futility of reform, and the primary necessity of capturing political power means a sound vote, a solid backing, and a sure and steady growth of the class-conscious and revolutionary army.

That these facts are recognised elsewhere although in the rush for jobs they are not acted upon may be made clear by one or two quotations.

In Guesde’s new journal, “Le Socialisme” an editorial on “The Party and Municipal Elections,” states:—
  “The freeing of Society by emancipated labour, which is by nature national and international, is necessarily out of the power of that organised powerlessness of which the municipality consists at present, dominated as this is at the same time by economic necessities and by the arbitrary politics of the bourgeois state and its agents, but if the government—the central power—having passed into the hands of the proletarian class and remaining therein, is the indispensable instrument of the social revolution, if the municipal ground cannot in any way be anything but a field of manoeuvres and training for the Socialist army, the duty of the class-conscious workers is none the less to dislodge the industrial, landed, and financial feudalism from the town halls, and, turning these against the enemy, to use these as so many bases of operations in our march, forward.”
In the “Social Revolution,” Kautsky also states :—
  “In the same way, municipal Socialism finds its limits in the existing order of State and Society, even where universal suffrage prevails in the communes. The commune is always tied down to the general economic and political conditions, and cannot extricate itself from them singly. Certainly, in municipalities in industrial districts the workers may get the administration into their own hands before they are strong enough to capture the political power in the State, and they are then in a position to eliminate from this administration at least the most objectionable features of hostility to labour, and to introduce reforms which cannot be expected from a bourgeois regime. But these municipalities soon find their limits, not simply in the power of the State, but also in their own economic helplessness. It is for the most part poor districts, almost exclusively inhabited by the proletariat, which are first won by the Social-Democrats. Whence can they obtain the means for carrying out their greater reforms? As a rule they are limited in the levying of rates by the laws of the State, and even where this is not the case they cannot go beyond a certain limit in the taxation of the rich and well-to-do, without driving these, the only inhabitants from whom anything is to be obtained, away.”
In the face of these recognised and undeniable facts the long reform programmes of “palliatives” and “immediate demands” of so-called Socialist organisations can only be characterised as fraudulent. Upon all counts the first and essential step to secure genuine working-class amelioration is the control by the workers nationally and locally, and this must be made plain; and when the workers are the ruling class, lists of reforms suited to the continuance of capitalism become stupid, and entirely different revolutionary measures of transition become the order of the day. Thus reform programmes not only scatter and render mutually antagonistic the workers’ efforts, but they obscure and prevent concentration upon the essential step.

Once the Socialist position is grasped, the rest becomes plain sailing. The Socialist candidate is only the advance guard of the revolutionary working-class army and his attitude must be consistent thereto. He will, of course, work to wrest from the master class in open struggle any possible present ameliorations, but he did not seek suffrages for this but for Socialism, whilst neither he nor his electors are under any illusions on this head, for he has made plain how little is to be hoped from the enemy while entrenched in power.

Whilst in a minority the only effective political weapon of the Socialist in the obtaining of concessions is the relentless opposition, criticism and exposure of capitalist rascality, educating and organising the workers for Socialism and so striking fear into the exploiters, and causing them to throw out sops in order to maintain their position.

It would be the educational duty of the Socialist members even while in a minority to also propose measures embodying what should be done on any particular question in the interests of the working class. True, since a minority is a minority, he will be voted down, and any measure passed will surely be one which supports and strengthens capitalist interests, whether as working-class soporific or an aid to greater exploitation. Nevertheless, the work will tell, and therefore the consistent opposition of the Socialists to capitalist parties must be kept perfectly plain. Indeed, as Marx has said, the master class acting in its own immediate interests cannot avoid at the same time helping to dig its own grave.

And when as the result of this education and organisation among the electors, and training in administration, the majority are Socialist on the council, then—and then only—can such very limited powers as the local bodies possess be used as far as can be done to help strikers, children, and the workers generally, not alone by increasing the pay of municipal employees and housing the people, but even more important in the use of the power, funds, and organisation of the municipality, as far as is locally possible, in helping to complete the task of the workers in the capture of the central powers for Socialism. Indeed, the sound capture of a municipality by the Socialist workers can hardly occur without—owing to the similarity of capitalist development elsewhere— many other localities being also more or less ripe. While the continued financial and legal conflicts between such municipalities and the agents of the capitalist Government on the L.G.B., etc. can only help to make clearer and more pressing the only solution of the antagonism, and to hasten the day, as they make ever plainer the necessity, of completing the capture of the governmental powers in order to use them against the recalcitrant exploiters, and, backed by the whole of the organised workers, to transform Society by a series of transitional acts from industrial despotism into industrial democracy.