Friday, May 3, 2024

Historical fascism (2024)

Book Review from the May 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Blood and Power. The Rise and Fall of Italian Fascism. By John Foot. Bloomsbury, 2023. 416pp.

It has become common for the cry of ‘fascism’ to go up, from both right and left, every time a government or political party enacts or proposes policies which seem destined to increase state control over the system we live under. Some even argue that western capitalism itself is in fact fascism, if a cleverly dissimulated form. One thing historian John Foot’s new book on Italian fascism does is to give the lie to all this. It shows, in the starkest possible terms, how different fascism, in its original incarnation anyway, really was from what many idly give that label to today.

Blood and Power takes the reader on a harrowing journey of violence, torture and murder, without which fascism could never have taken hold of Italy and then ruled the country for over 20 years, only finally collapsing when its leader, Mussolini, made the fatal mistake of allying himself with Nazi Germany and being brought down when Hitler was brought down. Otherwise, the author speculates, the regime may have lasted longer, as did the similar set-up in Spain under Franco. But this book is not just a conventional, linear account (of which there are many) of Italy’s ‘ventennio nero’ (‘black 20 years’), but rather an excavation of that period ‘from below’, seen in large part, that is, via the on-the-ground experiences of many ‘ordinary’ individuals who lived, and not infrequently died, under fascist terror.

And terror it truly was, some of it stomach-churning as we see it depicted on the page. From as early as 1919, those who opposed the politics of fascism, either through declaring themselves ‘socialists’ or ‘communists’ or just voicing opposition to its ‘lawless’ approach, were subjected to brutal and terrifying treatment at the hands of increasingly large and merciless bands of fascist thugs. They were intimidated, beaten, tortured, maimed and often murdered, while the ‘democratic’ state and its authorities (ie, police and military) looked the other way, allowing a sort of ‘state within a state’ to develop. As the author writes, ‘fascism eliminated its opponents with gusto or reduced them to a state of fear’ (…) ‘it was fundamental, visceral, epochal and life-changing: both for those who experienced it, and those who practised it’.

Nor was there any redress for victims, and once the fascist party had taken full power from 1925 onwards, after which elections and any semblance of democracy ceased, it became all the more implacable. So, for example, as the author tells us, ‘it became nigh on impossible to print or distribute any kind of newspaper that wasn’t in full support of Mussolini and fascist rule (…) prisoners were often ‘disappeared’ or ‘committed suicide’ in prison (…) ‘torture was common, ritualised and sanctioned from above.’ The regime relentlessly pursued all its opponents, having no compunction about even sending its spies and agents abroad in pursuit of those who had fled the country and wreaking vengeance on them there. In all, according to the author, Italian fascism was ‘responsible for the ‘premature deaths” of at least a million people, in Italy and across the world’, including of course many thousands of Jews who were transported from Italy to the gas chambers in the latter part of the war.

How does all this compare to what is often referred to as fascism, or at least potential fascism, nowadays, in particular the ‘populist’ politics and regimes that have risen up in recent times? How, for example, does it compare to the current right-wing government in Italy, often labelled ‘neo-fascist’? How does it compare to the politics of Donald Trump in the US and the foreboding about what might be to come if he wins the 2024 presidential election? How does it compare to attempts by the Conservative Party in this country to undermine trade unions or criminalise certain forms of expression or to the apparently racist and ultra-nationalistic policies of right-wing groupings such as the Reform Party? The knowledge that this book imparts of the reality of Mussolini’s one-party state makes it clear that, however retrograde and undesirable it may be, the kind of modern-day populism exemplified above does not bear comparison to the vicious, ultra-repressive, anti-democratic nature of fascism in its original Italian form.

What, however, Italian fascism does share with today’s ‘populist’ ideologies or governments and indeed with the more ‘enlightened’ administrations in most Western countries is that the purpose of them all is to manage the profit system (ie, capitalism). And, broadly speaking, this takes place most effectively, as far as capitalism is concerned, in a political environment where there are democratic elections and scope for relatively free circulation and exchange of ideas. Regimes that do not allow this (eg, China and Russia today), while by no means impregnable in the longer term, inhibit such development and, in the way they operate, are the closest things that exist today to the kind of system excavated and characterised so expertly by John Foot in his exploration of Italian fascism. It should be added that such regimes also inhibit the spread of consciousness necessary for the establishment of the alternative system of society beyond the system of wages, money and profit which this journal calls socialism.
Howard Moss

Warnings and alerts (2024)

From the May 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Fund for Peace, as it is called, is supported financially by a number of donors, including various US government agencies and companies such as Exxon and Chevron. Each year it publishes a Fragile States Index ( A total of 179 countries are assessed on the basis of a range of criteria, with four kinds of ‘indicator’ being employed, in order to measure their supposed vulnerability to collapse. Cohesion indicators deal with areas such as the extent of organised crime and how much trust people have in domestic security. Economic indicators include inflation and productivity, while political ones cover whether elections are considered as free and fair, how corrupt officials are, and so on. What are termed social and cross-cutting indicators include infant mortality, food supply, environmental policies etc.

The 2023 report divides countries into eleven categories, from ‘Very sustainable’ via ‘Warning’ to ‘Very high alert’. This last category had just one member, Somalia. The highest-ranking included Norway and Iceland, with Germany and France in ‘Sustainable’ and the UK and US in the fourth category of ‘More stable’. The UK has been slipping down the ratings since 2010, while France has been improving a bit recently, despite the regular protests and the unpopularity of President Macron. Under ‘Stable’ came Kuwait and Cuba. China and Saudi Arabia were classified into ‘Warning’, with South Africa and India in ‘Elevated Warning’. Russia, North Korea and Rwanda were in ‘High warning’, Venezuela and Iraq in ‘Alert’ and Haiti and Syria in ‘High alert’.

One of the more interesting aspects of the work is the list of countries that have worsened or improved since 2022. A few have improved slightly, such as Yemen and Bolivia, while others have become worse, headed by Ukraine, Sri Lanka and Russia. Russia has become more authoritarian and thousands have fled conscription: ‘While Russia’s expansionism was an attempt to consolidate power and influence, the effect has been a weakening both domestically and abroad’.

Ukraine of course is given plenty of attention. It moved in a year from being the 92nd most fragile to the 18th, and its situation is having a major impact on global food supply chains. Energy prices generally have risen, and there has been a massive outflow of Ukrainian refugees. Funding and supplies may be redirected to Ukraine from countries such as Yemen and Ethiopia.

Sudan has consistently been ranked in the ten most fragile countries, and the 2021 coup led to a military-run government, though protests continued in the capital, Khartoum. Since it became ‘independent’ from Britain and Egypt, Sudan has been subjected to various conflicts between the government and regional groups, the result often being ‘peace agreements that are in fact power-sharing agreements that benefit the top ranks of the armed groups’.

What does it matter? What does it reveal? Governments and various members of ruling classes often need to know how volatile a country is, for both military and economic reasons. How reliable is this place as a trading or manufacturing partner? What are the chances of it descending into civil war, or some kind of coup taking place? Is there any possibility of no longer being able to access resources or products? More generally, what impact might it have on profits? Questions like this are no doubt very worrying to those who seek to ensure their continued exercise of wealth and power.

For the rest of us, though, it shows, not so much how fragile particular countries are, but what a state the world is in, that things are not simply getting better, as some claim, and how so many people live dangerous and insecure lives. And how urgent a major change is.
Paul Bennett

Zionism – A case study in nationalism (2024)

From the May 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the nineteenth century there were conflicting views in Jewish communities as to how their best interests might be served. Some opted for a liberal view that assimilation was possible in an increasingly enlightened Europe.

Those favouring a reformed Judaism considered it best for the religion to be confined to the private sphere. The resolutely orthodox strove to maintain a traditional faith.

However, Europe was witnessing the emergence of an ideology that appealed to an increasing minority of Jews: nationalism.

Wider European society was embracing notions of national histories, distinctive cultures and languages, and self-determination. Jews found themselves faced with a choice between their Jewish or national identities. The latter was often compromised by persistent anti-semitism.

The concept of a Jewish national state began to emerge. Auto-emancipation was the term coined in the 1882 pamphlet of the same name written by the Russian Leon Pinsker.

Twenty years prior, in Rome and Jerusalem, Marx’s ‘communist rabbi’ Moses Hess proposed an independent Jewish socialist commonwealth, a blending of socialism with the nationalist ideas of Giuseppe Mazzini.

These declarations of Jewish nationalism did not initially attract widespread support. This began to change following the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II, the subsequent pogroms, the development of pan-Germanism voicing racist myths about all-powerful Jews, and the anti-semitism in the 1890s exposed by the Dreyfus affair.

Theodor Herzl, an Austrian journalist, began observing developments. Assimilated and relatively prosperous, he had little or no interest in the culture or religion of his forebears. His influences were Bismarck, Wagner and the pan-Germanists. However, he could not ignore the rising anti-semitic trend and came to the conclusion that assimilation had failed due to economic competition between Jews and gentiles. Liberated from physical ghettos, Jews were becoming confined socially.

Determined to free Jews from this emerging ghetto, Herzl considered both mass conversion to Christianity and socialist revolution. He eventually settled on the prevailing nationalist concept of self-determination.

In The Jewish State (1896), he argued for founding a European Jewish homeland that would remove the competition between Jews and non-Jews. Subsequently, both Argentina and East Africa were considered as possible locations. The Holy Land, Palestine, became the dream.

Palestinian Arabs, unsurprisingly, opposed this prospect. Herzl though regarded non-Europeans as backward, arguing that a Jewish homeland would be ‘a rampart of Europe against Asia’. In 1897 he organised the First Zionist Congress in Basel that established the World Zionist Organisation (WZO).

When Herzl died in 1904, his ideas were not universally accepted by all Jews. Another strand of Zionism aimed at renewing Judaism rather than confronting anti-semitism. Herzl’s supporters were accused of furthering assimilation, rejecting their forebears’ faith. This Zionist strand favoured a country that was uniquely Jewish, not a Jewish state on a European model.

Despite its disparate beginnings, Zionism gathered a momentum focused on Palestine, both as a reaction to anti-semitic nationalisms in Europe and as a nationalism in its own right.

Via the Balfour Declaration of 1917, made as the Ottoman Empire was crumbling, and the Nazi-instituted Holocaust, the Zionist cause achieved its objective in 1948 when David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the state of Israel.

However, this was by no means the beginning of Jewish settlement in Palestine. There had already been a small Jewish community in that predominantly Muslim Ottoman area. The first formal Jewish community that can be considered an expression of Zionist aspirations was a kibbutz founded in 1910. This was followed by dozens more across the area that would become Israel. The kibbutz movement is significant as it was an expression of an ideological link that was destined to become horrifically problematic. That is the linking of nationalism with socialism.

From its early days Zionism was associated by some advocates with socialism. Moses Hess regarded it as an amalgam of socialism and Italian-style nationalism. Then Theodor Herzl introduced the notion of revolutionary socialism as a potential element of Zionism. Certainly, the kibbutz movement claimed Marxist influence in its organisation of communities. The goal was collective living. There was no private property, as all of it was held collectively by the community. Meals were even taken together.

Stanford economics professor Ran Abramitzky has stated, ‘Jewish immigrants who founded kibbutzim rejected capitalism and wanted to form a more socialist society.’ The paradox the professor seems not to have realised is that socialism is not something that can become the private preserve of one ethnic group, even if they do hold their property in common.

Herzl certainly made no secret of his view of the racial superiority of a Jewish homeland as a bastion against the barbarians beyond. The exclusive nature of the kibbutz reflected this attitude.

There is also the seemingly unquestioned acceptance that taking already occupied land for living space is justified. This is an idea that can be traced back to the very earliest days when humans began to develop a stratified society.

Certainly, in modern times the European conquest and settlement of the Americas paid little regard to any sense that indigenous populations had any rights.

For European Jewry, the concept of national exclusivity tied to ‘socialism’ and lebensraum became a monumental tragedy.

Before that tragedy could fully unfold, the seemingly antagonistic nationalisms had a moment of common purpose. In 1937 two SS officers, Herbert Hagen and Adolf Eichmann, visited Palestine and met with Fevel Polkes, an agent of Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary force formed to protect Jewish communities in Palestine from Arab attacks. After 1948 it was incorporated into the Israeli Defence Force.

Polkes took the two Nazis to visit a kibbutz. In 1960 Eichmann wrote, ‘I did see enough to be very impressed with the way the Jewish colonists were building up their land… had I been a Jew, I would have been a fanatical Zionist.’

It would be a grievous mistake to equate Zionism with Nazism. But one thing all nationalisms have in common is that they pit what they see as their national collective interest against that of the ‘other’, those beyond, outside, excluded.

Whatever socialist pretensions Zionism had they have been subsumed into reformist politics that makes no claim to abolishing capitalism. Kibbutzim now only account for about 3 percent of Israel’s population. Collective living has been abandoned and the kibbutz has turned into village life.

Antagonistic nationalisms and competing economic interests are at the root of Hamas atrocities in Israel and Israeli atrocities in Gaza. While the outpouring of support for Gaza by Palestinian flag-waving demonstrators is an understandable reaction, the solution to the ongoing conflict is surely not to counterpose one nationalism with another.

A one-state or two–state solution will not remove the underlying tensions. It may ameliorate the situation for a while, but only until the next time competition flares into conflict.

To simply oppose Zionism could be interpreted as being anti-semitic. It would invite the question, why just pick on Jewish nationalism? The socialist response has to be opposition to all nationalisms.

The oxymoron ‘National Socialism’ is particularly mistaken. The definitions are mutually exclusive. Not only in the Nazi formulation, but also in such seemingly reasonable and moderate forms as ‘Scottish socialism’, a variant of Scottish nationalism.

Whatever label is attached to it, nationalism, as it arose variously in the nineteenth century, persists as an ideological shackle for the workers of the world, keeping them bound as wage slaves to capitalism. While workers continue to identify themselves with their countries of birth they will deny themselves the worldwide possibilities of socialism, without borders and the wars fought to maintain them.

The irony is that while Herzl thought Jews had been confined to an invisible ghetto, Zionism is confining them to a very visible one, Israel, even for those choosing to live beyond its borders. The way forwards is not assimilation, but socialism.
Dave Alton

Uncensored News and Views on Russia (1946)

Book Review from the May 1946 issue of the Socialist Standard

"Report on Russia (Cresset Press, 6s.), by Mr. Paul Winterton, long known as an advocate of British-Russian friendship, is an interesting and useful book, but one that will be of most use to the reader who approaches it with an alert and critical mind and remembers its limitations. Mr. Winterton first visited Russia in 1928, when he lived with a Russian family for nearly a year. He speaks Russian, has made many subsequent visits, and from 1942 to 1945 was there as correspondent for a London newspaper, the News Chronicle. As, during those three years, he “wrote or broadcast something like a million words about Russia" it might be supposed that he had said all he wanted to say—but that would be to leave out of account the heavy hand of the Russian censors. “Because of the censorship,” he writes, “I was allowed to say only nice things. Criticism was impossible.” Now he seeks to even things up by saying the things the censor barred. His complaint is not about the military or "security” censorship, which he accepted as a wartime necessity, but about the political censorship. "Broadly speaking, throughout the whole period of the war it was impossible for any foreign correspondent in Moscow to write anything which was in the slightest degree critical of anything in the Soviet Union, or which implied any disagreement with any aspect of Russian policy” (p. 52). He and the rest of the foreign correspondents were, willy-nilly, a chorus of “yes-men”—"on all controversial subjects, you either said 'yes,' or you said nothing.”

He describes in detail how the correspondents who were supposed to be reporting the war were never allowed anywhere near the fighting, so, being restricted to carefully conducted tours of selected spots long after the battle had moved on, the correspondents had to seek information of the Official Press Department and in the Russian newspapers. From the former they received only obstruction, since its function was obviously not to inform or to assist, but to censor. The latter were equally inadequate, for “Russian newspapers do not set out to be very informative about events. Indeed, their prime function is not to give facts, but to steer and organise the Russian people in the way that the government wants them to go.” Of Russian journalists he writes that, in the main, they "eschew facts and keep their writings vague. They know that they are on safe ground if they say something in slightly different words which has been said before by someone in authority. They seek security in vagueness, and (because they are paid at so many roubles a line) prosperity in length ” (p. 41).

It is not surprising that the foreign correspondents frequently obtained their first news of important events in Russia as a result of listening to the B.B.C. from London (p. 39).

The Russian censors not only cut, but also altered the reports that they let go through. They frequently "not only took sentences out, but wrote their own sentences in” (p. 52). In chapter IV many examples are given of the statements the censors would not allow to be made. They would not let the correspondents report that the Russians were purposely kept in ignorance about the extent and nature of American lend-lease supplies. They would not let Mr. Winterton report that Esthonians had told him that they objected to the incorporation. of Esthonia into Russia. Of course, be was not allowed to report the fact that Russians are nervous about mixing with foreign visitors. One critical report the Russians did let through,, but that was only because they failed to recognise it for what it was. The Russian Government was whipping up demonstrations by Persians in the part of Persia under Russian occupation, in order to make it seem that the Russian demand for oil concessions was being enthusiastically supported by the Persian population. Winterton reported this in a message which referred ironically to "spontaneous” demonstrations; but irony is a dangerous instrument to use, for the London editor likewise failed to recognise it!

Finding that they were not allowed to report the war in any direct way, the correspondents "tried to see and write about other things in Russia,” but this was likewise obstructed. They would apply to the Press Department for facilities, "but it took the Press Department weeks, and sometimes months, to arrange for a correspondent to visit even a kindergarten” (p.37). The Anglo-American correspondents many times protested to various authorities, but their letters and verbal protests were systematically ignored. Even when they got anything to report they still had to pass the censor, and Mr. Winterton’s verdict is that it was quite impossible to give an accurate and objective picture of Russian life because the censors cut out "almost every word or sentence which showed Russia in less than a perfect light” (p. 56).

It is Mr. Winterton's considered view that the difficulties placed in the way of correspondents are deliberate and are part of a settled policy of the Russian Government aimed at preventing information about Russia freely reaching the outside world and at preventing the Russians from knowing about conditions in the outside world. The censorship may, perhaps, be abolished (so far it is still going strong), but that will not necessarily mean that "thereafter the reporting of news from Russia would be fair and full,” for the Russian Government will still be able to keep tight control by withholding entry visas from correspondents who are disliked, or by withdrawing them from correspondents who are too independent (P. 57).

Mr. Winterton gives a two-fold explanation of the suppressive policy of the Russian Government. Remembering the aggression of the other Powers in the past against Russia, the government of the latter country regards all foreigners as potential spies. That is understandable enough, but the Russian Government is likewise afraid to let its own citizens know of conditions in other countries. Mr. Winterton writes (p. 63) : —
"There is no doubt whatever that for a generation the Russian people have been hoodwinked. The facts, if known to the Russians, would make the textbooks and the teachers look ridiculous. How, then, can the Soviet authorities look with any favour upon any large-scale mixing of their people with the foreigner? How can they permit their citizens to travel freely between the Soviet Union and the outside world ? ”
For twenty years the Russian workers have been told by their government that their country is happier, more fortunate and, generally, speaking, better off than the people of other countries, whereas, says Mr. Winterton, “from the purely material point of view practically everything outside Russia is better than the corresponding thing inside Russia. This is true of towns, streets, houses, parks, plumbing, shops and cinemas . . . . ” (p. 64).

Of the standard of living be writes: —
"Twenty years of peace would find the Russian people enjoying a standard of life which —though still very low by Western levels—would nevertheless be far in advance of anything they had known before ” (p. 117).
He writes that “Moscow’s slums are os bad as any in the world ” (p. 129).

Mr. Winterton contrasts the life of the rich and the poor. “The privileged—Red Army generals, police chiefs, commissars and assistant commissars, Party bosses, inventors, factory managers, highly-skilled engineers, ballerinas, writers, artists—these can command all the luxuries available in Moscow. They can have good food and wine, nice clothes and furs for their wives and sweethearts, pleasant and spacious apartments, the use of a motor car, a chauffeur, a domestic servant, and a house in the country. The poorest people have the barest necessities of life, and live in what can only be described as squalor. People are not directly exploited by each other, as happens under capitalism, but some people are certainly exploited by the State for the benefit of other people, and it amounts to much the same thing in the end . . . You can still see a poor person in Moscow from time to time searching a street dustbin for a scrap of food . . . .  just as in most other cities in the world” (P. 131).

Mr. Winterton wants an end to the humbug of pretending that Russia is a democracy: "As near as makes no odds, Russia is a totalitarian state. It is ruled in practice by a small inner ring of Communist Party leaders with Stalin at their head. Insofar as the voice of the people finds any effective expression at all, it is heard only inside the Party, where majority decisions bind the minority to public acquiescence. In reality, even the ordinary rank and file members of the Communist Party have little say in policy these days, and are hardly more than the propaganda instruments for popularising the decisions taken at the top" (p. 119).

Among many other interesting observations on Russian life, Mr. Winterton writes on the militarisation of education, the farcical "discussion" at the Supreme Soviet (Parliament), and the functions of the trade unions. On the latter he writes: "The workers in Russian factories cannot organise collective agitation for shorter hours or higher wages unless the Party approves. Their trade unions have little authority or influence and largely confine their activities to social and cultural work. Their members cannot strike" (P. 123).

The declared object of Mr. Winterton4s book is to provide real information about Russian conditions and, above all, of the Russian Government’s policies. He thinks that another war will only be avoided if America and the British Empire can avoid a direct clash with Russia. This may be achieved by cynically dividing the world into two spheres of interest, but even that, he considers, will require greater knowledge and understanding of the real Russia than exists at present

The Socialist who reads “Report on Russia" cannot fail to notice its and the author’s limitations. His (undeclared) standpoint appears to be that of a Liberal democrat who accepts capitalism and with it the inevitable international rivalry between the big Powers. His information and his criticisms of Russian policy may be accurate enough, but always there is the implication that if only Russia were like Britain and U.S.A. there would be no problems and all would be well. Yet this is manifestly untrue both of internal conditions and of international affairs.

Are there slums in Moscow? So there are in London and New York. All three countries, in common with the rest of the capitalist world, have riches and poverty side by side and the exploitation of the working class for the benefit of the privileged few. In all three countries the working class have yet to achieve the ending of capitalism and the establishment of Socialism. There is no indication that Mr. Winterton wants this or that he realises that without it the search for permanent peace is bound to fail. If Russia were democratic like Britain and U.S.A. that would not mean the end of rivalry between the Powers. The capitalist scramble for markets and raw materials, etc., would still be on.

It is important that in Britain and U.S.A. the workers are able to form their own trade unions and political parties and can publish their views and hold meetings, etc., but the contrast with Russia could be presented in a more balanced way by recalling that if in Russia dictatorship has been used by the ruling group to keep the masses poor, the capitalists in Britain and America have so far been able to achieve the same result through democracy. In all three countries the privileged group have the same end in view though their methods differ.

On one point we must strongly doubt Mr. Winterton’s conclusion. He is not hopeful about the Russian workers challenging the restrictions imposed on them. "The Soviet Union," he writes, "is solidly united under its regime, for all opposition was long ago crushed and the Russians are accustomed to obedience: nor is there much desire to criticise ” (p. 117).

Again he tells us that the existing totalitarian system "seems to work quite well with the Russians, who have never experienced political democracy in our sense, who do not particularly want it, and who would certainly have great difficulty in working it" (p. 121).

These seem to be very rash statements to make. The Russians, he says, are "accustomed to obedience.” That, of course, is what the Czars' governments used to think, but 1905 and 1917 should surely make one doubt it as a guide to Russian workers' behaviour. Of what slave-system, what autocracy and what colonial possession has it not been said that the subjects are accustomed to obedience and therefore will not rouse themselves? Yet all of the seemingly apathetic populations have sometime come to life and astounded their rulers.

As a correspondent in Russia, Mr. Winterton, for reasons he gives himself, is not in the least likely to be a good judge of the amount of opposition there may be with the Stalin regime. Oppositionists under a dictatorship do not lightly run the risk of approaching foreign correspondents and thus drawing attention to themselves.

Another point presents itself. If the Russian workers, though exploited, are satisfied and docile and do not want democratic rights, why does the Russian Government go to such trouble, including the maintenance of the secret police system, to prevent them from asserting themselves? It is just as if you went to a zoo and found a heavily barred cage, under armed guard, containing some blinkered, muzzled and shackled animals, and were told by the keeper that they were happy, contented and docile sheep. You would think that the keeper was mad or that perhaps the animals weren’t sheep after all.
Edgar Hardcastle