Hilary Benn's much lauded speech for war on Syria needs to be challenged, not just for promoting imperialism, but for using anti-fascist rhetoric to sow confusion on the left.
Hilary Benn proclaimed, “We are faced by fascists — not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us… They hold our democracy — the means by which we will make our decision tonight — in contempt.” He continued, “they need to be defeated. It is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists, trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It is why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party [has] always been defined by our internationalism.”
If “calculated brutality” by governments is fascist then Britain, France, Russia, America, Israel are fascist. If not operating on fully parliamentary principles is fascist then would Benn bomb countries in the “Global Coalition to Counter ISIL” ranging from monarchical regimes of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and the military dictatorship in Egypt?
The conditions for fascism are quite specific. When capitalism suffers crisis this endangers its stability. In “normal” times the rule of rich exploiters is maintained through consensus (expressed by “moderate” pro-capitalist parties of the Tory right or social democratic left).
During crises the contrast between what capitalist ideology promises and lived reality creates deep discontent and many abandon established parties for new movements. This can lead to opposing the source of the crisis, capitalism, and tends towards the left.
However, discontent can produce movements which pose as anti-establishment, even though thoroughly imbued with its ideas. The fascist approach is that if life does not conform to what capitalism promised then its methods were not applied strictly enough. Thus establishment ideas reappear in an obscene and exaggerated form. At their core is the supposed common interest of rich and poor within “the nation” (defined racially or culturally).
Take racism. Modern fascists are almost uniformly racist, but racism and fascism are not the same. Mussolini made little reference to race, yet he invented fascism. To equate racism and fascism can obscure the racism of immigration controls peddled by Tory and Labour over decades. Fascists are echoing the divide and rule method of the establishment, but in an intensified form.
The same applies to other ruling class ideas. Adopting these in an exaggerated form leads to wanting to smash anything or anyone that stands in the way, such as trade unions, socialists or ethnic minorities. Parliamentary democracy gives some freedom to such currents and was targeted by interwar fascists. Today that is sometimes less prominent and dictatorial intent remains hidden behind racist rhetoric.
Hitler and Mussolini sought to prove they were different from the establishment by forming gangs of thugs to physically muscle their way into power and beating up socialists and Jews. This stance was phoney. Mussolini’s blackshirt “March on Rome” was a fiction. Italy’s king handed him power. In the “night of the long knives” Hitler butchered the brownshirt leadership once it had served its purpose.
Fascists today would like to recreate street gangs, but may hesitate due to opposition or fear of alienating support. Once in power fascist movements carry the baggage of brutality, violence and extremism with them, using these to serve the system.
Benn’s use of the term fascism overlooks the features required to understand ISIS — imperialist war in the Middle East and the stoking of sectarian tensions to divide the population, the role of Saddam’s former military (trained by the West), the role of sub-imperialism such as Saudi Arabia, and so on.
It is also reckless, making it harder to identify real fascists. Five days after Benn declared solidarity with Francois Hollande’s desperate attempt to save his electoral skin by whipping up hysteria for more French bombing, the real fascists of the Front National led in regional elections.
Benn also lies about Labour’s past. Referring to the International Brigades in Spain, he omitted to mention Labour officially backed the Tory position of non-intervention, which abandoned the democratically elected Spanish Republic to Franco. Benn said “this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini”. True, but the Tories only did so to save the Empire, not fight fascism. As Churchill put it: “without victory there can be no survival…for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for.”
Labour’s Ernest Bevin was little better: “England’s experience in the realm of giving liberty is probably the greatest. We have built up a great empire over the last three or four hundred years.” Unlike the wartime Labour leadership and most of its MPs, however, ordinary Labour voters and supporters were genuinely motivated by anti-fascism.
Labour has not “always been defined by our internationalism”. Indeed, Jeremy Corbyn is a welcome exception among Labour leaders. The first Labour government saw Jimmy Thomas entering the Colonial Office with the words “I am here to see there is no mucking about with the British Empire.”
As Labour foreign minister in 1945 Bevin announced, “British foreign policy will not be altered in any way.” Finally we come to Blair. Promoting the Iraq war in 2003 he employed the same argument as Benn:
“There are glib and sometimes foolish comparisons with the 1930s… But the only relevant point of analogy is that with history, we know what happened. We can look back and say: there’s the time; that was the moment; for example, when Czechoslovakia was swallowed up by the Nazis — that’s when we should have acted.”
In one thing Blair was right. There are “glib and sometimes foolish comparisons with the 1930s”. Benn’s speech was one of them.