Donny Gluckstein analyses the relationship between nationalism, which helps convince workers to defend the “national interest”, the racism which flows from that idea of an us and them defined by nation, and full-blown fascism, which abandons the notion of democratic consent altogether.
We are daily buffeted by a bewildering mass of bad news stories on the racism front. The most bizarre example to date is Trump, the most powerful person in the world, retweeting the grotesque videos of Britain First, a tiny fascist grouping whose only claim to fame is that the murderer of Jo Cox MP shouted its name as he attacked her. To make sense of such events it helps to clearly understand what nationalism, racism and fascism are, how they are connected, and how they interact. This article argues that capitalist crisis creates a conveyor belt along which these distinct currents flow from one into the other. Then, through a feedback loop, the process starts moving rightward again.
Nationalism is the default position of capitalist society. When a tiny minority is enriched by exploiting the vast majority it cannot survive by force alone. Consent is needed, and in Western parliamentary democracies this is obtained through having freedom of expression, elections, some welfare provision, and so on. Consequently ordinary people largely buy in to the system, for, as Marx put it, the prevailing ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. As a result many come to broadly accept that “what is good for the boss is good for me”. This is the root of nationalism.
Capitalist institutions like the state or the economy are seen as “our state” and “our economy”, (when the reality is these are “their state” and “their economy”). Nationalism can operate in many different ways. For example, in oppressed countries workers and bosses can (temporarily) unite against imperialism. In places like Scotland and Catalonia nationalism (again temporarily) unites popular opposition to austerity with local capitalist hopes for their own state. Elsewhere, however, nationalism tends to show the dominance of establishment ideas over society.
For the ruling class, pure nationalism makes absolute sense. It is different for working people because nationalism collides with our life experience. Longer hours and declining incomes may be good for the boss, but they are bad for our health and happiness. The outcome of this collision is mostly a combination of acceptance and resistance which, when organised into bodies like the Labour Party or trade unions, takes the shape of reformism. Reformism questions cruder forms of nationalism but accepts the framework of the national state and economy.
Sandwiched between the upper class and workers is the middle class. This stratum can be won to left wing ideas because many suffer at the hands of the banks, big business, and economic crisis. However, many long to be big business people, while lower managers crave promotion to the top ranks. Therefore, the middle class can be pulled left or right. So too can those who, though poor, feel unattached to the working class, and are prey to ruling class ideas (what Marx called the lumpenproletariat).
If the idea of nationalism means a supposed common interest within a country it takes a different hue externally. Capitalist states compete against each other and so nationalism often leads towards hostility to perceived outsiders — in other words, racism. While a degree of racism is always present in Western parliamentary democracies, it does not usually play a significant or determining political role because other issues (health, education, employment, housing and so on) take centre stage.
The situation changes in an economic crisis. The suffering is caused by the bosses but they want to deflect attention away from that fact. To do so the establishment turns to the age old tactic of divide and rule. Any target will do — benefit claimants, single mums, and so on — but the favourite method is to exploit the widespread acceptance of nationalism, and sharpen it into more and more reactionary forms. Writing about anti-Irish racism in the 19th century Marx talked of how it was “artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes.”
The process has been obvious since the 2008 crash, as one group after another — refugees, immigrants, and Muslims, have been targeted. This has political consequences. As is noted above, racism is always present to some degree; but parties that make it their central policy do not usually get much of a hearing in boom times. But during economic crisis a peculiar situation arises. Racism is whipped up by mainstream parties and at the very same time there is disillusion with these self same mainstream parties for letting people down. An example of this was seen in Britain where the Tories did not intend to encourage UKIP, an electoral rival, but this was indeed the result of having peddled racist rhetoric.
To sum up, as a result of crisis the establishment emphasises the overt racist side of nationalism, and in the process politicians who were once fringe figures now reappear as leaders of a growing racist populism.
Extreme racism is not the defining feature of fascist parties, though they happily ride the racist tide to build support. Mussolini, the man who invented fascism, was ultra-nationalist but had Jews in leading positions. What makes fascism distinctive is that it rejects the whole system of consent through parliamentary democracy. It is one thing to blame immigrants for declining wages and cuts in services; hard core fascists go much further because they identify parliamentary democracy, the labour movement, and left parties, as also being at the heart of the problem. They may pose as radical and anti-establishment in criticising other parties or “the system”, but in reality they spout reactionary capitalist arguments in an exaggerated form.
In times of economic boom these arguments convince few people. That can change during economic difficulties because, like the racist populists, they swim in the same sewer swollen by the establishment’s divide and rule tactic. They can now hope to draw support from a middle class and lumpenproletariat driven to extremes by crisis, but crucially also from influential sections of the upper class.
Studying the progress of fascism in the 1930s is revealing. At that time sections of the ruling class concluded that the divide and rule tactic was insufficient, and that the cost of buying consent through institutions such as parliament should no longer be paid. In Europe, following the Wall Street crash, only Czechoslovakia and the north western fringe of Europe (such as Britain, France, Holland, Ireland, Scandinavia) still operated parliamentary democracy by 1938. Elsewhere the establishment had ended it by coups of various kinds.
This service was not always performed by fascists themselves but carried out by the army, monarchy or other forces. Often ruling circles regarded fascists with disdain as they were led by demagogues whose rabble rousing had to sound more daring than it really was. So on occasion fascist parties were opposed as being upstart contenders for power (Romania and Belgium), while others were allowed to be junior partners (as in Franco’s Spain).
Germany and Italy fitted neither pattern. In both countries the establishment was too weak to destroy democracy unaided; but the fascists possessed one vital asset. If your aim is to destroy parliamentary democracy and smash the left, collecting votes is useful, but secondary. More important is building a street army to tear the edifice down. This was the role of Italy’s blackshirts and Germany’s brownshirts. Mussolini and Hitler touted a myth of fascist revolution (such as the 1922 March on Rome), but in reality both were appointed by an establishment in deep crisis. Once in office they used their positions to pursue their own deadly agendas.
The workings of the conveyor belt should now be clear. Governments whip up racism from embedded nationalism and this feeds into racist populism, with fascism not far behind. To keep control of the genie they release mainstream parties move right to accommodate, and this further reinforces the reactionary trajectory. How can this process be interrupted or reversed?
Many popular ideas in society counteract nationalism and its sinister relatives, racism and fascism. These include social solidarity, support for those in need (such as refugees), and an understanding that homelessness, cuts in services, or falling wages, are not caused by immigration but capitalist greed. If such sentiments are mobilised by organisations such as Stand up to Racism, or political parties, it is possible to push back.
That was revealed by the wave of support behind Jeremy Corbyn in the last General Election. Far from UKIP again dominating the agenda it was wrecked, and the Tories moderated some of their attacks for a time. Instead of political discourse being pulled to the right it was dragged leftwards by the election.
History also shows another method. Fascist ideas are repugnant to very large numbers because they spell an end to what freedom and democracy exists. This was even true in Germany where Hitler never won much more than one third of votes in a free election. If that majority feeling can be mobilised by exposing what fascism stands for, and people unite against it, its growth will stop.
This tactic was successfully employed by the Anti Nazi League against the National Front in the 1970s, and by Unite Against Fascism in dealing with the BNP and EDL. Even more spectacular was what happened in France after fascists attempted to storm the parliament in 1934. The labour movement came together in a huge demonstration of defiance. By 1936 this had developed into a mass strike and the election of a left wing popular front government.
Ultimately only the ending of capitalism and its crises can permanently stop the cycle. But there is much we can do while preparing for that.
Donny Gluckstein is the author of A People’s History of the Second World War (Pluto, 2012)