How fascism has been reinvented

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French fascist leader Marine Le Pen. Pic: Kremlin.ru

How important is the concept of fascism in the 21st century? And how should we define it? French author Ugo Palheta spoke to Socialist Review about how these questions play out in France today.

Many people argue that fascism is a historical phenomenon connected to the interwar period and has no relevance in the 21st century. Why do you insist on the continuity of the fascist project, as you have put it?

The denial of a contemporary fascist danger often rests either on the idea that fascism could only have been the pure effect of the First World War, unthinkable outside this context, or that it was the product of the particular historical trajectory of Italy and Germany. My theoretical perspective is radically different. Of course, fascism took root in a specific historical context and specific national circumstances, taking distinct forms according to these circumstances. But it is primarily the expression of the sharpening of capitalism’s fundamental contradictions and of the resulting economic, political and ideological decomposition.

It is in these conditions that mass reactionary movements emerge, movements which use a rhetoric of political rupture — of a radical break with the establishment — while having no other project than the strengthening of a hierarchical, authoritarian and racist order.

So for me, there is no reason to think that fascism perished with the military defeat of the Nazis. On the contrary, during the postwar period the fascist project was updated, mainly through parties founded by open fascists (Front National-FN in France, FPÖ in Austria, etc) but also through parties that came mostly from the conservative right, such as the AfD in Germany.

Fascists of our times cannot use exactly the same means to achieve their ends, neither can they express their goals clearly or refer explicitly to fascism, as this would condemn them to the electoral margins.

But they still maintain most of fascism’s objectives and their strategy largely borrows from that of the fascist leaders of the interwar years, albeit in a historical context that, unlike the 1920s and 30s, lends itself more to a “war of position” than to a “war of manoeuvre” (to use Gramsci’s categories).

There is a widespread acceptance that Marine Le Pen has “de-demonised” the National Front/Rally, decisively moving it away from the being a fascist party towards being a “national-populist” party. Can you explain why so many, even on the left, accept this, and why you reject it?

The transition from the category of “fascism” to that of “national-populism” to describe the FN took place during the 1990s in the mainstream intellectual field. Left wing activists are far from immune to categories which come from the academic world. Yet if they have been subjected to this intellectual offensive concerning the FN, it is because the anti-fascist traditions in the French left were weak, shallowly rooted and, especially with the French Communist Party (PCF), reduced to commemorating the French Resistance while doing nothing to keep this legacy alive.

So even in the 1980s and 1990s, though there were some very important and successful initiatives, especially around a network called Ras l’Front (Enough with the Front), we did not see the emergence of a mass anti-fascist movement.

So we ought to reject “populism” to characterise the FN, not least because of its theoretical vagueness, which allows neoliberal ideologues to put Mélenchon and Le Pen in France, or Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the United States in the same “populist” pot, without anyone even knowing what they have in common. More importantly, the FN fundamentally maintains the same project it has pursued since its founding in 1972, despite superficial rhetorical changes to help it construct a respectable electoral face, in order to build a mass base for this mix of extreme nationalism and ultra-authoritarianism that constitutes the heart of the fascist project.

The historian Robert Paxton has stressed the importance of favourable “settings and allies” for fascism to grow and advance. How have developments in mainstream French politics aided and abetted the Front’s growth?

This is indeed a decisive aspect. The conquest of power by the fascists is only possible if there is a confluence between the development of a movement with a mass audience (an electoral one at least) and the radicalisation towards authoritarianism of large fractions of the bourgeoisie and bourgeois parties. Even before forging alliances with the fascists, bourgeois politicians and ideologues create fertile ground for the growth of fascism by pursuing policies and using language that increasingly borrow from the fascists’ programme.

This is one of the typical symptoms of the fascist danger — it becomes harder to locate the boundary between the conservative right and fascism in terms of what they say. This is what is happening in many European countries and elsewhere.

In France, I would say that the most significant dimension was the Socialist Party’s (SP) capitulation to the neoliberal framework (in 1983 with the “austerity turn”) and its acceptance in the late 1980s of an anti-migration ideology, which painted immigration and immigrants as a problem to be solved and which justified criminal policies.

Since 2000, both right and left have pursued policies that have worsened the living conditions of the working class and the intermediate layers, weakened the labour movement (repressing unions, anti-labour legislation, and so on), while jointly promoting a demonisation of Islam, targeting Muslims as enemies of the Republic, of Jews, of women, and so on, and by imposing discriminatory policies that target them specifically, for example bans on the hijab.

One response to the rise of fascists is to dismiss them as not a real threat. Another is panic and paralysis and to view them as an unstoppable force. What are the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the Front?

The FN’s main weakness is that, at least for the time being, it is not a mass party. It is undeniably a mass party on the electoral level (more than 10.5 million votes for Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election in 2017) but in organisational and rank and file terms it remains weak, except in certain areas where it has managed to develop politically solid and well rooted cadres.

It has no more than a few tens of thousands of members, probably around 50,000 currently, who are generally not very active outside electoral periods (but it should be noted that France does not count any real mass parties since the decline of the PCF and the SP on the left but also of the Gaullist right). It has another weakness on a more programmatic level. For the time being it hasn’t managed to develop a political and economic project capable of winning a social majority because it has a composite electorate — impoverished employees, small self-employed entrepreneurs, junior staff — whose objective interests are contradictory.

Finally, it hasn’t (yet?) managed to win significant fractions of the conservative right, even if the progression of Dupont-Aignan, a right wing defector who rallied to Le Pen before the second round in 2017, shows that the fascists could gain access to additional electoral reserves, especially given the fact that we have witnessed a radicalisation of the conservative electorate that could, in the years to come, bring down some barriers.

What are the prospects for building a wider challenge to the Front National in France today — one that challenges its racism around immigration and Islamophobia especially — but also targets and exposes its fascist core?

Firstly, with regard to what I said above, it is obviously a fundamental task — but an underestimated one in France — for the left and the movements to block the construction of the FN as a mass organisation. This means preventing it from appearing publicly at the local level, from organising public gatherings, from gaining confidence and marshalling its supporters, who for now remain mostly passive.

The construction of an anti-fascist movement is still on the agenda in France, but it must be taken into account that Macron uses anti-FN rhetoric intensively for purely opportunistic purposes.

Anti-fascism can only develop if it mounts a clear opposition to the current government and its neoliberal, authoritarian and xenophobic policies. This does not mean that anti-fascism itself should have a programme for thorough social transformation, but that it should be possible to build around it a united front (of political, trade union and associated forces): towards a break with neoliberalism, for the conquest of real democracy, and for the fight against racism, especially against its institutional and structural forms.

This last dimension of the anti-fascist struggle, as active anti-racist politics, has often been dodged by the French left even though racism plays a central role in weakening the working class and in the FN’s success. Things are perhaps changing but we still have a long way to go. It is up to us, through our struggles, to rise to the challenge of the historical situation we face, both extremely dangerous and full of potential.

Ugo Palheta is the author of La possibilité du fascisme: France, la trajectoire du désastre (2018) and edits the online journal Contretemps.Thanks to Dimitris Daskalakis for translation.