There was a brief period between the end of the Depression and the start of the war…during which the fascists succeeded in placing their economies in a better position than the liberal capitalist ones.
In contemporary conditions, however, larger state spending, no matter for what purpose, which would have to be financed either by taxes on the rich or by a fiscal deficit to be able to enlarge activity, would be frowned upon by globalised finance, which would oppose both these means of financing. And since no fascist movement anywhere is proposing controls over cross-border financial flows, this opposition would be decisive in preventing any expansion in domestic aggregate demand through state spending.52
The Patnaiks may be underestimating the economic room for manoeuvre for contemporary capitalist states. After all, the pandemic has seen states go further than they did in response to the global financial crisis, hugely increasing government spending and borrowing. In at least some cases (for example, the US and Britain), central banks have engaged in “monetary finance”: buying the bonds issued by governments to cover the extra expenditure (though opening the monetary tap will not overcome the underlying crisis of profitability, and markets are getting edgy about a possible surge in inflation).53 But the Patnaiks’ observation that the much greater internationalisation of capital today limits the ability of far-right (or, indeed, social-democratic) governments to pursue alternative economic policies to neoliberalism is important.
As this overview indicates, the boundaries between mainstream conservative, far-right and outright fascist formations are very blurred. This fluidity is unavoidable, particularly in a rapidly moving situation, when, for example, bit players such as Bolsonaro and Trump suddenly hit the big time. This leads even as perceptive an analyst as Enzo Traverso to argue that what we are dealing with is “post-fascism”. He argues that “the racism of the far right…has significantly blurred its original fascist matrix. In this sense, ideology is no longer a problem for the far right.” He continues, “all in all, its relationship with fascism is rather like social democracy’s relationship with socialism”—something that it has, in practice, abandoned in order to embrace neoliberalism.54
Traverso is right to the extent that some contemporary far-right leaders, notably Marine Le Pen, have presented themselves as modernisers of their parties in ways that are at least superficially comparable to Tony Blair’s transformation of the Labour Party into “New Labour”. However, Traverso badly underestimates the importance of the distinctive kind of anti-Muslim racism diagnosed by Pertwee in contemporary far-right ideology. The point in any case is not so much to determine what label to attach to specific formations, but rather to understand the contemporary far right as a dynamic force field that is changing rapidly. Fascism exerts a gravitational pull within this field, not primarily because of the historical legacy of different formations but because radicalisation to the right is a real political option in the present. We can see this, for example, in the factional struggle between the “national-conservative” and “national-revolutionary” wings of the AfD.
The dominance of electoral politics in the contemporary far right moreover acts as an obscuring factor, since it exerts pressure on leaders to dissociate themselves from the barbarism of Hitler and Mussolini. However, just as in the inter-war period, there is an interplay between elite politics and grassroots movements that can favour the genuinely fascist elements. The US offers perhaps the best illustration of the forces at work.
The United States: the weak link?
It seems extraordinary to describe the US as the weak link in the advanced capitalist world. After all, the US remains the hegemonic state, with military and financial capabilities vastly greater than any other polity. Nevertheless, it is a thought we must take seriously after 6 January. Three determinations seem to stand out:
The cumulative economic effects of neoliberalism and the global financial crisis: The Trumpian rhetoric of “Make America Great Again” presents the US as a victim of globalisation, but this is not a description that the big US banks and corporations would recognise. They have hugely profited from the globalisation of production and the emergence of what Peter Gowan called the “Dollar-Wall Street regime” in finance.55 Moreover, the five IT giants, the FAANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google), represent the US ambition to dominate the future of capitalism, and they are a major stake in Washington’s conflicts with both Beijing and Brussels. Nevertheless, Robert Brenner argues that the latest government bailout of markets, in March 2020, shows that:
With the US economy performing so very badly…the bipartisan political establishment and its leading policymakers have come to a stark conclusion, consciously or unconsciously. The only way that they can assure the reproduction of the non-financial and financial corporations, their top managers and shareholders—and indeed the top leaders of the major parties, who are closely connected with them—is to intervene politically in the asset markets and throughout the whole economy, so as to underwrite the upward re-distribution of wealth to them by directly political means… What we have had for a long epoch is worsening economic decline met by intensifying political predation.56
For wide sections of the US population the experience of the past generation has been compressed wages, the evaporation of large swathes of manufacturing employment, jobs, savings and homes during the global financial crisis, and family members killed, disabled and traumatised in the lost wars in the Greater Middle East. This divergence in experiences (with many better-paid white-collar employees sharing much more modestly in the prosperity enjoyed by big capital) has been weaponised by Trump and the Republican right;
Dysfunctional political structures increasingly favouring the Republicans: Capital large and small has benefitted from a constitution designed by its framers to protect property from majority rule. A number of mechanisms ensure this is the case: an executive president who, even in the era of universal suffrage, is still chosen indirectly by an electoral college weighted in favour of the 50 states; an extremely powerful but highly unrepresentative upper chamber, the Senate, in which states have equal representation irrespective of differences in population; and a Supreme Court of judges appointed for life whose power as constitutional arbiters has been enhanced by gridlock in Washington. Capital’s prerogatives have been further buttressed by a first past the post electoral system that restricts political competition to two profoundly pro-capitalist parties and by the court-affirmed right of the corporate rich to flood compliant politicians with money. In recent decades, the Republican Party, which has won only one presidential popular vote in the past 30 years, has ruthlessly used gerrymandering and voter suppression to entrench itself, particularly at the state level and in Congress. All this has been very good for capital, which has colonised all levels of the state, but the result is a political system largely impervious to popular movements for change in any direction.57 Meanwhile, the last two Democratic administrations (Bill Clinton’s in 1993-2001 and Barack Obama’s in 2009-17) operated as efficient managers of the neoliberal order, disappointing their more progressive supporters and helping the Republicans to capture both houses of Congress in 1994, the House of Representatives again in 2010 and the Senate in 2014;
The racial fracture: All advanced capitalist states are structurally racist, but nowhere is racial oppression more central than in the US. Slavery and settler colonialism are inscribed into the fetishised constitution; Article 1, Section 3 gives states federal representation based on “adding to the number of free persons…and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other persons”.58 The complex and tense balance between white slave planters and petty producers broke down as the US expanded territorially and started its own Industrial Revolution in the first half of the 19th century. Lincoln won the Civil War by, as Marx predicted, adopting increasingly revolutionary means—above all, issuing the Emancipation Proclaimation and arming the ex-slaves. Yet the defeat of the attempt by black people and their white allies to reconstruct the South after the Union victory in 1865 meant that the formal legal and political equality granted by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the constitution was denied to African Americans. This was especially so in the South, where they were subjected to the Jim Crow regime of racial segregation.59 The so-called Second Reconstruction imposed on the federal government by the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and the inner-city risings in the North that it helped to stimulate, ended Jim Crow and helped elevate a black middle class that now has some serious political clout. Yet African Americans are still stuck at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Moreover, they are the objects of systemic state violence, whether through police shootings or mass incarceration in the “prison-industrial complex”, described by Michelle Alexander as the “another racial caste system in the US”.60 It is too simple to call contemporary US society an instance of “white supremacy”, as it would have been to join the short-lived celebrations of a “post-racial society” under Obama. Nevertheless, there are plenty of white supremacists, who have been steered by embedded racist structures onto focusing their discontents on black, Latinx and Muslim people.61
Against this background, the Trump presidency represented a clear case of what Louis Althusser calls “overdetermination”, where “a vast accumulation of ‘contradictions’ comes into play in the same court, some of which are radically heterogeneous—of different origins, different sense, different levels and points of application—but which nevertheless ‘merge’ into a ruptural unity”.62 Trump, starting with his run for the White House in 2015-16, systematically sought to play on the sense of victimhood (“American carnage”), the anger at Washington corruption and gridlock (“drain the swamp”), and the racism of enough US citizens in order to win in November 2016. He then used these same factors in order to sustain himself during a chaotic term of office and to secure over 74 million votes (the second highest total in US history) in November 2020.
Trump is no fascist, but an adventurer, who has parlayed his celebrity business dealings and media stardom into at least the appearance of great wealth and used this image to reach a wider audience for his far-right account of the US being screwed by globalisation and, more concretely, by its allies and by China.63 His relationship to big capital has been far from straightforward. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of Yale School of Management claims, “I would bring Donald Trump to our CEO summit years ago and the top tier CEOs would say, ‘Don’t bring him in here. We don’t consider him a top CEO.’” When he told the president this after his 2016 election victory, Trump replied, “Well, they’re all coming by to see me now”.64
Even in the White House, however, he remained problematic for big capital. His most distinctive economic policies—trade wars with China and the EU, and repatriating the global supply chains developed in the neoliberal era—clashed directly with the interests of the main US transnational corporations and banks.
Trump’s class base came from elsewhere, as Mike Davis explains in a brilliant sketch of the social geography of Trumpism:
If Reagan came to power aligned with a historic anti-union offensive led by the Business Roundtable—a coalition of Fortune 500 corporations—Trump came to the White House thanks to the love of Jesus and a motley crew of what Sam Farber refers to as “lumpen capitalists”. Of course, defence contractors, the energy industry and Big Pharma pay the dues to the White House, as is always the case when the Republicans are in power. But the donor coalition that financed the revolt against Obama and united behind Trump after the defeat of Ted Cruz in the 2016 primaries is largely peripheral to the traditional sites of economic power. In addition to family dynasties…such as the Kochs, who have been around since the days of Barry Goldwater and the John Birch Society, Trump’s key allies are post-industrial robber barons from hinterland places like Grand Rapids, Wichita, Little Rock and Tulsa. Their fortunes derive from real estate, private equity, casinos and services ranging from private armies to chain usury.65
These “lumpen-billionaires”, as Davis also calls them, are dependent on the domestic market, and indeed often on federal and state governments, as is shown by the telling example of Forrest L Preston’s Life Care Centers of America, the largest nursing home chain in the US and the site of numerous Covid-19 deaths in spring 2020.66 Confrontation with the manufacturing and trading giants of Asia and Europe probably did not affect their interests very negatively and may even help smaller industrial firms. Transnational big business, by contrast, went along with Trump because he cut taxes, promoted deregulation and inflated a stock-market bubble. As the Financial Times Lex column sourly put it after the assault on the Capitol:
Mr Trump repeatedly staked his presidency on rising financial markets, tacitly inciting Wall Street and better-off Americans to ignore his creeping illiberalism because they were getting rich in the process. Business grew weary of his capriciousness on tariffs and trade with China.
But Mr Trump largely gave corporate America what it wanted. Emerging markets have typically had the same flavour: a political state that is untidy or corrupt but where commerce and capitalism still flourish.67
But in the longer term what was significant about Trump was less his ambivalent relationship with big capital than his transformation of right-wing politics in the US, starting with what Davis describes as “his rapid takeover and ruthless cleansing of the Republican Party in 2017–18… Trump’s nuclear advantage was his astounding popularity at the base, a frenzy routinely stoked by evangelical leaders, Fox News and, of course, his endless tweets”.68 Moreover, we now see that the famous Republican base is not just a mass of passive worshippers. Trump has given national leadership, media attention and political legitimacy to a plethora of far-right groupuscules, ranging from the “patriot” militias that started to emerge in the 1990s to the QAnon conspiracy theorists. Pete Simi of Chapman University says: “He’s kind of an ink blot of sorts where a lot of these different segments of the far right—and into the mainstream—are able to project on to him their hopes and fears and anxieties and frustrations”.69
The relationship between Trump and the far-right grassroots is an interactive one in which he cultivated and mobilised them to help him win a second term. Key signposts included: Trump’s responding to the clash between the “Unite the Right” rally and anti-fascists (in which one of the latter died) in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 by saying “there were very good people on both sides”; his encouragement of far-right groups who last summer and autumn protested against the lockdowns and clashed (sometimes fatally) with BLM protestors; his call to the fascist Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” in the 30 September presidential debate; and, last but not least, his speech to the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington on 6 January that lead to the storming of the Capitol.
In all these interventions Trump was trying to help himself rather than trying to create a new political regime, but he also helped the far right crystallise as a movement. It is important to stress here that, for the groups involved, the assault of the Capitol was a success, even if it did not save the Trump presidency. Even though the power of the federal government is now being deployed against the “insurrectionists”, the martyrs that the FBI and the courts will create can feed the mythology surrounding 6 January. Colin Clarke, a domestic terrorism expert at the Soufan Group, told the Washington Post, “The fact that the Capitol police allowed this to happen can be called a security breach or an intelligence failure, but these people do not look at this as a failure. They look at it as an overwhelming success, and one that will inspire others for years”.70
The assault on the Capitol nevertheless led to a real rupture between Trump and the US ruling class. It is one thing to be a vulgar racist and sexist bully, but it is quite another to incite a far-right mob to overturn the constitution; after all, that constitution serves capital very well. Pence and McConnell, who had used Trump to entrench the power of the Christian right—most notably by packing the federal judiciary with right-wing judges, who now have a two-thirds majority on the Supreme Court—quickly dropped him.
Even before the election, the US Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and six other corporate lobby groups had called on “all Americans to support the process set out in our federal and state laws and to remain confident in our country’s long tradition of peaceful and fair elections”.71 After 6 January, the National Association of Manufacturers, 70 percent of whose 2020 campaign contributions went to Republicans, asked Pence “seriously to consider working with the cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment”. This would have allowed him to take over as acting president if the cabinet declared Trump “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”. “There’s not a single major chief executive who’s a Trump supporter now,” Sonnenfeld told the Financial Times, as they retreated from what one called their “Faustian bargain with Trump”.72
From the perspective of big capital, then, Biden’s inauguration marked a welcome return to normality, as an administration packed full of veterans of the Obama presidency took office. However, no one should kid themselves. Trump opened a Pandora’s box from which a serious national fascist movement could emerge. Timothy Snyder draws a perceptive distinction:
Right now, the Republican Party is a coalition of two types of people: those who would game the system (most of the politicians, some of the voters) and those who dream of breaking it (a few of the politicians, many of the voters). In January 2021, this was visible as the difference between those Republicans who defended the present system on the grounds that it favoured them and those who tried to upend it.
In the four decades since the election of Ronald Reagan, Republicans have overcome the tension between the gamers and the breakers by governing in opposition to government, or by calling elections a revolution (the Tea Party), or by claiming to oppose elites. The breakers, in this arrangement, provide cover for the gamers.73
The assault on the Capitol brought the gamers—headed by Pence and McDonnell—into open conflict with the breakers: not just Trump himself, but notably Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, the two Republican senators who led the Congressional opposition to certifying the election results. On somewhat analogous lines, Davis argues that “the Republican Party has just undergone an irreparable split” between those who favour “a realignment of power within the party” and “more traditional capitalist interest groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable.” He contends that “the True Trumpists have become a de facto third party, bunkered down heavily in the House of Representatives”.74
The important issue here is not whether or not these two factions may somehow manage to stick together. The electoral strength of the “True Trumpists” is a strong incentive not to split. In a notorious YouGov poll on 7 January, 45 percent of Republicans supported the attack on the Capitol.75 Polled between 23 and 25 January, 81 percent of Republican voters said they still had a positive view of Trump.76 Only 13 percent of Republicans, compared to 92 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of independents, supported Trump’s impeachment.77 Analysis of those facing charges connected with the assault on the Capitol suggests that the “insurrectionists” were drawn heavily from the struggling petty bourgeoisie. According to the Washington Post, “Nearly 60 percent…showed signs of prior money troubles, including bankruptcies, notices of eviction or foreclosure, bad debts, or unpaid taxes over the past two decades.” Around 40 percent were business owners or white collar workers.78
Even after the storming of the Capitol, 8 out of 51 Republican senators and 139 out of 204 Republican members of the House of Representatives supported objections to the election count. Only 7 of 50 Republicans in the new Senate voted to convict Trump for inciting insurrection in his brief, half-hearted impeachment trial. This is a tribute to the power his base still gives him. Again, Snyder is perceptive:
As Cruz and Hawley may learn, to tell the big lie that the election was stolen is to be owned by it. Just because you have sold your soul does not mean that you have driven a hard bargain. Hawley shies from no level of hypocrisy; the son of a banker, educated at Stanford University and Yale Law School, he denounces elites. Insofar as Cruz was thought to have a principle, it was that of states’ rights, which Trump’s calls to action brazenly violated.79
In other words, Trump’s Congressional champions are no doubt mainly motivated by their own political ambition, and in particular by the attraction provided by the size and commitment of his base. However, in order to satisfy that base they must imitate Trump’s polarising rhetoric. Trump himself made it clear he was sticking around when he spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference on 28 February, ruling out a third party and hinting at another presidential run. This will bring the breakers into further conflict with the gamers who want to stick close to big capital.
The resulting political and ideological struggles can offer openings to genuinely fascist forces. So far these forces have failed to generate a credible national leadership. Sooner or later, however, they will tire of depending on the whims of an erratic and egotistical pseudo-billionaire, let alone the more transparent opportunism of sleazebags such as Hawley and Cruz. For now, the fascists can continue to benefit from their mainstreaming of far-right themes. Meanwhile, the Continuity Clinton-Obama administration in Washington will no doubt offer new opportunities for the whole of the far right.
The corporate revulsion at the assault on the Capitol underlines that the situation is not the same as that in Italy in the early 1920s or Germany ten years later. Big capital is no way desperate enough to gamble on authoritarian solutions, let alone fascism, either in the US or Europe. Why should it? The leaders of organised labour have acquiesced in the neoliberal offensive of the past generation and responded feebly to the devastating attacks on jobs, wages, conditions, safety—indeed, life itself—that have been launched since the outbreak of the pandemic.
Nevertheless, there are two reasons for not reacting complacently to big capital’s current reluctance to back far-right authoritarianism. First, the situation can deteriorate further, particularly for the US. Rana Foroohar of CNN and the Financial Times has offered this fascinating prognosis, linking the bitcoin bubble, imperial decline 6 January, and the Federal Reserve’s easy money policies:
The rise in popularity of highly volatile cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin…might better be interpreted as an early signal of a new world order in which the US and the dollar will play a less important role… Bitcoin’s rise reflects the belief in some parts of the investor community that the US will eventually come in some ways to resemble Weimar Germany, as post-2008 financial crisis monetary policy designed to stabilise markets gives way to post-Covid monetisation of rising US debt loads.80
The severity of the multiple crises that confront capitalism today may encourage sections of the ruling class to mount an even more brutal assault on working people and to try use a sufficiently powerful fascist movement to sustain this assault. Already we see what Ugo Palheta calls the “authoritarian hardening” of liberal capitalist states. France under Macron is a notable example, with a plethora of repressive measures and an ideological offensive against the absurd amalgam of “Islamo-leftism”.81 The Johnson government’s Police Bill and attacks on migrants are part of the same process. The classic argument made by anti-fascists for the past 50 years is that history teaches us we must mobilise against the fascists as soon as they emerge, seeking to crush them before they become too powerful easily to defeat.
Second, there is the danger of self-fulfilling prophecy: the far right may be able to sufficiently destabilise the political system that parts of the ruling class start welcoming the fascists as a force capable of restoring order. The quasi-implosions suffered by US and British politics since 2016 illustrate how apparently small changes in a complex system can unleash sudden and bewildering transformation.
Fighting fascism from below
So Paul Mason is right: “We have to face it. There is a plebeian mass base for American fascism, and Trump has chosen to lead it, even though his own political project and modus operandi was not initially fascist, and even though there is scant support among the mainstream corporate elite for that project”.82 The challenge for the radical and revolutionary left—not just in the US but internationally—is how to combat this increasingly dangerous and pressing threat. Mason’s strategy is to increase the repressive capabilities of the state and ally with the liberal centre:
I can understand the Leninist position: the state is an arm of the bourgeoisie, we want to smash it. But in the 20th century, faced with fascism, all Marxist parties who actually found themselves on the receiving end found that: a) anti-fascist violence is not enough—it cannot match fascist violence in its offensive, mobile, mercurial character; b) you have to call on the state to defend democracy and the rule of law… You’re up against the capitalist class. We either adopt a strategy of overthrowing them, and good luck with that versus 75 million armed Trump voters, or we understand the divisions within the ruling class, use the space democracy allows for the left and the labour movement to mobilise, and thus we can defend what we have…
Hannah Arendt described fascism as “the temporary alliance of the elite and the mob”.83 That’s literally what happened on 6 January… The lessons of Europe in the 1930s are that the only thing that beats an alliance of the elite and the mob is a temporary alliance of the centre and the left. And that when that happens, as in France and Spain between 1934 and 1936, you don’t only win elections but you can also create a mass popular anti-fascist culture.84
For all the illumination that Mason’s writings offer, this is a disastrously mistaken strategy. To begin with, he presents a false dichotomy. Ultimately, only a socialist revolution that ends capitalism can eliminate the threat of fascism. Nevertheless, of course, in the here and now, we should “use the space democracy allows”. In his critique of the Stalinist “Third Period” policy, which equated reformism with fascism, Trotsky displays one of his most brilliant insights with the stress he lays on the importance for the workers’ movement of defending this space:
In the course of many decades, the workers have built up within the bourgeois democracy, by utilising it and by fighting against it, their own strongholds and bases of proletarian democracy: the trade unions, the political parties, the educational and sport clubs, the cooperatives and so on. The proletariat cannot attain power within the formal limits of bourgeois democracy, but only by taking the road of revolution: this has been proved both by theory and experience. And these bulwarks of workers’ democracy within the bourgeois state are absolutely essential for taking the revolutionary road.85
Despite the transformations in working-class life in advanced capitalism since the 1930s, it remains essential to defend bourgeois democracy, for the reasons Trotsky gives. However, he argues that this requires using the methods of class struggle, not of class collaboration. The Popular Front strategy adopted by the Communist International in 1935, after the disastrous failure of its previous policy in Germany, amounted to an alliance between the workers’ movement and the liberal bourgeoisie. This is the essence of the approach Mason is advocating, and it too would lead to disaster, just as it did in the 1930s.
To see why, let’s return to 6 February 1934 in Paris. The victory of the leagues in forcing out Daladier provoked a more powerful reaction from the left. In their definitive study of 6 February, Brian Jenkins and Chris Millington write:
The Communist and Socialist Parties immediately denounced the leagues’ action as an attempted fascist coup. On 9 February, the Communist Party organised a demonstration as a riposte, during which four men died in violence with police… Yet it was on 12 February that the moment of truth for the left came. On that day, the Socialist Party and the CGT labour union called a general strike. The Communist Party had not planned to join this action. Instead, it continued to condemn its Socialist Party rival as complicit in the killing of workers on 9 February. However, the party could not prevent its members from mixing spontaneously with their Socialist Party counterparts on the streets of Paris. This display of rank and file unity raised hopes for a coalition. Official collaboration was not immediately forthcoming. However, by July 1934, the Socialist and Communist Parties had formed a formal alliance against fascism, the Rassemblement Populaire. The following year, the coalition expanded to include the Radical Party. This “Popular Front” enjoyed electoral success in June 1936 when Léon Blum became France’s first Socialist Party prime minister.86
So 6 February led to further polarisation to both right and left, the start of what Paxton calls “the virtual French civil war of the mid-1930s”.87 But in the immediate, Jenkins and Millington stress, “the combined Socialist and Communist demonstration of 12 February 1934 was much larger than that of 6 February and, moreover, found greater echo throughout France… A wave of solidarity swept through the country and there were demonstrations and strikes in 346 localities”.88 Unity was to a large extent imposed on the Socialist and Communist party leaderships by pressure from below (indeed, the Communist war veterans’ group had taken part in the 6 February march, in line with the “Third Period” policy).
However, the extension of the Rassemblement Populaire to include the Radicals and the formation of the Popular Front was not the natural culmination of this process, as Mason implies. The Socialists and Communists were working-class and nominally Marxist parties. The Radicals, however, were the dominant party of the Third Republic. Trotsky describes them as “that political instrument of the big bourgeoisie that is the best adapted to the traditions and prejudices of the petty bourgeoisie”. 89 Allying with the Radicals meant in practice subordinating the interests of the working class to those of French capital.
This became visible in May-June 1936, when the electoral victory of the Popular Front stimulated a wave of mass strikes and factory occupations. Eager to reassure panicky financial markets, the new government made its priority ending the strikes; with the Matignon Agreements, they offered some significant concessions, notably a 12 percent pay increase and a two-week annual paid holiday. However, the effect was to demobilise workers, while the new government struggled with relentless capital flight, the devaluation of the franc and the rising inflation that was eroding the gains made in June 1936. The Blum cabinet lasted a year.
Ironically it was Daladier, the political victim of 6 February, who finally buried the Popular Front when he replaced Blum’s very short-lived second government in April 1938 with a centre-right coalition. Granted the right to rule by decree that Parliament had refused to Blum, Daladier in many ways continued in Doumergue’s path. He signed the Munich agreement with Hitler in September 1938, crushed a general strike that November and banned the Communist Party in August 1939. As so often, giving greater executive powers to the state forged new weapons to be used against the left. Jenkins and Millington observe:
Arguably, in the course of 1938, the French left experienced a similar crushing defeat [to that suffered by the German working class before Hitler seized power]. The hopes and energies aroused by the Popular Front movement had been dissipated, its achievements were being rolled back, and a bitter conservative backlash was underway. Daladier’s dictature, fuelled by virulent anti-Communism and involving the extensive use of decree powers, was increasingly conservative and authoritarian. The Radical Party itself moved similarly to the right, adopting antisemitic and socially regressive positions that cast some doubt on the notion that it was one of the Republic’s key defences against fascism.90
In the event, it was the German blitzkrieg of May-June 1940 that destroyed the Third Republic, not the French far right. On 10 July 1940, the Popular Front parliament voted full powers to Marshal Philippe Pétain, whose regime would enthusiastically collaborate with the Nazis and participate in the Holocaust. The liberal journalist William L Shirer writes that the vote “was overwhelming: 569 for, 80 against and 17 declared abstentions. The majority of the Socialists and of the Radical Party, the two parties that had been the mainstay of the Republic for two generations, joined the majority of conservatives to swell the affirmative vote”.91
So the experience of France in the 1930s hardly suggests that “a temporary alliance of the centre and the left” is the way to beat fascism. The centre not only did not hold: it betrayed. This historical judgement is reinforced when we consider the nature of the contemporary “extreme centre”. Its chief political representatives include Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Matteo Renzi. These are the managers of the contemporary neoliberal order. It is their failure that is the source of the present crisis. To ally with their likes is to make it even easier than it already is for the far right to present themselves as the real challengers to the status quo.
So what’s the alternative? Mason writes, “Anti-fascist violence is not enough.” However, it’s a mistake to put it in these terms, which imply a simple choice between Popular Frontism and relying on small groups of anti-fascist street fighters. There’s another option—mass mobilisation to stop the fascists organising and marching. This is the lesson of the struggle against the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, of the Anti-Nazi League in the 1970s, and of more recent struggles against the British National Party, the English Defence League and the Football Lads’ Alliances.92
Building a mass anti-fascist movement requires, as Trotsky argues, not a Popular Front, but a united front—in other words, bringing together the different political tendencies of the left, reformist and revolutionary, and working-class organisations more generally to mobilise against the fascists. This is by no means simple, above all because allying with social democracy opens a bridge to the “extreme centre”. Moreover, reformists are more liable to appeal for support from the state, which, as the experience of the 1930s shows, will use its enhanced powers against the left. Yet without the involvement of serious reformist forces, the ability of anti-fascists to reach deep into working people’s lives and organisations is fatally limited.
So the way to defeat the fascists is to mobilise against them from below on the basis of a united front of the left. However, the analysis put forward in this article has highlighted the interplay between crisis, revolution and counter-revolution that has driven the rise of the far right both between the wars and today. The mass movements that have responded to the decay of neoliberalism helped to provoke the current reaction since the global finance crisis, but they also express the power to defeat the far right. The age of catastrophe is also, as we have seen, an age of revolts. There have been important victories during the first plague year—the jailing of the leaders of fascist Golden Dawn in Greece and the reversal of the Bolivian coup.93
The Black Lives Matter protests show that anti-racism has become a mobilising force that reaches far beyond the black community or indeed the US. Calculating that just 800 people actually invaded the Capitol on 6 January, the African American Marxist August Nimtz criticises liberals for:
Their elevation in importance of the actions of so few…over and above the maybe 25 million of all skin colours and other identities who took to the streets last spring and summer, in the middle of Covid-19, in all kinds of American nooks and crannies, to protest the murder of George Floyd. The year 2020, despite the pandemic, was not the nadir for our species, as some in pandemic locked-down mode would have us believe. To have had the opportunity to participate in any of the actions was literally a breath of fresh air.94
Movements of this kind can undercut the fascists by conjuring up a progressive and democratic alternative to neoliberal imperialism. The power to sweep away the far right has only just begun to be tapped. If it is really mobilised, it will threaten more than the latest generation of little Hitlers.