Fascism Today Conversation Part 2: author Shane Burley interviews Matthew N. Lyons

Cover of book Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It

This is the second half of a dialog between Shane Burley, author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It, and myself, author of the book’s foreword. In the first half, I interviewed Shane about the book. Here Shane interviews me about various related topics.

Burley: Your more recent work has looked heavily into how the far right has gained ground in creating alliances in the anti-imperialist left. How did this trend start in the far right? Where have white nationalists and “identitarians” made inroads in larger anti-imperialist struggles?

Lyons: The roots of the trend go back to the very origins of fascism, or even earlier. In Italy, one of the groups that helped to lay the groundwork for Mussolini’s Fascist Party was the Italian Nationalist Association, which in the early 1900s promoted a theory that Italy was a “proletarian nation” in conflict with more powerful “capitalist nations,” especially Britain and France. It was a way to reframe the idea of class struggle so that Italian workers and capitalists were on the same side against external enemies. And it was a way to claim that Italy was suffering from imperialist oppression while also claiming that it deserved to expand its own colonial possessions in Africa. The Fascist Party absorbed the Nationalists and embraced their idea of proletarian nations.

Since then, anti-imperialism has been a recurrent theme in fascist politics. During World War II, the Nazis forged ties with right-wing factions within the Palestinian and Indian nationalist movements that were struggling for independence from British rule. During the cold war, the majority of fascists sided with the United States and other western powers against the Communist bloc and against leftist insurgencies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But some fascists, such as the National Renaissance Party and Francis Parker Yockey, argued that the movement should ally with the Soviet Union and anti-colonial struggles against western imperialism, which was supposedly controlled by Jews. Later forms of fascism, such as Third Positionism and the European New Right, developed the idea of fascist anti-imperialism further and adapted it for new conditions after the Soviet Union collapsed.

In recent decades, far rightists have periodically tried to link up with leftists around anti-imperialism and related issues. The 2002 book My Enemy’s Enemy is primarily an exposé of far right forces and tendencies in the anti-globalization movement. In 1999, for example, Matt Hale of the neonazi World Church of the Creator voiced support for the anti-globalization protests in Seattle. A couple of years later, William Pierce’s National Alliance sponsored a front group called the Anti-Globalism Action Network. Since the start of the civil war in Syria, fascists in both North America and Europe have converged with some left groups such Workers World Party around shared support for Assad’s government as a supposed bulwark against western imperialism. In Italy, leftist and rightist supporters of Assad have held demonstrations together. It’s a poisonous development that’s seriously damaging for efforts to advance a genuinely liberatory anti-imperialism.

Also seriously damaging is that critiques of imperialism rooted in far right ideology have circulated and gained legitimacy among a lot of people who think of themselves as on the left. A lot of right-wing conspiracy theories about “globalist elites” (which is often a code-phrase for Jews) have been repackaged to appeal to leftist audiences, by outfits such as GlobalResearch.ca and the Voltaire Network, and by researchers such as Webster Tarpley and William Engdahl, both of whom are former members of the Lyndon LaRouche network. The recent report on red-brown alliances by the anarchist blogger “Vagabond” (which I recently reviewed on Three Way Fight) includes extensive documentation about this.

Burley: One of the successes that the European New Right (ENR), and by extension the alt-right, had was in reframing fascist politics in leftist jargon. They focused very heavily on post-colonialism, supporting national liberation movements and issues like indigenous sovereignty. Is this simply a disingenuous attempt at entryism? Have they actually had any success connecting with indigenous resistance movements? At the same time, how can anti-fascists take a strong analysis of colonialism into that work?

Lyons: To some extent, the ENR’s embrace of “indigenous sovereignty” and “diversity” is disingenuous, in that it is a calculated move to deflect charges of racism. So for example, European New Rightists such as Alain de Benoist have argued that, in calling for ethnic separatism and exclusion of non-European immigrants, they are simply defending “indigenous” European cultures against the oppressive cultural homogenization being forced on them by global capitalism. Some far rightists, such as Guillaume Faye and Michael O’Meara, have actually criticized this as a hypocritical concession to liberalism. As far as the alt-right goes, there’s been less hypocrisy, in that most alt-rightists really aren’t concerned about hiding their white supremacist beliefs.

But it’s not just a matter of hypocrisy. Because far right ethnic separatism really does clash with the policies and interests of global capitalist elites. This conflict with global capitalism isn’t about dismantling economic exploitation, but it’s a disagreement about how economic exploitation will be structured and how the benefits will be distributed. This genuine conflict is important and we tend to miss it if we only focus on the hypocrisy.

Has the ENR or the alt-right had any success connecting with indigenous resistance movements? Not that I’m aware of. But I certainly wouldn’t discount it as a possibility. It depends on what you mean by “indigenous resistance movements,” but there are plenty of right-wing political organizations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and some among communities of color in Europe and North America, and some of them share the ENR and alt-right’s combination of anti-egalitarianism and hostility to “globalist elites.” Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was popular among Third Positionists, and he hosted neonazis at some political conferences. Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam met with neonazi leader Tom Metzger in the 1980s and had a cordial relationship with the Lyndon LaRouche organization for a while in the 1990s. It’s not hard to imagine similar dynamics happening again.

How can antifascists put forward strong anti-colonial politics? For one thing, it’s crucial to analyze colonialism and imperialism as systems of exploitation and violence – rooted in the system of capitalism – rather than try to explain them in terms of subjective factors such as greed, or a specific policy such as neoliberalism, or the secret machinations of some group of evildoers. Those are all superficial, subjectivist explanations, and are the space where liberal (i.e. non-leftist) and far right critiques of the established order converge.

Coupled with that, we need to look critically at who the supposed anti-imperialist or anti-colonialist forces are and what they stand for. Just because they’re at odds with the U.S. government doesn’t make them anti-imperialist, and just because they’re anti-imperialist doesn’t mean they represent any sort of liberatory alternative. If the Ba’ath government of Syria is anti-imperialist, why did it torture people for the CIA? Why did it impose neoliberal policies? Why does it have a history of massacring Palestinians—not to mention Syrians?

Burley: Can there be a non-white fascist movement, or is it owned entirely by white supremacists and colonialism?

Lyons: How you answer this, of course, depends on how you use the term fascism. To me fascism isn’t necessarily built on a racial or even a nationalist ideology. I see fascism as a current that sets out to radically transform the political system and the culture through popular mass mobilization. It aggressively promotes an ideological vision that’s deeply hierarchical, exclusionary, and often genocidal, but also disruptive of the old order, old elites, and old mores. To me there’s a basic difference between authoritarian conservatism, which represents capitalist ruling-class interests in basically top-down fashion, and fascist movements, which may cut a deal with capitalists but represent an autonomous, right-wing force—not a ruling-class tool—and conflict with ruling-class interests in significant ways.

To get back to your question: internationally speaking, I don’t think there’s any question that fascist movements can exist and have existed outside of Europe and its settler offshoots. In the 1930s there were strong fascist movements in a number of Latin American countries, many of which had ideologies and organizational forms pretty similar to classical fascist movements in Europe. India’s Hindu nationalist movement, which is probably the largest right-wing movement in the world, is built around an organization that’s either fascist or something close to it, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS was founded in 1925 around a vision to reshape Indian society based on a kind of authoritarian corporatism. It has spearheaded mass terrorism against Muslims, including some of the most horrific street violence seen in recent decades. Today its affiliate, the Bharatiya Janata Party, leads India’s coalition government, and the movement has branches among the Indian diaspora in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere.

Certain sectors of the Islamic right, such as the Taliban and the Islamic State, also fit my concept of fascism, although their ideological vision is defined in religious rather than nationalist terms. You can find a lot of non-European examples that have some but not all elements of fascism. The Mengistu government in Ethiopia had a lot of fascistic features, although it’s not clear to me how much it actively mobilized a mass movement. The 969 Movement in Myanmar or Burma, which has helped to foment murderous hatred of Rohingya Muslims, is a populist mobilization but doesn’t really challenge the old order as far as I can tell.

In the United States, the system of white racial oppression as an immediate, pervasive reality makes for a very different context, but here too there are right-wing groups based in communities of color that have at least important fascistic tendencies, including a combination of militant anti-establishment politics and conspiracist scapegoating. A prime example is the New Black Panther Party, which has been repudiated by veterans of the original Black Panther Party because of its antisemitic and racially based ideology. These groups aren’t particularly large, but they have the potential to grow if people perceive them as the main oppositional force and don’t see a radical leftist alternative that speaks to them. Don Hamerquist, in “Fascism & Anti-Fascism,” urged leftists to jettison the assumption that fascist movements have to be white supremacist or even that they have to be based among white people, and he envisioned scenarios where white and non-white fascist organizations collaborate, compete, or conflict with each other. (There’s nothing says fascists can’t go to war with each other. We’ve seen that in the Ukraine in recent years, where fascists have worked in coalition with other forces on both sides of the conflict.)

Another point is that a few predominantly white fascist groups, notably the Lyndon LaRouche network, have disavowed white supremacy and made efforts to recruit people of color. The LaRouchites uphold a kind of cultural racism, glorifying “western civilization” over other cultures, but they also present themselves as champions of civil rights, and were able to recruit at least a couple of 1960s civil rights movement veterans, including James Bevel, who was their vice-presidential candidate in 1992. On a much larger scale, New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) is a movement that’s genuinely multi-ethnic in its membership (but still mostly white led). It’s rooted in the Pentecostal and Charismatic branches of evangelical Protestantism. NAR advocates a Christian theocracy and embodies a kind of authoritarian mass politics, but it kind of straddles the line in terms of working within the existing political system or trying to dismantle it, so I would not call it a full-blown fascist current.

Burley: The alt-right has been floundering quite a bit as it heads from the world of message boards and podcasts and into real-world activism. They seem to be attempting to mimic the “identitarian” movements in Europe, but do you think that they could have the same kind of success? What potential for growth could they have in the coming few years?

Lyons: The alt-right has suffered from having its violence exposed in Charlottesville last summer, and from losing a lot of its online platforms. It’s suffered from infighting and from conflict with alt-lite groups. And it’s much more alienated from the Trump administration than it was a year ago. One of the things that alt-rightists loved most about Trump was his attack on establishment conservatism, and while they’ve applauded some of his moves, they’ve been disappointed by how much his administration has followed a conventional Republican line in practice.

So the alt-right is arguably weaker than it was a year ago, but its setbacks haven’t fundamentally undermined its longterm “metapolitical” strategy, which calls for transforming the political culture and shifting the parameters of acceptable discourse as a prelude to transforming institutions. Alt-right groups are actively recruiting on college campuses. Alt-right activism both fuels and is fueled by the current sharp upsurge in supremacist violence and scapegoating. And the movement has the potential to rebound or lay the groundwork for another incarnation of far right politics. The alt-right is small, but it has a huge reservoir of potential supporters in the millions of white men who feel threatened by immigrants of color and Black Lives Matter and feminism and LGBT activism. Even if most of those folks gravitate toward system-loyal political forces in or around the Republican Party, some fraction of them may be drawn to groups that have rejected loyalty to the United States in favor of ethno-state white nationalism. As Trump betrays and abandons people who looked to him to turn things around, the alt-right may benefit.

Burley: There seems to be some confusion in the terms that we talk about the alt-right, Trump, and populism. Given your extensive work on populism in America, how do you define the term? What does Trump have in common with the rise of populist movements in Europe, from Brexit to the AfD and Marine Le Pen? What role does populism play in the rise of fascism?

Lyons: In Right-Wing Populism in America, Chip Berlet and I used Margaret Canovan’s definition—populism combines two elements: celebration of “the people” and some form of anti-elitism. I still think that’s a good definition. It means that populism is a broad political category that encompasses many different specific forms. All kinds of populism tend to oversimplify social conflicts, but some of them challenge real structures of inequality and oppression to varying degrees, while other kinds of populism bolster these structures by diverting popular anger and frustration into anti-elite scapegoating—blaming oppression on groups that aren’t actually the main oppressors, or may not be oppressors at all.

John Judis in The Populist Explosion boils down the distinction between left-wing and right-wing populism this way: left-wing populism frames the struggle in binary terms, as “the people” versus “the elite,” while right-wing populism sees the people as targeting both the elite and one or more outgroups (such as immigrants or people of color), who aren’t seen as powerful but rather as tools being use by the elite to attack the people. This is similar to the framework Chip and I offered, although Judis puts it more succinctly. So Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign was an example of left-wing populism, because it tended to frame everything in terms of a big binary economic struggle, which was meaningful but also tended to gloss over a lot of other important social divisions such as white supremacy and patriarchy. Donald Trump’s campaign, on the other hand, exemplified right-wing populism, in that it invoked anti-elitism in both economic and cultural terms, but combined it with quite blatant scapegoating of outgroups, starting with Muslims and immigrants and continuing from there.

There are definitely parallels between Trump’s rise and the upsurge of right-wing populist movements in Europe: all of them draw strength from people’s economic frustrations and anger but channel it into anti-immigrant and Islamophobia scapegoating, coupled with a distorted kind of anti-elitism that doesn’t challenge the underlying systems of power. Similarly, there are parallels between the left populism of a Bernie Sanders and European left-wing populist parties such as Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain, all of which avoid right-wing populism’s focus on ethnoreligious scapegoating but also offer only a simplistic anti-elitism. That kind of binary politics is inadequate for addressing the dynamics of oppression—for example, the ways that many people can be genuinely angry at the rich and also scared of losing their own relative privilege over other groups—and it’s inadequate for developing a radical alternative.

What role does populism play in the rise of fascism? In my view, all fascist movements are examples of right-wing populism. We tend to focus on fascism’s terroristic and repressive side, but fascism also centers on a drive to actively and continually mobilize large masses of people outside of traditional channels, to reshape the culture and institutions according to the fascists’ ideological vision. In classical fascism that mobilization happened in a number of different ways: through mass ritual and spectacle, through paramilitary street fighting organizations, through groups for specific constituencies such as youth and women, and through mass political parties. Two of the main reasons I think it’s a mistake to describe the Trump administration as fascist are that you don’t have that kind of mass mobilization, and you don’t have a substantive challenge to the established political order. The two reasons are connected. During the Trump presidential campaign there were mass rallies, but there was no effort to build a lasting organization. Once he came into office, Trump had no independent base of his own, no organized counterweight to the conservative establishment and governmental bureaucracy he had railed against. So whatever his intentions, he didn’t have much choice except to rely on the organized forces that were already in place.

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Cover of Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right's Challenge to State and Empire, by Matthew N. Lyons

Several of the points in this post are addressed in more detail in my forthcoming book Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire (PM Press and Kesplebedeb Publishing, forthcoming April 2018).

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