On Fascism and the Three Way Fight (Guest Post)

Three Way Fight


Editors’ note:


The following is a guest post by Paul Bowman. 


The article comes from a much larger set of essays attempting to give some analysis and definition to modern fascism, the broader reactionary currents that fascism often emerges frombut can break from, tooand what kinds of thinking our side needs to develop a working practice of countering fascism. On this last bit, Bowman starts with a comradely review of the three way fight concept of revolutionary antifascism and builds on this with his own experiences, analysis, and estimates.


Bowman came of age in the mid-80s and was a founding member of Leeds Anti-Fascist Action in 1986, remaining active within it until its self-dissolution in 2004 (folding into the 635 Group successor). Over that period Leeds AFA was involved in removing the fascist presence from the city center and at the Leeds United FC football ground, as well as founding the AFA Northern Network, which later became the format for the AFA National Network. Aside from militant anti-fascism he was also involved in groups such as the Class War Federation (UK) and Workers Solidarity Movement (Ireland) and politically identifies as an anarchist of the especifista tendency.


* * * * *

On Fascism and the Three Way Fight


By Paul Bowman

Clashes between anti-racists, police and members of the neo-nazi National Front in Wales. 
Photo is reproduced solely for educational uses.

I want to thank Three Way Fight for reaching out to me to solicit this article. All the usual disclaimers about whatever you find disagreeable or wrong about it is my fault alone, and not the editors of this blog. I also want to start by saying I dont believe that theory is either right or wrong in any absolute sense, independent of what practical use it is to us in guiding our practice. So I dont think that there is an objectively correct definition of fascism, simply more or less useful ones. 


Because this article is extracted from a  chapter of a much longer draft work[i] Im going to start, however jarringly, with a brief list of points that summarise the ideas or themes of the longer text in the hopes that this will make what follows less puzzling than it might otherwise be. In no particular order then, the summary points of the broader theoretical framework of Ideology and Practice are as follows:


1. A social materialist outlook which rejects idealism and the conceit that ideologies can be separated from practices and social situationa conceit that follows the template of capitalist separation of mental and physical labour. 


2. Methodological collectivismwhich is not the symmetrical inversion of methodological individualism, as collectives are composed of individualswhich holds that the object of study is the dynamics of collectivities. This has certain implications, such as the rejection of psychologising fascism, amongst other things.


3. A three-dimensional distinction of collective processes and shared commons into ideological, political, and cultural categories. And that much of what is commonly called politics is in fact ideology and vice versa. (This is without a doubt the most contentious bit, because it means challenging the generally accepted meaning of common terms, which as a rule is to be avoided like the plague, but sometimes needs must).


4. A historical materialist appreciation of the upside down view of the dominant superstructural or ideological classes, that the ideas and actions of the political, legal, religious, police, military, and philosophical/academical leaders and institutions are the main agents of social changethe superstructure as protagonist of history. The contrary historical materialist view being that the real origins of social change are within the so-called base of society, specifically the class struggle.


5. The so-called political field of bourgeois democratic societies can be categorised into far left, centre left, centre right, and far right. And that logically these four categories all mutually rely on a working definition of centrism as an actual social process, rather than a casual slur.


6. A fundamental distinction between power and counterpower as being not only quantitatively but qualitatively different. The liberal concept of civil society made up of organisations that are neither an extension of the superstructure and bourgeois class rule, nor organs of counterpower, is a delusion.


7. A consequent difference in strategic orientation between protagonistic and antagonistic models of social change, left and right. Centrists being protagonistic more or less by definition and far left and right divided between protagonistic, antagonistic, and confusionist tendencies.


8. That the antagonistic strategy of counterpower is not exclusive to anarchists or the revolutionary left in general, but can be adopted even by radical reformists. In other words, the antagonist left” and revolutionary left are not synonyms because there are ideologically self-identifying revolutionary leftists who are protagonistic or confusionist in strategic orientation, and there are reformists who are antagonistic in their strategy.


9. That militant anti-fascism is a strategy of counterpower and thus an element of the antagonistic left, even if not all participants are necessarily revolutionary leftists.


10. That fascism is a combination of far right ideology with an insurgent politics of counterpower. Not all far right movements are necessarily fascist. A distinction that cannot be made or acted on without properly distinguishing ideology from politics.


That final point is the main job of this article to outline and support as best possible. Again, my apologies for front-loading the article with a litany of abstractions, but hopefully it will illuminate some of what follows. 

Three-way fight concept as opposed to the two-way perspective

The [Popular Front] line, albeit a U-turn from the disastrous Third Period ideology, still persist[ed] in framing fascists as a simple tool or instrument of the bourgeoisie, with no autonomy of their own. In other words, this was also a two-way fight perspective. Significantly, although dressed up in economistic language — the necessity of siding with the “good capitalists” of the manufacturing and “progressive” national bourgeoisie, and their liberal middle class supporters, against the “bad” finance capitalists — effectively aligned Popular Front anti-fascism along the same line as liberal “subjectivist” anti-fascism.

As this article will be published on the Three Way Fight blog, Im going to take familiarity with the concept (as outlined in the About” statement here and the associated basic texts list) as a given. The aspect of the three-way concept I want to focus on is that the struggle between anti-fascists and fascists and the state cannot be conceived as a two way fight, on a political (as opposed to ideological) level. This needs a little unpacking.


Schematically speaking, liberal anti-fascism sees the struggle against fascism as a two-way fight between the defenders of liberal democracy and the fascists and far-right forces that would overthrow it. The reluctance of the police and other state forces to properly repress the enemies of democracy may be seen as a problem (even denounced as “fascist pigs” in the more radlib variants), but essentially the struggle is seen as between the partisans of liberal, anti-racist, egalitarian democracy, against the forces ranged against it. In other words, the struggle is seen primarily as an ideologically motivated one, in which class conflict and capitalist crisis play no agential role. This is the liberal two-way fight perspective.


So far, so orthodox, from a class-conscious leftist perspective. The second paragraph here really spells out the heterodoxy of the three-way fight concept compared to an orthodox Marxist perspective. Elsewhere[ii] I related the story of the disastrous Third Period where the consensus of the Communist parties following the Comintern line was that fascism was simply a violent adjunct or auxiliary to the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. That is, the problem or challenge of fascism was subsumed under the two-way fight of the class struggle, as seen through the orthodox Marxist lens. If the Third Period was on the threshold of a new revolutionary period, then all defenders of capitalism — i.e. non-Communists — were equally “fascist,” and those claiming to do so in the name of the workers, i.e. the hated Social Democrats, were the biggest threat of all, before even the Nazis.


After the Nazis came to power and liquidated the German Marxist movement, the Comintern belatedly realised the need to make a drastic U-turn and drop all the “social fascist” BS. The new line, in preparation for coming Popular Front policy, was expressed by the then Comintern leader Georgi Dimitrov in the following formulation that “Fascism is the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, the most chauvinistic, the most imperialistic elements of finance capital.” Which is often since referred to as the “Dimitrov line.”


However, the new line, albeit a U-turn from the disastrous Third Period ideology, still persists in framing fascists as a simple tool or instrument of the bourgeoisie, with no autonomy of their own. In other words, this was also a two-way fight perspective. Significantly, although dressed up in economistic language — the necessity of siding with the “good capitalists” of the manufacturing and “progressive” national bourgeoisie, and their liberal middle class supporters, against the “bad” finance capitalists — effectively aligned Popular Front anti-fascism along the same line as liberal “subjectivist” anti-fascism. In the post-war period, this aspect of popular frontism has been criticised at times by the radical left as reformist and opportunist. But these are functionalist or even ad hominem arguments, compared to recognising the structural effect of viewing a three-way fight through two-way fight blinkers. A perspective that constrains you to choosing one side as the “main enemy” and allying with the other as the “lesser evil.”


The failure of the economistic dogmatic doctrine of official Marxism in 1930s Germany led some thinkers, particularly individuals associated with the Frankfurt School, like Wilhelm Reich or Erich Fromm, to retry an analysis of Nazism and fascism by switching to a psychoanalytic framework instead. But in many ways this was a case of jumping from the frying pan into the fire, metaphorically speaking, as psychoanalysis was no less of a totalising discourse than the economic determinism of Comintern doctrine. Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism is recognised as a classic of the genre. But it has to be said that despite its seminal role in forming the problematic of “how did the masses come to turn to their own repression,” his proposed answer boils down to sexual repression, which is frankly absurd. Admittedly not as dementedly self-annihilating as the KPD’s “Nach Hitler, uns!” perspective. But that’s a very low bar. Not to mention Reich’s post-war spiral into orgone accumulators and other such woo nonsense. Fromm’s more existential Escape from Freedom has stood the test of time better, but is ultimately no more convincing as an analysis of the causes of the rise to power of Nazism in Germany than Reich’s sexual repression thesis.


If we can now appreciate the relative novelty of the three-way fight perspective, that doesn’t mean that the concept in itself presents a finished analysis. It is a political starting point that demands the elaboration of a worked out strategic, ideological, and theoretical analysis. So I’m going to propose an analytical framework in that general orientation.

Antifascist mobilization. Photo is reproduced solely for educational uses.

Towards a multi-dimensional analysis of fascism

The conservative believes that the traditional order is under threat from subversion and “society must be defended.” The fascist believes that the conservative is too timid to face the truth that there’s nothing left worth defending and society can only be re-established by violent insurrection.

My proposed model is a “portable” definition[iii], in that we don’t restrict fascism to a historical phenomenon specific to the 1920–1940 period. The model recognises the significantly protean nature of fascism in its ideological flexibility in terms of perceived main internal enemy, which has historically ranged from anti-communist, anti-Jewish, anti-Black, anti-Islam, you name it, conspiracies of enemies & “traitors.”


The first question of any multi-dimensional model is how many dimensions? Clearly, in order to properly reflect the distinction between ideology and politics, a minimum of two dimensions is required. But I propose that it is impossible to grasp the specificity of fascist energies without including a cultural dimension. “Culture” is a hopelessly ill-defined word and my attempts to give it a more specific meaning here (the collective commons of socially-constructed shared hedonic practicesmusic, food, fashion, sex, sports, dancing, gaming, anything a subculture can be defined by) are obviously arbitrary. 


Let’s start with the big one. Griffin and liberal anti-fascism may be erring in making this the sole dimension, but there’s no denying that it’s a major one.

Dimension 1 — Ideological 

Far right/anti-centrist/anti-populist


Despite occasional bad faith attempts to pose as being “neither left or right,” fascism is both determinedly outside and against the political centre ground and very much to the right — they are violently opposed not only to socialism, but also to liberalism and democracy. But if all fascists are far right, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all devotees of far right ideologies are fascists. Far right is a relative ideological position defined against the centre ground. When politicians try to drag the Overton window towards a far-right position using conventional electoral means, they are far-right but not fascist. Fascists don’t want even a racially exclusive democracy, but race war and dictatorship — the revolutionary overthrow of the existing electoral representative system. For similar reasons, even though fascists often try to pass themselves off as right-populists for tactical reasons, they distrust and despise “mere populists” as simple opportunists and tail-enders without any real beliefs. As counter-intuitive as it may appear, given the contradictory mess that is fascist ideology, they sincerely believe in the absolute necessity of people having beliefs strong enough to kill and die for.


– Redemptive ultranationalism 


Fascists believe in the nation, but that the nation is currently “fallen” and corrupt and needs a violent, revolutionary rebirth, to remake the social. This is Griffin’s palingenesis. The difference between mere patriotism or “ordinary” nationalism and ultranationalism is qualitative as well as quantitative. It is the fervent belief in the utopian possibilities for a reborn nation as an ideal society. The need for violent redemption is tied intimately to a narrative of national humiliation. “Death to the traitors!” is the rallying cry. There is a deep emotional need for revenge, not just on chosen scapegoats, but for the current social order itself. We have to see the difference between the revolutionary revenge fantasies of the fascist and the conservative’s fear of change. The conservative believes that the traditional order is under threat from subversion and “society must be defended.” The fascist believes that the conservative is too timid to face the truth that there’s nothing left worth defending and society can only be re-established by violent insurrection.


– “This is what they took from youImagined bereavement for a past solidarity that never was


The idea of a lost golden age of past social solidarity (whether “white” or “national” or other exclusionary far right identitarian category) haunts the present day resentment of the far right. The real relative absence of social solidarity in existing capitalist society is projected backwards into nostalgia for a lost age of cross-class “white” (or other) solidarity. A Kübler-Ross style “stages of grief” of denial, anger, bargaining, despair is the simultaneously experienced turmoil of fascism’s emotional monologue. The grand irony being, of course, that this mythical age of cross-class solidarity between bosses and workers on the grounds of shared “whiteness,” never really existed. As any knowledge of actual class history will show. 


There is a particular danger here from radical liberal responses to this fascist mourning for a past white solidarity that never was, which is to reinforce that fantasy by, effectively, saying that that imagined past did in fact really exist. Here, strategically, the line must be drawn between militant, class-conscious anti-fascism and the liberal and radical liberal deformations. 


The only sustainable counter to the fantasy of a lost racial or national solidarity that never was, is to build a real class solidarity in the present. Even militant anti-fascism can never be the whole answer to the threat of fascism. Ultimately the positive side of anti-fascist counterpower is to build effective models of functioning class solidarity here in the real world. 


– Conspiratorial by instinct and ideological necessity“Who is ‘they’?”


If both liberals and the left mainly persist in seeing the fascist vs anti-fascist struggle as a two-way fight, fascists take the two-way fight perspective to extremes. To do this they rely on conspiratorial narratives of how all the apparently mutually hostile forces ranged against them, from liberals, the left, the state, the oligarchs, the migrant poor, etc., are all part of a united conspiracy against them, the “true people.” These conspiracies don’t have to make any logical sense; they just need to support the main narrative of a two way fight in which they, the fascists, are the forces of good, and all the others are pawns of the darkness. Similarly social conflicts do not arise from “structural” causes (like class conflict) because “structural” doctrines are part of the conspiracy.

Dimension 2 — Political


– Politically insurgent


In this model this political character of fascism as a “revolutionary” force or following the strategy of counterpower — or political “antagonism” in the parlance here — is the real differentia specifica that separates fascists proper from mere adherents of far right ideological beliefs. It doesn’t just need to dream like a duck, it needs to quack like a duck, walk like a duck, swim like a duck, and generally make aggressively duck-like actions to be a duck. Fascist is, as fascist does. “By their deeds shall you know them.” In a collapsing social order (whether that collapse is institutionally real or politically subjective), the fascist ability to project force where the state is no longer able to (or willing to, from a fascist perspective) is the power to transform a “corrupt” society into a new fascist utopia. At the risk of sounding arch or wantonly Deleuzian, it is the strategy of violent reterritorialisation of the terrain of reproduction and civil society that marks out fascism from the far right or populism. 


– Führerprinzip (ultra-factionalism) 


Again following the political typology sketched out in the summary points above, fascist politics compensates for the contradictory and tendentially incoherent character of their conspiracy-addled ideologies by ultra-factional political practices. Leadership and loyalty to leaders is a necessity for fascist group-formation at all levels from smallest to highest. US fascist Louis Beam may have popularised the concept of “leaderless resistance” amongst the American far right in his essay of the same name. But in my definition, politics is the process of forming collective bodies capable of exercising collective agency, and from that specific perspective, isolated cells and lone wolf terror attacks, while generally ideologically inspired, are functionally apolitical. We’ll come back to this in the discussion on incels below. At a movement level, the leadership principle produces the elevation of a maximum leader, demanding ultimate personal loyalty from every member and cast in the role of messianic saviour of the nation. 


Two things must be specified about this characteristic. First, it is not necessarily specific to fascists alone. Most right-wing populist movements also rely on a charismatic saviour/leader figure. Bolsonaro, Trump, Orbán (Modi, not so much) are all charismatic leaders in the right-populist mode, without so far really empowering the fascist fraction of their fanbase. Second, within fascism proper the leadership principle is often in tension or even conflict with the lust for revolutionary counterpower amongst the acolytes. In the late 80s I once had a member of the “Political Soldier” wing of the NF, a self-declared “Strasserite,” declare to us in all seriousness that we couldn’t accuse him of being a Hitler fanboy “…because Hitler was a reactionary who sold out the movement.” Which, within his ideological framework actually made sense (didn’t stop us laughing at him, though). The leadership principle is a pragmatic necessity for a fascist mass movement, but that doesn’t mean that fascists are always happy with their current incumbent Führer, to say the least. And it doesn’t mean that the leadership will not sell out the followers whose muscle brought them to the negotiating table when it’s time to cut a deal with the captains of industry and the armed forces of the permanent state, as the Brownshirts found out to their peril.

Dimension 3 — Cultural


– Cultural machismo and misogyny


Machismo is the cultural glue that binds all the elements of the other dimensions of fascism together. It’s the cultural chauvinist part of ultranationalism. The willingness to kill, indifference to mass death of non-nationals, is not just an ideological value but also a matter of pride and emotional pleasure. The “death cult” aspect lurks within the cultural-hedonic darkness of fascism. Speaking metaphorically, if the toxins in toxic masculinity could be extracted as an essential oil, it would be the engine fuel of the fascist war machine. It goes without saying that this all presupposes the general rightist view of masculine and feminine roles as natural, biologically rooted binaries and essentially unequal.


However, if cultural machismo was as much part and parcel of fascism a century ago as it is today, there have been substantial changes in recent years. Sexism and misogyny used to be combined within the unitary body, behaviour, and speech of an identified individual in the company of their peers. Now the disaggregating effect of online virtual spaces have allowed misogyny to strike out on its own, find its own line of flight and end up dispensing with many of the macho stances that real-world performative masculinity imposed. Now the misanthropic aspect (“sympathy is for the weak”) of machismo is separated from the misogynistic (“sympathy is for p—–s”). Incel beta male culture is emblematic of the cultural forms that could not have existed prior to the new virtual terrains opened by the internet. 


– The aestheticization of politics [sic]


Ever since Walter Benjamin declared, in the epilogue of his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” that “The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life,” the concept of fascism as somehow the “aestheticization of politics” has entered the discourse. The first paragraph of Benjamin’s epilogue is worth quoting in full:


“The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its Führer cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.”[iv]


In the rest of the (brief) text of the epilogue, Benjamin goes on to quote Marinetti’s manifesto enthusing over the aesthetics of war and concludes that war and destruction is the inevitable perverse result of the aestheticization in the vein of Luxemburg’s “socialism or barbarism.” This was a very common perspective in the 1930s for fairly obvious reasons. Today the age of colonial empires is over. The failed US invasions of Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq mean that white supremacists no longer dream of new colonial empires.


If the original context of Benjamin’s concept no longer plays, its evocative resonances are still with us. Fascism does have a culture of victimisation, that narrative of national humiliation mentioned above under the heading of redemptive ultranationalism, which is founded in a specifically identitarian take on “We are nothing and yet we should be everything.” We need to pare Benjamin’s aesthetic dimension from the “high culture” notions of art that haunt the intellectual milieu of his time and the later Frankfurt School, and relocate it solidly in popular shared pleasures (hedonics), like music.


Fascism loves memes and music. Not in the literal sense of specific musical genres, be it Wagner, Skrewdriver, Neofolk, Scandi-death metal or whatever. But because music represents the special power of aesthetics of being able to invoke emotions directly, especially amongst a mass audience. Viral memes can do likewise. And so fascism can use these cultural mediums to inspire and communicate the emotions of fascist desires, hatreds, rages, and ecstatic visions directly. Directly, that is, in a way that is obviously influenced by and channelling ideological values, but not intermediated by them. 

Summing up

As I said at the outset, this article is a shortened extract from a longer text, “Fascism and the Three-Way Fight,”[v] which is a chapter in an unfinished book-length text “Ideology and Practice.” In the original text I preface the proposed model above with an engagement with writers from the 3WF perspective, including Don Hamerquist, J. Sakai, and Matthew Lyons, before presenting my own alternative framework. For brevity, I’ve omitted that critical engagement here, so for anyone further interested in those critiques I’ll redirect you there.


I discussed above the limitations of liberal anti-fascists’ “two-way fight” perspective of the struggle as one in defence of democracy. But for those of us coming from a radical left perspective, we shouldn’t assume that all of the obstacles are coming from the liberal side of the fence. The radical left has its own blindspots and long-lasting misapprehensions. As I’ve argued, in my view one of the most damaging of these is the habit of confusing the ideological with the political. The old sayings “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” and “politics makes strange bedfellows” mean that at a basic level we understand that politics can cut crossways to ideology, usually in damaging ways. But leftist discourse tends to conflate the two dynamics, for contingent reasons of our own history. We understand why liberals want to view fascism one-sidedly from a purely ideological viewpoint, because their political solution and only tactic, ultimately, is to call yet again for votes for a bankrupt Democratic zombie neoliberalism. As militant anti-fascists we need to distinguish between the hatefulness of far right ideologies and fascist politics of violent street counterpower. In the struggle for the hearts and minds of the working class, the legitimacy of our direct action tactics is founded on the old maxim that “he who lives by the sword, shall die by the sword.” And for that we need to be able to clearly discriminate between the fascists and the mere haters in a way that can be witnessed and understood by all.


British neo-nazi group, National Action, hold anti-refugee, anti-Islam rally. 
Photo is reproduced solely for educational uses.

[iii] I have taken the term “a portable definition of fascism” from an essay by Geoff Eley, “What is Fascism and Where does it Come From?”, published in History Workshop Journal, Issue 91, doi:10.1093/hwj/dbab003, and at the time of writing, available online at https://academic.oup.com/hwj/article/91/1/1/6329186. Although the term appears earlier in the introductory chapter “Introduction: A Portable Concept of Fascism” by Julia Adeney Thomas, in the 2020 book “Visualizing Fascism: The Twentieth-Century Rise of the Global Right”, doi:10.1215/9781478004387, a collection of essays edited by both herself and Eley.

[v] https://eidgenossen.medium.com/fascism-and-the-three-way-fight-4a05b87a4eec

Photo credits:

1. The Sun, 19 August 2017.

2. The Week Magazine, 2 June 2020. Picture via Getty.

3. The Independent, 17 May 2022.

1 thought on “On Fascism and the Three Way Fight (Guest Post)”

Leave a Comment