On the dangers of liberal antifascism: A reply to Robert Reich

Longtime antifascist Paul Bowman criticizes liberals who collapse the difference between fascism and right-wing populism to score electoral points. 

By Paul Bowman 

This is a response to Robert Reich’s piece in the Guardian of Saturday 17th June, entitled “Trump and the Republican party exemplify these five elements of fascism.”
As Robert Reich and most of the Guardian readership are not regular
readers of Three Way Fight blog, obviously this is not a direct response
in the sense of hoping to reach the same audience as that article. But
as militant anti-fascists we need to be aware of, and have theoretical
and ideological counters to, the attempts by establishment liberals to
weaponise anti-fascism for their own agendas.

Color-distorted close-up of Joe Biden's face with the words "We Are Living Through a Battle for the Soul of This Nation."
Joe Biden’s 2022 “Battle for the Soul of this Nation” speech used
antifascism to help win elections and reassert system legitimacy.

Reich’s five points

Reich’s professed goal is that the mainstream US media (he uses the Washington Post as an example) should stop calling Trump an authoritarian and start calling him fascist. “Professed,” because it’s unlikely that Reich is dumb enough to think that the legal departments of WaPo and co are actually going to green light that particular change to the paper’s stylebook. Instead Reich’s “transitional demand” is really a political ploy to create yet another grievance for liberals to harp on about. But if his “ask” of the media is a ploy, he is by contrast absolutely sincere in wanting to re-define fascism in a way that suits his agenda. To this end he puts forward five points that define the difference between the merely authoritarian and the genuinely fascist. He does so by means of a “compare and contrast” between the two, which we’ll come back to in a minute.

Point 1 – “The rejection of democracy, the rule of law and equal rights under the law in favor of a strongman who interprets the popular will.” There’s two parts to this. The first is illiberalism generally. The second is the specific role of the charismatic leader who leads, not by tail ending public sentiment via opinion polls, but in Reich’s words by being “the means of discovering what society needs.” Reich implicitly concedes that the first element is not unique to fascists, as authoritarians also share this. But he counterposes the fascist form of illiberalism as based on the transcendent role of the providential leader, come to embody the will of the common man.

Point 2 – “The galvanizing of popular rage against cultural elites.” Here Reich baldly asserts that authoritarians don’t do this and fascists do. This is the point where he really gives the whole game away because no reasonable person can read that heading and not think of populism.

Point 3 – “Nationalism based on a dominant ‘superior’ race and historic bloodlines.” Having fumbled the ball so badly on the previous point, Reich attempts a recovery with a point which is a lot more reminiscent of fascism. He tries to create a dichotomy between a supposedly non-ethnic “authoritarian” nationalism (presumably like an illiberal version of liberal “civic nationalism”) and an ethno-nationalism unique to fascism. It’s true that there are versions of fascism that put race above nation, but if Trump had stopped talking about “the American People” and just gone with “the White Race,” he would have never been elected in the first place.

Point 4 – “Extolling brute strength and heroic warriors.” Like point three, this is, on the surface of it, more familiarly fashy. Reich waxes lyrical: “For the fascist, war and violence are means of strengthening society by culling the weak and extolling heroic warriors.” Which is fine, for Mussolini or Hitler, true enough. But we’re talking about Trump here. The man who sacked John Bolton for his mania for starting a war against Iran. Although his claim to be the first post-war US president to not start a new war is the usual untrue exaggeration (see Reuters’ fact check), it is true that he didn’t initiate the kinds of military actions that Clinton and Obama did. Reich has gotten carried away with his own rhetoric here.

Point 5 – “Disdain of women and fear of non-standard gender identities or sexual orientation.” Reich opens by saying that authoritarians believe in hierarchy and order. And then goes on to say that “by contrast” [!] fascists believe in heterosexism and male supremacy. As if every conservative didn’t? Reich argues for a uniquely fascist heterosexist male chauvinism by tying it back to the previous point, saying “Fascism seeks to eliminate homosexual, transgender and queer people because they are thought to challenge or weaken the heroic male warrior.” But as we already discussed, Trump presents himself as a cosmic warrior against corruption and generalised evil, not a martial supersoldier. 

“We need to ideologically confront the racist, misogynist, homophobic and transphobic lies and propaganda of the authoritarian ethno-populist right, while also being ready to physically confront the street politics of fascist combat organisations through direct action and our own counterpower. We need to make clear the different challenges and different tactics required to confront these two distinct phenomena.”

Hiding the populists behind a strawman “authoritarian”

To sum it up, the fundamental theoretical sleight-of-hand that Reich is trying to pull off in his five points is setting up a false dichotomy between “authoritarians” and fascists. Upon closer inspection, the figure of the “authoritarian” is a faceless cypher, an a-historical strawman whose only function is to act as a foil to Reich’s “fascist.” When we look around the world today, from Italy’s recently departed Silvio Berlusconi, to Hungary’s Orbán, Turkey’s Erdoğan and many more besides, we see actually existing authoritarian right-wing populists who immediately give the lie to Reich’s strawman dichotomy. Do these populists present themselves as providential men of destiny who can embody the will of the common man? Check. 2 – Do they galvanize popular rage against “the elites”? Well, duh! 3 – Is their nationalism ethno-nationalism not the “civic” kind? Absolutely. (Check out Erdoğan’s “Karaturk” rhetoric or Orbán’s Magyar supremacism.) Right-wing populism and ethno-nationalism are so tightly entwined, we should really just call it ethno-populism. 4 – Do they extoll brute strength and martial values? Have you seen what the Turkish army is up to, lately? 5 – Do they rejoice in machismo and male chauvinism and demonise and openly call for the extinction of LGBT folks? Just take a look. All the way down the list of the five points, actually existing authoritarian ethno-populists do all the things that Reich says that authoritarians don’t do and is the true marker of the fascist. In other words, any right-wing populist politician is a supposed fascist, in Reich’s five-point schema.

Where’s the harm?

OK, so liberals gonna liberal, so what? I see two main dangers in the attempt by the Democratic liberal centrist establishment to instrumentalise anti-fascism. The first being a matter of narrow self-interest—i.e., the effects of this tendency on the militant anti-fascist movement itself. The second being the wider self-interest context of the social effects overall.

First a bit of history. This is not the first time a post-war centre-left political party has attempted to instrumentalise anti-fascism. In the early 1980s a number of large demonstrations against racism and fascism took place across France. These initial demonstrations were mainly self-organised by second-generation North African youth. The Parti Socialiste (PS) was in power under the presidency of François Mitterand (in office 1981-1995). Although elected on a wave of leftist optimism, Mitterand had ditched all the radical social-democratic elements of the 1981 electoral manifesto and now had little positive to offer the PS electorate. The PS seized on these organic anti-fascist and anti-racist demonstrations as an opportunity to create a negative reason for voting for them—“Vote for us, or the Front National gets in!” Mitterand modified the electoral system at the local, municipal, and regional levels (but not the crucial national one) to allow the FN to build a base and raise Jean Marie Le Pen up as a credible threat. The PS funded and supported an astro-turf anti-racist organisation “SOS Racisme” under the unaccountable despotism of a PS stooge, Harlem Désir. The French militant anti-fascist movement then came under attack from all sides for not submitting to the direction of this PS front and not limiting their tactics to the ineffective pacifist mass demonstrations of SOS Racisme. While the PS tactics hindered the militant anti-fascist movement and promoted the growth of the FN as a credible electoral threat, it ultimately failed to sustain support for the PS, which is today practically defunct.

So, in the present day, in the American context, the effort of Robert Reich and associated Democratic party faithful to instrumentalise anti-fascism against Trump in particular, and the GOP in general, risks replaying many of the same problems the Parti Socialiste imposed on the French militant anti-fascist movement. These are, in brief, the sowing of confusion in the minds of those sections of the public concerned about the rise of fascism and wanting to find an effective way to take part in the struggle; contributing to the criminalisation of militant anti-fascist direct action tactics; and the recentring of political attention on the passive, indirect action of electoralism. We could go into more detail on any of those aspects, but I think readers of this blog will be familiar with this territory.

“If the Democratic party ideologues make fascism into a party-political slur for electoral purposes, then the word will lose all concrete meaning.”

So much for the “narrow self-interest” issues. The wider issues are the ideological and political effects of labeling Trump supporters and the Trumpist tendency within the GOP as fascist. Here we risk doing the fascists’ work for them. The likes of Steve Bannon and other far-right ideologues that target the GOP grassroots in order to convince them that there’s no ideological or political difference between their “Make America Great Again” values and those of the far-right and fascist groupings proper. They trade in slogans like “Not far right, just right so far.” If the Democratic party ideologues make fascism into a party-political slur for electoral purposes, then the word will lose all concrete meaning. Like the boy who cried wolf, the ability of the militant anti-fascist movement to mobilise for direct action against the rising genuinely fascist combat organisations will suffer. In short, anything that drives the followers of right-wing populism into the arms of the fascists, from a leftwards direction, builds fascism, rather than fighting it.

As militant anti-fascists we need to make clear that we are for making use of our free speech rights (such as they are) to ideologically confront the racist, misogynist, homophobic and transphobic lies and propaganda of the authoritarian ethno-populist right. While also, at the same time, being ready to physically confront the street politics of fascist combat organisations through direct action and our own counterpower. We need to make clear the different challenges and different tactics required to confront these two distinct phenomena not only within our own existing ranks of committed militant anti-fascists, but also to the wider audience of anybody who cares about the rise of hate in America. Being able to explain what’s wrong in accounts like Robert Reich’s piece is a start in that direction.

Paul Bowman was a founding member of Leeds Anti-Fascist Action in 1986, remaining active within it until its self-dissolution in 2004. He has contributed previously to Three Way Fight.

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