Is fascism an imminent threat?

David Renton reviews How to Stop Fascism: History, Ideology, Resistance, by Paul Mason, published by Penguin

The message of Paul Mason’s new book is that Britain and the world are at danger of falling into fascism. Key to this risk are two strands of politics. The first are the open fascists of the right, by which Mason means the likes of Tommy Robinson, the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, and parts of the anti-lockdown movement. The second are those closer to the political centre, in Britain, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. The latter are not fascists, they are not counter-revolutionaries. They want the world to continue as it is now, with the same people in charge. But they have been willing to ally with and promote the interests of actual fascists. They agree with them about Islam and migration. So long as our political system is dominated by populists, we are moving closer to fascism.

Three sections of the book develop its argument. By “History,” Mason means the 1930s and the lessons of that decade. He draws on a range of interwar Marxist – the likes of Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt school, and summarises their key idea in compelling phrases. “Fascism,” Mason writes, “is the fear of freedom, triggered by a glimpse of freedom.” It’s a lovely, insightful, line informed by the work the Marxist social psychologist Eric Fromm. Here, and throughout his book, Mason is taking long and complex arguments and simplifying them – better, often, than the original authors were ever able to do.

By “Ideology,” Mason has in mind the ideas which are at the core of contemporary fascist thought and also reappear watered-down in modern-day conservatism: the argument that immigration represents the genocide of white US or Europe; the notion that Western values are under attack by a Cultural Marxism which dominates the media and Hollywood; the prediction of an impending catastrophe which will require a military coup and the imposition of a new authoritarian leadership.

In a final section on “Resistance,” Mason invites his readers to channel the spirit of the Popular Front, the 1930s alliance of Communists, Socialist and Liberals, which won elections in France and Spain on an anti-fascist ticket.

Why should the centre-right pave the way for the far right? How to Stop Fascism envisages two ways their relationship could work: either populists would block the fascists (his metaphor is an internet firewall), or the populists could encourage and ally with fascists. This latter he describes as a “synergy” of conservatives, populists and fascists.

There is no reason though to think that these are the only possible options. Groups can have different short- and long-term strategies. The balance of forces can be different online and offline, or in different countries. While, in every country, the centre-right has been moving further to the right, the result has been different in France or Russia compared to Britain. You could have the centre-right trying to block the far right and being overwhelmed, so that the centre-right in its old form disappears and is replaced by something new – this is what happened to the Bush-era Republicans. Or you could have the centre-right trying to grab ideas from the far right, cooperating on that terrain while continue to fight a silent but effective battle to keep supporters of the far right out of the institutions of power. Arguably, this is what has happened here – in terms of the exclusion of UKIP/Brexit from Parliament.

Reducing the choices facing the centre-right in our moment to either “firewall” or “synergy” leaves the reader with the impression that since the firewall approach was abandoned in 2016, there can be only synergy, and the road to fascism is short indeed. Unfortunately, that means it is easy for readers to dismiss Mason – you might say that Trump’s coup was defeated, or the world is unlikely to go fascist by 2025, and at that point his whole argument would seem invalidated. When it might well be that the truth is different, that significant barriers to dictatorship have fallen, that Britain and France are closer to authoritarianism (even if not actually governed by fascists), and that threats which were remote have become closer. That prospect would be bad enough, and well worth resisting.

My other doubt concerns Mason’s alternative to this dynamic of right populism. Historically, the interwar left tended to distinguish between “united fronts” (alliances of Communists and socialists) and “popular fronts” (alliance of the same people, and in addition political liberals). Left historians critical of the Popular Front argue that the former were alliances for change while the latter were alliances of conservation, that is, just defending democracy from its worst opponents, while taming the left’s radical outliers. Mason goes to some length to insist that, in their early stages, the Popular Fronts did rather more than their critics suggests.

Mason is an imaginative thinker whose books on the digital revolution and human potential were unafraid of arguing for socialism in wholly new and contemporary terms. The “what is to be done” element of this book does not feel as bold. For too much of its last third, Mason is supporting the old principle of an alliance with people who disagree with him, and making a left-wing argument based on the authority of dead generations, rather than exploring what new forces exist to make an alliance possible.

Despite those notes of caution, this remains a well-written and closely argued book. Mason is right that, even after the defeat of Donald Trump, the centre-point of American and European politics has moved to the right compared to five or ten years ago and the left desperately needs to find our own alternative means to shift politics back in our direction. Mason has used his considerable public profile in an attempt to argue against people who could do real harm. How to Stop Fascism is a worthy addition to every socialist’s library.

David Renton is a barrister, historian, and the author of No Free Speech for Fascists:  Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics and Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis: What the Left Got Wrong and How to Learn From It (Routledge).

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