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23 August 2019updated 30 Jul 2021 5:14am

The F-word problem: why the left should be wary of labelling the far right “fascist”

By Freddie Hayward

Reporting from the rally of Tommy Robinson’s supporters protesting his sentencing for contempt of court at the Old Bailey in London last month, I was surprised to see more diversity than I had expected. In addition to the thugs who follow Robinson wherever he goes, there were old men and women, people with their children, even two elderly men with Chinese flags. (Although, disappointingly, upon inquiry I discovered they were likening the UK to China rather than showcasing their communism.)

In other words, it wasn’t a protest solely of young men in brown shirts.

Whether in the UK or the US, events like these are usually met with counter demonstrations by self-described “anti-fascists” that often end up being far larger than the original protest. Chants of “Nazi scum off our streets” and “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!” are common, but these labels – “Nazi” and “fascist” – are often inaccurate and, perhaps more pertinently for the left, ineffective.

The “far right” as a general term encompasses parties, social movements, and cultural subgroups, each with contrasting histories and ideologies. In his new book The Far Right Today, which is published next month by Polity, the political scientist Cas Mudde divides the far right into two subgroups. The extreme right rejects the essence of democracy, namely, popular sovereignty and majority rule. Whereas, the radical right supports democracy but condemns the fundamental components of liberal democracy, most notably the rights of minorities and the rule of law. Fascism falls into the former, while Robinson’s coterie probably falls into the latter.

The populist nature of the far right today – such as the claim they represent the people over the elite – is exemplified by the radical right’s support for democracy. In the case of Brexit, for instance, they argue that the rights of European nationals should be used as bargaining chips to force the EU’s hand and secure the Brexit they claim 52 per cent voted for. The popular sovereignty of the people – the essence of democracy – was supported, but the rights of minorities – a fundamental facet of liberal democracy – were cast aside.

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By comparison, the fascistic right do not support democracy but instead seek to impose their ideology on society through the means of egregious violence.

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This is another distinction between fascism and other competing ideologies: fascism is saturated by violence. Writing in 1921, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci described fascism as the “attempt to resolve the problems of production and exchange with machine-guns and pistol-shots”. In a similar vein, the historian David Renton writes in his book The New Authoritarians that fascist parties often maintain private militias to carry out attacks on “racial and political opponents and potentially as a means to taking on the state”.

Standing outside the Old Bailey among Robinson’s supporters, I didn’t feel like I was at a fascist rally. There were those intent on scuffling with the police, those with a hatred of Muslims, and those whose nostalgia had clouded their judgement of the present. But, there was no coherent plan or ideology, no goal or clear manifesto.

For Renton, this is another distinction between today’s far right and fascism. “Fascism is a coherent form of politics with a worked out strategy for confronting the state and a programme for government. Robinson’s success is by contrast defiantly anti-political.”

After Gerard Batten, the former leader of Ukip, announced his support for Robinson last year, it was no surprise when he turned up at the protest. Although Ukip – of which Batten was a founding member in 1993 – has focused more on anti-Muslim bigotry in recent years, it has its roots in Euroscepticism rather than in fascism. The precursor to Ukip, the Anti-Federalist League, was founded by the academic Alan Sked in 1991 to campaign against the Maastricht Treaty – the EU agreement that advanced political and monetary union. It was a party born out of the Conservative Euroscepticism of the late 1980s and early 1990s rather than pre-war fascism or the far-right street politics of the 1970s.

“If you were to tell most members of Ukip they were fascists they would not be horrified or excited, just bemused,” writes Renton.

“Neither Donald Trump, Steve Bannon nor Nigel Farage is a fascist. Even Marine Le Pen’s electoral success has depended on a 40-year project in which the Front has repeatedly distanced itself from fascism.”

It seems, then, that the common epithet of “Nazi” or “fascist” is a misleading label for most groups on the far right. This is not to say that there is no fascistic element on the far right – some parties like Golden Dawn in Greece and the neo-Nazi NPD in Germany are clearly fascistic. Nor does it detract from their bigotry or authoritarianism. The problem lies with the left labelling all those on the far right, and even some on the centre right, as fascists.

But why does this matter? Why should we care whether some groups with sinister ideologies are mislabelled? Well, first, there is an intrinsic value in accurately describing political phenomena. Too often in modern politics, one side caricature or misrepresent their opponents in the hope of advancing their own cause. If people are not concerned with accurately representing current affairs then that only worsens our post-truth crisis.

A hyperbolic accusation from one side met with a hyperbolic response from the other deepens political polarisation and societal division. It would create a more hopeful political atmosphere if, at the very least, people saw value in accurately labelling their opponents.

Second, shouting “fascist” in the face of various members of the far right is no longer having the desired effect. Last year, Steve Bannon told Front National activists: “Let them call you racists. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honour.” Bannon’s quote demonstrates that these terms have, to some extent, sadly lost their sting. Xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment is so pervasive in today’s climate that such labels no longer evoke the same response.

Third, mislabelling the far right may in fact be counterproductive for the left. The left currently have an image problem. Many view parts of it as hysterical, oversensitive, and preoccupied with marginal issues. Accusations of a “snowflake” culture imply that some people don’t take parts of the left seriously.

Misusing terms such as “Nazi” and “fascist” might be part of the problem. Voters recognise that Ukip and comparable groups don’t resemble the fascists of the past and, therefore, they don’t engage with the left’s arguments. People see misleading labels and are inclined to reject the rest of the case against the far right. The left are thus perceived as hyperbolic, extreme, and ignorant of history.

This is a problem. If people ignore criticism of the far right owing to mere hyperbole, then we are missing a crucial opportunity to combat this menace. With the far right in global ascendancy, the left is going to have to be much smarter in its response. 

Freddie Hayward is a journalist who has previously written for the New Statesman, the Bangkok Post, and Reuters