Speaking at a rally of “Tommy Robinson” supporters outside the Old Bailey in July, organisers urged the protesters to be peaceful, lest the mainstream media portrayed them as violent. While it was not the most welcoming environment as a reporter, the efforts of the protest leaders to prevent violence were noticeable.
Events like these are usually met with counter demonstrations that often end up being far larger than the original protest. At a rally protesting Steve Bannon last year protesters chanted “Nazi scum off our streets” and in the US the chant “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!” is common. Activists like Owen Jones describe themselves as ‘anti-fascist’ and Patrick Harvie MSP, co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party, has described President Trump as “increasingly fascist”.
But there are distinctions between fascism and the far right today and it is often inaccurate to label groups on the far right as “fascists” and “Nazis”. Why does this matter? Why should we care if some groups on the far right – and some on the centre right – are mislabelled?
First, mislabelling the position of the far right undermines the left’s ability to properly criticise it. It gives the far right a way to dismiss criticism without addressing its substance because they can argue it rests on a false definitional premise. Second, when people recognise that the term “fascist” is being misused they switch off and become disengaged with the criticism of the far right [Evidence?]. Third, labels such as fascist and Nazi have been overused to such an extent that they have lost their sting [have they?]. Finally, mislabelling the far right is used to argue that the left is oversensitive, hysterical and hyperbolic. For these reasons it is counterproductive for the left at a time when the far right is gaining traction around the world.
The term “far right” denotes disparate parties, social movements, and cultural subgroups, each with its own ideology. In his book The Far Right Today, published this month by Polity, the political scientist Cas Mudde begins by dividing the far right into two. The “extreme right” rejects democracy itself. The “radical right” accepts democracy, but condemns the fundamental components of liberal democracy, most notably the rights of minorities and the rule of law. Fascism falls into the first category.
Robinson and his supporters are populists who derive their popularity from the claim that they represent the people over the elite. Rather than bashing democracy they support an illiberal form of it. In the case of Brexit, for example, the far right have argued that the rights of European nationals should be used as bargaining chips to force the EU’s hand and secure the popular sovereignty of the people. The rights of minorities – fundamental to liberal democracy – are cast aside, but democracy remains a principle all the same.
While Robinson and others on the populist far right have campaigned for election, the fascist right does not seek power through popularity, but through violence [British union of fascists?].
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”.
Elements of the non-fascist far right are indeed violent, as Robinson’s supporters show, but the function of violence within the ideology is different. It seems that violence in the non-fascist far right is a form of hooliganism rather than a systematic method of achieving power [this requires examples – why is the violence not part of a route to power?]. The non-fascist far right don’t need to rely on the voter intimidation and the breaking up of opposition meetings – they can achieve power through populism and elections instead. This is one reason why the far right have been successful in recent years: their support of democracy and disavowal of violence makes them more attractive to voters [evidence?]– something the leaders of the Robinson protest had seemingly noted.
Also attending the protest was Gerard Batten, the former leader of Ukip, who announced his support for Robinson last year. Batten was a founding member of Ukip in 1993 and led the party further to the right during his leadership. But Ukip was founded as a Eurosceptic party. Its precursor, the Anti-Federalist League, was founded by the academic Alan Sked in 1991 to campaign against the Maastricht Treaty. It was a movement 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.”
In 2006, David Cameron dismissed Ukip as a bunch of “fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists”. While he didn’t describe them as fascists, his attack, and the subsequent rise of Ukip, exemplifies the limited impact of such labels [distracting, given the words he used are not about fascism or Nazism]. Rather than driving supporters away, Ukip seemed to thrive on accusations of racism [evidence?], perhaps because it signified them as being outside of the establishment – as a party not bound by the rules. Last year, Steve Bannon embodied the nonchalance these terms now evoke when he 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.” [This whole par talks about racism instead of fascism – suggesting that calling Ukip racist is also wrong – that may be arguable, but it’s a different argument.]
This is not to say that people should not be called out for being racist and authoritarian or that fascism does not exist on the far right. Parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece and the neo-Nazi NPD in Germany are clearly fascistic [these are both groups seeking power through democracy]. Nor does saying that someone is not a fascist preclude them from being described as a bigot or an authoritarian. Nor does it make the centre right’s alliance with the far right and its failure to condemn neo-Nazis any less alarming or dangerous. We must call out people for being racist, authoritarian, and, indeed, fascist. Rather, the point is that this will not be enough.
Some of the left need to confront the far right in a more intelligent and nuanced manner. They need to move past simply shouting “fascist” at those on the far right and provide better arguments and a clear case for the virtues of liberal democracy.
Mislabelling the far right feeds the general lack of trust on which these groups thrive. It is important that political phenomena – especially new movements – are described accurately because when one side caricatures its opponents, the victim will simply claim fake news. When a hyperbolic accusation from one side is met with a hyperbolic response from the other, political polarisation deepens and the opportunity for critical engagement with one’s opponent collapses.
The greatest danger is that hyperbole about the far right leads people to ignore the sinister ideologies within it, and that we miss a crucial opportunity to combat a force that threatens our freedoms. With the far right in global ascendancy, the left has to be much smarter in its response.