Last Friday I walked the Jarama battlefield, south of Madrid. It was here in February 1937 that the British Battalion of the XV International Brigade went into the line to stop Franco’s attempt to encircle Madrid. They’d had just five weeks’ training, less than a week with actual rifles. By the end of the first day, 100 were dead, 150 wounded and there were 150 left standing.
After we’d trudged through the killing fields, paying our respects at small, vandalised memorial cairns, we had lunch in the nearby village of Morata. Though controlled by Spain’s centre-left Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), a balcony over the town’s square is allowed to exhibit two large fascist flags and three posters from the Franco era, including the local branch of the Falange party, formally dissolved in 1977.
“Your impulse would be to tear it down,” my companion told me, “but then they would only go and damage the battlefield monuments … again”. It seems that co-existing with fascism, in Spain as for the rest of Europe, has now become a modus operandi for the left.
On Sunday night, Spain’s reincarnated fascist party Vox scored a breakthrough in the regional elections in Andalusia, in south-west Spain, winning 12 seats and 11 per cent of the vote. The region was once a stronghold of PSOE but the ruling party saw its vote collapse to 28 per cent (from 35 per cent in 2015) and lost 14 seats (leaving it with 33). A strong and vibrant campaign by Adelante – allied to the radical left party Podemos – failed to stop its vote share sliding from 22 per cent to 16 per cent.
Vox’s politics will be familiar to anyone who has studied the successful formula for creating an alt-right party. Its imagery abandons nostalgia and is aimed at the trendy, reactionary middle class. Its enemies are feminism, abortion, Islam, gays and migrants. It wants a strongly centralised Spain and therefore a crackdown on separatist aspirations in the Basque and Catalan regions.
As late as last year, political scientists from the Elcano Royal Institute, a think tank in Madrid, concluded that “favourable attitudes to immigration and globalisation, compounded by the lack of a strong, common Spanish identity to appeal to, make Spain inhospitable terrain for the populist extreme right.”
Sunday night’s results suggest that is no longer true. Instead, all across Europe, liberals, democrats and the left are having to face a fact I will sum up in a language beyond political science: in every country about ten per cent of the population are secretly fascist bastards.
This small but significant section of the population are so outraged by modernity and globalisation that they would drown migrants in the sea, torch mosques and commit violence against women if they could. But for now, they will happily vote for parties that express their fantasies in coded language at the ballot box.
All this has been hiding in plain sight, unexpressed by the political systems for years. A European Commission survey in 2016 found that 58 of people have “negative feelings” about immigration from non-EU countries; 30 per cent think their country should not help refugees; 20 per cent would be uncomfortable working with a Roma; 13 per cent with a Muslim.
All it takes, as the AfD has shown in Germany, is an incident to dramatise the fears, a consultancy to construct a nice logo and social media campaign, a plausible-looking führer-figure and for the mainstream parties to become mired in corruption, austerity or technocracy, making error after error.
In Spain, the People’s Party, which was never cleansed of the generation of fascist murderers who flourished under Franco, contained far-right sentiment through the highly effective method of economic growth. After the economic collapse of 2011, right-wing politics in Spain fragmented: the more technocratic (but equally right-wing) Ciudadanos (Citizens) party emerged.
Vox split from the PP in 2013, ostensibly as a protest against its refusal to continue repressing Basque nationalism. But it is the 2017 Catalan crisis, together with the changing dynamics of the Mediterranean refugee flow, which appear to have driven Vox from almost nowhere in Andalusia to 11 per cent.
A detailed post-mortem belongs elsewhere, but Vox’s breakthrough should be enough for the European left to begin an urgent reappraisal of its priorities.As in the 1930s we are seeing the breakdown of consent for liberal values and rising intolerance against minorities. As in the 1930s were are seeing rising paralysis of states in the face of political violence. Unlike in the 1930s we have a far-right “international” fuelled by the money of American millionaires, encouraged by the Russian secret service and allowed to spread not only filthy propaganda but outright threats via Twitter and other social media.
We need to fight fascism more effectively. But how?
Somewhere in the Andalusian province of Jaen, which voted 9 per cent for the fascists last night, lie the bones of John Cornford. Cornford was a 21-year-old Cambridge student, communist and poet who died fighting with the International Brigades in December 1936. His finest poem “Full moon at Tierz” mixes the imagery of war, fear and night-time with a treatise on anti-fascist strategy.
In 1935 the Comintern, meeting in Moscow for its Seventh Congress, performed a spectacular U-turn. Rejecting its old line of “class against class”, which had pitted the far-left against the mainstream socialist parties and the liberal centre, it embraced the strategy of the Popular Front.
Now the communist parties were ordered to make anti-fascist alliances not just with socialists but with the liberal bourgeoisie, burying their differences where needed. The tactic worked almost immediately in both France and Spain, where Popular Front governments were elected in 1936. In both cases it unleashed a wave of working class radicalism which Moscow had not expected. In both cases it prompted sections of the elite to realign with the pro-fascist right. In the Spanish case it led to civil war.
If you’re on the left and you’ve read one book about the 1930s you will have been told that the Popular Front was a bad idea. The short summary is, by limiting the aspirations of the left, it exhausted the revolutionary zeal of the working class and paved the way for the fascist victory in Spain, and the defeatism of the French elite in 1939.
But the Popular Front, despite its failure, was a better idea than doing nothing. No matter how venal the reasoning of Soviet bureaucrats in 1935, telling the left to make tactical alliances with the centre, requiring the self-limitation of left-wing demands, was a better strategy than telling the left to treat liberalism as the main enemy. For one thing, it dispelled any notion that the left could somehow tap into the justified grievances which the plebeian supporters of right held against the bourgeoisie.
Cornford, armed with an old Mauser and a pencil on the night before battle, understood this. “Here what the Seventh Congress said, If true, if false, is live or dead,” he wrote.
From Cornford you get a sense of the urgency and helplessness that generation felt as they fought fascism. “History’s not plasticine”, he says, but after years of moving like a glacier it has suddenly shattered: “the dialectic’s point of change, crashes in light and minutes to its fall”.
I can’t think of a better phrase to summarise the political shocks we’re living through.
Since the 1980s, two generations of the left have believed that main enemy of social justice is the neoliberal elite. Today we have to accept that is no longer true. The main enemy of social justice is people who would drown refugees, who are slandering Muslims as paedophiles and who would – as just for starters in their war on feminism – criminalise abortion.
Cornford’s generation understood the gamble and the compromise they had made when they accepted the need to ally with the centre against the right. Then, as now, the centre was apt to vilify both fascism and communism in the same terms. Either we defeat fascism in an alliance with all those who want to fight it or we are screwed, is the message of Cornford’s poem.
We have no Comintern, no Soviet Union, and few people like the miners, bus drivers and poets who fought with the International Brigades. But we do have the most educated generation ever born, who have a high attachment to their individual freedom. And we have history books.
This week, on 7 December, marks the 80th anniversary of the night the defeated survivors of the British Battalion arrived back at London’s Victoria Station. Everybody who turned out to greet them knew, by then, what failing to stop fascism looks like.