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Recycled: An Old Leftist Definition of Fascism

[Following in the vein of Jewcy's resident Sufi ex-Trot Stephen Schwartz about a working definition of "fascism" as it relates to Islamic militancy, here is -- or was -- my take on the question. Published a few months ago.] When … Read More

By / November 2, 2007

[Following in the vein of Jewcy's resident Sufi ex-Trot Stephen Schwartz about a working definition of "fascism" as it relates to Islamic militancy, here is -- or was -- my take on the question. Published a few months ago.]

When Orwell, in his imperishable essay "Politics and the English Language," said that the term fascism had degenerated in the hands of the correct-thinking but sloppy-writing public to mean anything that is undesirable , he was surely onto something — in 1946. But there came a moment in history when fascism dropped out of the lexicon of abused catchwords, indeed, out of the lexicon entirely. After Hitler and Mussolini were defeated, and after the postwar dictators — Franco, Salazar, even De Gaulle — died off naturally, who wielded the epithet except a few graying manes on the left who'd experienced fascism first-hand, or a new generation of pseudo-radicals who'd simply wished they had for enhanced credibility?

In the late 80's, Susan Sontag's notorious formulation that Soviet Communism was "fascism with a human face" did a great thing for reviving the term with ironic dash. Then came 9/11 and the democratic call of the hour was to fight "fascism with an Islamic face," as Hitch termed it, or "Islamofascism," the portmanteau — and slightly denatured — version of this.

Eustonistas, myself included, now use the term fascism with consistency and, I hope, specificity. Yet rarely has a working definition of the phenomenon been offered. The danger here becomes that overuse will again bring us to a point where an invaluable and arresting term begins to connote anything undesirable. Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah are surely undesirable, ergo, they're all fascist. (You can judge the energy of any side in a world-historic struggle by the anemia of its rhetoric.)

In "Democracy and Fascism," Trotsky battles the self-negating and improvisational Stalinist definition and offers a proper anatomy of the ideology:

At the moment that the "normal" police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium — the turn of the fascist regime arrives. Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie, and bands of the declassed and demoralized Lumpenproletariat; all the countless human beings from finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy. From fascism the bourgeoisie demands a thorough job; once it has resorted to methods of civil war, it insists on having peace for a period of years. And the fascist agency by utilizing the petty bourgeoisie as a battering ram, by overwhelming all obstacles in its path, does a thorough job. After fascism is victorious, finance capital gathers into its hands, as in the vise of steel, directly and immediately, all the organs and institutions of sovereignty, the executive, administrative and educational powers of the state: the entire state apparatus together with the army, the municipalities, the universities, the schools, the press, the trade unions, and the co-operatives. When a state turns fascist, it doesn't only mean that the forms and methods of government are changed in accordance with the patterns set by Mussolini–the changes in this sphere ultimately play a minor role–but it means, first of all for the most part, that the workers' organizations are annihilated; that the proletariat is reduced to an amorphous state; and that a system of administration is created which penetrates deeply into the masses and which serves to frustrate the independent crystallization of the proletariat. Therein precisely is the gist of fascism.

Useful here are the Marxist categories, which the modern left has either forgotten or ignored in its attempt to equate Bin Ladenism with liberation theology. Roughly translated, Al Qaeda is the vanguard or militant wing of the latter-day wretched of the earth in the Middle East. Yet as any sociological study of Islamic terrorist groups will attest, most Al Qaeda members are well-educated and quite "petty bourgeois" in background. They might try to exploit working class, or better say impoverished, sensibilities in their propaganda, but one has only to remember Bin Laden's famed relationship to Communism to see that his is hardly an attempt to empower those who aren't Saudi industrial billionaires or believers in the One True God.

As for other militias and terror groups saddled with the f-word, it's interesting that leftists overcome with nostalgia for old struggles fail to remember the platforms upon which those struggles were waged. Nor do they apply the materialist lessons of the past to the present. Tariq Ali, for instance, celebrates Trotsky, yet thinks of Haniyah, Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad as champions of the downtrodden, not bothering to spot the contradictions in their economic imperatives and the class segments of their populations to which they most appeal.

Indeed, Ahmadinejad's toughest opponents are the Iranian proletariat, which are organized into exactly the kinds of democratic-civil trade unions mentioned above. In December, prominent members of the Public Bus Transportation Company Union in Tehran were jailed for their dissidence. Organized labor in Iran has also been out front in its denunciation of the mullah regime, and has likewise paid a high price for it. But of course you won't hear a peep from the old comrades about this stifling of democracy, which is homegrown and not in the least influenced by American intervention.

Hamas — or its precursor organization, the Mujamma' — more or less sprung right out of the Palestinian university system and aims to control the entire apparatus of the state, including the army, press, municipalities and education of the Palestinians. (Sharia law mandates such comprehensive integration of civic and religious institutions.) As for its relationship with the workers, just a few days ago the Deputy Secretary General of the Palestinian Federation of General Trade Unions had his home attacked by terrorist gunmen. Of course, the current PA is not lifting a finger over this domestic crime. Might it be because the PFGTU, internationalist in scope and solidarity, has been resistant to infiltration by Hamas, a "national" liberation organization?

All of which doesn't even address the "declassed and demoralized" gangster and criminal elements which comprise these groups' natural and most violent constituencies. Plus, the main thrust of Trotsky's great polemic was to discredit the Comintern's shabby and sinister moral equivalence of Bruning with Hitler. The official Stalinist line during the rise of Nazism (when German social democrats were known as "social fascists") can't help but remind of what you now hear about Bush being the identical twin of Bin Laden…

Of course, one doesn't have to buy into every facet of a dead revolutionary's analysis of a 20th century political pathology. But a left that fails to see certain classical trends recapitulating themselves in the 21st century is a myopic and doomed left, to say the least.

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