My antifascist journey…

Photo: Antonio Olmos

The first time I became aware of fascism’s existence was when my Mum tried to stop me watching a documentary about the liberation of Bergen Belsen. I was five years old. This was around 1965 – so about as far from the event in historical time as we are today from 9/11.

One of my grandfathers was Jewish and, during the war, as a kid, my Mum had been told that if the Germans invaded she would have to hide or be killed. So she told the five-year-old me: “We’re not watching that!”

Only later did I realise it wasn’t my eyes she was protecting, but her own. This was still a time when very few people talked about what happened in the war, whether to them – as combatants or civilians under bombing – or to the Jewish population of Europe. Instead we learned about Nazi atrocities from bubblegum cards.

Bubblegum card showing Nazi soldiers attacking woman and child

We swapped images like these in the playground – but even despite the graphic content, there was no bubblegum card about Auschwitz.

Only in the late 1970s did we start to see the Holocaust depicted on screen (and actually called the Holocaust), and see Nazis depicted not a stereotypically cruel prison guards but as ordinary people who had supported Hitler enthusiastically and en masse.

By then fascism was trying to make a comeback. In February 1978, while I was walking home from a dance with friends, a line of police vans hurtled through our small town. Where are they going? Someone answered: there’s a big Anti-Nazi League (ANL) demo in Bolton, against the National Front (NF). As I watched them go past, like a military convoy, it dawned on me that they were not going to arrest the NF but to attack the demonstrators.

That year, after I finished my A Levels, I went on the ANL Carnival Against the Nazis in Manchester. It was peaceful but windy, and a banner pole snapped and hit me in the face, so when I got home my Mum was convinced that I’d been in some kind of bust up. But the real bust ups were about to start.

At Sheffield University I went to a packed mass meeting addressed by participants in the Southall demo, at which Blair Peach had been killed. You got a sense that entire communities that were now mobilising against the NF, and of the salience of the left among them.

From Sheffield we mobilised to stop the NF marching through Corby, a steel town in the Midlands. I bought a 12-hole pair of Doc Martens for the occasion, which proved to be a crazy thing to do because, when the police charged us with their batons drawn, I suddenly found how hard it is to run away in calf-high boots.

That Corby demo however, showed how easy the fascists were to contain. They were in the town because they were trying to break out of the “rights for whites” narrative into places where race was not a big issue, but unemployment was: the town’s steelworks faced closure.

But they got nowhere. White kids from Corby joined us – students, leftists and black and Asian anti-racists who’d bussed in – to stop the NF march. I had assumed it would be done by linking arms and blocking their path. The local kids just demolished a wall and hurled the bricks at the NF, who looked terrified.

By the mid-1980s the main problem was not the fascists. It was Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government, and I spent the rest of the decade involved in political activism around the miners and print strike, the anti-Poll Tax movement and their aftermath.

In 1993, when Derek Beacon managed to win a council seat on the Isle of Dogs for the British National Party (BNP) we realised that – on the back of the defeat of the trade union movement – there was a potential for a more community-based and electoral fascism.

This was a period where I worked as an activist in the ANL, Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE), Searchlight and occasionally with Anti-Fascist Action (AFA). There was a lot of focus on, and controversy over, the policy of no-platforming fascists.

But the untold story of this period is how these organisations tried to do face-to-face propaganda work, door to door, in the white working class areas the fascists were targeting. We tried to make antifascism a “thing” not just among the Bengali youth, but in the white communities of the East End, and on the football terraces.

One of the strongest memories I have of this time was in 1992, after the murder of black teenager Rolan Adams: we held a march through Thamesmead calling for the BNP HQ to be shut down. A lot of white people stood in their gardens shouting racist abuse at us as we marched past.

As we now know, the police were more obsessed with surveillance and infiltration of the anti-racist movement than of the white supremacist gangs operating there (and, it has been revealed, the far right, organised crime and police corruption were a closely overlapping Venn diagram). It was in that atmosphere that Stephen Lawrence was murdered.

This was a period of spectacular antifa mobilisations, ranging from the “Battle of Waterloo” (station), the takedown of Combat 18 in Hyde Park, a mass picket of Jean Marie Le Pen outside the Charing Cross Hotel, to the mobilisation of maybe 50,000 people (from as far away as Glasgow) in Welling, in another attempt shut down the BNP HQ following Stephen’s murder. There is some classic “impartial” news coverage of it all here.

Welling 1993

But we failed to stop the BNP. They switched from street mobilisations to electoral politics and by 2004 were able to score 800,000 votes in the European parliamentary elections.

By this time, as a journalist in the business media and then the BBC, my active antifa days were effectively over. I covered the rise of the BNP, Golden Dawn, UKIP and the US far right. During this time numerous ex-fascists and right-wing populists, in several countries, converged on the same strategy – electoral respectability for racism and xenophobia, framed around Islamophobia after 9/11.

Though right-wing populism was distasteful, I heard numerous pollsters, political scientists and senior journalists voice the same thought: at least it’s channelling the energies of the violent racists into an electoral dead end. The BNP vote, for example, collapsed, as it was folded into the much larger UKIP vote in the 2013 European elections, but UKIP could never win power.

One of the reasons I quit broadcasting in 2016, to become politically active and free myself from the self-censorship required of PSB journalists, was that I’d seen how strong and effective Golden Dawn were during the Greek crisis.

Anarchists who’d been able to keep the police and fascists out of certain areas of Athens were by 2013 scared to leave the immediate areas around their squats. At the point Golden Dawn were on 14% in the polls, one senior political consultant told me there’d been a “suppressed poll” showing them on 18%. All this of course with the tacit support of the Delta police squad and acquiescence of the New Democracy government.

What ultimately stopped Golden Dawn’s rise was the emergence of a radical reformist party with a mass base: Syriza. It was under mass antifascist pressure that the right-wing government of New Democracy eventually cracked down and prosecuted them collectively for the murder of Pavlos Fyssas.

Since 2015, when the global elite effectively split into nationalist versus globalist factions, the opportunity for fascism has returned. But it’s a new kind of fascism – no longer a tribute band to Nazism but a new phenomenon adapted to 21st century conditions.

We’re seeing a mixture of networked power, the co-creation of social myths, widespread and elite sponsored attacks on science, democracy, and universalism, combined with plebeian despair.

Looking back on the fascists I fought from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, the biggest difference is this: they were open, unashamed racists, colonialists and Holocaust deniers – but there was very little of the kind of “performative self-deception” you see among the far right today.

They had no need to delude themselves, to question science, to invent a whole new language around misogyny. Many of the hard core, in places like the East End, Bermondsey or West Yorkshire, came from long-standing fascist families based in specific areas. Their grandfathers had been Mosleyites. Theirs was an organic fascism, rooted in nostalgia and largely incommunicable to ordinary people.

Today it’s different. I’ve made three contributions to trying to understand the unfolding crisis. Postcapitalism was my attempt to outline what the anti-fascist writer Daniel Guerin described in the 1930s as “a living breathing alternative” – without it, I argued that if we just cling to the “one No, many Yeses” approach, we cede the ground of Utopianism to the far right.

In Clear Bright Future I argued for re-grounding Marxism in its humanist origins, and for waging an ethical fight for human autonomy in the face of rising autocratic governments and all-powerful tech companies armed with AI. But I under-estimated how quickly Trump’s mass base would radicalise, and how radically anti-democratic the new nationalist factions of the elite were prepared to be.

On 7 September 2019, during the prorogation crisis over Brexit, I saw two peaceful and defenceless demos – the middle-class led People’s Vote and the left-led Another Europe Is Possible – disrupted on Whitehall by Tommy Robinson’s supporters, chanting Boris Johnson’s name.

As I filmed them, I realised they weren’t just shouting at me but about me. “Paul Mason, traitor, Marxist. We’ve researched you”. I realised I had to subject my own thinking about the far right to some further study and criticism.

In the 1980s, on the buses to the the ANL demos, we were taught the classic Marxist theory of fascism: it’s a relatively autonomous weapon used by the bourgeoisie in times of crisis against the working class. It would stay niche, terrorising minorities but avoiding direct confrontation with organised labour, because the ruling class had Thatcher to do it for them – and there was no fear of workers’ revolution.

This theory (crude though it was) explained the world as long as a) there was a strong militant working class and b) the fascists were essentially tribute bands for Nazism. Very few people – activists or academics – considered fascism as a coherent political philosophy.

But the rise of right-wing populism, the “reform” of various fascist movements into right wing populist formations (eg the FN and Lega), and the rise of the “metapolitics” strategy of the European New Right meant, even by the late 1990s, we were dealing with something different.

At the same time, it became clear to me that Marxism itself – as a purported “scientific research project” (cf Imre Lakatos) – needed to confront the methodological challenge laid down by EP Thompson in the 1970s urgently: there are two Marxisms and they are incompatible. One is a theory of history as a machine, with no human subjectivity. The other is a theory of individual human liberation that openly shares its humanist origins in the Enlightenment, and remains engaged with philosophy and science. Only one of these methodologies can adequately theorise fascism – and it’s not the Althusserian Marxism I was taught in the 1970s.

So in How To Stop Fascism: History, Ideology, Resistance, I’ve tried to formulate a theory of fascism that fits the new reality.

Since the 1970s, the structuralist left acknowledged the relative autonomy of fascism from the class forces that create it. But that’s not enough. You have to recognise that, in addition to a theory of capitalism and class struggle, Marxism is what Gerry Cohen once called a “philosophical anthropology” – and it is within this part of the research project that you have to ground the study of fascism.

Wilhelm Reich, in the late 1930s, went way off the rails – but his Marxist work on fascism from around 1929-35, together with that of Erich Fromm and even non-Marxists like the Annales historian Lucie Varga and the sociologist Karl Mannheim now look to me like the “missing pieces” of the materialist study of fascism from the 1930s.

Reich realised that fascism is not merely rooted in the economic relations between workers and capitalists: it is rooted in the 40,000 year-old phenomenon of class society – in the family, and in the nation-state and militaristic hierarchies modelled on the family. Though it functionally defends capitalism, what it is really trying to defend is hieararchy, alienation and unfreedom in general. It is, in short, a rooted in a subconscious fear of freedom – and only by confronting and overcoming this fear are we going to stop fascism

Fascism can be triggered without mass unemployment – because its real stimulant is mass social disorientation. For this reason it is to be feared when it takes the form of what Varga observed in the Austrian alps: mass quasi-religious conversion of entire communities.

That’s what we did not see in the 1980s and 1990s, but we are seeing evidence of it now, above all in the USA, Brasil and India. Today, what characterises all dialogues with fascists is their totalising view of the world: the belief that all science is false, all media are lying, all governments are “Zionist Occupied” – while liberalism, feminism and human rights law are depicted as the presentational forms of Marxism. During the Covid-19 pandemic, even masks are condemned as “Marxist”. This is not something that’s going to stay localised in a few East London pubs, or the small corner of a football ground. It’s much more dangerous.

So in How To Stop Fascism, I’ve tried to do three things: first, outline the logic of modern fascist ideology; second, learn the lessons of history that the Marxists refused to in the 1930s. Third, outline solutions: revive the anti-fascist ethos (for which the left would have to develop a moral-philosophical brain); revive the Popular Front in its multilayered and revolutionary form; enforce the rule of law and strengthen the law against fascism and genocidal incitement.

Majdanek gas chamber © Paul Mason

For me, antifascist theory has got to be something we don’t outsource to academia. It can’t move fast enough, numerous professorial careers depend on theories of fascism that no longer hold good, and we can’t co-own it and improve it in real time, as the struggle evolves.

A key moment on this journey was visiting Majdanek in 2018, alongside a Polish Jewish journalist who was my translator. We bought numerous openly anti-Semitic journals from the kiosk on Lublin station. We peered into the gas chamber, where the blue from the chemicals is still stuck to the plasterwork.

At that moment I realised that, in my lifetime, the risk of a second fascist era has changed from negligible to non-negligible. The very term antifascist has changed from being a badge of honour to a stigma. There have, in my lifetime, already been three genocides – and the Telegram and Discord channels of the far right are full of genocidal ideation.

So, it’s not the Tommy Robinson fans I mainly fear, nor the uniformed far right groups strutting around with their batons and shields. It’s the possibility of a second fascist era. “Why did it happen once?” is a very different question to “Why could it happen again?”

At the age of five, when my Mum switched off the Belsen documentary, it was impossible to imagine the second iteration of a mass, quasi-religious fascist movement, with support among the elite and capable of dominating the narrative of the mass media. At the age of 61 I have to admit it’s possible.

That’s the journey I’ve had to make – and, as Paul Greengrass told me when I interviewed him about his Utoya movie, 22 July – stopping the new fascism is going to take our generation the rest of our lives. The book is my contribution to doing it.