Letter to "Aufheben" on fascism/anti-fascism (1997)



This letter was sent to Aufheben in 1997, as a response to that English magazine’s review of a pamphlet called Fascism/Anti-fascism : this was a translation of the first parts of a larger text which had appeared in French under the pen name of Jean Barrot in 1979, as a presentation of articles on the Spanish civil war by the “Italian Left” magazine Bilan (1933-38). While they agreed with quite a few points made by J. Barrot (and by Bilan), the publishers of the pamphlet Fascism/Antifascism had been highly critical of what they regarded as the dogmatism and sterility of the presentation… and of the Italian Left for that matter. This is indeed a fairly common reaction. Confronted with the communist critique of anti-fascism, many a radical will say: “Basically you’re right, but…”, and what follows the “but” invalidates the critique. This is a good enough reason for reproducing our letter (with only minor changes), as well as Aufheben’s introduction. Franco and Hitler are dead, dictatorship is not. Neither is “lesser evilism”.     

Aufheben's introduction

In Aufheben (summer 1992) we carried a short review of the influential text Fascism/Anti-fascism by Jean Barrot. We reviewed it because it related to struggles that were going on at that time, and because it was an analysis to which we were basically sympathetic. The critique of anti-fascism is necessary and important; but we also felt that such a critique tended to dogmatism. This is part of a more general weakness of the Italian left from which it derives.

Like other parts of the left communist opposition to the orthodoxy promoted from Moscow, the Italian left tried to maintain communist positions in the face of a virtually complete capitulation to opportunism in the workers' movement. Part of the price it paid was that it became rigid and mechanical, with principles tending to become dogmas. If, as the situationists put it, we must be against sectarianism but the only defence against sectarianism is a strict theoretical line, that needs to be balanced by an equally vigilant resistance to the tendency of theory to degenerate into ideology. Opposition to anti-fascism, as opposition to trade unions and leftism generally, should be more than ritual denunciation; it should involve an attempt to understand contradictions which arise within movements and individual proletarians. Intransigence, the notion of the invariance of the communist programme, resolute opposition to opportunism - these aspects of the Italian left enabled it to hold on to the insights of the revolutionary wave that followed the first world war. But they have also been its weaknesses: a refusal to see anything new, an inability to relate to and learn from the class struggle effectively, a tendency to become a sect preaching its 'truths' to a world that does not listen.

In repeating in our review the translator's attributions of the weaknesses of left communism to Barrot we were in retrospect unfair. Moreover, in voicing our reservations on the Italian left's position on anti-fascism here and in our review we would not want to support the liberal and leftist misrepresentations of these Italian communists' opposition to anti-fascism. Historically, as indicated in the Barrot text, and in our review, the Italian Left did not hold back from fighting fascists among other enemies of the proletariat. As they pointed out, the real 'united front' of this period was the alliance of the democratic government and fascism against the proletariat:

"The government ... had, by a decree of 20th October 1920, sent 60,000 demobilised officers into the training camps, with the obligation to sign up for the groups of "squadristi". Whenever fascists burned down the premises of unions or the socialist or communist parties, the army and the gendarmerie were always on the side of the fascists. And these armed forces were those of the liberal democratic state."
(The Italian Communist Left 1926-45; A Contribution to the History of the Revolutionary Movement, ICC, p. 21)

Our review of Fascism/Anti-fascism was published six years ago. We return to it now because we have only just received this reply from 'Jean Barrot' himself, which we welcome.

Letter to Aufheben

This letter is about your 1992 review of Fascism/Antifascism, a pamphlet published in England twice, and then again by Wildcat, under my pen name Jean Barrot, an alias I got rid of a few years ago. Although I'm happy to see Fascism/Anti-fascism available in English, it was never intended to exist in that form. In 1979, I wrote a 90-page preface to a selection of articles from the 'Italian left' magazine Bilan (1933-38) on Spain. Years later, I found comrades then and now unknown to me had edited a much shorter English version, as of course they were perfectly free to do. But what was meant to be a reflection on communization (analysing Russia and Spain among other historical examples, and actually criticizing Bilan), has been narrowed to an anti-anti-fascist stand. Maybe this is why your article regards my views as both valid and unfortunately one-sided.  I'll try to make myself clearer.

1. Can the proletariat prevent capitalist society from periodically turning into a dictatorship?

A short answer is no.

An explicit answer implies no less than the critique of the question. When such a question is asked, what it actually means is: in 1932-33, could the German working class have done something (or anything) to block Hitler’s path to power ? Now we are talking history, and history proves the question  to be a-historical, or even anti-historical: in 1932-33, the die was cast, because it was the working class autonomy and political scope that were blocked. And they were so, not because of some ill-advised or self-destructive tactics on the part of the socialist and Stalinist parties, but because of the social block caused by years of class compromise that no political force could peaceful undo or change.  

Active class struggle determined the birth and life-span of the Weimar Republic. After World War I, revolution was stifled in Germany by a combination of democracy and dictatorship (the Freikorps used by the SPD-led government to crush workers' risings in 1919-20 were real fascist groupings, indeed  comparable to Mussolini’s Black Shirts at the same time, and many future Nazis were prominent in the Freikorps). The Weimar system was built out of proletarian assaults and setbacks. Then for a decade the workers had a say, albeit a degraded and mystified one: the councils’ movement was reduced to a bureaucratic institution, and the revolution that failed gave way to a left-dominated socialist-orientated regime. Working class pressures, and the conflict between a reformist majority and revolutionary minorities, shaped the post-war period. Even when right-of-centre politicians were in office, even with Hindenburg as president (the SPD called to vote for him in 1932 as a bulwark against Hitler...), workers remained the pivotal force of Weimar's early days, and often its decisive factor.

But the combined and rival weights of SPD and KPD made their own weaknesses. With the 1929 crash, when even the ruling class had to be disciplined, this time capital found that not just radicals but also respectful union leaders could be a burden. The bourgeois-reformist compromise set in motion by the workers fourteen years before became more a hindrance than a help.

Hitlerism was not inevitable, with its grotesque and murderous paraphernalia. But on January 30th, 1933, some strong central power was the order of the day, and the only options left to Germany were straightforwardly statist and repressive ones, to be settled out of proletarian reach.

Paradoxically, it's the sheer strength of wage-labour (reformist and radical) that deprives it now and again of any say in the running of affairs.

Class conflict commands modern times, and centres around working class submission and/or resistance, rebellion, insurrection... It does not follow that the workers could divert the political course at any time and avoid the after-effects of their own attempts to change history.

2. How far can anti-fascism contribute to a revolutionary movement ?

Of course, anti-fascism is not a homogeneous phenomenon. Durruti, Orwell and Santiago Carrillo all qualify as antifascists. But the question remains: What is anti-fascism anti ? And what is it 'pro' exactly ?

I am against imperialism, be it French, British, US or Chinese. I am not an 'anti-imperialist', since that is a political position supporting national liberation movements opposed to imperialist powers.
Likewise, I am (and so is the proletariat) against fascism, be it in the form of Hitler or Le Pen. Yet I am not an 'anti-fascist', since this is a political position regarding fascist State or threat as a first and foremost enemy to be destroyed at all costs, i.e. siding with bourgeois democrats as a lesser evil, and postponing revolution until fascism is disposed of.

Such is the essence of anti-fascism. 'Revolutionary antifascism' is a contradiction in terms - and in reality. Anything communist inevitably goes beyond the boundary of antifascism, and sooner or later clashes with it.

When Spanish workers took arms against the military putsch in July '36, they were obviously fighting fascism, but (whatever they may have called themselves) they were not acting as anti-fascists, as their move aimed both at the fascists and the democratic State. Afterwards, however, when they let themselves be trapped within the institutional framework, they became 'anti-fascists', fighting their fascist foes while at the same time supporting their own democratic enemies.

Revolutionary critics of anti-fascism have been repeatedly accused of sabotaging the fight against fascism, of being Franco's or Hitler's 'objective' allies - which soon comes close to 'subjective'... The sad irony is, only the proletariat and communists are fundamental opponents of fascism.

Anti-fascism is always more supportive of democracy than opposed to fascism: it won't take anti-capitalist steps to repel fascism, and will prefer its own defeat rather than risk proletarian outbursts. It was no accident or mistake that the Spanish bourgeoisie and the Stalinists wasted time and energy getting rid of anarchist peasant communes when they were supposed to do everything to win the war: their number one priority was not and had never been to smash Franco, but to keep the masses under control.

So the point is not that there are lots of ways of being an anti-fascist, and that non-revolutionary anti-fascist individuals can turn revolutionary, as of course many will, but that anti-fascism as such, in order to avoid a dictatorial State, submits to the democratic State. That's its nature, its logic, its proven past, and all the 'yes buts' about it got drowned in the Barcelona May '37 blood of those workers who'd hoped to outsmart moderate anti-fascism. Anti-fascism is not like a meeting one bursts into and forces to adopt a new programme. It's not a form: it has a content and a political substance of its own. It's not a 'bourgeois' shell wherein subversion could put proletarian flesh.

Needless to say, I am not suggesting die-hard communists should only take part in 'pure' anti-wage-labour attacks and keep clear of all anti-fascist groups, waiting for them to catch up with us. No doubt the rejection of everything fascism stands for (ethnicism, racism, sexism, nationalism, law and order, outright reactionary culture, etc.) is often a first step to rebellion. In fact, quite a few young wo/men take part in demos against the French National Front because they realize it asks for even more submission to a social order they hate, not so much because it is a threat to a parliamentary democracy they don't care about all that much. Then politics comes along trying to channel this into a support for democracy. These spontaneous gestures will develop into a critique of the roots of this world if they reject the basis of anti-fascism: a respect for democratic capitalism. Only by pointing out the issues at stake can we contribute to this maturation.

Beating off fascism means destroying its pre-conditions, i.e. its social causes = capitalism.

3. How can we defeat one of the worst divisive forces within proletarians: racism ?

Certainly not by treating racism as another issue to be added to anti-capitalism.

Racism stresses a difference. Anti-racism does the opposite: it emphasizes something in common between those that racism divides. This common element is usually humankind or humanity. Now, when a bourgeoisie also appeals to that in relation to his workers, what will revolutionaries object? Obviously this common factor can't be the same for those who manage this world and those who'd like to change it.

Actually, what we often tend to do is replace 'We're all humans' by 'We're all proles'. We say: (a) a black worker is the same as a white worker, (b) both aren't the same as a black boss or a white boss. The snag is, this does not attack racism; it supports solidarity, as indeed we must, but solidarity is precisely what's lacking because of racism. So we're just substituting a proletarian anti-racism for a humanist one. Yet both contend with racism in its visible form and miss its causes.
In '68, though there were racists around, including among wage-earners, the French bourgeoisie could not use racism as a major dividing weapon, because of the unifying effect of mass class struggle. Later, as workers' militancy subsided, divisions appeared. To mention just one important landmark, the Talbot 1983 strike revealed a growing split between so-called national and foreign car-workers. Such a rift was more a result than a cause. Is it mere coincidence that 1983-4 also witnessed the rise of the National Front ? [Since this was written, Le Pen even managed to get more votes than the socialist candidate in the first round of the presidential elections in 2002, and was able to compete in the second round, although his party has been in decline since. 2010 addition]

 It's not the lack of adequate anti-racist campaigns that helped Le Pen get as much as 15 per cent of the votes. It's the decline of collective resistance among the workers. Racism manifests itself as an ideology, but is not first ideological. It's a practical phenomenon, a social relation: one of the most vicious aspects of competition between wage-labourers, a consequence of the decay of living and fighting communities. The 'racialization' of the working class goes along with its atomization.

The proletariat is not weak because it's divided: its weaknesses breed division. So anything that makes it stronger strikes a blow at racism. While avoiding organized humanistic anti-racism, one can combat racism when one comes across it in real life, as many non-racist proles spontaneously do in a pub, on the shop-floor or in a picket line, recreating some form of autonomous community.
For example, the December '95 movement silenced Le Pen's rhetoric. [At the end of 1995, for about three weeks, French railway workers - and for a while a large part of the public transport workers - went on strike against cuts in their pensions, and brought sectors of France’s economy to a standstill. The strike was fairly popular. Many people who could not or would not stop work were, no doubt ambiguously, supportive of the railway workers, in what came to be known as “striking by proxy”. The point we were making in 1997 is that such movements tend to unify labour and leave little room for divisive racist attitudes and politics. 2010 addition.]

The communist movement has both a class and a human content. An interesting question is: which class struggle activity gets proletarians together, and practically tends to do away with racism?
Workers can be militant and racist at the same time.

In 1922, South African bosses lowered white miners' wages and opened a number of jobs to blacks. 'White' riots ended in a blood-bath: over 200 miners killed. As in strikes against female or foreign labour, this was wage-earners' self-defence at its worst.

On the other hand, while Holland was occupied by Nazi Germany, Dutch workers went on strike against the way Jews and Jewish workers were being discriminated against and deported.
The key to South African labour's reactionary stand, or to Dutch solidarity, does not lie in racist vs. non-racist minds. Minds are moulded by past and present social relationships and actions. The more open, global, potentially universal and therefore 'human' a demand or an action is, the least likely it is to be narrowed to sexist, xenophobic or racist lines.

Imagine a workplace. Fighting to save jobs could more easily bring the workforce closer to racism than, say, asking for a flat £20 per week increase for every single employee on the premises. The former encloses people within defensive gestures, confines them to 'their' plant, isolates them from other workplaces and eventually divides them between themselves (“Who'll get the sack? My work-mate, I hope, not me !”). However small, the latter demand unites proletarians irrespective of gender, nationality or professional skill, and can link them with workplaces outside their own, since many other people can take it up and start asking for the same increase, or for something that's even more unifying.

Some claims and tactics reinforce trade, local or 'race' differences. Others involve the interplay of an ever larger community, open up new issues, and break 'ethnic', etc. divisions. The only way to defeat racism is to address it on a general and 'political' level, showing how any division between proletarians (and racism even more viciously than xenophobia) always ends in them (all proles) being worse off, more degraded, more submissive. Racism is to be addressed, not as a separate question, and never as an obnoxious ideology to be smashed by a warm-hearted one.

(For more on democracy, fascism and antifascism, see also When Insurrection Die (1997) and What’s It All About ?, 2007, sections 5 and 6. Both on this site.)