Everyday working class, fascism is real
by Phil Hall
One of the dirty secrets of history is that fascists can also be working class. Marxists, communists and socialists claim that all fascism comes from the middle and lower middle classes, that fascism is a last ditch response to the failure of capitalism, an attempt to rescue a struggling capitalism. But who was it who fought the fascists in Cable Street? It was an intersectional alliance of many different people: Jews, communists, socialists and workers. It wasn’t the British working class on its own. Even well-meaning liberals fight fascism.
It is not true to say that elements of the working class do not sometimes support fascism. The National Socialist German Workers’ Party, an organisation that was part of the Nazi Party, received support from significant sections of the working class during the Wiemar Republic; support that grew in the 1930’s. Support for fascism came from those workers who felt competition from immigrant Slav workers, from those who were long term unemployed, from those who despaired of the unions, the socialists, communists and the social democrats of ever improving the situation for German workers.
Who was it who fought the fascists in Cable Street? It was an intersectional alliance of Jews, communists, socialists and workers. It wasn’t the British working class alone.
There was the attraction of German nationalism and flattering stories of German superiority and entitlement. The Nazis promised preferential treatment for the German working class over the working class of other nations. ‘Aryan’ workers wouldn’t be enslaved they would be treated as the salt of the Earth.
German nationalism was attractive for working class people whose communities, self-esteem and physical and mental well-being had been nearly destroyed by the first World War, hyperinflation and the depression. If you were white, working class, not a socialist or a communist, not gay or a gypsy, not disabled, or a foreigner, or Jewish, National Socialism meant something different to you in pre-war Germany; it meant something positive.
Fellow travelling with the ruling class has been almost emblematic for large sections of the working class in Europe. In 1914 the working class in imperialist Europe chose to mow each other down with mortars and machine guns rather than unite.
The National Socialist Party offered you vital services, some of them free of charge. It offered, free education and training, jobs, free healthcare, youth activities, free holidays, care for the elderly, home visits, clean streets, good pensions, affordable electricity and hot water, affordable housing, free entertainment, social activities, good affordable public transport and an expanded infrastructure.
In fact, in the run up to the war Germany was for the Germans and many socialists became national socialists because they saw the benefits it gave the German working class.
Fellow travelling with the ruling class has been almost emblematic for large sections of the working class in Europe. In 1914 the working class in imperialist Europe chose to mow each other down with mortars and machine guns rather than unite. Much of subsequent Marxist theorising became an attempt to analyse that historic failure. Many of the soldiers who enforced British rule and killed and oppressed the local inhabitants of Australia, South Africa, Canada, India, America, Kenya and many other countries were members of the British working class.
One of the dirty secrets of history is that fascists can also be working class.
One of the earliest accounts for why elements of the working class might not unite in solidarity was economic. It ignored the cultural and psychological explanations that were invoked later on. Lenin’s book, Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism, was based on the findings of John A. Hobson. The book explained how the contradictions of capitalism were no longer so intense in the metropolis, in places like Paris, London and Berlin because of the wealth that accrued in these places from empire. Consequently, Lenin concluded, the potential for revolutionary change in these countries was considerably diminished.
The contradictions of capitalism intensify at the periphery. In developing countries usually wealth is extracted by multinational companies at low cost in the form of raw materials: everything from minerals and oil to agricultural products like coffee, sugar, chocolate and tea. A nationalist struggle in a developing country like this is by its very nature anti-imperialist. It is an attempt to wrest control of natural resources and markets away from international corporations, corporations backed by military power.
the Union Jack nationalism of elements of the British white working class, is not progressive and anti-imperialist, rather it is often deeply reactionary, nostalgic for empire. It is a nationalism that rejects solidarity across racial and gender lines.
While workers in droves lose their jobs in the USA, US corporations move to Mexico and China in order to pay much less to Mexican and Chinese workers and force them to slave in poor conditions for longer hours. China has the advantage – for global capitalism – of being a tyranny. The workers who come to a collective political consciousness about their shared exploitation don’t live so much in Western Europe any more, but in places like India, China and Brazil.
In contrast, the Union Jack nationalism of elements of the British white working class, is not progressive and anti-imperialist, rather it is often deeply reactionary, nostalgic for empire. It is a nationalism that rejects solidarity across racial and gender lines. Certainly it rejects solidarity with exploited migrants. When it comes to memories of colonialism or slavery often white working class nationalism is unapologetic.
There is a big difference between the healthy and justifiable nationalism of a country that is at the receiving end of the unfairness of traditional, unequal north-south relations and the toxic patriotism of the working class inhabitants in a country which dictates the terms of trade and dominates weaker nations.
In the USA, then it is no surprise then that desperate, disillusioned, unemployed white workers, living hand-to-mouth in trailer parks, could fall for Trump, who, in turn, points the finger of blame at immigration and China. If Trump is not a fascist then he’ll do as a place holder until real US fascism comes along. It is no surprise that the long term unemployed in the north of England, out of desperation, seek alliances with sinister right wing establishment forces under the banner of ‘Brexit’. A word that means nothing more nor less than Britain for the British.
Disillusion and the failure of the social democratic left in the UK to organise and take power is pushing the white working class further right, in the direction of fascism.
The story in the USA and the richer European countries has some similarities to that of pre-war Germany: the failure of social democracy to provide jobs and a secure income. In the USA Barack Obama and Bill Clinton failed to institute quality affordable social protection. The policies in Europe and the USA were aimed at helping the wealthy. Western governments bail out the financial corporations in 2008 with vast amounts of money (quantitative easing) from the public exchequer, simply in order to keep the system on its feet. Ordinary people paid for the financial corporations speculative failures with more than a decade of cuts to basic social services.
key sections of the working class have betrayed their own long term class interests by voting for Boris Johnson.
Unemployment, poor pay and conditions; the tendency to scapegoat not only recent immigrants but long term immigrants, immigrants who have been in the UK for generations now; insecure zero hour contracts; a lack of affordable housing and a fraying infrastructure are pushing elements of the white working class in the UK not towards communism and socialism, but towards an alliance with sinister right wing nationalism; key sections of the working class have betrayed their own long term class interests by voting for Boris Johnson.
Disillusion and the failure of the social democratic left in the USA, UK and other European countries is pushing the white working class further to the right, just as it did during the Wiemar Republic in Germany in the 20s and 30s.
Phil Hall is a university lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.