by Adele A Wilby
In today’s political world where liberal democracy is purported to have triumphed and ‘the end of history’ is supposed to be with us, many people might be content to rest on their laurels that fascism has been confined to the dustbin of political history, and at most its supporters on the fringe of contemporary politics. Not so however, for Paul Mason. For him ‘fascism is back’ and poses a real threat to democracies. Indeed, so convinced is he of his argument that fascism is emerging as a force to be reckoned with, his recent book How to Stop Fascism: History, Ideology, Resistance is a call to arms for greater understanding of its modern manifestations, and to resist its influence in politics.
An award-winning writer, Mason has many books to his credit. He is also a broadcaster and filmmaker and his reporting on events during the Greek debt crisis in 2015 while working as the Economics Editor for Channel 4 for several years, are memorable. But Mason is also one of those human beings who matches his intellectual work with political activism. He has been a relentless political activist with decades of resistance to fascism behind him that gives him the edge over the topic he takes on in the book: he has been exposed to the phenomenon and is familiar with fascism in political activist terms.
Mason is wearing his politics on his sleeve in the title of the book, that could, potentially, deter a potential reader. His left wing, even Marxist sympathies, might also leave him open to criticism of bias in his exposition. However, the reader need not be deterred by Mason’s left-wing political thinking; the book is not an ideological diatribe by a left-wing activist against the evils of capitalism and its association with fascism. Mason is too politically nuanced to engage in rhetoric that would potentially undermine the seriousness of the subject, or his argument. Nor is it, as he says of his book, ‘a work of critical theory, nor of political science, nor of academic history’. Mason is being modest here. He does examine different exponents of theory and other scholars’ work and the book is, therefore, sufficiently academic to provide an authoritative examination of literature on the subject, politics and activism to advance his argument about what he views as a serious threat in contemporary politics.
Mason’s criticism and resistance to fascism is, fundamentally, driven by opposition to the type of politics and social life that, in his view, fascism aims to destroy: ‘liberal democracy, human rights and the rule of law; to cancel the rights won by women since the 1960s; and to create monocultural ethno-states using cataclysmic violence’. Such political objectives are indeed nasty and alarming for clearly they pose not only a threat to democracy, but the reversal of long struggles for political rights and the freedom of peoples.
Many of us are familiar with fragmented versions of fascist views articulated in one form or another in the various media sources and from the mouths of many politicians. What distinguishes modern day fascism, in Mason’s view, from the fascism of the 1930s, is precisely that: it is fragmented, and not yet congealed into a single entity in the form of a political party, as was the case in 1930s Germany and Italy. Mason points out there are various forms of far-right politics further to the right than mainstream conservative politics which, when working together, enable fascism. These are, according to him, far-right extremists who advocate race war, commit violence and openly fight for the downfall of democracy. Right-wing populists who attack human rights, victimise minorities and engage in mass mobilisation, a populace more focused on winning elections, even by forming political parties. Finally, there is authoritarian conservatism, which operates within state institutions, using the rhetoric of populism, but operating within elite networks. Fundamental to Mason’s argument is his view that there is a ‘synergy’ between these branches of conservativism on the contemporary political scene, and that is when the different conservatisms become dangerous.
Mason reminds us of the growing influence of extreme right-wing politics by pointing to countries such as India and its anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies under the far-right India Prime Minister Modi. President Bolsonaro of Brazil is also another example of an extreme right-wing politicians, and as the events in the US in January 2021 revealed, Trump was a major influence is mobilising his extreme right-wing supporters, such as the Proud Boys, in the attempted insurrection on Capitol Hill in January 202. It is, in short, a politics that is fundamentally opposed to freedom, or, as Mason frequently reminds us throughout the book; the ‘fear of freedom, triggered by a glimpse of freedom’. In Mason’s analysis, fascists are frightened of the freedom of others: immigrants, ethnic minorities, women, as it reduces the power and poses a threat to, for example, white men in western society.
With this looming threat to democracies hovering around the political world, the question that compels answers are: why hasn’t fascism been banished from the political spectrum, as many had expected in the post-World War II decades? What gives rise to and keeps alive modern-day fascism? To answer these fundamental questions, Mason points to the realm of ideology, set out in Part One of the book.
Ideology is important to modern day fascism, and Mason uses the concept of ‘thought-structure’ to describe how the far-right ideology works. Metaphorically, as Mason says, the ‘thought-structure’ refers to many entrances, floors and facades through which fascism enters, in much the same way as entry into a building. Myth is important in this ideological space, which involves replacing one system of belief with another, and that is why fascists publish books that say the same thing repeatedly. The only way to dismantle this ‘thought-structure’, in Mason’s view, is to expose fascist ideology to all the things it opposes: scientific scrutiny, logic and experience, and challenging the myths that are part of fascist thinking, in the same way a building would be demolished, brick by brick.
But it is not ideology alone and the replacement of one set of ideas by another that is only important in the manifestation of modern-day fascism. Instead, for Mason, the emergence of fascism requires a ‘process of social breakdown’. That ‘process of social breakdown’ in the modern world, Mason argues, is the product of an ‘economic model that no longer works; evaporating support for democracy; and a crisis of technological control’. Moreover, covid, which created a crisis for globalisation, and climate change also are other contributing factors in creating social and economic crises.
Having identified these five factors contributing to social breakdown, Mason sets out, for example, how globalisation and the enormous disparities in wealth that it has created, and the economic crisis of 2008, have led to disillusionment in the system and alienated vast sections of people. When the five factors come together, they contribute to the process of social breakdown, and the ideological space for building the fascist ‘thought-structure’, built on racism, homophobia, misogyny, a disregard for democracy and truth, steps in to fill the space, and fascism emerges.
An important aspect of Mason’s book is the significance he gives to online networks where fascism is its most active. Through this route, fascists can rant and rave and spew-out their hatred anonymously, until they are called upon to act, the way they were on Capitol Hill. Mason does not label Trump a fascist, but he shows how his right-wing populism provides the catalyst for fascism to manifest as it did during the troubling events in January 2021 in Washington. On this occasion, militia groups, civilians opposed to the left, rallied for their attack on Capitol Hill, inspired by Trump’s rhetoric and lies.
Part Two: History, of the book deals with the history of fascism and delves into where, for example, Marxists went wrong in their account of fascism. It also highlights the difference between modern day fascism and the fascism of the 1930s, an important point if we are to understand the modern-day incarnation of fascism and adopt a strategy to defeat it. He is critical of the reduction of fascism to economics by Marxists at the expense of other levels of analysis, a not unusual criticism of Marxism. Indeed, so important is this ideological level, for example, in the battle against fascism, he comments that ‘to defeat fascism, you must win the battle of ideas, and well in advance of its electoral breakthrough. It is not the slogans you are up against… It is the thought-architecture… the mythology fascism draws from, the self-contained logic, internally coherent but detached; this is how fascism wins’.
Couching the resistance to fascism in terms of a ‘battle’ not only emphasises the seriousness with which Mason views modern fascism, but it inevitably demands a strategy for waging that ‘battle’, and it is in the Part Three: Resistance, that we read Mason’s strategy for, metaphorically, going to war with fascism, arguably the most important part of the book.
In the section ‘Towards a Materialist Theory of Fascism’ in Part Three, Mason in effect recapitulates what he has identified as components of modern-day fascism in the previous two parts of the book. All of this is helpful in reminding the reader, and the political activist, that modern fascism is not a coherent body, and that there are points where intervention is possible in a process of dismantling the fascist ‘thought-structure’. He explores more deeply the sociological, psychological and Marxist accounts of fascism in pursuit of a theory of fascism that is grounded in today’s politics. His use of the third person personal pronoun ‘we’ in this section, appeals to the reader and anti-fascist activists and suggests what they are to do to resist the fascist forces, not only nationally, but their online networks across the globe also.
But it is not only politics that is at play in resisting fascism; there is clearly a moral imperative that is laced through Mason’s book, as he calls for an ‘anti-fascist ethos’, reminiscent of the decades following World War II. However, given the contemporary political climate of the day and the ascendency of right-wing leaders across the globe, it remains to be seen whether such an ethos is likely to emerge outside the circle of die-hard anti-fascists.
Ultimately, this book brings together the tone and passion of an activist, the writing skills of a journalist and a vast in-depth range of knowledge in an accessible way for any reader, and certainly any political activist, interested and concerned about modern fascism. The book contributes to a realistic understanding of how contemporary fascism manifests in politics and society, and provides a strategy for halting what, as history has shown us, is nothing short of the politics of evil. Mason deserves to be read, and, as the topic of the book clearly demonstrates, deserves to be taken seriously.