Last weekend, The Independent published a piece by myself on how the contemporary hard right are reusing fascist tropes from the 1930s. Below is a longer version of that piece with links added.
As public disorder has swept across the United States in protest against police brutality, many on the right have blamed ‘antifa’ for the disorder. Donald Trump pronounced on Twitter that he would be implementing an executive order proscribing antifa as a terrorist organisation. A number of people have pointed out that there is no legal mechanism for Trump to do this (there is a Foreign Terrorist Organisation list, but no such list exists for groups inside the US) and more importantly, antifa is not an organisation, but a moniker used to describe militant anti-fascism. Trump had previously called antifa a terrorist organisation in 2019 and there has been pressure by Republicans for law enforcement to treat antifa as such.
Figures on the hard right across the English speaking world have taken up Trump’s portrayal of antifa as terrorism, with Conservative Party of Canada candidate Derek Sloan announcing on Twitter that he would also designate antifa as terrorists if Prime Minister and the Brexit Party’s Nigel Farage tweeting this week that he had first labelled antifa ‘domestic terrorists’ in 2017.
This builds on right-wing attempts to characterise a range of social and protest movements as extremist and possible terrorism, with Home Secretary Priti Patel last year defending the initial decision by counter-terrorism police to include Extinction Rebellion in a report on extremist ideologies. Outside of the UK, Australia’s Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton conflated Islamist terrorism with left-wing politics and decried ‘leftwing lunatics’ as a possible security threat in February this year. While left-wing terrorism was a threat in North America and Europe in the 1970s, with the Weather Underground, Red Army Faction and Red Brigades, the same threat does not exist nowadays, even though some commentators and politicians have raised the spectre of an ‘alt left’ or ‘ctrl left’ as a counterpart to the ‘alt right’.
The characterisation of opposition to fascism as terrorism is not new and was a regular feature of fascist rhetoric in the 1930s. Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists routinely referred to anti-fascist actions against them as ‘red terrorism’, while portraying themselves as the defenders of free speech. A 1936 edition of the BUF’s Blackshirt newspaper declared that ‘[o]rganised red violence has been swept away’ by Mosley’s men. Another edition from the same year proclaimed:
In two years, the Blackshirt spirit has triumphed. In two short years Red Terrorism and its Jew and Soviet inspired gangs have lost their dominion of the streets of East London… Fascism won the freedom of the streets.
This passage not only attributes the violence to red terrorism and hooliganism, but also highlights the history of blaming foreign forces for domestic disturbances and the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory of Jewish manipulation of protestors (both of which have been seen in current online depictions of the US riots).
While anti-communism was rife in Britain at the time, there was a worry about the reach of these fascist tropes. Politicians, such as the Liberal MP Robert Bernays, raised in Parliament concern about Mosley using this term to describe anti-fascist activism, with his party colleague Isaac Foot observing in 1934 that the Nazi press in Berlin had also taken up Mosley’s characterisation of anti-fascism as a form of ‘red terrorism’.
On a related note, the right-wing talking point that the left are a threat to free speech and that action needs to be taken to protect free speech is also found within fascist discourse during the inter-war period. Politicians and commentators today often declare that free speech is under threat, with the Education Secretary’s Special Adviser Iain Mansfield writing in The Telegraph about tyrannical silencing of free speech’ and The Spectator’s Toby Young pleading that free speech ‘is currently in greater peril than at any time since the Second World War’. Back in 1933, the BUF’s Blackshirt suggested something similar, asserting that ‘we have reached a point in this country in which free speech is a thing of the past’.
This threat to free speech, the BUF alleged, was the result of ‘organised Reds’ that sought to break up political meetings that they disagreed with. The concern that the left, particularly left-wing students, were willing to use violence and intimidatory tactics to shut down speakers that they did not agree with has been a popular refrain for the last decade. For example, in May 2019, Nigel Farage stated at a Young America’s Foundation event:
I mean frankly the real fascism these days, the real intolerance isn’t Matteo Salvini or Donald Trump, it’s those on the left who wish to shout down the other side and indeed on campuses like this, across America and across the whole of the UK, attempt to no platform speakers who’ve got ideas they don’t like. That’s the real modern fascism, the attempt to close down free speech.
Furthermore, Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan complained in 2018 after students disrupted a talk by Jacob Rees-Mogg at Bristol University of ‘a general mood on the far left, a mood which treats those who disagree, not as opponents but as enemies’. For both fascists in the thirties and the hard right today, the left are seen as intolerant and authoritarian, ready to quash any speech that they find objectionable.
In the 1930s, the BUF argued that fascism was the answer to this problem, with a Fascist Defence Force organised to ‘protect free speech’. In 2019, Niall Ferguson suggested that a NATO-like organisation was needed to protect free speech and to combat the ‘new red army’ that was ‘out to silence debate’. Toby Young’s recent Free Speech Union is the latest right-wing vehicle established to supposedly defend free speech against a left-wing onslaught.
This is what Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter have described as the mainstreaming of far right ideas. Fascist tropes that have a history back to the inter-war years have been revitalised and repurposed ever since, but the line between liberalism and illiberalism has become increasingly blurred in recent years. As the far right seems to be making headway in an era of global crisis, the push by the right to portray opposition to it as either terrorism or a threat to our freedoms is an increasingly common refrain, not just relegated to the extremes. Recognising the origins of these contemporary right-wing talking points is an important part of combating the right as it tries to take advantage of the current situation.